Saturday, January 31, 2015

Homes for Community Veterans, Part II

About a week ago I got an email from an old friend wanting advice about where she might look for a community as she approaches her golden years (actually, in terms of hair, it'll be more like her silver years). She spent more than a decade in community in her 20s and 30s and now wants to return to it as she contemplates retirement. 

This is not the first time I've fielded such a request—people deeply familiar with community wanting to return after a long absence—nor do I expect it to be the last. Yet it's challenging to provide a satisfactory answer.

Back in October 2013 I posted Homes for Community Veterans where I explored why it often doesn't work for experienced community folks to return to community after many years away. In this revisiting of the topic I want to take a more optimistic slant and focus on how it's possible—though not necessarily easy—to return.

For the most part these folks are remembering the connections and stimulation of their community experience—not the chaos and stultifying group dynamics. Often people leave in frustration, to pursue a business opportunity, a personal growth path, or perhaps a romantic relationship that was judged to be non-viable in the hot house scrutiny of community. Often they crave the entrepreneurial freedom to set their own course without justifying it to a risk-averse committee that controls access to community resources.

I'm talking about competent people who look around and see that they're alone too much of the time and hanker for a life that again emphasizes companionship with like-valued friends (around whom they don't have to worry about wearing a shirt with a hole in the sleeve).

These are more or less successful people who realize, as they reflect, that they've come to miss the laughter, the dinnertime conversation, and the satisfaction of an everyday life that more closely aligns with one's values. 

That said, how suitable are they for community living today? While they may have gotten wiser over the years, are they more patient; are they more accepting?

They want, naturally, a group that's socially mature (who wouldn't?). Part of that is how well people listen to each other; how readily they find an elegant balance point between values in dynamic tension (say, ecological purity versus affordability); have they learned to be less reactive (or at least less mired in it)? But it turns out to be more subtle than that; "social maturity" in others is actually a code phrase for "people seeing things my way." People may miss authenticity or even vigorous debate, but no one longs to have their viewpoints seriously challenged at home.

To be sure, people age differently. Some get more expansive, which can lead to being easier to get along with and more valued for their balanced perspectives. Some get more contractive, which can translate into increased feistiness and diminished tolerance—neither of which are traits that groups are particularly seeking. You may have gained wisdom over the years but don't count on age automatically translating into being sought out as a mentor.

If you want to be a player again—if you aspire to be recognized as a wandering sage returning from the wilderness—you'll have to earn it, just like a twentysomething does. But if your desires are more modest, and you just want a home—an island of sanity and comfort in a world that's sold its soul to Walmart, Whole Foods, and reruns of Friends—you have a better chance.

If you're pickier now than when you left community, you're likely to encounter friction wherever you go, and living alone may offer a buffer you didn't realize that you (and those dear to you) have come to rely on in order to maintain peace and sanity. If, on the other hand, you're more accepting and have an LTD (low threshold of delight) then there's hope. Three-year-olds are not quieter now than they were 30 years ago, and adults still leave tools out in the rain and blow off work days. Do you have a suspension system now that allows you to bounce graciously over those Utopian potholes, or will you be grinding your teeth at night trying to cope with the other people's thoughtlessness?

It isn't just a question of whether community is good for you. Are you—the person you are today—good for community? You need an affirmative answer to both questions to have a decent chance for a triumphant return.

My wife, Ma'ikwe, is found of saying that community would be easy… if it weren't for the damn people. It's something to think about.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

To Be Young and 34

On Tuesday my son, Ceilee, turned 34.

I recall being told back in the '70s, by the older brother of a college friend, that the ancient Greeks considered the prime of life to be 34 (which just happened to be that guy's age at the time). Who knows, maybe it's true. In any event, I hope it's an auspicious year for my son.

Thinking back to when I was 34, a special memory from that year (besides being iconic for George Orwell fans) was my going on a major summer adventure, principally to visit a college friend, Peg Kehrer, (different than the one above) and her partner, Paul Otte, in Juneau AK.

My odyssey began with a short train trip from La Plata MO to Kansas City, where I spent the night with Everette Wright, a good friend of Sandhill's. In the morning, Everette dropped me off at the driveaway place where I'd arranged to take a Datsun Maxima (1984 was the last year before everything became Nissan) from Kansas City to the suburbs of Seattle.

En route, I stopped by a monument in central Kansas that claimed to be the geographic center of the continental US (which means that if all the land comprising the 48 states were of equal density you could balance the whole of it on the top of the monument and it wouldn't tip in any direction). Kind of an odd thing to erect a monument to, but I can get into geeky math stuff on occasion.

The next day, in the sparsely populated Sandhills of western Nebraska I witnessed a mile-long fully loaded coal train chugging south… only to encounter another fully loaded coal train headed north two hours later. (Do these people talk to each other?)

I stopped by Devil's Tower National Monument (Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind made a big impression on me in 1977), Mount Rushmore, and Yellowstone National Park (where I loved all the geysers and brine shrimp). After a weekend visiting Nancy Shrader (the sister of my partner and Sandhill co-founder, Annie) and her family in Missoula MT, I pressed west across Idaho (where I paused in picturesque Coeur D'Alene long enough to enjoy a serving of apple pie with chocolate ice cream—something I'd always wanted to do after reading about Clancy Sigal doing it in his 1962 road trip cum political memoir Going Away).

In the final leg I drove across the Palouse, visited the Grand Coulee Dam (think Woody Guthrie: Your power is turning our darkness to dawn, so roll on Columbia, roll on)—which I learned is still shedding heat from all the concrete pouring in the '30s and '40s—and sampled aplet (apple/walnut) and cotlet (apricot/walnut) confections in Wenatchee.

After turning in my wheels in the home of this year's defending Super Bowl champions, I spent the night on a park bench in downtown Seattle, and caught the morning sailing of the Princess Marguerite to Victoria BC. After a day of gawking at all the boutiques in that tourist town (where I scored a terrific deal on a used 105 mm Pentax telephoto lens), I caught a bus the next day that took me all the way up the east side of Vancouver Island and deposited me at Port Hardy, just in time to catch the once-a-week BC ferry headed for Juneau, via Prince Rupert, Wrangell, Ketchikan, and Petersburg. The best part was witnessing humpback whales skyhopping at dawn in Frederick Sound. Wow.

I had a lovely visit with Peg & Paul in Juneau, the only state capital inaccessible by car. Highlights included:

o  Hiking up Mount Roberts, just above Juneau. From the summit you can look west over the archipelago of a temperate rain forest. Turning 180-degrees in place you see an alpine desert, replete with marmots that will steal your lunch if you turn your back.

o  Noodling around the Mendenhall Glacier north of town. It was incredible witnessing color shifts in the blue and purple range when peering into deep crevasses.

o  Witnesses a salmon die-off at the end of their spawning run (the bald eagles were so thick that it was impossible to conceive of them as an endangered species).

o  Enjoying the gustatory pleasure of beer-battered halibut, which allowed me to grok why Alaskans consider that gargantuan bottom feeder a superior delicacy to salmon.

o  Exploring the ruins of the Treadwell mine on nearby Douglas Island—once the largest hard rock gold mine in the world, from which over 3 million ounces were extracted during 1881-1922. I managed to come away with a souvenir valve handle (suitably rusted) that we welded onto the air control of our blacksmithing forge back home at Sandhill.

o  A side trip to Tenakee Springs (on Chichagof Island, about 60 ferry miles west of Juneau), where there is only one street, four-feet wide, and no cars. In the center of town is a natural, sulfurous hot springs that alternates between men's and women's in two-hour intervals around the clock.

o  A solo ocean canoe trip between Hoonah and Tenakee Springs (in and around Chichagof). I did about 50 miles in two days. The sobering part was waking up the second day and finding the canoe right-side up and full of water. After two decades of lake and river canoeing in northern Minnesota and interior Canada, I had neglected to take into account the tide. In freshwater canoeing, the waterline stays put overnight; in salt water it doesn't. Having gone to sleep at low tide, I was damn lucky that high tide was only enough to flip my canoe over and not float it away. Whew.

When it was time to head home I advertised in the paper for a ride to the Midwest and caught gold. A person answered that he was driving his pickup straight through to within 10 miles of my sister's place in the suburbs of Chicago, and would be happy with a co-driver who would spring for half the gas. Hot damn! We rendezvoused on the ferry to Prince Rupert and off we went. Stopping only for gas, food, and bathroom breaks we covered 3000 miles in 60 hours. While one drove, the other slept. Though the pickup was equipped with off-road suspension (read bumpy), at a certain point you get tired enough that you can sleep in any conditions.

After a much-needed night of sleep in a bed that wasn't moving, I took the train home. My enduring image of that first day back was getting reacquainted with my three-year-old son. We went for a walk around the farm together and I still have the photo of him buck naked, trying to smell the big face of an eastern drooping sunflower head, growing on the edge of the north garden.

All in all, it was a fine highlight to a perfect year.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Money in Community

With today's entry I'm plowing new ground: for the first time, I'm posting an essay written by a guest author. In this case, Beth Raps, who lives in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia where she operates her business, Raising Clarity: to cultivate abundance in noble causes, people, and organizations.

I first met Beth last October in the context of FIC's search for a new Development Director, which she has been helping us think about more clearly.

As both of us have an abiding interest in sustainable economics, we've been in dialog about right relationship to money, and this essay is the fruit of that conversation. I hope you enjoy it half as much as Beth and I did crafting it.

• • •
I think about money a lot. As a fundraising consultant with groups and a money coach with individuals, I help people have more of it, in order to help myself have more of it.

Here's how I got there: I started with the intention of wanting more money flowing in my life. Then I researched until I found a spiritual way to accomplish that. In Creating Affluence, Deepak Chopra wrote:

Helping others make money and helping other people to fulfill their desires is a sure way to ensure you'll make money for yourself as well as more easily fulfill your dreams.

Like most, I had trouble accepting this at first. I was conditioned to believe that there are many obstacles to financial abundance. Scarcity and hoarding were part of my upbringing. It took me a long time to be at peace with even investigating this dubious legacy.

When I scratched below the surface of scarcity and hoarding, I found fear. As such, it is something we detest about money (and capitalism), and one of the reasons we create and join communities that are conscious attempts to move away from the competitiveness of capitalism and toward a more cooperative culture. In community, we intentionally interpose a protective, caring layer between the capitalist economy and isolated individuals.

In my search for something that would work better, I discovered that the Universe will pretty much support any belief. Thus, I sought one that would work for me. Along the way I learned the power of working inwardly (on my own conditioning about money) and at the same time working outwardly (with others' beliefs). Gradually, this purposeful shift got embodied in my experience—to the point where it gets easier and feels more natural all the time. This brought me to where I am today: experiencing money as flow.

But fear is present even then. It can be scary both when the outflow exceeds the inflow (which is not sustainable over time) and when the inflow exceeds the outflow (from whence the phrase "embarrassment of riches").

Money is never sitting still—it is always affirming some value. Too often, we let fear become that value. Then we run away from our fear into ideology, community, or self-chosen poverty. None of these choices lead to taking charge of the money we have, or making decisions with money that affirm our values. The rest of this post explores a few ways to begin doing that.
• • •
Taking charge of money and shifting what value we give it does not depend on the amount we have. What matters is how we take charge of the money we have.

Each community has core values. These values are affirmed or negated by the group's choices, including choices about money. While money is not strictly necessary (communities could emphasize self-sufficiency and barter), as a practical matter communities use money because it facilitates fair exchange and provides access to goods and services beyond our ability to manifest or manufacture ourselves.

I invite all of us to become more conscious about the values we're expressing with how we use our money. What are we doing with it? How does it come in? How does it go out? What values would we like it to affirm?

Drilling down, I invite groups to look closely at their answers to these baseline questions:

•  What do you pay for?

•  What don't you pay for?

•  How much do you pay for what?

      •  Explore distinctions you make using money. Are these consciously chosen? Acknowledged by the community? Culturally imposed? Are there ways around those that are culturally imposed—for example, valuing lawyering more than trash collection or early childhood education—that the community can challenge and ultimately shift?

•  What do you receive money for and what do you trade for or give away?

      •  Look to see if what you give away has value you don't mean to be so free about.

•  What do you give (donate), to whom, where, and why (the amount is less important than the intention)?

•  What do you invest, how, where, and with what intention?

      •  Do you have an endowment?

      •  What special funds have you created, and for what purposes?

Notice that these questions all pertain even if money is taken out of the equation and you're trading cheese for shoes, or investing in the community's future by cultivating a wood lot.
• • •
I tell clients that if they show me their annual budget (income and expenses) I can tell them what their mission or purpose is.

We have the chance to use money responsibly and in alignment with our spiritual, moral, ethical, and energetic compasses. Our challenge is to make those choices consciously.

I believe, ultimately, that none of our resources belong to us or come from us (which is why I like to view money as flow rather than as an amount). Jane Jacobs, in The Nature of Economies, correctly sources nature as the origin of all resources, and I recommend her book as a perfect place for communities to start seriously exploring these questions. Jacobs offers a beautiful thought experiment through the vehicle of a dinner party among intelligent, kindly friends who disagree on the real-world implications of the choices they make. The book is both poetic and engaging, and I commend it as an entrée to nourishing conversations about money. 

Bon appétit!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Saying No

It's one thing to respond negatively when offered illegal drugs. But just saying "no" isn't so simple when setting limits for what you'll tolerate.

In cooperative culture, establishing boundaries can be tricky. While this has a personal version (where a friend asks a favor) and a group version (where a member asks for group support or permission), I'm going to focus on the latter as the case that's more interesting (read complicated).

In the community that I helped start and lived in for 39 years (Sandhill Farm) we worked hard to say "yes" to any member request—while at the same time cultivated a norm that members use discernment in what they asked for relative to community resources. In consequence, we rarely fielded special requests and we rarely said "no." While this worked fairly well, it's hard for most people to turn down requests from people they care about (don't you love me?), and people are not uniformly shy about asking for what they want—notice I said "want"; not "need."

When people don't ask, the effective answer is always "no." Still, people hesitate to ask for what they want for any number of reasons:

o  Because they're unsure of their standing in the group (do they have enough social capital?).

o  Because they don't think they deserve it.

o  Because they don't want to be perceived as needy or selfish.

o  Because they may want to "save up" for a larger request later.

o  Because they don't want to place their fellow group members in the awkward position of anguishing over whether to say "no." 

Sometimes non-asking leads to people feeling as if they're earning psychic credit that can carry over and be applied to future requests (you should say "yes" because of all the past times I didn't asked for anything). As this accounting happens entirely inside the person's head and is invisible to others, it can lead to some spectacularly awkward dynamics.

What about folks who work hard to understand and internalize the group's standard of living and make few requests? Are they being punished for this relative to members who make few adjustments in what they ask for and wind up getting more of their requests granted simply because they have a thicker skin and can pump out requests guilt-free?

This begs the question, what is your group trying to equalize when evaluating requests?
—Percentage of requests granted per member
—Amount of group resources devoted to personal pleasure
—Degree of privation (all should suffer equally)

It doesn't take rocket science to see where applying different screens may lead to different results—all while presumably paying homage to the blind deity of Fairness. Has your group discussed this? Most haven't. They just bump along in the dark and hope for the best.

When you sift through this, I believe the safest harbor to steer toward has the following four features:

Step 1. Asking members to screen all requests for what they think the group should reasonably support regardless of who makes the request. Note: this standard implies an answer to how much group resources should be held in reserve for contingencies—which is a delicate issue in and of itself.

Step 2. Encouraging members to bring forward all requests that meet the above test (flattening cultural differences about stoicism or deferred gratification, and extinguishing phantom social credits for non-requests).

Step 3. Discussing and determining what the group is trying to equalize when treating member requests "fairly."

Step 4. Developing a culture in which there's minimal judgment about giving or receiving a negative response, so long as it's aligned with your answer to Step 3.

Done well, I think this strategy gives groups a decent chance of being in the know whenever they decide its best to say "no."

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Defining Aggression

In cooperative culture, being aggressive is pretty much a universal clear no-no. Unfortunately, it's not necessarily clear where demonstrative behavior crosses the line into aggressive behavior, and this ambiguity can be tough to navigate with sure footing.

Here's a representative dictionary definition of aggression:
hostile attitude or behavior: threatening behavior or actions

The challenge with adjectives such as "hostile" and "threatening" is interpreting intent. It is not at all unusual for someone to receive words or actions differently than they were intended, and nowhere is that more likely than when it comes to negativity.

Let's suppose you are part of a cooperative group that has explicitly said it wants to embrace diversity (supporting each member to be their authentic self) and has established that aggressive behavior is unacceptable.

Let's further suppose that you have two people in your group named Kim and Jesse, and that Kim is a passionate ball of energy with lots of ideas and spontaneity, while Jesse tends to be reserved, thoughtful, and soft-spoken. While both are valued members of the group their styles and personalities are quite different. Suppose Kim speaks frequently in meetings, and Jesse not so much.

It doesn't take a great imagination to see how Kim's normal form of engagement may swamp Jesse's boat. When Kim gets energized, it will be tempting for Jesse to observe, "If I acted that way it would mean I was very upset; if that's true for Kim I'm under attack."

At its worst, Jesse may project upset onto Kim that simply isn't there. But even if Jesse is aware of that trap and refrains from projecting, the playing field is left unsafe for Jesse because it's unnatural and awkward to have to raise one's voice and barge into a fast-paced dialog to be heard. What's comforting and exciting for Kim may be aggressive and chaotic for Jesse.

Given that the group has promised to be non-aggressive, you can appreciate that Jesse may feel betrayed when it allows Kim to set the tone of meetings. Going the other, if meetings typically proceed only at the more deliberate pace that Jesse favors, Kim may feel betrayed by the promise to support members being their authentic selves. Uh oh.

The range of preferences I've described above can arise from a number of differences (while it's not hard to find counterexamples to the stereotypical tendencies I'm describing below, the tendencies still have validity):

o  Family of origin: Northern European stock tends to produce Jesses; Southern European stock tends to produce Kims.

o  Class: Blue collar culture tends to manifest Kims; white collar tends to manifest Jesses.

o  Gender: Men tend to be Kim-like; women tend to be Jesse-like.

Added to this multicultural stew is the likelihood that some members of the group may not be in touch with their feelings—aggressive or otherwise—and thus may deny, when asked, if their statements or actions are aggressive when they actually are. It can be a real train wreck.

What Can You Do?
Here are some ideas about what might help your group navigate this challenging dynamic—without jettisoning agreements about aggression:

1. Normalize the expression of feelings 
Aggression tends to be linked with upset or distress, and many groups struggle with how to work with upset constructively when it enters the room. While it's admittedly a challenge to develop group capacity to work with feelings, I think it's essential that we do. Not dealing with emotions doesn't work well at all (leading to denial, suppression, distortion, and volcanic eruptions when they can no longer be contained).

The hope is that by welcoming the expression of anger, hurt, and fear, these primal human responses can be uncoupled from aggression, and not so scary.

2. Get in habit of asking if people are upset if you perceive them to be
This will work best if it's an explicit group norm—not to put someone in the penalty box, but to better understand what's going on and help them move through it. Emotional distress is both a source of information and energy. Learn how to tap into it—not banish it to the dog house.

3. Offer a range of formats for engaging on topics 
Once you digest that what works well for Jesse is not the same as what works well for Kim, it's only a small additional step to intentionally offering variety in the ways that the group engages on topics. The goal here is to accommodate the range you have in family of origin, class, and gender among the membership such that everyone gets something they're comfortable with some of the time. That should work much better than some segments of the group constantly feeling stifled or unsafe.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Group Works: Transparency

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:

1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The tenth and final pattern in this segment is labeled Transparency. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 

Be open about what's real: feelings, experiences, how decisions get made, finances, and more. Transparency arises from a belief that the free flow of information and taking action in direct and honest ways best serves group needs. Handled well, openness nurtures trust, collaboration, and authentic community.

The basic principle here is straight forward: let all stakeholders know what's going on. Think of it as a corollary of the Golden Rule: share information with others as you would have them share information with you.

Still, there are nuances.

A.  Transparency in Integrating New Members
How thoroughly do you integrate new members, especially about how the group functions?

How easily are new folks brought up to speed about how decisions are made, how proposals get generated, what factors were considered when this topic was previously addressed? 

When the group's process is mysterious (or opaque), it delays integration and reinforces the power gradient between old-timers and newbies—which is likely the opposite of what you say you're trying to do.

B.  Project Transparency
If the group is not diligent about establishing expectations for reporting (to whom, how, with what frequency, and with what level of detail), it can lead to group members not knowing what's going on if they don't happen to be on the project team. While this may not be a problem per se (that is, the project may be proceeding well), it tends to erode a sense of ownership in the project, which can bite you in the butt if difficulties emerge with the project and non-team members had no inkling that this was coming..

C.  Transparency and Bad News
While sharing information is a valuable principle, it turns out that some information is more valuable than others. In particular, it's more important that bad news be shared widely and promptly than good. Let me explain. 

Suppose you have a project that depends on garnering $10,000 in donations to proceed. If you don't learn until two months after the fact that your fundraising campaign actually netted $12,000, nobody's nose is likely to get bent out of joint. On the other hand, if it turns out that your major campaign only generated $2,000 and you didn't hear about it until two months later, there is likely to be a number of unhappy campers—both about the shortfall (jeopardizing the viability of the project) and about the time lag in learning about it. It's pretty hard to solve problems you don't know exist.

There is an understandable tendency to delay the dissemination of bad news (in the hopes that some counterbalancing good news may soften the blow), but this is very risky. When the group eventually finds out about the bad news (and it will), your problem is likely to be compounded: a) the original problem; plus b) the erosion of trust. Not good.

D.  Transparency and Minutia  
Going the other way, sharing information can be taken too far. How much detail is needed; at what point is the volume of reporting obfuscating (where the wheat is lost amidst the chaff; where the signal is drowned in the noise)? 

While the most common way that groups struggle with transparency is not sharing information enough, there can also be trouble if that info is not displayed clearly or the essence is buried amidst mind-numbing minutia. Thus, it's not enough to have regular reports; those reports need to be cogently crafted to make the main points clear.

E.  Honesty as a Weapon  
Finally, it's important to understand that stories can be told in multiple ways, and that sometimes sharing information can be more damaging than trust-building; more embarrassing than illuminating. 

For example, let's go back to the fundraising example I introduced in point C above—the version where the campaign falls short of its goal and creates a shortfall in the budget. Let's further suppose that the group's website was malfunctioning for three crucial days toward the end of their Kickstarter campaign and would-be donors were unable to contribute online. 

In reporting the disappointing news, the essential information is that the fundraising campaign missed its target. It might be interesting—though tangential—to add that the website malfunction probably hurt the campaign and that efforts are underway to ensure that such a thing doesn't happen again. However, sometimes you see reports that go further and actually blame the poor results of the campaign on the website crew (even though it was unlikely that the Kickstarter yield would have been five times higher if the website had been functioning perfectly).

By throwing the website crew under the bus, the fundraising team might be hoping to deflect blame from themselves for what happened, but at a dubious cost. Calling out the web team will almost certainly strain relations between them, to the point where it will be hard for those teams to partner again and have it go well.

Better, I think, is that groups hold themselves to a standard of transparency that's a balance of disclosure and discretion. Tell people what they need to know, yet try to be sensitive to how sharing information can damage relationships, instead of enhance them.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Acceptable Risk

In any typical group (let's say with a dozen or more members) it's nearly a lead pipe cinch that you'll have a spectrum of attitudes toward taking chances. That is, you will have some members who are risk tolerant and others who are risk averse. The challenge is recognizing this (without name calling) and figuring out a way that both sides can play nice together.

This is hard because the folks at each end of the spectrum tend to view those at the other end as their worst nightmare. If you're risk tolerant, the risk averse keep gumming up the works with hand wringing and doomsday predictions. If you're risk averse, then the risk tolerant are always inviting you into propositions that feel unsafe. It can be exhausting,

If you accept, in concept, that all risks are not appropriate to take, yet neither is it wise to take no risks, how do you navigate this dynamic? How does a group determine acceptable risk?

Here are key questions:

1. Do all parties feel heard?
This is foundational, and can often be trickier than it appears. In essence, it's making sure that each player—especially those on the other end of the risk spectrum—report being satisfied that their input has been accurately heard. Note that this is more than being able to parrot back the words—it's also understanding what the words means to the speaker.

It's common to stumble here when the listener thinks they've heard the speaker, but has neglected to affirm that with the speaker. Even when the listener is correct (about having fully heard the speaker), things don't proceed smoothly when the speaker has no confidence that they've heard.

Worse, if this is a familiar dynamic (say where a risk tolerant listener is hearing the same old song from a risk averse speaker), there's a marked tendency to close one's ears after the first few bars—because it sounds so familiar—prematurely closing off the possibility of taking in nuances that are different this time. Hint: eye rolling does not help here.

2. Does the proposal address the concerns that have been raised; does it recognize the opportunities?
There is a much greater chance of successfully bridging the two ends of the risk spectrum if the proposal does a fair job of specifically addressing reservations surfaced by the risk averse. Obviously that means those reservations need to have been solicited and accurately taken in.

Going the other way, if the risk averse insist on placing a governor on operations proposed by the risk tolerant, does that suck all the air out of the balloon? Are there too many restrictions or so much red tape that there's no flavor left in the broth? If addressing concerns is tantamount to shackling or emasculating the initiative, it can be the same as a death sentence.

People need some room to experiment and test new ideas, just as much as they need to feel that risks are within bounds. In short, there needs to be something for everyone.

3. Does everything have to go well in order to succeed, or is there room for some setbacks without sinking the ship?
If there are several components to the proposal, does it require that each one be successful for the entire proposal to succeed, or is there wiggle room such that a few may fall short and there's enough resilience that the main objective can still be met?

Suppose there are six components to the proposal, and that you can reasonably project a low, average, and high outcome for each one. If the only pathway to overall success requires that you achieve high outcomes for all six components, then success is wildly improbable. One the other, if you can succeed by achieving only average outcomes for all six components, then you might reasonably argue that low outcomes in some areas may be compensated for by high outcomes elsewhere.

4. Do you have the personnel to execute and manage the initiative?
Even if the group buys the general concept, there may be questions about whether your group possesses the skill necessary to execute and manage the project. Or, even if you have the internal capacity, the key people may not have sufficient interest or availability to devote to the project. If so, do you have financial wherewithal to hire this work out?

Caution: If there are a number of key roles being assigned to people inexperienced with what the project requires, have you budgeted for fool's tax—taking into account the likelihood that first-timers will make more mistakes and take longer to complete tasks than veterans?

5. Is there an adequate commitment to transparency? 
Sometimes groups make the mistake of limiting (or not making explicit the expectations for) access to information about the project—especially bad news, like cost overruns—for fear that it may mire the group into grueling conversations about whether to scuttle the project, or that the time it will take the project team to explain how best to interpret the news is better spent on doing the project, rather than defending it. There is considerable danger though in delaying the release of this information. It's rolling the dice. 

If some corresponding good news does not surface before this bad news comes to light, you will then have two problems instead of one: a) examining whether or not to continue the project given the impact of the bad news; and b) dealing with the erosion of trust that will surely follow from the discovery of the cover-up.

In almost all cases, it's a better policy to see that the whole group is regularly informed of developments, especially if the news is bad. In fact, standards for frequency and what detail will be covered in reports should automatically be addressed at the point that the project is approved. This is in everyone's best interest.

6. How much does success depend on successfully navigating virgin territory?
There is inherently more risk in a project that has no parallel in the group's history, or occurs on a  scale that dwarfs what has gone before. It's harder to know that you've done enough research; it's hard to know how sound your estimates are; it's hard to assess whether you possess adequate internal skill to carry it off.

I'm not saying this adds up to never attempting things you haven't done before; rather, I'm saying that the unknown increases risks and that this needs to be taken into account.

7. How do potential gains stack up against potential losses?
If you've done something approximating the above it should be possible to place all the risks in one column and all the potential benefits in another. How does it look?

Unfortunately, I can't promise that this will be a magic moment. That is, the risk tolerant may look at this chart and see a green light, while the risk averse may be seeing red. Even when everyone agrees on what the data is, that doesn't guarantee that the data will be interpreted similarly. Some, for example, simply require a greater contingency fund in order breathe normally.

At the least though, you'll be discussing this as the sum of measurable parts, instead of on the basis of prove-that-you-love-me-and-just-say-yes gut checks. Hopefully, a (well-researched) chart will provide you with opportunities to test claims for favorable outcomes of discrete components (such as fundraising) before you're irrevocably committed to the whole megillah.
 • • •
To be sure, navigating risk is tricky, but it can be done. In fact, it has to be done, and done in such a way that everyone feels their input has been incorporated in a balanced response. It helps me to remember that when people disagree with me in a cooperative setting that we get the opportunity to produce hybrid vigor (rather than vigorous rancor). It also helps me remember that we all want success for the group, and that were all on the same team—even if some people wear glasses that have more rose-tinted lenses than others.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Riding the Energy Rollercoaster

This past Wednesday I was able to buy six gallons of regular gasoline for less than $10. I was gobsmacked.

For years now I've mostly been hoping to see prices at the pump begin with the number two instead of three, but for some reason there must be a glut right now. On top of that, Missouri and Oklahoma lead the nation in low gas prices. While I get it that Oklahoma is an oil producing state, why Missouri—especially northeast MO, which is the corner of the state that's most removed from OK oil wells? It's a mystery.

To be sure, I don't drive much these days (the last time I bought gas was Thanksgiving) so this precipitous decline caught me completely off guard. While the pumps in Kirksville MO (my destination Wed evening) were offering regular at $1.92/gallon, I was able to further press my advantage by doing some food shopping at the local HyVee, which offers gas discounts based on what you buy. My grocery purchases that evening resulted in a further discount of 32 cents per gallon, bringing my actual price per gallon down to $1.60. It was like winning the lottery.

While happy about my good fortune, I have mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, I love benefiting from a bargain, and I'm pleased that drops in the price of crude oil are being passed along to consumers (rather than resulting in windfall profits for gas refineries).

On the other, it's crazy that gas is this cheap. I figure lower prices now presage higher costs tomorrow, resulting in amplified peaks and valleys—all of which make it harder to budget and give us false hope about oil reserves relative to energy consumption.

I believe we desperately need to be on a diet—especially in the energy profligate US—and it's hard to make headway when we experience these enticing troughs of cheap gas, encouraging us to put our collective heads back into the sand (and I don't mean tar sand). We need to learn to drive less, ride share more, and buy cars that get better mileage. Cheap gas undercuts the momentum to support these lifestyle changes.

Transportation costs have a profound impact on markets. When gas prices are low, it's easier for distant manufacturers to compete locally (giving an advantage to both bigness and wage differential). When gas costs are higher—which is surely our future—then there's an advantage to locally produced goods (which are shipped shorter distances) and you can pay better wages without losing market share. So higher gas prices tend to help locally owned businesses that produce goods, as well as companies whose services must be delivered live as opposed to digitally or virtually.

In addition, stronger local businesses are directly linked to greater resilience when buffeted by the vagaries of economic booms and busts, because neighbors are the bread and butter market for local businesses and that personal link is broken (or at least compromised) when corporate headquarters are several states distant and are managed by faceless executives for whom you are consumers, not people.

So bring on the higher gas prices! At the least we might go as high as Europe, where prices average 2.3 times what we pay in the US—not because crude oil is any more expensive there, but because they tax it that much more to encourage conservation of a dwindling resource. To be sure, I get it why it's politically expedient to suppress taxes and that politicians tend to be notoriously short-sighted (seeing no further than the next election), but how prudent can it be accelerating into a brick wall?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Feminism in Community

I was recently in a discussion at home where about eight of us were shining our collective light on the topic of feminism. While there was ready agreement that Dancing Rabbit aspired to be a feminist community, it wasn't so easy defining what that meant, and even some resistance to making the attempt.

Actually some parts were easy. We want the community to be a place where:
a)  Objectifying, sexist humor is discouraged.
b)  Opportunities for members are not limited by gender or sexual orientation.
c)  It's encouraged to call out sexist statements or behaviors when you encountered them.

Less solidly—though probably strongly supported, at least as a near-term strategy—it's a place where:
d)  We're willing to selectively practice reverse discrimination in a thoughtful (as opposed to knee-jerk) attempt to level the playing field for the discrimination that women typically encounter relative to men in the mainstream (such as glass ceilings, or unequal pay for equal work).

Thinking more broadly, to me it means a place where:
e)  We purposefully create and nurture cooperative (relational) culture, in contrast with competitive (adversarial) culture. 
f)  The ultimate aim is gender blind engagement.

When it comes down to what we've actually created and support, it gets complicated. While I think there would be wide acceptance with the general notion that we do not intend a commitment to feminism to translate into pro-women attitudes (as in women being favored over men as policy), in reality we tolerate—even celebrate— a degree of assertiveness in women that would be labeled aggressive and intimidating if done by a man. This is an example of support for d) above, and is, in my observation, so pervasive in community culture (not just DR culture) that women tend to fill a majority of leadership positions (because they're given more latitude to do their jobs).

Mind you, I'm not saying good or bad; I'm just calling it the way I see it.

My sense is that in the mainstream culture girls tend to be conditioned to be more relational and boys conditioned to be more problem solvers. Yes, I'm shamelessly stereotyping and it's easy to think of counterexamples, but this difference is significant. In the mainstream culture, problem solving tends to be more revered (and paid better) than relationship building. In cooperative culture though, both qualities are deemed valuable, and what women bring to the table tends to be every bit as honored—so long as it's functional. That is, if a person can prove themselves to be reasonably competent then communitarians don't care what their gender is, and communities are more likely to be gender blind when making manager assignments.

(When I think back over my 27 years as a process consultant, and all the challenging folks I've wrestled with in group settings, I don't see a pattern of one gender being more difficult than another. That is, women, men and queers are equally likely to be jerks and no one gender monopolizes assholery.)

Where It Gets Hard
One of the (mostly) hidden aspects of this consideration is whether the people comprising feminist-identified groups are willing to do the personal work needed to understand their own conditioning, which tends to operate below the level of consciousness. That is, the fact that you don't think of yourself as gender discriminating has only a casual relationship to whether you are. This is going to be especially true of men—the segment of mainstream society that is the beneficiary of most gender discrimination. The haves are far more likely to be oblivious to their advantages than the have-nots. 

Thus, women (as well as those who identify as LGBTQ) tend to be significantly more sensitive to gender discrimination than men, and it can be delicate work sorting out what's happening when the group seems to respond much more enthusiastically to something said by a man than to a similar suggestion made earlier by a woman.

•  How much is this unconscious gender discrimination?
•  How much are women projecting gender discrimination when there's resistance to their ideas (perhaps because at the point that the woman spoke the group was not ready to come to agreement; perhaps because the two statements were similar, yet different in crucial ways)?•  How much of this is the group simply coming to agreement at its own pace and the fact that a man spoke last isn't significant (the last speaker is going to have a gender, but that doesn't mean that's significant)?

This is very murky territory, where the observations of any party can be discounted as biased. All can have a piece of the truth; some can be off base.

I think the most hopeful thing to strive for is an atmosphere where you can hit the pause button and frankly discuss the dynamics—where everyone gets a chance to weigh in. If it's dangerous to bring this out in the open, it'll be damn hard to get to the deeper levels of gender dynamics—making it that much harder to establish a solid foundation for feminist culture, however you define it.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Mildred Gordon Crosses the Bar at 92

Sunset and evening star,
         And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
         When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
         Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
         Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
         And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
         When I embark;

For though from out our borne of Time and Place
         The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
         When I have crossed the bar.

                 —Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1889

Mildred Gordon died peacefully in her sleep this morning, surrounded by family and friends at Ganas, the community she helped found on Staten Island in 1979.

I knew Mildred for about 30 years. We first met in the mid-'80s when she and others from Ganas came down to Twin Oaks to participate in a Federation of Egalitarian Communities assembly, to explore what other income-sharing communities were doing and the extent to which it made sense to make common cause.

While it would have been enough that we were friends for 30 years and both founders of income-sharing communities, I'm taking this time to eulogize Mildred because she was also a teacher and mentor to me in the field of group dynamics, and she counseled me through some poignant, difficult times. I recall three in particular:

a) When Elke and I broke up in 1989, she wound up moving at Ganas with our two-year-old daughter, Jo. Mildred, and others at Ganas, worked hard to help Elke see that there was no good thing to be gained by vilifying me and wrapping herself in victim's raiment. Thus, in a period of months, Elke was able to move through her grieving the loss of our intimate partnership and start to rebuild her life based on the positive things in her life—the things she had control over. In addition to making it far easier to be friends (instead of estranged lovers), this helped enormously for me to continue being an active father for my daughter—which has been precious to me—and for Elke and I to co-parent without ever using our daughter as a football. That was huge.

b) It happened that I was visiting Ganas when my father died unexpectedly of a heart attack in November, 1989. While plans were settling for the family to gather in South Carolina for the funeral, Mildred spent a lot of time with me one-on-one getting me to explore my feelings and whatever came up. It was the first time I had ever lost someone that close to me and I had no idea about grieving. Luckily, Mildred did. 

She knew I needed to talk, and the initial sorting I did with her (along with the reflective time I had taking Amtrak's Silver Meteor from New York City to Yemassee SC) enabled me to be clear enough to request a special, two-hour conversation with my mother and siblings, where we started to unpack the volatile and conflicted feelings we had toward Dad, taking advantage of the vulnerability and spaciousness unique to loss. 

This was, to be sure, something we'd never done before as a family, and it was a watershed experience for me in terms of how I related to family members from then on. Looking back, it's doubtful that I would have had it together to have made the request without all the work Mildred did with me in the first 36 hours after learning of my father's death.

c) I was visiting Ganas at some point in the mid-90s, when I had an important facilitation gig lined up, working with a sister community where I knew I'd be called upon to labor with a friend about founder dynamics. My challenge was how to get the issue authentically out in the open without it coming across as an ambush.

One magical evening I was visiting Mildred up in her room and we decided to role play the dynamic, where Mildred was me and I was my friend. For about an hour we had this freewheeling conversation where I got into being my friend and voicing how I expected her to respond.

This experience turned out to be terrifically insightful. Based on that preparation, when it came time to actually do the work I was able to establish to my friend's satisfaction that I understood and could empathize with what they were going through. I was able to demonstrate viscerally that they were not alone, and this proved to be pivotal in maintaining a constructive and pliable tenor to the examination.

It turned out that this experience was foundational for me as a professional facilitator and group consultant, and I've carried it with me the last 20 years whenever I'm in a situation where someone feels backed into a corner.
• • •
My relationship with Mildred was not that of peers. She was always the teacher and I was the student (who was sometimes enthralled by the lessons and sometimes repulsed); she was the facilitator and I was the respondent. While she enjoyed probing what was going on with me, she did not encourage that kind of examination in the other direction. While I chafed at this imbalance for quite a while, I finally came to accept that learning from Mildred was a gift and it was unwise of me (not to mention churlish) to push away the invitation just because the exchange did not flow both ways.

For many years Ganas went by the name Foundation for Feedback Learning, which was their educational nonprofit and very much the center of their social experiment. Mildred was keen on investigating the ways that people shoot themselves in the foot by limiting or distorting the intake of critical information about how they are perceived. (The idea here is not necessarily that others are seeing you accurately, but that it's never in your interest to not know how your statements and behavior are landing with others. In fact, it's highly beneficial to discover at the earliest opportunity any discrepancies between what you intended and how you are received.)

It turns out that most of us engage in all manner of shenanigans to avoid or insulate ourselves from receiving feedback, even when it's directly against our best interests to resist it. 

In the process of doing this work, Mildred was among the most adept practitioners I ever encountered at working a dynamic both emotionally and rationally, which approach had a profound influence on how I developed as a professional facilitator. After witnessing Mildred at the top of her game, I wouldn't settle for group work that didn't simultaneously engage content and energy, and I'm not confident I would have come to that understanding without Mildred's guidance.

Another reason I appreciated Mildred and my time at Ganas was the intensity of the engagement (it certainly wasn't for the coffee, which was every bit as weak as the conversations were strong). I've never encountered another group that devoted so much attention to group dynamics (and I thought I was a junkie). 

Ganas in the '90s—which was the decade when Jo was splitting time between there and Sandhill, and I was visiting regularly—held planning sessions every morning six days a week, and then had freewheeling after dinner conversations most days as well. On your birthday you could decide what personal growth topic you wanted to work on all day. In fact, they were into the process tank so spectacularly that I use Ganas as the poster child for one end of the spectrum on how-much-do you-want-to-be-in-each-others'-lives-by-virtue-of-being-a-member-of-this-community. (On the other end are communities that hold potlucks once a month.)

While most people who visited Ganas or heard about their strong commitment to group process found the attention they gave interpersonal dynamics appalling, I loved it.

The last time I saw Mildred was in October, 2012. I visited Ganas for three days and spent an hour sitting with her each afternoon letting the conversation go wherever it wanted. Though I'd been cautioned ahead of time that Mildred was starting to lose her cognitive abilities, I couldn't discern any loss of focus or relevance to her comments. They say that long-term memory is the last to go and I suppose I benefited from the vast majority of our common history falling comfortably into the long-term column. Or maybe she was just having a good week. 

In any event it was a touching and connecting final visit.

One of Mildred's foibles was the feeling that she was going to die young, which she was mildly obsessed about. I believe many of her immediate family had died young and she expected a similar fate. Well Mildred, having lived to be 92 it's hard to say you got cheated—and all those who knew you are the richer for your longer stay.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Culture Change Versus Lifestyle Change

In the last month I received this inquiry from a follower of this blog:

What is the minimal critical mass of emotional/interpersonal intelligence necessary for a group to actually manifest the spirit and process [needed for community to succeed]? My ten-year experience in cohousing resulted in a diagnosis of PTSD and a real cynicism (not yet misanthropy) regarding our species current capacity to pull this off. 

That's a good question. In essence, what is our maturity and our capacity to grow in the ways needed for community to succeed?

I think the key lever in this equation is not so much maturity (degree of sophistication in communication skills, and depth of familiarity and facility with group dynamics and different systems of governance) as openness to self-examination and change (ability to be curious when faced with divergent viewpoints, commitment to looking for blind spots when challenged, and willingness to try something different when people or circumstances shift). If you are accomplished at the latter, you can derive the former.

So let's focus on change, which can be both exhilarating and unsettling.

It is common for those of us active in the field of intentional community to be discussing change. As in change from the mainstream; change in the way we communicate, change in what we eat, change in how we raise children; change in how we build homes; change in how we respond to distress; change in how we run meetings; change in how we make decisions; change in how we define leadership; change in how we relate to material wealth; change in how we view mental health; change, even, in how we relate to change.

We speak both about lifestyle change and about culture change—sometimes interchangeably—but they aren't the same thing. In this essay I want to focus on the difference between them, and why the heavy lifting is done under the banner of culture change.

People make lifestyle changes all the time. Some are relatively minor (such as giving up wearing blue jeans, neckties, or pantyhose; or when my father switched from smoking cigarettes to cigars in 1964 when the Surgeon General announced that cigarettes were detrimental to one's health). Some are a bit more serious (switching from a sports car to a Volvo, opting for safety and mileage over acceleration and flash). Some are downright major league (moving from the city to the country; or changing one's diet from fast food to vegan).

Culture change, however, occurs on a deeper level. It requires thinking about what you would ordinarily do without thinking at all—challenging baseline assumptions. We have all been steeped in cultural conditioning that creates a context for how we experience the world and how we tend to respond to it. It is the water we swim in. Culture change requires stepping back from that conditioning and consciously choosing to shift something: like leaving the water and starting to breathe air. It's not just breaking habits; it's breaking molds.

Thus, culture change is much more difficult to achieve than lifestyle change, which is important when considering what it takes to be successful at creating vibrant intentional communities. Here's why:

1. Many intentional communities are attempts to purposefully create a quality of connection among members that is ordinarily not available in mainstream neighborhoods. (I'm not saying it couldn't be; I'm saying it isn't.)

2. Intentional communities are founded on the idea that we can all have a good quality life at a lower cost per person if we share assets.

3. In order to achieve 1 & 2 above, you need to live more closely with fellow members (both physically and psychically) and that requires either: a) surrendering to a leader (or leaders) who will tell you how to behave; or b) creating a more cooperative atmosphere in which to manage jointly owned assets and to successfully navigate the tensions that will naturally result from people with different styles and personalities needing to work things out together.

4. When you digest that the vast majority of us have been raised in competitive culture that is both hierarchic and adversarial, you understand that it takes a sea change to shift to cooperative culture. For one thing you have to start valuing relationships more than truth (or who's right). This is a big change.

One of the things that makes living in intentional community hard is that some people come to it ready to effect culture change, while others are only open to lifestyle adjustments. As a result, there's considerable variance in the degree of elasticity among the membership. Some are prepared for far more stretching than others, and there's more than a little poignancy to the tensions that can result from culture changers who are pleading to get everyone on board with a commitment to that degree of shift, being resisted (and resented) by lifestyle changers who feel they're being bullied into conversations and considerations they never signed up for.

Caution: In laying this out, I do not want to be understood to be favoring culture changers over lifestyle changers. Both have their place. While culture changers may be better equipped to make seminal shifts in what it means to be a human being in this world, both culture changers and lifestyle changers can create successful communities—by which I mean communities where everyone is happy with what they've created and they've developed functional ways to make collective decisions.

That said, I am trying to make the case that people trying to establish successful intentional communities are going to be far more likely to succeed if their membership is strongly slanted one way or the other: all culture changers or all lifestyle changers—because strong advocates for one side don't tend to play well with their counterparts championing the other.