Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why Intentional Communities are Important

I'm in Berea KY, attending the Fellowship for Intentional Community's fall organizational meetings—three days of fun and stimulation conversation with friends and fellow zealots. All day long, we talk about community, swap stories, discuss strategies for building cooperative culture, and scheme about ways to balance the budget. I love it.

One of the highlights of Day Two was listening to Board member Raines Cohen discuss the activities and missions of a variety of organizations engaged in efforts to build a better world that involved some aspect of community building. The Board's job was to sort out what role we might play in collaborating with these efforts.

This involves a number of steps. First, what do we think we're good at? I believe the answer here—the thing that intentional communities are better at than anyone else—is using a relationship-based approach to problem solving. As much as any other segment of the culture, we're learning how to handle tough issues without leaving anyone behind. We're learning the skills needed to get all of the stakeholders to the table, solicit what's crucial to each, identify the common threads, and figure out how to create an environment of curiosity and openness in which to manifest a solution. While I believe this is enormously valuable, it's interesting how little demand there is for what we know. I can't tell whether others don't believe intentional communities have this skill (perhaps because our experience is considered too alien, or because we're thought to be running away from society's issues), whether they think they have it as well, or whether that skill is not important. It's baffling.

Second, how should we approach these groups to make an offer of support? Often, the trick to getting a good reception is learning as much as possible about what your audience is really looking for and starting to build your bridge from their end—rather than insisting that others come to you. It can come as a shock to many activists that not everyone shares their agenda or that others organize reality differently.

Third, where do we think there's a sufficiently strong connection that we'll get a positive response—in other words, what attempts are worth our time and effort. This is often about as scientific as reading tea leaves, and requires sussing out what feels most likely to work. Because there's not enough time to try everything, you have to make choices. (There is a tendency to feel frustrated when efforts fail, and it can be a challenge to find the patience to give others a sufficient chance to warm up to your overtures. Hang in there!)

Trying to succeed at inter-organizational networking can be like fishing. Sometimes there are long stretches between nibbles; sometimes there's no fish in the pond; sometimes you're using the wrong bait. The thing to keep in mind is that the skill needed to make connections with other organizations is exactly the same thing that's needed in build bridges between stakeholders—that thing I posited at the beginning of this blog that we community people are so good at.

Do you suppose the universe is trying to tell us something about how far we've come on the path to perfection?

1 comment:

Liz Logan said...

I know. It's so frustrating. From where I sit, on the edge of living in an IC, but sooo appreciating the "skill set" of IC living and IC facilitating, I'm constantly thinking "why doesn't the rest of the world take advantage of this? How do we explain it to them?"

I am thrilled, however, to learn that this was on the board agenda. I believe that there is eventually, and perhaps shortly, going to be an urgent need and an urgent demand for community living skills. And who better to fill it then y'all?

And as a Communications Major, I agree that we're talking a PR campaign, which means adapting to one's audience and understanding them well enough to craft a message that meets their needs. At least enough to grab them so that they listen long enough to realize that they have something to gain by sitting down, shutting up, and listening some more!

But as a potential member of a forming community, I'm finding it challenging enough to persuade this group that they don't have to reinvent the wheel... or even that there is such a thing as a wheel... heck, even that there is a point to traveling forward in the first place!