Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Who's Zooming Who?

   Sexism at Dancing Rabbit
Sometimes it can take 1000 words to explain a picture. Let me see if I can tell this story within that budget.

The image above is a rather jaunty photo of Coz Walker, one of my community mates at Dancing Rabbit, styling in his crazy quilt skirt as he sashays down the stairs, arms and legs akimbo. It was selected to accompany a thoughtful article written by DR member Sam Makita entitled "Sexism at Dancing Rabbit" that appears in the spring issue of Communities magazine (on the theme of Gender Issues), in which the author explores the phenomenon of reverse discrimination in feminist culture and the tender issue of the proper response when trying consciously to address a mainstream societal imbalance and move toward a more level playing field.

This image appears on page 16 of the print magazine, accompanied by the following cutline: "Dancing Rabbit has much looser gender expectations than most of the wider culture, as demonstrated by member Coz Walker." 

The fun began when the magazine staff posted this article as a teaser for issue #162 on our magazine website, and inadvertently left off the caption in the transfer. Here's what happened:

The author, Sam, is a woman with a name that's often associated with a man (yes, there are Samantha's out there that go by "Sam" but you get my point). Further, Sam describes herself in the article this way: I’m a woman. I am genetically and physiologically female. I have some masculine traits but I don’t think I’m mannish. I’m pretty tall for a woman, but not at all tall compared to all humans. I have pretty strong arms for a woman, but they’re probably less strong than the average adult’s.

As the above photo is the only one that accompanies the article, it's rather natural, without the cutline, to assume that it's a picture of the author—a mistake that's not contradicted by the topic or the author's self-description.

Why does this matter? I received an email from a correspondent new to intentional community (yet curious) who reported being strongly put off by Sam's article—the first Communities piece he'd ever read—and it took me a while to sleuth out that this was a reaction to the photo, not the writing. My correspondent felt that it was way too much in his face to be asked to deal with a fully bearded person who presents as a man yet identifies as a woman (he was just sampling "life in cooperative culture"; not trolling for a genderfuck).

While there's a funny side to this (which is not often a byproduct of mistaken assumptions—if you step back far enough), there's also a important question embedded in this story about how to engage with people who see life differently than you, which is something that Communities magazine very much wants to accomplish.

As a general strategy there tends to be tension between: a) being fully yourself, and insisting that others deal with you as you are (if you're going to be rejected, at least let it be for your truth); and b) altering your message (or at least its packaging) so that it's more receivable by your audience (if the door is slammed in your face, no dialog is possible and it doesn't matter much what your message was). The dilemma, at least in part, is whether the latter strategy dilutes the potency of your truth; or whether the insistence on your truth reinforces isolation and misunderstanding. This is not a trivial concern.

Because we (both FIC as an organization, and I as an individual) are in the cooperative culture business, I lean toward building and protecting bridges first, and then navigating the differences afterwards. I'm reminded here of the Aesop fable of the Wind and the Sun arguing who is the stronger, and settling their dispute by both trying to separate a man from his coat. No matter how hard the Wind blew, the man just pulled his coat tighter. But when the Sun beat down the man soon became so warm that he willingly took the coat off. The moral: force is rarely a successful strategy for effecting lasting change.

Keep in mind that my correspondent took the time to let me know his reaction. That was precious. Most people who feel affronted by an author simply put the magazine back on the rack or click to another site. Yet publishers (by definition in the communication business) need to know when we're turning people off. (In fact, we all need to know when we're turning people off, but I'm focusing here on FIC's role as a disseminator of information about cooperative living—which is a core Fellowship mission.) In this case, because there was an opportunity for some back and forth, I was able to sort out the misperception and the correspondent has been willing to give us another chance by reading more magazine articles. How many website visitors had a similar reaction and didn't bother to tell us?

One of the ironies of this incident is that the article focuses on cultural conditioning and how to address it in ways that don't accidentally perpetuate the discrimination it is trying to eliminate. It is about being aware and purposeful when it comes to unconscious behavior and assumptions about gender. In this instance, the reader fell right into it… by making a gender assumption. (To be fair, I might have made the same mistake if our roles had been reversed, so I have some sympathy for what happened, and it's on FIC that we dropped a stitch when we posted the photo online, sans caption.)

But let's take this a step further. Suppose the correspondent was right, and the author was a woman with a full beard. While I get it that it would be unusual, especially given Madison Avenue's diligence about training us to view femininity in a defined, limited way (which does not include women with facial hair), so what? Would it mean that the author's views were less cogent? Do beards on women make them think less clearly? I don't think so.

Maybe the gender views of a woman with a beard would be more likely to be dismissed as the perspectives of someone who's obsessed with questions of gender identity. Although that's pure speculation on my part and I'm not sure why that would undercut the validity of their views about sexual discrimination, I will note that the correspondent got much more out of the article after he learned that the photo was not of the author.

While photos are meant to enhance an article, in this case is was majorly distracting, and that itself, though unintentional, turned out to be an example of gender discrimination, and the ways in which those in the majority (and therefore "normal") tend to be less tolerant or accepting of those who are not, without their necessarily even being aware of it. I'm telling you, unpacking this dynamic is like opening a set of Russian dolls—there's always another reflection nested inside the last one.

Well, I almost made it. This particular picture has taken me 1,196 words to unpack.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Getting the Jobs Done

I recently was involved in an exchange among outreach-oriented folks living in income-sharing communities who were wrestling with how to respond to an invitation from NBC to do a broadcast that showcased ways that cooperatives offer models of economic stability in these unsettled times.

The Challenge
While I don't know all the details of the offer (I entered the conversation late and had no direct connection to the NBC producer that was dangling this bait), this was the challenge put before our group:

A. In order to be safe, secure and prosperous, the US (and other high-wage rate countries) need to be able to make a wide range of things and sell them globally.

B. Mostly, if we try to do that using conventional economics:
o  Our goods will be/are too expensive.
o  Production capabilities will get moved overseas, even when the benefit for moving is not huge, because some spreadsheet will show some benefit.

C: By moving toward worker-owned coops for the production of many items, the US (and other high-wage rate countries) can provide high-quality of life for large numbers of people, address the current and future jobs crisis, and long-term provide a path to sustainability.

The argument against this idea is, as far as I can tell:

If this were such a viable option, why are there not lots of Mondragon-sized coops around the country? Communities fail, product launches fail. Even if we successfully started 500 100-person coops in the next three years, that's only 50,000 jobs and we need millions. Solving this problem this way won't work because the scale is wrong.

Plus, to meet this need, there has to be a movement of people trying to address things like the Millennials Job Crisis using massive numbers of coops. While there are some coops, are there thousands of people pressing for:

—Tax breaks for people who sell their conventional companies to worker-owned coops?
—Access to capital for worker-owned coops?
—Laws and regs that encourage government agencies buying from worker-owned coops?

For this to be covered by NBC’s impact platform, the press needs to be illuminating an existing movement, not creating one. Then the story can offer viewers ways they can get involved.

Can we make the case that worker coops address an obvious and important problem like the jobs crisis?

The Context
Everyone in this conversation (there were eight of us) is a seasoned communitarian, with lots of years of experience in income-sharing groups. Further, we are all outreach oriented and have a general sense of how exposure on NBC could be a golden opportunity to get our light out from under a bushel. 

We are also all aware of how tiny our numbers are. In the US there are about 100,000 people who live in some kind of self-identified intentional community. At FIC our data indicate that around 12% of communities are income-sharing, which represents 12,000 people. In addition, the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives estimates that there are about 5000 people in this country employed in worker-owned cooperatives. Even if you postulated that there is no overlap between the two (a dubious assumption), 17,000 is less than the number who typically attend Kansas City Royals baseball games—hardly a phalanx sufficient to address a national jobs crisis.

The Contribution
Against this backdrop, here is what I contributed to the dialog:

1. I agree with the comments about intentional communities and worker coops not being anywhere near large enough in numbers to constitute an alternate job market capable of providing jobs on the scale being discussed.

2. What’s more there are powerful social reasons why that number is not going to increase rapidly (living and working cooperatively are hard to do well when you’ve been deeply conditioned to be competitive). It can be done and it’s worth doing, but it ain’t never going to be a flood. To be clear, we have dissatisfaction with standard employment options at the right levels, we just don’t have anywhere near the pool of cooperatively skilled people needed to pull it off.

3. That said, we still have a powerful story to tell. In particular, I’d want to emphasize four economic levers, the power of which are all showcased in intentional communities:

a) Access to resources rather than ownership (the power of sharing). In most cases, owning things is not necessary so long as you have access to them. For example, hardly anyone uses a chain saw, lawn mower, table saw, or even a washing machine every day. If you're part of a group that owns (or leases) one, then it's relatively easy to have it when you want it (sure, occasionally two people will want the thing at the same time, but that happens far less often than you might suspect), and you don't have to earn all the money needed to buy it, house it, and maintain. What's not to like?

b) Redefining security (even economic security) in terms of relationship, rather than money in the bank (or the size of one’s insurance policies). If friends, family, and neighbors are there for you in time of need, you don't need to hire people to be there for you. It's that simple. Of course, that means you'll need to be there for them as well, but it can all even out in the end, and it's far less burdensome in a group of 10 to have everyone do 10% more when someone is incapacitated, than for one person to do double when their partner goes down (assuming they have a partner).

c) How sharing (or pooling) can be further leveraged when you think of the group as the basic economic unit instead of the household. Every household has to solve the problem of getting its domestic work done and earning enough money. When you only have one or two adults in the household your options are severely restricted. However, when the equation is solved over a group you have lots more options, which include both economies of scale (each person cooking one night a week for seven is way more efficient than each person cooking for themselves every night) and how you can slant things much more toward the work that people like (read quality of life) when you have more options for juggling domestic and income producing labor.

For example, if a household is comprised of two people, one of whom only wants to make widgets all day, and the other of whom only wants to sell widgets, you may have a great business model but who cooks and how do the floors get cleaned? Alternately, if there's a household where one member dreams of gardening full time, and their partner wants to cook and can, they'll probably have terrific meals but how does the electric bill get paid? An income-sharing group can accommodate all of these preferences without anyone needing to compromise their preferred work mix. Woohoo!

d) Job sharing. Given a choice, most people would prefer to work part time, at home, and with flexible hours. In community this is much easier to do than in the mainstream. One of the most onerous ways to spend time is commuting. If you work at home that nightmare is eliminated.
While all of these points apply to intentional communities in general—and could be extended to neighborhoods, churches, schools, and even corporations—they are far more pronounced in income-sharing communities, where the collective takes a much more active stance in managing labor.

The Conclusion

First, we lay out how we're succeeding:
o  High quality of life satisfaction which requires less income and uses far fewer resources per person
o  Individuals can create their own jobs, but don't need to because the group will provide work options
o  Through sharing, each individual is required to do less grunt work
o  High degree of choice in work, with less commuting, less costuming, and more flexibility of hours

Second, we pitch how these lessons can be exported into non-community situations. The goal being to inspire from community, rather than trying to recruit to community (or worker cooperatives). 

So bring on the cameras!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Reflections from a Reflective Reader

Here's another exchange from the mail bag. This comes from a regular visitor to this blog, who is sharing his thoughts about intentional communities, their place in the culture, outreach among communities, FIC's online Directory, Ecovillage Education US, and correspondence in general.

• • •
I. Defining "Intentional Community"
I have been giving some thought to just what makes intentional communities unique. I am defining an intentional community as a group of individuals who organize themselves to manage a resource, purposely left unspecified.

The definition I use is “a group of people living together on the basis of explicit common values.” It’s interesting that you’re focusing on managing a resource. 

I chose "resource"  because in the broadest sense any group organized for a common purpose is a community. For the purpose of this discussion I wanted to exclude groups like social and service clubs and organizations. Besides, lifestyle can be construed as a resource.

I think the reason I’m uncomfortable with that definition is because “resource" does not suggest a vision and most communities start with that, and then organize resources to pull together a living situation in service to that vision. The vision is the driver; not a commitment to managing a resource.

After browsing the FIC, Dancing Rabbit, Sandhill Farm, and other FIC listed sites, I think the defining characteristic is the seeking of a more cooperative, less competitive lifestyle. It may include religious contemplation, low ecological impact, or other goals but they are not defining.

I think that’s fair.

II. Community Outreach
I would guess that Dancing Rabbit is one of the more out reaching of the communities…

It is.

… due to Ma'ikwe's work in eco education.

Ma’ikwe’s EEUS work, though important, is only one of the ways that DR is outward facing. The community is trying to be a model of sustainable culture, creating a vibrant, fully-featured lifestyle consuming only 10% of the resources of the average US citizen.

I found out there is an artist community nearby I never knew about and I suspect most neighbors of many communities don't know that they exist.

You may be right; it's hard to say. Groups are "intentional communities” when they say they are. FIC doesn’t own the term or attempt to tell groups when they "qualify.” It turns out that there’s considerable softness about when a group is comfortable with the label intentional community; and further softness about whether they want to list their existence with FIC or let their neighbors know what they're up to.
III. Directory Listings

Another thing I noticed is there seems to be [in FIC's online Directory] a lot more forming/re-forming communities than established ones. Makes me wonder just how stable many of these communities are.

You are right that there many unsettled groups. FIC made the choice right at the beginning (with our first edition of Communities Directory in 1990) to list forming and re-forming groups along with established ones because finding people to match with your dreams early on is often crucial to survival. While we know that many of these tenuous groups will not succeed, we made the choice to support breadth above stability—which we are continuing to do today. That said, we have recently decided it will be a better service to users if we sort groups into four categories:
A. Established intentional communities
B. Forming intentional communities
C. Re-forming intentional communities
D. Groups with a strong community association but which are not intentional communities

I like your reorganized listing. As to the too-real question of whether a community is still "alive," you might want to consider something what Congress had the IRS impose on not-for-profits a half dozen or so years ago: the form everyone loves to hate, the 990. By requiring them to raise their hand every year and say "I am still here" at least you develop a foggy idea of who is still around. By de-listing them after three years of non-filing a lot of deadwood gets removed.

We’ve decided we don’t even want to wait that long. In the future all listed communities will be asked to affirm their existence every year and persistent non-response will result in their being moved into an Unresponsive category in less than six months.

I know that at least for very small not-for-profits they got de-listed by IRS because of personnel changes and mail not being forwarded. And getting re-listed is a royal pain. You could be less strict with re-listing.
IV. Community Demographics

My guess is that many communities are formed by idealistic younger folks who later mature and go more mainstream.

There’s certainly some of that. While you’re right that most communities are started by people in their 20s and 30s, one of the more interesting trends in the movement over the last 30 years has been the steady rise of people over 50 joining or starting communities for the first time.

I suspect individuals like you and Stan [a long-term member of Sandhill Farm] are in the minority in the movement. I think I remember Stan lamenting he was 27 years older than the next oldest member of Sandhill in one of his recent posts.

That’s true today because I’ve moved in with my wife at Dancing Rabbit, but that’s only been since December. For the first 34 years that Stan’s lived at Sandhill, he had me and others his age living there also.

V. Future of Intentional Communities
My bottom line is that while I think these communities are a valuable testing place well worth supporting, I don't think they will ever be more than a small niche.

I doubt they will ever represent a significant fraction of the population (while the movement is growing, FIC's best guess is that there are about 100,000 people in the US today who live in some form of self-identified intentional community—just 0.03% of the US population). Despite low numbers, however, communities can nonetheless play an important—even crucial—role as the tugboats that pull the Titanic of our culture in a cooperative direction, away from the icebergs of materialism, militantism, and competitive waste.

I also wonder if they will ever be really self supporting. I guess this is an important part of the experiment.

The overwhelming majority of established communities are self-supporting. What DR is pitching (both in support of the capital campaign to create their Green Community Center—which will include office space for FIC's headquarters—and in funding for EEUS) are outreach initiatives.

A good portion of the Community Center will be for the benefit of members, and that portion will be funded by loans that will be repaid by user fees. The donated portion will be to support DR’s education/outreach mission, which is tax deductible. In the case of EEUS, it’s definitely an attempt to get the thing off the ground and firmly established. There’s a constant dance between keeping the tuition low to attract students and keeping the tuition high to adequately compensate staff.

All of that said, I think it’s fair to hold the long-term goal that these efforts ultimately pay their own way entirely. 

VI. EEUS This Year How is Ma'ikwe making out with her training? Both her personally and the course she has planned for the summer.

Thanks for asking. She's doing pretty well these days in her battle with chronic Lyme disease. While there was a time this winter where the symptoms (muscle and joint ache, brain fog, diminished stamina) seemed to be increasing, she was able to adjust her health regimen in time to stave it off and she's doing rather well right now. (Knock on wood.)

Regarding EEUS, we did not get the enrollment we needed to do the full 37-day immersion course this summer (as we did in 2013), so we’ve switched to a number of smaller courses to help build energy:

—Laird's Greatest Hits • July 2-Aug 13
Seven two-hour webinars about cooperative group dynamics, offered every Wed afternoon. Come to one, or come to all.

—Starting an Intentional Community • July 26-Aug 1
An intensive week-long workshop with instructors Tony Sirna, Alyson Ewald, Ma'ikwe, and me—all of whom have experience starting communities.

—Encountering Climate Change • Aug 22-24
A Joanna Macy-style weekend retreat with Ma'ikwe, Alyson, Danielle Williams, and Joan Shagbark. This will focus on naming and working with despair, anger, numbness, and overwhelm related to our changing world and uncertain future.

Check here for details about this summer's offerings.

VII. Spreading the Word
I wonder if any of your other readers have had comments on my emails. If so, were they reflective, in alignment with my views, or did they feel I was totally off the wall?

I’ve (gratefully) used our correspondence as a springboard for a few blogs and will probably do more [such as I'm doing right now!]. I think your questions and observations are things many readers can relate to and it’s an excellent vehicle to amplify some points I want to make.

That said, not many people post comments. While I know that 100+ people read each blog entry and another 200 or so subscribe (which means it’s sent to them as an email), few write me. If there are comments posted on the blog site (which is open to anyone, without restrictions) then you can see them yourself.

I shared some of your Internet addresses; sandhillfarm.org, dancingrabbit.org, and ic.org; with a fellow teacher this morning, as well as showing him how to find your blog. I am curious as to what he thinks when I see him again.

Hah! Let me know. I am always interested in what my constituency (people interested in community) has to say.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Community Gone Viral?

I was handed this promotional card today, advertising a live event this summer to explore the topic of viral community via a one-day blitzkrieg in the City by the Bay. Confused? I am.

First of all, the feel of this card is high gloss techno-glitz featuring an empty stage illuminated by multicolored stage lights.  Does that say "community" to you? I don't think so. (How in the world do you think it's a clever idea to promote community through sterile images sans people? Hello?)

Second of all, what does it mean that this is an "unconference" where you're promised:
o  A participatory crash course on creating and /or improving your community.
o  Plans for creating your community for as little as $5000.
o  Knowledge of how to attain public and private partnerships with donors, collaborators, and members.
o  How to find the right location for your community.
o  Information about the policies that will make your community thrive.

If it's an unconference then the program is driven by participants. So how can you know ahead what the program will be? Hmm, I think perhaps this is a zen koan conference.

Third of all, I think starting and growing successful communities is an art form, not a speed dating event. How in the heck can you claim to give people the skills they'll need a la vaccination shots and take their money with a straight face? I'm shaking my head.

Community is mainly a social challenge, not a let's-line-up-the-resources-and-make-then-dance-like-Rockettes challenge. Neither is community a poetry slam, where you score big on originality, chutzpah, and style points; it's more of an orchestral performance, where the payoff comes from practice, teamwork, and attention to detail.

To be fair, I have resonance with the notion that interest in community is growing fast, but that doesn't mean you can treat it like fast food. Successful communities are built on successful relationships, and successful relationships are not something you pick up at the store, like African violets, take home, put in the window sill, and just add water.

Maybe it's flattering that community is popular to the point that it's drawing the attention of urban hypesters, but something strikes me as seriously off about this event. I know today is Easter, but this does not seem to me to be the second coming of community.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they'll pack 'em in July 5 and everyone will go home happier and wiser about how to manifest more community in their life. Maybe the unconference will unblock the secrets of community. I'll be keeping an eye on this viral phenomenon to see how far it spreads.