Wednesday, March 9, 2022

The Challenge of Integrating New members

I recently received this blog comment from Rabbit:

I have lived in a cohousing community in California since 1999. A friend told me she'd read somewhere that you write about an inevitable moment in a community's life when the early people (founders, or some such term) and later people collide over change and changes in what earlier folks hold/held as the "vision" for the community... I'm looking for some guidance on our community as it confronts some of the conflicts embedded in this older/newer member conflict.

While Rabbit's framing doesn’t evoke a memory of a specific piece of writing, the topic is familiar to me, and I think it's a worthy one to explore. 

The first comment to make is that this is an issue peculiar to successful communities—only ones that last long enough can have both older and newer members.

As I reflect on it, there are a handful of elements that may be present in this dynamic (which is related to why this is messy), and I think it’s useful to tease them out, and take a look at each separately. In no particular order:

a) Vision Drift (a close relative of mission drift)
Even if there were no turnover in a group over 20 years (highly unlikely, but possible), people’s life circumstances change and their priorities and thinking are prone to shift, which can result in the same people no longer wanting the same things they’d did two decades ago. With that in mind, as well as what you get with turnover, I think it’s a good idea for groups to step back and reset the gyroscope every five years or so, to test for this. Where is the group today?

b) Integration of New Members
A key question is how to affirm the desire to support new people getting their oar in the water (contributing their energy and new ideas), while not signing a blank check—the group still needs to exercise discernment about whether new ideas are worth supporting. While this dynamic exists independently of whether new ideas originated from longer-term members or newer members, it is particularly challenging when they come from the newbies, who may have trouble parsing out how much the older folks are close-minded and how much their ideas are naive.

c) Quality of Records
Can members (new or old) reasonably discover what the group took into account when addressing this topic that the group has wrestled with before? Are the records good enough to tell what’s changed from then until now that justifies looking at it again? I advocate that the standard for reviewing a past decision is what's different? (Note that I am not saying that a policy or agreement should be reviewed simply because a new person doesn't like it. They deserve a response, but the group is not obliged to jump to the new person's call.) If your minutes aren’t good enough (or accessible) then you’re relying on oral history and that’s likely to be less satisfying. 

d) Peeing on the Tires
It is the tendency of most people to want to have a say in community agreements—to want to make a contribution. While you can expect this from everyoneit shows up differently in old and new members. If, for example, it isn't clear whether it's better to stick with the old policy or to try something new, longer-term members will tend to prefer the status quo (their work), while the newer folks will tend to favor a change, so that their contributions can get some love. Though both mean well, there can be a clash that's tricky to navigate.

e) New People Tend to Be More Attracted to Your Reality than Your Vision
Vision is what you are moving toward, even if it’s something you never fully achieve. Even if everyone at the outset is aligned around it, the folks who join later tend to make their decision to enroll on the good ship Community more on the basis of what you have achieved, than on what you say you intend to achieve. When that occurs, the later arrivals can become a sea anchor that resists ongoing movement toward the distant isles, because they like it where you are now. This can be spirit crushing for founders in whom the vision still burns brightly.

f) Understanding the Pioneer/Settler Dynamic
By nature, founders (pioneers) need to be risk tolerant—entrepreneurial. Launching an intentional community is a step into the unknown in many ways and it’s hard to succeed if risks scare you to death. However, if you survive the early days and become established, the later arrivals (settlers) tend to be less risk tolerant—after all, they are joining a known, tangible thing. The houses have already been built. The processes are already in place.

On the one hand, risk aversion among settlers will tend to reinforce point e). On the other, some fraction of new folks will also be entrepreneurial and are likely to want to have a chance at creation also—just like the pioneers did—recapitulating the dynamics of point d).

g) How Much Do You Invest in Integrating New Members?
Sometimes the older folks forget what it was like to be a newbie—even though everyone was one once. For most new folks, joining an intentional community is an adventure unlike anything they've done before. So much so that it's unreasonable to expect them to even know what questions to ask.

This task is further complicated by the richness of community culture. While it's one thing to create and disseminate to new arrivals a book of agreements (it's a good idea for everyone to have a copy BTW), that's just the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of norms or customs will not be delineated in a handbook—which means that someone has to be available to offer community in translation, or you are essentially deciding that it's OK for the new folks to figure it out by trial and error. (Hint: this is a poor choice.)

Taken all together, I believe it's incumbent on the established members to take a proactive attitude toward demystifying the community culture, and offering the information in multiple ways (in recognition that people have a variety of preferred learning styles). Thus, in addition to handing new arrivals a copy of your self-published Field Guide to Our Community (some like to read), you will be well-advised to also assign them a buddy (because some don't like to read), who gets together with her or his charges regularly to answer questions and explain what's really happening in the community. (Hint: this service can be especially valuable after community meetings, where there's a whole bunch of history and habits that are crammed higgledy-piggledy into a mere two hours.)

h) Commitment to Pulling the Weeds
Creating a successful intentional community is more than just surviving the pioneer stage. After you break the ground and plant the seeds, you still have to tend the garden. In particular, groups tend to benefit strongly from consensus and conflict training—as a mainstream upbringing generally doesn't prepare folks well for either. Rather than just doing them once in the early years (like a vaccine against polio), I suggest repeating them for new arrivals. This is a much better strategy than expecting new folks to just pick it up osmotically. Think of trainings as booster shots.

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