Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Community Is Dead; Long Live the Community!

The way I understand it, whenever it was announced that the reigning monarch had died it was the custom in some European medieval cultures for the people to shout, "The king is dead; long live the king!" While a switch in who's wearing the crown may or may not have signaled a sea change, the society would ritualistically pause and take a moment to recognize both grief and celebration.

As I reflect on how the composition and flavor of intentional communities change over time, it might be a good idea if a version of this ritual were adapted by groups in an attempt to better recognize the shifts from one reigning culture to another. While the shifts aren't typically as abrupt or as easily marked as the passing of one person, they can be every bit as profound and it might help with the awkwardness associated with long-term members who have their weight predominantly on one foot in the past while their other probes gingerly for a foothold in the present.

• • •
Recently I was conducting a facilitation training at Yulupa Cohousing in Santa Rosa CA, where the community was struggling with who they were. Starting with high energy and cohesion in 2005, they have traveled an unusually bumpy road in their brief six years:

o California was especially hard hit by the collapse of the national housing market, triggered by the sub-prime mortgage debacle in 2007, leaving most Yulupans upside down today (owing more on their mortgages than their houses are worth).

o Although the community is relatively new, they have already suffered the deaths of five members, including Michael Black, founder and architect. When coupled with turnover, only half the original members are still living in the community.

o There is a stucco exterior to all the buildings in the community and some of it is falling off due to a construction defect. In addition to the headache of trying to figure out who's responsible for fixing it, it mars the aesthetics of their otherwise beautiful courtyard.

While the sum of this doesn't constitute a 500-year flood, Yulupa has undeniably been asked to endure a series of challenges evocative of the trials of Job—which reminds me to add that the job market hasn't been so great lately either, and some members have had to scramble to make ends meet, resulting in fewer discretionary hours that can be devoted to participating in community life.

Over the course of the last six years there has been a gradual erosion in participation, such that fewer people are regularly engaged in the upkeep and maintenance of the community, which includes the care and feeding of:
—physical plant (cleaning the common house, mowing the yard, pulling weeds in the community gardens)
—governance (attending monthly community meetings, being active on committees, keeping the books and posting reports)
—relationships (watching someone's cat while they're on vacation, taking chicken soup to a sick neighbor, hanging out with the kids in the courtyard)

Over the course of five-and-a-half hours of community meetings, spread out over the weekend, we unpacked the issue of declining participation and discovered a reservoir of grief over the loss of the community as it was in the early years, before they started getting dealt so many jokers. After giving residents the chance to individually voice in the group their sense of loss—not just of the people who were gone, but also of the sense of community that was no longer there—we distributed half sheets of paper to everyone and gave them five minutes to write down anything they'd like to let go of, so that they could be more fully present to enjoying and working with the community that Yulupa is today.

Next we led them in a ritual inspired by the medieval rite described in the opening paragraph. Taking considerable creative license, we had the Yulupans quietly file out of the common house and into the courtyard, where they circled solemnly around an antique brass pot. One community member read a poem invoking grief and remembrance of things past, after which participants were asked to consign their sheets of paper to the pot, where they were ceremoniously commingled with dirt from the community gardens and composted on the spot. Thus, that which went before was formally acknowledged as both precious and past, and at the same time was surrendered to become the nutrients that will nourish the community that will arise. The community is dead!

After a breath, we invited everyone to pair up and link arms for an up-tempo processional back into the common house, to the boom box accompaniment of the Beatles' Here Comes the Sun. Having let go of the past, we led a subsequent re-commitment ceremony, where members were asked to look squarely at those around them—the exact people with whom the once and future Yulupa would be built and sustained. Participants were then invited to publicly proclaim what new actions, if any, they were inspired to take in service to building a vibrant and healthy Yulupa, and could freely offer (no martyrs!) in recognition that success would be founded on the aggregation of each individual's contribution, not on what others contributed while you stood on the sideline. Everyone in the room rose to the occasion.

It was a helluva weekend. Long live the community!

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