Today I wrap up my five-week East Coast trip and start heading back to Missouri. Hurray! Before jumping in the car to attend one more social function, and then begin the long trek home, I want to share a brace of vignettes from this trip, both of which illuminate important aspects of community dynamics.
Defining Who You Mean to Be
I was working with a forming community recently that was wrestling with the dilemma of when it was OK to start making firm decisions about who they were and how they wanted to be with each other.
It's a common question.
On the one hand, you can only participate in foundational decisions for any given community once, and groups are properly mindful of being deliberate about who gets that honor. Because it enhances identification with the group, and broadens the perspectives available for doing work that will stand the test of time, you can understand the impulse to delay making decisions until the group gets bigger. On the other hand, how will all those folks you're hoping will join your circus know what's happening under the big top if there's nothing posted on the marquee?
Every decision you make results in specificity that runs the risk of discouraging people from joining your group—including those who are especially coveting a founding experience, and those preferring the fork in the road not taken. I get that it can be nerve wracking to intentionally limit the pool of applicants ("How will we ever sell all the units?"), yet what's the alternative—sorting out differences and defining common ground after you've built the houses? Not a good idea.
On the whole, it's better to define what's truly important as early as you can, so that you're not inadvertently attracting prospectives who are hoping you'll be something else. Having said that, there's an additional nuance here that's valuable to take into account. Beyond identifying your ideal position on key values, it helps to lay out how much deviation from the ideal is tolerable. At the end of the day, you don't need everyone to agree exactly on everything (which is damn good because it's nearly impossible to get that), yet you need everyone to have overlapping tolerance on all key values. And it's hard to test for something you haven't articulated.
Notice that I said "key" values. If a thing truly doesn't matter much to your group, it's OK to wait until more people join the party before determining how you'll handle it. For the features that are crucial though, I advise getting them articulated as early as you can, as they'll ultimately be the basis for screening applicants anyway and everyone will be better served by having that out in the open.
While following my advise can place a heavy workload on the forming core of a new community, there are perks. When the group is small, each person has more sway in decisions.
This phenomenon was summed up succinctly when the group I was working with was focusing on choices in site design and came to the realization that only a small number of members would be able to have houses that benefited from acoustical and visual separation by virtue of locating near earthworks that would be used to channel rainwater away from the houses. As one clever participant put it, "The early bird gets the berm."
I conducted a workshop on consensus yesterday (as part of the Northeast Cohousing Summit in Cambridge MA) and a question came up about how to handle the situation where people say they'll "block" a conversation about a topic they don't want to discuss.
That's interesting for a number of reasons:
a) In consensus, "blocking" happens only at the point of decision, so the term is being misused.
b) Semantics aside, it is no doubt a real phenomenon that members will sometimes try to stifle conversation about topics they feel strongly about (probably because they like things the way they are and are afraid that examination might lead to change). In their zealousness to get what they want, they may even threaten the group with high distress in an effort to derail the conversation. While this is inappropriate, it can sometimes work—particularly if the group has weak skills in managing distress, or in confronting bullies.
c) To be sure, when people have serious concerns about an issue there needs to be room for that to be fully articulated, accurately held, and worked with compassionately. It does not mean, however, that they can quash the conversation or that they are guaranteed to get their way.
In a separate conversation I was told a poignant story about a community where a significant chunk of the membership was strongly desirous of bringing in outside help to work through an accumulation of unresolved conflicts and was told by others in the group that they'd never approve that initiative. The status quo contingent was essentially happy with the way things had been going and saw no reason to rock the boat.
What, I wondered, were these satisfied folks thinking that it didn't matter that a bunch of their community mates were seriously unhappy? How is that OK? Mind you, they needn't have the same analysis as the dissatisfied folks, nor are they obliged to make changes, yet what does it mean to live in a cooperative community and not be willing to take a serious look at why a number of your fellow members are disgruntled? I don't get it.
I understand why people might be afraid of difficult conversations; I just don't have a picture of how not talking about issues aids their resolution; I have no image of how petulant, pushy behavior promotes domestic tranquility.
I suppose this is a case of the churly bird gets the squirm.
Sunday, September 29, 2013
Today I wrap up my five-week East Coast trip and start heading back to Missouri. Hurray! Before jumping in the car to attend one more social function, and then begin the long trek home, I want to share a brace of vignettes from this trip, both of which illuminate important aspects of community dynamics.
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."
In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.
The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
In the Context segment there are eight cards. The seventh pattern in this segment is labeled Power of Place. Here is the image and text from that card:
We live in a time of human history where people have never been less rooted; where we are adrift from connection to place. I think this profoundly affects our ability to be centered, to be connected to the Earth, to be connected with each other, and even to be connected with ourselves.
While the impact of this includes the quality of work we do together in meetings, as is suggested by this card, it extends way beyond that to touch our mental health and even our identity.
As our connection to place has weakened, we engage more with our heads and less from our hearts and bellies. It's a problem. Being more conscious about meeting places—as this card admonishes us to do—can help.
As a community member, a process consultant, and the FIC administrator, I am in lots of meetings. Because I'm on the road half the time, I am in many different meeting places. Not surprisingly, some are better than others.
What works best are places where the dimensions are congruent with the number of people attending; where the sight lines are good for all; where there is adequate fresh air and the temperature is not the main thing you're paying attention to. The lighting needs to be good enough to see people's faces; if there are supporting visuals to be used during the meeting, then the lighting has to be good enough to see them clearly from across the room.
While the pattern bravely calls for beautiful places, that beauty needs to imbue the space without being a distraction. A meeting is not a trip to a museum, or a church, or an art installation. The space should be a container that helps to focus the energy and to ground the participants; it should not be the focus.
I am drawn to the round edges of the building in the image (in contrast, I have never felt comfortable in A-frames, because the high sloping walls focus the energy to a point that is beyond our scale and doesn't fit the human shape; I always feel tension in my body in rooms with acute angles). While square corners are easy to build, and relatively easy to fit furniture into, round walls and the natural curves of unfinished wood are more pleasing to the psyche. By extension, hexagons and octagons are gentler on the soul than squares, and I've always been drawn to arches, both catenary and those with a constant radius.
To be sure, people can nest in a place to create focus and invoke meaning that is not infused in the structure or location. They can bring with them relics, mementos, icons, and rituals that make that place special for that event, yet the card suggests something grander—the careful selection of place to match the size and intention of the gathering. This can be anything from Stonehenge to a breakfast nook.
Some of this can come from prior things that have occurred in that location—memories or history specific to place—yet it can be as simple as a place that just feels right for the business at hand. The point is to give that selection intention; to purposefully invoke the power inherent in place, with a view toward coupling with it in service to purpose.
Aim for something more than adequate; aim for exquisite. Don't settle for exhalation; aspire to exaltation.
Sunday, September 22, 2013
I've got nearly 40 years under my belt making decisions with consensus in cooperative groups. In addition, I've been a consensus trainer for more than 25 years, and I've been writing about it for more than 15.
In preparation for an all-day consensus training with a forming community in Boston this weekend, I spent time distilling what I've learned into a double handful of key places where there's persistent misunderstanding or confusion about consensus. I offer them here (in no particular order), with the idea that handling these well will almost certainly lead to consistently good results.
1. Committing to creating cooperative culture
The mainstream culture is competitive, hierarchic, and adversarial. You can't just transplant consensus into the competitive culture that we've spent all our lives being steeped in and expect good results. That's just unanimous voting, and it's damn hard to get anything done.
The litmus test is how people respond when encountering strongly viewpoints different than their own about nontrivial matters. Do they respond with tension, combativeness, or capitulation; or do they respond with curiosity, and openness to having their opinion shift?
An ancillary aspect of this shows up in the way people recreationally bash meetings, expecting them to go poorly. Expectations have a profound impact on results, and we need to develop more hope and a positive attitude about expecting productive, unifying meetings if we're going start having them.
2. Staying on topic
One the principal ways that groups squander meeting time and dissipate energy is through participants lacking sufficient discipline to stay on topic. The corollary concern is facilitators who are not crisp about defining the topic (which complicates participants knowing whether they're coloring outside the lines).
To be fair, sometimes this is more a lack of sophistication about how to usefully section a complex topic into digestible chunks, the end result of which is the miasma of everyone being on topic, but the topic being too large for the group to be able to work with the all-over-the-place input.
3. Minimizing repetition
The companion nightmare to off-topic comments are those that are repeated. Mostly people repeat because they were unsure they were heard the first time.
Sometimes this is due to the speaker failing to distinguish being heard and being agreed with. Sometimes it's traceable to weak facilitation (it's awkward interrupting someone) or to facilitators who are unsure of their mandate. Sometimes it's because people cannot resist the temptation to say in their own words what someone else has already contributed‚ much of which is ego management.
Hint #1: If facilitators are diligent about summarizing input as the conversation progresses, it can help cut down wonderfully on people inspired to repeat themselves.
4. Dealing solely with plenary worthy topics in plenary
Most groups never discuss what things are an appropriate use of time in meetings of the whole (plenaries). When there is no clear boundary about what's an acceptable way to focus plenaries, the consequence is that almost anyone (or any committee) can suggest a topic and it's hard to draw the line The default is that any topic is allowed, which is an invitation to trail by minutia.
This problem is compounded by facilitators who are unwilling to step in and hold the group's feet to the fire when they drift below plenary level (perhaps to extend the pleasure of making decisions and clearing up ambiguity once they gather momentum on questions that started out as plenary worthy).
Hint #2: In addressing Points #2-4 above, you need to bless facilitators with clear authority to step in when the group strays.
Hint #3: It will be hard to enforce Point #4 unless you have a clear sense of how to delegate cleanly and effectively.
5. Working purposefully with emotions
Even though the baseline assumption is that groups will conduct business by using their best thinking, people know, process, and transmit information in far richer ways, including emotionally, intuitively, and kinesthetically. It's especially important to understand the need for how to work with emotional input.
While it can be a wild card that many are afraid of (mainly because most of us were raised without good models for how to do it well), emotions are an important source of energy and information, and it can be huge for groups to develop the capacity to recognize and work constructively with feelings relevant to the topics at hand.
Hint #4: You can welcome feelings and object to aggression.
6. Sequencing work such that proposals follow discussion; not the other way around
If you take to heart Point #4, then it's important to not develop proposals until the whole group has had a decent chance to identify the factors that a good response to an issue needs to address. If you start with proposals, committees and managers get invested in their answers and it skews the consideration of the issue unhelpfully.
If a topic is worthy of whole group consideration, don't start working on answers until you've agreed on what factors need to be balanced—then you can turn it over to committees to draft solutions.
7. Resolving issues by balancing interests; not by compromising positions
Often enough, groups get hung up on debating the relative merits of conflicting solutions. Will there be a winner and a loser? Should you pick a middle position (perhaps cutting the baby in half)?
In resolving the question of how best to respond to an issue in the dynamic where there are multiple ideas about how best to proceed, it generally works much better if you probe potential solutions for the interests from which they were derived, and then try to do your problem solving at that level. Positions can be diametrically opposed when underlying values are not. The gold is found by balancing values, while eschewing a battle of positions.
8. Knowing when (and how) to close the deal
There is an art to knowing when there is little or no new information forthcoming, and it's time to move toward problem solving.
While the discussion phase of the examination is expansive and might be characterized by impassioned advocacy, when you shift to problem solving you enter a contractive phase where it's time to lay down advocacy and think about bridging. It's important both to steer clear of problem solving until the discussion phase has been completed, and then to shift the energy of the problem solving phase so that the group comes together.
9. Understanding blocks and stand asides
In consensus it's possible for a single individual to stop the group from accepting a proposal. While that's a powerful right, it's paired with a powerful responsibility to use that right only thoughtfully and with compassion.
While blocks should be rare (because they come at the end of the consideration, and healthy consensus groups rarely test for approval of a proposal for which it is know that there are unresolved concerns), it is essential that consensus groups define the legitimate basis for blocks and the process by which the legitimacy of blocks will be examined. Woe betide the group that postpones defining the norms for blocks until they are in the dynamic they want to apply them to. Talk about a train wreck!
10. Knowing when to get help
While it's well and good that groups aspire to handle all that comes their way, occasionally you'll find yourself in over your head, where there is not sufficient neutrality or skill among the membership to safely navigate the issue(s) at hand. Groups are well advised to prepare ahead for that possibility, both by investing in training (to enhance the skills of the group), and by identifying talented facilitators among other cooperative groups in the area who can be asked to help out in time of need (perhaps in exchange for your returning the favor when they get stuck).
Thursday, September 19, 2013
Monday night I
was in Waterloo, Ontario, in the basement flat of Rachel Brnjas (who is on staff with
the Tamarack Institute, which organization I was in town to connect with) eating homemade pizza and enjoying three hours
of conversation about community with strangers.
One of the most interesting moments occurred in the final hour, when the gathered mutlitude reflected on their experiences with trying to make meaningful (as opposed to merely pleasant) contact with people they were meeting for the first, and perhaps only, time—as in on a bus or train, or at a large social event.
This captured my attention because I realized I had a somewhat complicated response, based on my having lived almost four decades in intentional community, where social expectations are often significantly different than in the mainstream context.
One of the most precious aspects about intentional community is that it supports and promotes more intentional engagement, by which I mean connections that are more heartfelt, stimulating, resilient, and authentic (interactions that are less trivial, freighted with bullshit, interlarded with posturing, and/or impeded by armoring).
To be sure, all relationships in community are not precious, just more of them—to the point where community veterans often find it easier to connect at depth with other community people they've never met before than with family and lifelong friends who have never pierced the veil of community living experience.
So there I was Monday evening discussing with strangers the art of meaningful connection with strangers. It was a self-referential conversation. While I sat there it occurred to me that my response was heavily influenced by my community experience, and that I had only a vague sense of how much that might have been shared by others in the room—which, of course, is invariably the situation when engaging with strangers—you never know at the outset what the context of social engagement is for them.
The conversational stew was made even more savory by the exotic quality of the group's composition. With the exception of Will (a community silverback who had spent 18 years with Jubilee Partners in Comer GA) and me, there didn't appear to be anyone else north of 30 in attendance, and that vast majority of the dozen or so folks present had deep roots in the Mennonite Church, all as social activists, and some as evangelical Christians.
This was definitely not a social configuration I find myself in very often, which made it all the more intriguing. It had been a number of years since I was last in a room (outside of church) where Jesus was regularly inserted into the conversation as an illumination rather than as an expletive.
As Monday night pizza with Rachel is an open invitation, there was an informal flow to both the conversation and attendance all evening. Some were there the whole time; others came and went. Some never spoke; some were hampered by English not being their native language or culture; and some jumped in early and often. While a few were inspired to suggest community-related subtopics from time to time, and there were occasional attempts to facilitate openings for the less assertive, mostly the conversation flowed organically.
On the question of how best to engage strangers, there was wide agreement that you were unlikely to achieve depth without being willing to go first, and that there was delicacy in how best to make the initial overture.
Here are the elements of my reflected response to this excellent question, and the sequence in which I suggest they be attempted:
—Testing for openness to engagement
This can be trickier than merely asking the person near you if they'd like to converse. While that might work, it typically works better if you're sensitive to eye contact (or its absence) or body language. Does the person appear to be available?
The fact that you're interested in connection (even eager for it) does not imply any certainty (or obligation) on the other person's part to be interested in your offer. They may not be open to engagement of any kind. Or they might be open selectively, which is the interesting case.
Some of this is context. People at a party, for instance, are less likely to be picky than the person sitting next to you on the train. That said, you may be the wrong gender or age to interest the other person—there are all manner of nuances to a stranger's limited availability.
Sometimes you can be persuasive by being bold; sometimes by being charming; sometimes by being innocuous (which is different than vacuous); sometimes by being clever; sometimes by being funny; sometimes by asking a question. That said, I think what tends to work best is an opening gambit that invites the person to say something about themselves—something with possibilities for more than a one or two-word answer.
While there is nuance about going too far too fast (I dis-recommend starting with an inquiry about whether anyone in their family has ever been institutionalized for mental illness), through careful observation it is often possible to pick up subtle clues on what the other might be to willing to share. If they look confused about where to put their luggage on the train, you might ask if this is their first time on Amtrak. If they look overwhelmed while milling at a reception, you might start with a question about whether they know anyone in the room. I'm suggesting that you aim for modest engagement on a relative safe topic that shows you're paying attention.
—Offering something revealing and genuine
Assuming you get a green light to your opening (or at least not a red one), I suggest looking for a way to say something about yourself that takes the conversation to a graduated deeper level, where you are sharing unilaterally about something close to your heart. Rather than prodding them to be vulnerable with a probing question, demonstrate your willingness to go there yourself first.
While you might get turned down (perhaps it doesn't feel safe enough; perhaps they're not that interested in you; perhaps they're not connecting with what you shared), at least you're operating in the right territory. If it isn't going to get more meaningful, how valuable was the connection anyway? (If you're going to get turned down, you may as well make it be for your truth; rather than because of the off color of your joke, or because you failed to stick the landing of your clever comment.)
Caution: Note that I advise a graduated deepening. You want to take the escalator down, that invites depth; not the high speed elevator that demands it. While there's considerable variety about what others consider safe, keep in mind that we're talking about strangers. Blind guessing about what people you don't know will consider acceptable depth (vulnerability roulette) may be exhilarating, but it's not generally a good strategy if the goal is meaningful engagement.
—Listening for the way in
Once you succeed in getting people to open up at all—even on a modest level—you're in a great position to gently guide the conversation into increasing depths. All you have to do is pay attention. It's been my experience that people will invariably tell you what matters to them if you simply listen.
Most people like talking about what matters to them (instead what doesn't). If you're flexible about where you find depth and the path by which you get there, there should be abundant clues about what will work.
As a professional facilitator, my nightmare is not having people jumping up and down and screaming (in those situations you never have to guess where people are at; it's obvious); it's people with stony faces who aren't talking at all. Silence is the hardest thing to interpret accurately, since it can mean so many things and there are so few cues with which to work.
Maybe they're exhausted and falling asleep. Maybe they're bored and zoning out. Maybe they didn't hear what was said. Maybe they're afraid to offer a differing opinion. Maybe they're afraid of sounding stupid. Maybe they're locked up in reaction. Maybe they're confused. Maybe they haven't missed anything but simply have nothing to add. Silence can be almost anything.
Once you've successfully established a conversational flow, look for the topics that hold meaning for the other person. Rather than looking the openings that you can use as a springboard for sharing your insights about life, look for the openings where they can share theirs.
Monday, September 16, 2013
As someone who has immersed himself in the cooperation business, I'm always looking for ways to take things to the next level. (If a little bit of cooperation is good, isn't a large bit better?)
I took my first definitive step down the cooperative path in 1974 when three others and I joined together to start Sandhill Farm.
After six years of living in an income-sharing community, I ratcheted that up when Sandhill joined the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (a network of income-sharing communities) and I became the community's delegate—a position I held for 21 years.
Seven years after (in May 1987) that I was in the room at Stelle IL for the inaugural meeting of the revitalized Fellowship for Intentional Community, for which group I have been the main administrator for two decades. This widened my arena of focus from income-sharing groups to all forms of intentional communities.
Gradually realizing how few people were likely to ever live in intentional community (there are roughly 100,000 doing so in the US today) relative to how many people desire a greater sense of community in their life (by which they mean more sense of connection, civility, and belonging), FIC officially expanded its mission in 2005 to include Creating Community Where You Are. This meant expanding my sphere of cooperative focus yet again—this time beyond the boundary of intentional community.
This past weekend I get another chance to widen the cooperative circle. In this case, by exploring a significant potential collaboration among networks devoted to the promotion of community and sustainability.
Here's a summary of what happened at Whole Village in Caledon ON, when I participated in a meeting of the Ecovillage Network of Canada (ENC).
GEN was organized into three major regions:
o GENOA covering Oceania and Asia
o GEN Europe covering Europe and Africa
o ENA (Ecovillage Network of the Americas) covering North and South America
Over the years, GEN softened its strict emphasis on ecovillages to include any community focused on creating sustainable culture, and FIC embraced the strong link between community and sustainability. However, even though the mission of the two networks gradually moved closer to alignment over the years, there hasn't been much collaboration.
Last year though, a new opportunity presented itself when CASA broke away from ENA so that Central and South American (the Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries) could be a separate network from the US and Canada. This year, GEN convened a Task Force charged with establishing a parallel North American network (tentatively styled GENNA) to complete the transition from the break up of ENA.
Taking into account the convergence of mission between GEN & FIC, coupled with how GENNA's geopgraphic focus exactly mapped onto the territory that has always been FIC's primary interest, the Fellowship was keenly interested in the conversation about what got created.
Here's a summary of what coalesced at Whole Village:
1. Our primary interest is exploring the possibility of FIC, ENA, and ENC merging to become a single organization focused on promoting sustainability, community, and cooperative culture in North America (which we currently define as the US and Canada). This conversation is timely because GEN would like to see a North American-focused network arise from the ashes of ENA. Last year CASA became the GEN-affiliated network for Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries in the American hemisphere, breaking away from ENA. That left the US and Canada unrepresented in the GEN family. The idea of a merger is attractive because: a) the US and Canada is FIC's primary focus; and b) there is energy within GEN and ENC to see a North American network established. Do we need two groups focusing on sustainable community in North America (FIC and a separate GENNA) or can one handle both portfolios?
2. We're agreed that progressive networks have chronic issues with too little money and too little human resources. Not only would a single network be better positioned to be efficient with limited resources (instead of operating two networks with substantially parallel missions), but it behooves groups committed to promoting cooperative culture to make a strong effort to demonstrate cooperation among networks.
3. While it will be important to agree on the mission of the surviving network (such that the FIC Board and the Task Force empaneled to restart a GEN network in North America are both satisfied), we are optimistic that this can be achieved based on the way that FIC and GEN have conducted themselves to date.
4. In addition to our general good feeling about a potential merger, we discussed briefly the following questions:
a. FIC has focused mainly on social sustainability; GEN has placed more attention on environmental sustainability.
b. Some GEN reps have focused attention on government relations; FIC has not.
c. GEN has worked to get grants from governments and foundations; FIC's fundraising efforts have almost exclusively been focused on individual donors.
d. GEN has put energy into developing Next GEN as a way to groom people in the 18-35 age range fir leader leadership; FIC has no comparable program.
e. GEN serves ecovillages; FIC serves all intentional communities, of which ecovillages are a subset.
f. GEN is doing its web programming in Drupal; FIC is using Word Press.
Without going into details, we felt all of these questions can be resolved satisfactorily. Though that optimism does not guarantee success, it fueled our collective sense that we were on the right track and that aiming for a single surviving network is the right impulse. If further work reveals a stumbling block that we cannot resolve, we can always fall back on an approach where GENNA is created as a separate entity from FIC.
5. We propose to proceed in this order:
Step A. Secure the buy-in of our respective groups (Laird with FIC; Lee, Russ, and Nebesna with the Task Force; Lawrence with Valhalla) with the direction we defined Sept 14-15 at Whole Village.
Step B. Reform the Task Force to include representatives of FIC and Valhalla, and perhaps others.
Step C. Explore (at least in broad strokes) and resolve any questions or concerns about the mission of a merged network.
Step D. Based on the outcome of Step C, determine what constituencies we intend to serve, and assess whether all of them are adequately represented among the Task Force. If any are missing, make a priority effort to recruit representatives to join the Task Force.
Step E. Sketch out the programs that the new network will have.
Step F. Develop the organizational structure of the new network.
Step G. Determine the new network's name, the location of its office(s), how the Board will be selected, how the Board will make decisions, and perhaps the composition of its initial Board and/or who will be the Executive Director.
Step H. Determine a sequence by which FIC, ENA, and ENC will be laid down and authority fully transferred to the new network.
6. We are agreed that the Task Force (as constituted per Step B above) should determine what will best serve the needs of North America for a community and sustainability focused network, and then present the result to GEN to see if they are satisfied. This approach was supported by both Daniel and Lee, GEN Board members who conveyed the clear message that GEN was taking a largely hands off approach to how the Task Force did its work.
7. The formulation of a new network will mean a special opportunity for new blood to get involved, both in program development & implementation, and in network administration. We're hopeful that Next GEN and other young people will step forward and take advantage of this opportunity.
8. Finally, it's important to note that there was high resonance among us, and considerable excitement about the possibilities of creating a single network going forward.
Saturday, September 14, 2013
I'm about halfway through a five-week road trip that has me on the East Coast until October. When I pulled out of Missouri at first light Aug 28, it was still full summer, with the hot weather getting old and the hot peppers just starting to roll in. When I finally make it back to Sandhill's driveway (34 days and 3400 miles later) it will be in the final minutes of September, the foliage will be assuming its fall mantle, and the sorghum harvest will be well underway.
I've been a road warrior for decades and long-distance drives across time zones is nothing new for me. Conscious of the non-renewable nature of the gasoline that powers our vehicle fleet, I try to take the train whenever I can, and try to fill the car with passengers and products when I can't—to make the consumption of gasoline as righteous as possible.
In this blog I want to explore the uneasy intersection between energy efficiency and sustainable relationships, of which my current trip has been an illuminating example.
Anywhere from three to six times a year, I attend community-related events as a speaker, workshop presenter, and/or general resource about community living. (For more on my fall calendar, see An Eventful Time of Year, my blog of Aug 23.) Where possible I look for opportunities to represent Community Bookshelf, FIC's bookselling arm. If it can make suitable arrangements with event organizers and it makes sense otherwise, then I pack a Sandhill car with boxes of books and drive to the event (in lieu of taking the choo choo).
Such was the case for my current trip, which is bookended by the Twin Oaks Communities Conference on the front end (Aug 30-Sept 2), and by a northeast regional cohousing summit in Cambridge MA on the back end (Sept 28). In between I have the following itinerary (skipping the social parts):
o Sept 2-4 FIC fall organizational meetings (Louisa VA)
o Sept 5-8 Weekend III of a NC-based facilitation training (Floyd VA)
o Sept 14-15 Ecovillage Network of Canada meetings (Caledon ON)
o Sept 16-17 Meet with Tamarack Institute (Waterloo ON)
o Sept 22 Consult with Mosaic Commons (Berlin MA)
o Sept 23-24 Conduct trainings for a forming cohousing group (greater Boston area)
Thus, on this particular junket, I'll be able to rep Bookshelf not once, but twice (for which I'll surely get extra credit in the Akashic Records, Sustainability Division). Once having set up the trip and reserved the vehicle, I made it known that others could travel with me on a space available basis. Then the fun began...
My trip essentially divides into four segments:
Leg 1: Missouri to Virginia
Leg 2: Virginia to Rochester NY
Leg 3: Rochester to Boston
Leg 4: Boston to Missouri
Here are the logistical considerations that I tried to balance:
—While Ma'ikwe was attending the same three functions as me on the front end of the trip, and she had the inside track on reserving space in the car, she doesn't do well on long-distance drives (because of chronic Lyme disease) and she opted to travel to Virginia by train instead—avoiding the 900 miles of Leg 1.
Despite that, she reserved car space for her and Jibran (her 16-year-old son) for Leg 2, a distance of 900 kilometers. To be sure, kilometers are less than miles, though only by two-thirds. It can be a fine line.
—My pattern for long distance car trips is that I take whatever Sandhill vehicle is the least popular one at home. Often this means a car without air conditioning, and that can make a significant difference to passenger comfort when negotiating the long, hot days of late summer. Ma'ikwe had recently challenged me about that, and thus I made sure to secure a car with air conditioning, giving up some carrying capacity to do so. (Let's face it. I'm trying hard to re-establish an intimate relationship with my wife, and there's no way I'm going to emphasize payload over her comfort.)
—Alyson Ewald is an FIC Board member who also lives in Rutledge MO, at Red Earth Farms. She wanted a ride east for Leg 1 and I was happy to oblige. To sweeten the pot she asked for—and got—permission for her partner, Mark, and their five-year-old daughter, Cole, to join the party. While Alyson was attending the Twin Oaks Conference and the subsequent FIC organizational meetings, Mark & Cole would visit Mark's father in Virginia.
Alyson lobbied for taking the Sandhill vehicle back home (so that their travel would be subsidized both ways), but I told her that wouldn't work. I needed to keep the books on the East Coast for the cohousing summit at the end of September. While disappointed, she understood.
—I had also been approached by a person visiting northeast Missouri who was a member of Twin Oaks on a personal affairs leave. He wanted a ride back East also, but I turned him down for lack of room (excepting that I was willing to ferry a knapsack of his to VA).
—FIC has recently hired a Business Manager, which is a role we had not had previously. In pursuit of his mandate to boost sales, he asked that extra copies of our books and magazines be shipped East for the events. The problem was where to put all that stuff in the car. When I reported the space limitations, the order was adjusted downward but we I still schlepped a few boxes more than we usually take to events.
—At the outset of Leg 1, we had to squeeze everything in the car to the point where the front seat passenger had a guitar case riding on their legs the whole time.
—All the space liberated by selling the equivalent of four boxes of books at the Twin Oaks conference was eaten up by the need to back haul surplus products that had accumulated at our Virginia Office and needed to be transported to our Missouri Office. That meant that Ma'ikwe and Jibran were just as sardined into the car for Leg 2 as Alyson, Mark, and Cole had been for Leg 1. Ufda.
In this context I was tense when loading the car for Leg 2 (knowing that Ma'ikwe, Jibran, and I would be traveling in a packed car all day, and already weary of people being disappointed by how I was balancing the requests made about the vehicle's use). Ma'ikwe & Jibran graciously tried to offer suggestions to aid in the packing and I turned them down brusquely, which behavior Ma'ikwe properly labeled as unhelpful when we processed the exchange the next day.
She was right—both in the observation and in making the choice to point it out. While it wasn't awful, and we all got in a better mood once we were underway (for 11 fun-filled hours together in a jam-packed car), I could have made better choices about how the day started.
Now four days removed from that experience, I'm wondering what I've learned. I still want to help people out, and I still want to get the most out of burning gasoline when I make long-distance trips. How will it feel to turn down requests for a ride so that more product can be shipped? How will it feel to ship less product so that passengers will be more comfortable? I'm not sure. At the very least, I can involve other affected parties earlier in the process, so they can make more informed decisions about what to ask for and what to expect.
Upon reflection, it occurs to me that it's a good thing I didn't move to community to avoid facing hard choices.
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
This past weekend Ma'ikwe and I were conducting Weekend III of the North Carolina-based version of our Integrative Facilitation training, hosted by Jubilee, a forming cohousing group in Floyd VA.
One of the issues that Jubliee wanted help with was how to keep their houses as affordable as possible—which is a damn good topic. Between the community and the class we brainstormed the following menu of options:
o Government subsidies in exchange for guaranteeing that at least 25% of their houses remain affordable for low income households (defined to be within reach of people making 80% of the median income for that location).
Note: You have be careful in that some subsidies come with restrictions over what control the community would have over who lives in those homes and it may be a poor bargain to trade lower housing costs in exchange for loss of control over your membership.
o Government subsidies (or tax credits) for renewable energy. Sometimes you can also get subsidies from your local utility for energy conversation investments (such as thermal shutters or increased insulation in the walls or attic).
o Place the undeveloped portion of the property in a land trust, protecting it from the temptation of future development (or selling it to developers), preserving green space (which ensures easy access to nature), riparian buffer zones, and tree belts (that mitigate both winter winds and summer temperatures if sited properly in relation to the houses). Some land trusts will pay you for development rights.
o Build housing units with shared walls (or build vertically, so that the ceiling of the lower unit is the floor of the one above). While you need to be careful that you're not sacrificing desirable window views or sound insulation (there's a definite limit to what information about your life you want to be sharing inadvertently with your neighbors), dense construction can lower costs without altering square footage.
o Sell units with the intent that they'll be rentals, or encourage homeowners to build a slightly larger unit than they need so that an extra bedroom can be rented. While there are questions about how to screen renters such that you get people who want to be engaged in community life, and it can be awkward if too high a percentage of residents are renters (who may lack the long-term commitment you'll need to create and maintain a steady core population), encouraging rentals can help make it possible for people on the financial edge to be able to afford to make house payments.
o Downsize your house. This comes in two flavors: a) simply making the commitment to make do with less house, and adjusting your lifestyle accordingly; and b) thinking through the ways that the community's common facilities (common house, workshop, laundry, library, kids play area, etc.) can meet your household's needs such that you don't need to have those functions accommodated privately. Perhaps you don't need a bath tub in your house if there's one in the common house.
o Downsize the common elements. This is taking the last point in the opposite direction. It has been my personal observation (after having worked professionally with more than 50 cohousing communities) that the overwhelming majority of have underused common facilities. Why build what you won't use, or will sit idle too much of the time? To be fair, it's difficult to crystal ball this accurately when few residents have had meaningful prior community experience upon which to base their design decisions.
Note: This last point is further complicated by the impact that social dynamics will have on people's comfort and desire to do things jointly, or in jointly held facilities. If dynamics are good, people are drawn to doing more together; if unresolved tensions persist, the reverse obtains and the common facilities will stand idle. Often groups make irrevocable design decisions before it's clear how well the members will function together socially.
o Simplified design. There can be considerable leverage on costs (as well as the aesthetic benefit of a unified design) if all the roof lines are the same. The more houses are clumped and dense, the easier it is to heat and cool them efficiently. Semi-private yard space can be shared between neighbors.
o Increase the level of sharing (replacing the need to have enough space to own your own). This includes car co-ops, tool sharing (how many table saws and lawn mowers does a community need?), perhaps a community sewing room, kids rumpus room, or community held guest rooms (instead of one in each house). Of particular value in bringing down the cost is limiting the number of bathrooms in private homes. On those rare occasions when two people need to shower simultaneously (and separately), couldn't one of them trot down to the common house?
o Carports instead of garages. If you plop solar panels on top, so much the better.
o Outdoor living spaces are far cheaper to build and maintain than enclosed spaces. A well designed and landscaped yard can be every bit as functional as an enclosed porch—excepting when it rains.
o When it comes to green space, think gardens, not lawns. Not only will you save on mowing, you'll lower your food costs and eat better.
o Build all at once. There are economies of scale available if you build 32 units in one go, instead of one at a time—or even in four batches of eight.
o Build with a limited palette of choices. While Jubilee probably needs at least four options: studio, one bedroom, two bedroom, and three bedroom, the more you can agree to limit choices in cabinets, floor coverings, paint, bathroom fixtures, etc, the more you can contain costs.
To be fair, this is hard to do. For most people, building a home is the single largest investment they'll make in their lives and there's a powerful, if vestigial, link to whatever hold the American Dream has on their psyche. You want it to be the way you want it, not the way groupthink wants it. Hint: ask members to hold off on personal preferences during initial construction, and customize afterwards. While the costs will be slightly higher, custom orders after the fact will not impact the price tag on other homes.
o Internal loan pool. There are some groups that have been able to take advantage of the breadth of financial wherewithal among members to discreetly gather voluntary contributions among those who are better off to create a safety net for those hanging on by their fingernails, allowing the less fortunate to remain in the project. Then, as their financial ships have righted, the loans are repaid and the funds are available to be used again to help succeeding generations of prospective homeowners grab the bottom rung of the community ladder.
o Community businesses. Most cohousing groups think of themselves as businesses only insofar as they are trying to sell units and cover the costs of maintaining their collective investment. But it could be more than that. Some groups support Community Supported Agriculture operations (see Cobb Hill in Vermont and Ecovillage at Ithaca in New York); some operate Christmas tree farms (see Hundredfold Farm in Pennsylvania). Groups could become producers of heirloom vegetable seeds for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (operated by Acorn Community in Mineral VA), host personal growth workshops, or rent office space in their common house. Think entrepreneurial!
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the spring 2013 issue of Communities magazine is on the theme of Affordability & Self-Reliance, where you'll find additional ideas, plus an amplification of some of the above. It's a hot topic.
The very least Ma'ikwe and I could do was help them think it through.
Saturday, September 7, 2013
As a consensus facilitator, one of my core challenges is establishing a suitably cooperative container in which to examine issues. Regardless of whether a group has committed to using a cooperative decision-making process such as consensus, you cannot count on the group having been trained in its use, or understanding the need to unlearn competitive conditioning.
Ma'ikwe and I are in Floyd VA this weekend delivering Weekend III of our NC-based Integrative Facilitation training, hosted by Jubilee, a forming cohousing group. The teaching theme is consensus, and we made a strong effort to emphasize the importance of having the right mind set if you want good results. Simply exporting adversarial dynamics into consensus meetings does not lead to happiness.
During our Thursday evening check-in one creative trainee shared how he experimented with a cooperative attitude while driving north from Florida. Thinking that our admonitions might have utility beyond plenaries (for which he got extra credit) he wondered what it might be like to drive cooperatively, which was a fairly radical concept. When someone was riding his bumper at 70 mph, he tried the novel idea of imagining what he might do to make life easier for the impatient driver behind him and pulled into the right-hand lane to let him pass. We could only imagine the surprised look on that driver's face.
I was captivated by the thought of introducing cooperative behavior into arenas where it is seldom seen, such as rush hour commuting, which seemed as far removed from collaborative culture as Marine Corps boot camp (picture the drill instructor inquiring how you're getting along with that hang nail).
It reminded me of the bumper sticker that encourages random acts of kindness. Maybe I could get one printed that advocated for "stealth cooperation." It may not make a lot of sense, but it could be a lot of fun—and wouldn't that be better than road rage? At least it would keep your blood pressure down.
While I'm not sure where our students will take this, it was enjoyable thinking of unlikely applications: letting people cut in front of you when queued up to buy tickets; giving up the final shirt in your size at a clothing sale so that the person behind you could have it; foregoing the last piece of pie so that someone else night enjoy it.
Imagine a world where cooperation became endemic. How bad could it be? I hope to get the chance to find out.
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Ma'ikwe and I agreed to restart our intimate partnership Aug 24. While I'm very happy to have this chance, our re-entry is downright meditative.
Now 10 days into the current incarnation of our relationship, we've had three dates where we hung out and cuddled some. We've been together at Twin Oaks since Friday (first for their Communities Conference and then for the FIC fall organizational meetings) and most days we've eaten a meal at the same table.
Every now and then we'll be together and she'll hold my hand or lean against me (which is precious), but there are days we don't touch at all. Ma'ikwe is reacclimating to me as partner at her own pace, and I get to practice patience.
We're basically working on her timetable and, at least for now, that means all ahead slow. Ma'ikwe and I will be together for another week before she returns to Missouri (while I remain on the East Coast for the remainder of the month). While I originally thought that her accepting my offer to try again meant that we'd be sleeping together, it hasn't meant that so far.
Given that I've never before attempted what I'm doing right now (trying to start over again with my wife) I don't have a road map to follow. Maybe going slowly is exactly right.
While I miss having more regular time with Ma'ikwe, the limited amount we've had has lead me to treat those occasions with heightened consciousness. Of late, intimacy has come to mean paying close attention, being minimally reactive, and taking pleasure in Ma'ikwe's emerging smiles. It's about enjoying what's possible, being available, and not pushing for something else. It's about presence.
It's also an exercise in letting go of expectations. While Ma'ikwe has agreed to hold my hand into this uncertain future—at least for the coming months, as we explore the fields of our new intimacy—I have little idea where the ground is. My main work right now is breathing through the anxiety of leaving familiar territory and entering terra incognita. I am learning to cope with my fear of falling; my fear of being lost; my fear of becoming entangled in the bared wire that marks the boundaries of pastures I've been asked to not enter. I am confronting my fear of being unwanted and decoupling Ma'ikwe's not reaching for me as proof of her disinterest.
It's a lot of breathing, self care, and listening for the soft, deep resonance of our dance on uncertain terrain.
Sunday, September 1, 2013