Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Borders with Boarders

I was recently contacted by a friend living in a well-established community that is going through a deliberate process of soul searching around what it is and what it wants to be. The group has been around for decades and all of the original members have passed on—through death, retirement, or the desire for a change of scenery. While this group is blessed with a stable core membership and a rich tradition, it is a time of pause and reassessment.

One of the questions on the table is the extent to which the community wants to be more outward facing in addition to protecting the quality of life for members and the special sense of home and sanctuary (the original members wanted to emphasize retreat and renewal in support of activism pursued elsewhere or at other times in their lives).

While this is an excellent question—how much the community should focus on quality of life for its members, and how much on seeing the community as a platform for social change and engagement with the wider world—it's not what I want to shine the spotlight on today.

The community is also wrestling with the question of how to grow, which includes whether to expand beyond its current size, and how best to replace those who leave—whether feet first or head first. In the context of having those discussions, which expressly includes a review of the community's identity and vision, there is a delicate question of what role, if any, renters should play in the conversation. And that is what I want to focus on in this blog.

While I was inspired to write about this topic because of the communication I received about a specific community I sketched above, my response generalizes to any community that has a mixture of renters and owners.

The first question to address is what the group wants from renters (other than rent). To what extent does the group want (or is at least open to) renters being fully integrated into community life?

Pro Limits
I think the concerns about full integration distill into three major objections:

1. Renters, almost by definition, do not have the same quality of commitment to the community as owners. In consequence, it can be seen as inappropriate, diffusing, or even foolish to allow them into discussions about matters with long-term consequences (things perceived to have an impact beyond the expected tenure of their stay) or questions about owner fees or long-term financial planning, which directly relate to protecting the monetary investment that the owners have in the community.

This tendency can be exacerbated if renters are not screened in the way that owners are (or should be) for a good fit with the community's values and vision, or are not assessed for communication skills and energetic alignment. If renters are selected mainly by the owner of the unit they live in, and primarily for their ability to pay rent, than it's understandable why there might be reluctance to have such wild cards present for discussions about the community's future.

2. Renters don't last as long as owners. While it's not hard to come up with specific examples of owners who turned out to be distracted, reclusive, or didn't last long—as well as instances where renters stayed a long time and turned out to be huge assets to the community—for the most part it's true that turnover among renters is noticeably greater than turnover among owners. Why invest time and energy in working with renter viewpoints when they're often not around to contribute significantly to the implementation or to help pay for it?

It makes some owners nervous to allow renters a say, for example, in developing policy for capital reserves, which requires thinking about how much money to set aside on a regular basis to handle large capital expenditures in the future (such as replacing the roof of the common house, or repaving the parking lot). Since renters do not have a direct obligation to contribute to the capital reserve and the benefit of the fund is not likely to be realized while they're living in the community, why invite them to the conversation?

3. Finally, if the group sometimes struggles to work through complex issues (and which groups don't?), there is an impulse to limit the number of people whose opinions you are trying to take into account when tackling issues. Not only is there a savings of the time it takes to hear everyone, but fewer people often translates into fewer distinct perspectives that you're obliged to balance. Thus, dis-inviting renters simplifies considerations that may already be plenty complicated.

Pro Integration
Going the other way, there are four main reasons to invite renters to the table.

1. If there is a good match with values and vision, renters can be terrific members and excluding them from important conversations can carelessly uproot a tender seedling. It sends the message that renters are unlikely to make valuable contributions to the conversation and/or cannot be trusted to behave appropriately. Neither message is very flattering, and most renters will be discouraged from trying to invest (psychically or monetarily) in the community in the face of such treatment. Is this really what you mean to be doing?

2. There is an important link between how trust flows and how information flows, such that trust is eroded when there's a kink in the information hose. Given the primacy of relationships to community, and the primacy of trust to relationships, I caution groups to proceed with great caution when engaging in practices that choke the flow of information among residents.

3. What does it say about your community's commitment to building and nurturing cooperative culture— where you are trying to have minimal barriers to knowing and working constructively with the input of all stakeholders—if you systematically exclude renters from important conversations about the community's future? Are you walking your talk?

It is one thing to be naive about trust; it is another to start from an armored place and expect prospective members to approach you on their knees, as supplicants—driving home the notion that renters are second class citizens.
4. I get that a conversation about building a swimming pool that should last for 25 years is different than a request to pop for $250 for a July 4 fireworks blowout, but is it really all about the money? At the end of the day I think it's more about the relationships, and posit that the group's integrity and health are better served by responding from the perspective of what's best for the relationships. Thus, on the question of whether renters should be allowed to participate in meetings about the long-term health of the community—when they have demonstrably not (or at least not yet) made a commitment to the community long term, experience has taught me that you're far better off inviting all residents to the dance.

If you bar renters from attending some meetings, not only do you lose their input on the topic, but you lose the chance to integrate them more into the community (making it more likely that they'll become full members). At the worst, you are getting valuable data about their suitability for full membership.

If you're worried about how their presence may disrupt the consideration, even to the point of compromising safety such that owners may not fully speak their mind, then you have a deeper issue. (Why do you have renters that are so out of alignment with who you are; and what does it mean that the plenary can be so knocked off center by one or two people misbehaving?)

I recall a time several years ago when an experience communitarian from another community visited for a week and was invited to sit in on one of Sandhill's community meetings. To frame it properly, this was not a meeting at which we were wrestling with questions about the community's vision and future. Still, the issues were sufficiently sensitive and serious that we had invited an outside facilitator from nearby Dancing Rabbit to run the meeting. So there was weight to the conversation. 

For the most part, the visitor simply watched and did not speak—which is what we generally encourage from non-members, with three exceptions: a) we invite them to participate during check-ins at the beginning; b) we invite them to offer reflective comments during evaluation at the end; and c) we may ask their views on a particular issue if we have reason to think their experience may be relevant.

In this particular meeting, we were reaching the end of discussion on a particular topic when the visitor inserted himself into the conversation to offer his analysis. At first, we were all surprised that he did so without an invitation, Then, as he went on and on, we were embarrassed for him that he understood community etiquette so poorly. Finally, when the facilitator tried to gently point out the inappropriateness of his unasked-for lengthy analysis, the visitor rebuffed the facilitator and continued his stump speech. Yikes! It was appalling that a community veteran would so misread the energy (and think it was OK to hijack the meeting like that).

I tell this story because it is the best example I can recall (over the course of 39 years) of a non-member, non-stakeholder being inappropriate and disruptive at a Sandhill meeting, and no bad thing really happened. Yes, we were irritated (and the visitor got direct feedback about his ill-inspired performance afterwards), but we simply shook it off and returned to our conversation after he finally wound down. We didn't even need to ask him to leave the meeting.

How do people learn discretion and self-discipline without opportunities to get it wrong? While I get it that you don't want important plenaries to turn into amateur hour, there is only so much that people will learn about discretion short of being given the chance to misuse it.

SynthesisTaking all this into account, my recommendation is to:

1. Screen prospective renters as carefully as you do prospective owners, and invest in educating and integrating them into the processes and culture of the community.
(Hint: This implies an active Membership Committee.) While there may be cases where the rental is so short term, or the renter is so little interested in community life that this doesn't make sense, I nonetheless advocate for training everyone as the norm. If nothing else, you're paying it forward for the benefit of the next cooperative group they're in.

2. Include renters in all community conversations under the notion that if you act like they are members (or at least can be), then it's much more likely that they'll act like members—which is what you want, isn't it?  

3. That said, I think there's validity to the view that people who are not invested should have only limited control over long-term decisions. I think an elegant way to address that is to pull their teeth for those kind of conversations, by establishing that for some kinds of conversations (the ones with long-term implications) that renters are not allowed to block. (If you're relying on voting instead of consensus, don't give renters a vote.) Renters would be allowed to attend all meetings and give their views in the same way that owners would, they'd just have limited decision-making powers on certain topics.

The beauty of this approach is that it eliminates any sense of brokered deals, diffuses us-them dynamics between owners and renters, encourages renters to voice their views, and allows for the possibility that renters may have valuable contributions to make to the consideration.

In short, I advocate for minimal borders with boarders.

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