Sunday, September 1, 2013

Honoring Ira Wallace

One of the perks for me as the Fellowship for Intentional Community's main administrator, is that occasionally I get to do something really nice to honor a friend and compatriot in the community business. I enjoyed one of those opportunities Friday evening, during the opening session of this year's annual Twin Oaks Communities Conference, when I got to publicly award the 2014 Kozeny Communitarian Award to Ira Wallace. 

Here is the citation I read to the audience of 100, as Ira sat in front of me:

The FIC hereby recognizes Ira Wallace as the 2014 recipient of the Kozeny Communitarian Award, honoring the indomitable spirit of Geoph Kozeny, who devoted his adult life to creating community in the world.

Over the course of nearly 40 years Ira has been a significant contributor to the North American Communities Movement, most notably in the field of income-sharing communities. In succession, she was a founding member of Aloe in North Carolina (now defunct), a member of Dandelion in Ontario, of Twin Oaks in Virginia, and then a founder of Acorn, a neighboring community that Twin Oaks started 20 years ago. All of these groups have been members of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC), a network organization that has been around since 1976—almost as long as Ira has been living in community.

In particular, we note that Ira was an FEC delegate in 1987, when that network played a crucial role in the revitalization of the Fellowship for Intentional Community. It is quite possible that the FIC would not exist to give her this award today if Ira had not been such a strong voice in support of its launch 26 years ago.

Ira is an indefatigable networker and a tireless promoter of joint ventures. She is that rare animal, a successful businessperson who has thrived in a milieu that is deeply suspicious of moneymaking motives (isn’t capitalism the enemy?). She is an expert at enrolling others in projects and endeavors designed to benefit all—whether they know it or not.

Ira’s genius is found at the intersection of entrepreneurial insight, a ward heeler’s understanding of community politics, the discipline to never ask anyone to work harder than she does, and an infectious appetite for laughter and enjoying life. She’s incredibly difficult to say “no” to—just ask the good folks at Monticello, who think they’re running the Heritage Harvest Festival instead of her.

While Ira’s early community years included the development of a successful house cleaning service and a tinnery business that relied principally on recycled tin cans as raw material (a pioneering example of upcycling), the unquestioned capstone of her business career has been the development of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE)—that specializes in heirloom, non-GMO, open-pollinated vegetable seeds. Acorn bought this business in 1999 and Ira has been at the heart of the management team that’s built it into a spectacularly successful community business today. It’s a perfect fit for Ira’s love of gardening, her love of food, her love of growing community businesses, and her natural talent for wheeling and dealing such that everyone comes out a winner.

In addition, SESE is perhaps the ideal community business: there’s minimal environmental impact; there’s plenty of room for community members to plug into the business; the work can be readily extended to include partners anywhere who are interested in growing seeds for income, and it’s a terrific values match—everyone eats, after all, and what could be more basic than providing seeds for growing wholesome food, and what could be more inspiring than protecting genetic diversity for future generations of organic gardeners?

While Ira has done much over the course of her life that is worthy of celebrating, in bestowing on her this lifetime achievement award, we are highlighting five qualities:

A. Networker

Since her early days at Aloe, Ira has had close ties with the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. Her work with FEC has included serving as a delegate from her various home communities, being a mainstay in support of events such as the Twin Oaks Communities Conference, and a steady backer of FIC initiatives.

Influenced by her deep understanding of cooperative dynamics, Ira has gone well beyond community networking to become a respected player among heirloom seed companies and organic gardeners.

B. Media Relations

Ira has developed into a respected author and public speaker, who is just as likely to be a spokesperson for organic food production as intentional community; who can discuss as knowledgably how to cope with bad apples in fruit storage, as how to cope with bad apples in group dynamics.

C. Good Neighbor

Wherever Ira has lived, she has taken the time to build solid relationships with those living around her. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the good relations enjoyed today between Twin Oaks, the parent community, and Acorn, the offspring.

Ira became a dual member of Twin Oaks and Acorn right at the outset, when the new community got started in 1993. For the first half of its life Acorn was strongly dependent on Twin Oaks for financial support. Then, however, there was an unexpected reversal of fortunes: SESE took off for Acorn, and at about the same time Twin Oaks lost the Pier One hammock account, which had been the mainstay of its income stream for decades.

Suddenly Acorn was in a position to repay Twin Oaks for all those years of child support by making available major components of its burgeoning seed business. What a delightful story of mutual support between communities, and Ira was there throughout the last two decades—with a dual member foot in each community—to see that compassion prevailed to the benefit of all.

D. Community Builder
Twice now Ira has been a founding member of an income sharing community: first at Aloe and then at Acorn. She has seen communities succeed financially only to fail socially; and she has seen financial success help to solidify groups that were otherwise on shaky ground. Ira knows that community is more about relationships than paychecks; yet she also knows the value to morale of regular paychecks earned by doing work where your walk is in line with your talk.

Many groups have failed because they were unable to establish value-based businesses that were robust enough to satisfy their membership’s income needs. That has not been a problem at communities where Ira has lived.

E. Cooperative Leadership
Over the years, Ira has accrued a tremendous amount of social capital. Essentially, she has accomplished this through doing two things consistently well: delivering successful results, and doing what she says she’ll do. Today, when Ira makes a commitment, people believe her. This is leadership by example.

Ira is also a coalition builder—the type of person who can bring together individuals who are able to function effectively as a team, without anyone knowing Ira’s key role as catalyst. In this she is more interested in results than credit. This is quiet leadership, yet no less valuable than the kind that gets the leader’s picture in the paper.

Finally, as someone who can approach leadership either way, she’s aware of the need to develop all-season successors—for leadership is needed in all its forms. While this work proceeds quietly and behind the scenes, it’s a relief to us all to know that she’s on it. This is leadership through foresight.

For all of these reasons, Ira, it is a pleasure that you are within our sight today, and we salute you.

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