Saturday, November 12, 2022

Musings about Modern Life

I just got back from10 days of immersion at Ionia, a 35-year-old community in Kaslilof, AK that requested my help with community dynamics. My experience there—in the company of my work partner, Sarah Ross—brought to the surface of our consciousness a number of choices we mostly take for granted (because it's the water we swim in), and I was reflecting on that this morning.

1. Flush toilets

Ionia doesn't have them. Sarah and I have divergent histories on this. I have 41 years of community living under my belt—all of which were in communities that didn't have flush toilets. When you sprinkle in about year of wilderness camping over my lifetime, this was not new territory for me. For Sarah it was more challenging. Yes, she'd done some primitive camping, so she knew the principles, but it wasn't what she was expecting, and she had to cope.—which she did with excellent grace.

The main argument is that flush toilets are combining two resources (potable water and human excrement—a fertilizer, whence the term night soil) to create black water, a potentially toxic waste that must be dealt with safely through sewage treatment, either municipally or on site. While this expense may make more sense in urban settings where they are obliged to prioritize public health (originally to deal with cholera and typhoid in the 19th Century, but god knows what all today), in rural settings there is room to rethink the cost/benefit ratio—especially in light of shrinking water resources and innovative technologies for safely composting human manure—something China, Korea, and Japan have been dealing with more sensibly all along.

2. Access to high-speed internet

In contrast with the primitive plumbing, we had good internet access in our suite (an enclave in the basement of the common house). Because much of Ionia's commitment in simple living paralleled my experience at Sandhill, I understood what had happened. The community was launched in 1987, at the dawn of the Information Age , and they weren't thinking about computers, and wanted to limit exposure to mainstream media. Eventually it made more sense to embrace computers and access to the internet—while still discouraging televisions. They have a media room in the common house where members watch movies, and of course, people can easily stream television shows in their private spaces, so it's a slippery slope. But Sandhill did the same dance and I get it.

3. Privacy

As mentioned above, Sarah and I were bivouacked in a small suite in the basement of the common house. It was modest, but no different than what members were allotted who also resided in the common house. We had a door which opened to a modest common space with a table, a couch, and a chair. We also had a small fridge and an electric kettle where we could make tea and coffee. Separated by curtains, we each had our own sleeping space off the common area, partitioned by movable shelves that extended to six feet, providing visual separation, but not acoustic. Fortunately, this was not a big deal for either Sarah and me (as we are not particularly private people), though we paused to reflect on how that would likely have been more challenging for our romantic partners, or even for other work partners.

I found the openness that's encouraged in community living to be refreshing and honest, but I have also learned that it is too much octane for others, and some bridges are too far to cross. It didn't even occur to me to ask about accommodations before agreeing to come to Ionia, and, in retrospect, I'm surprised that the community didn't bring it up. Fortunately, it wasn't a problem, but it could have been a stressor that got in the way our doing our best work.

4. Common house construction

The thing about community buildings is that they are snapshots of community values and sensibilities that last a long time. While the community evolves and moves on, the building lasts, and it serves as a testament to where you were when it was designed and constructed. In the case of the Ionian common house, it was log construction and very large, built many years ago. It was a million dollar investment that features three stories, high ceilings, and room for many group functions. While it has well-insulated walls and ceilings, and hydronic floor heating (where hot water is circulated through pipes embedded in the concrete basement floor), it must be fierce to keep that building warm through the cold Alaskan winters. I can hardly imagine how much wood they have to go through, and the labor that entails. In consequence, the building was heated, but not toasty. People wore long sleeves and hats to the meetings, and regularly huddled near wood stoves. I understood the balancing act—we had made the same choices at Sandhill, though our buildings were smaller and fewer, and our winters milder.

Since the common house was built, the community has learned new and better techniques for construction, including timber frame and light clay straw slip. Today they would build the common house differently. Meanwhile, they have what they have, and are trying to make the best of it.

The other room (besides our basement suite) where Sarah and I spent a lot of time was the media room (where the community watched movies and held meetings). Apropos movie watching, it had a low ceiling and dim lights—perfect for movies, but a strain for meetings. The room held the energy, and but the dimness cast a pall on the energy and low lighting made it a challenge to read facial expressions across the room. I think it might have played differently in other seasons, but we were already in winter (8-12 inches of snow fell while we were there, and the ambient temperature never rose above freezing). Dawn didn't occur until halfway through the morning meeting.

5. Diet

Ionia was founded on a commitment to a macrobiotic diet, which is strong on brown rice, local vegetables, lacto-fermentation, no meat or dairy, and no coffee or alcohol. While there has been some easing off of being strict about those principles, there remains a strong focus on fresh and local food that is still largely macrobiotic. Food is a rallying point in the community, and Sarah and I consistently enjoyed excellent dinners in rotation among people's households over the course of our 10 days on campus. 

It was a balm to relax in the warmth and ease of eating together after meetings focused on what's being hard in the community (which was what we did during the day and was the reason we were there). The hospitality around food was superb.

6. The Malling of Alaska

Finally, I want to share a poignant story about our hosts. Being mindful that their commitment to simple living is not something familiar or comfortable to all visitors, we fielded multiple offers in our first days to take a trip to town (by which they meant Soldotna, a village on 4000 that's 30 minutes away and features a mall) where we might enjoy a cheeseburger or go shopping. While both Sarah and I occasionally do those things, we did not crave them and politely declined.

Our hosts were being mindful and had learned over time that many visitors benefit from a dose of mainstream culture to sustain their balance while at Ionia. It was a sweet gesture. To be sure, we asked for a few creature comforts and they were graciously supplied: I got coffee and half-and-half (no, oat milk was not an acceptable substitute for my morning ritual) and Sarah got bananas and yogurt. We tried to be low-maintenance visitors, and they tried to be good hosts. I thought we both did well.

Overall, it was good to be reminded that "normal" lifestyle choices can often be usefully questioned. That's why they call it "intentional community."

Friday, October 28, 2022

My Senior Moments

This year I've had the opportunity to be part of a team of instructors delivering a five-week webinar (10 hours in total) entitled Aging Gracefully in Community, being produced through the Foundation for Intentional Community (FIC). The second incarnation of this webinar will happen over five consecutive Wednesdays. It started Oct 26 and will run through Nov 23.

I'm teaching the first and third classes, and preparing for them has provided me the occasion to reflect on where I'm at with my life as a senior—something I strongly advise other seniors to do. I also crossed the threshold of my 73 birthday this past week, which is as good a time as any to step back and take stock.

I stepped down as the main administrator of FIC at the end of 2015, retiring from one of my two careers after a 28-year run. As it happened, I discovered immediately afterwards that I had multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer, which knocked me back for a time. After spending the bulk of 2016 in treatment (I benefited greatly from excellent care at a local hospital, and from a stem cell transplant at Mayo Clinic), I have been able to manage the cancer and recover sufficient strength and stamina to resume my other career—the one I haven't retired from—teaching and consulting about cooperative group dynamics.

This ongoing passion is something I've been doing since 1987, specializing in working with intentional communities and working with the whole person (not just the rational part). When I got a second chance on how my senior years might play out (I was pretty far down the well when the cancer was discovered in early '16 and might not have made it back), that served as a wake-up call. Colors were a little brighter, and there is nothing quite like near-death to sharpen the concentration and appreciate the preciousness of what you have. It's an opportunity to strip away the drek and prioritize the joy.

Well, continuing my career in group process was an easy call (so long as I retain solid cognitive skills, knock on wood), as that definitely brings me joy, It's my main venue for social change work, and it's simultaneous my main impetus for personal work. A hard to beat combo.

That said, my relationship to this work has evolved, and never more so than in the last three years. Let me count the ways:

(Actually everything evolves, though we are not always paying attention, or willing to reconsider things in light of new information. I have a good friend who once shared the insight, Don't you sometimes just long for the unexamined life? Hah! Personal work can be grueling! And it's sobering to absorb that it never ends—you never actually reach the top of the mountain.)

• Marked increase in divisiveness and the breakdown of cicil discourse—not just at the macro political level; I'm talking about the dynamics in communities as well.

• Social impact of the pandemic and the strain on cooperative groups as people weathered a long stretch of limiting how much they saw one another in the same room. (This has been especially hard on extroverts.)

• Discovering that Zoom can be an effective delivery tool for teaching and consulting. Not the same as working in-person, to be sure, yet more.nuanced and potent than I suspected at the outset.

• Increased opportunities to teach.

• Balancing immediate needs with strategic planning (it's hard to complete long rang projects when I manage opportunities on the LIFO inventory system).

Here's how all of this had impacted the various segments of of my work:

—Blog and articles

While I've spent markedly less time writing for public consumption the last three years, it's not because I've run out of things to say. It's because I've run out of time to write them, in deference to crafting handouts, client reports, slide shows for Zoom trainings, agendas, professional evaluations, and treading water with email (which includes a sharp up tick in student correspondence). Some of this is remunerative. Most of it is not. In any event, I'm not writing less; I'm writing differently. (Although my blog postings have been way down, I still managed to get four articles posted in Communities magazine this past year.)

—Teaching

Not counting conference workshops (I've done more than 100 in my career) I've been actively teaching since I pioneered my signature two-year facilitation training in 2003 (see below). That said, the pandemic gave a rocket boost to online offerings, and I'm along for the ride. Since 2019 I've tripled how much time I spend teaching. Fortunately, I love it, and it aligns well with my desire to be an agent for positive social change. Unfortunately, it means there's less time for everything else. (I'm even teaching an 8-part series, Learning to Play Bridge, through a local community ed program, and I love that, too!)

—Writing books about group dynamics

This is getting the short end of the stick. I don't prioritizing it, because it's anguishing for me to turn down client requests to protect time for books. My motivation is further undercut by the knowledge that pretty much everything I want to say in a book has already been captured in my blog—it just isn't organized as well as a book would be. Though I haven't given up, I'm definitely noticing that I'm not getting to the work.

—Integrative Facilitation Training (IFT)

I started this course 19 years ago and have now delivered it 16 times. It's the most fun thing I do on a regular basis. The teaching emphasizes an experiential model, where two-thirds of each weekend is devoted to students preparing for, delivering, and debriefing live meetings for a host group, who provides real issues for the students to cut their teeth on, under professional guidance. Students get practice facing live ammunition, and host groups get free outside help with sticky issues—everyone benefits.

I've noticed recently that it's becoming harder to reconcile the active needs of the host with the pedagogical needs of the course. It happens like this: hosts, understandably, want to get maximal benefit from outside help and typically select difficult topics—things where they have struggled on their own. While that is useful training for the students (coping with the nontrivial), topics that are freighted with tensions (often the most troublesome kind) require dealing with the tensions first, before moving on to problem solving, and often it's hard to effect the relationship repair and get deeper into the topic in the time allotted. Thus, students get a fair amount of practice working with tensions (good) but not so much with problem solving (which is a problem).

Most groups are poor at working through tensions, understanding how to productively work issues, or how to use plenary time effectively—all which are things I know how to do and try to emphasize when I teach. In an effort to have the group work where it needs the most help (for example, learning how to use plenary time well) the students don't get as much practice using formats that enhance inclusivity (but come at a cost of slowing things down). It's a dilemma when host needs doesn't align well with what the students need. So this is on my mind right now.

The Next Round of IFT

Incidentally, if you're interested in my thinking about cooperative group dynamics, there is no single better way to absorb (in both your head and your body) the breadth of what I and my fellow trainers have come to understand about this field than by enrolling in one of my two-year trainings, where you'll get to be in a special learning milieu for eight 3-day weekends, spaced approximately three months apart.

While the surface focus of the training is how to understand and make good decisions (as the facilitator) when responding to the complexities and complications of plenaries trying to make inclusive decisions, the utility of the training is much broader than that. 

• The context of the IFT course is understanding the secular dynamics of community, and we are committed to doing that both by discussing and analyzing community, and be being a community for the two years we are together. That means we speak from our hearts as well as our heads; we speak transparently and we speak with compassion. When stuff comes up in class—we talk about it. We teach the moment as much as the curriculum. We strive for a level of engagement and authenticity that is rarely found in this vale of tears.

• We expect everyone to be doing personal work in relationship to the materials. Good facilitation is not just learning formulaic responses, or memorizing scripts. While we offer templates, we don't teach paint-by-number facilitation; we teach heart-centered facilitation where practitioners learn to integrate thoughts and feelings, and to identify and trust their instincts.

• It turns out that facilitation training is also leadership training, as the overlap in skills and mind set are nearly identical. Thus, students can benefit from the training even if they never facilitate meetings, because it will help them fill leadership roles—in community, at work, or even in their family—with confidence and clarity. It also helps students be better followers, and better meeting participants (because they have a better sense of what the facilitator is trying to do).

Note: While I expect to continue training facilitators for as long as I can, there's no telling how much sand I still have in the upper half of my hourglass, so you might want to sign up sooner than later if you think IFT might be a good fit for you. My next training, which will be Zoom-based, will start Jan 12 and there's still room for more as of today. If this tickles your fancy, send me an email (laird@ic.org) and I'll give you the full picture.

• • •

I get it that seniors use their latter years in a wide variety of ways, and I respect that this is a very personal choice. It's not for me to tell others what to do. Nonetheless, for what it's worth, I am offering this overview of how I'm spending a significant portion of mine.

Note I have not written about the other major components of my life: time with my partner, Susan; staying connected with family and friends; indulging in my recreational pastimes of celebration cooking, duplicate bridge, solving the daily NYT crosswords, and travel (tonight I fly to Anchorage for two weeks with a community on the Kenai Peninsula—a place I've never been to before—marking the first time I will have traveled to work with a client in person in 31 months). 

While the pace of my life has changed considerably (remember, I'm half retired), I see no reason to ship my oars and drift off into the sunset. I believe in an engaged life, and that generally means sailing close to the wind. The challenge is how best to do that as conditions around me shift, as well as my capacity and physical limitations. With all these parts in motion, there is a constant need to reassess and make adjustments. It goes with the territory. For all of that, however, there is no question about whether or not to try. I still get up every morning wondering how I can get best into what the late John Lewis characterized as "good trouble."

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Noise

Every now and then the right book comes along just as I'm ready to benefit from its message. That happened last month when I consumed Noise, by Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking, Fast and Slow), Oliver Sibony, and Cass Sunstein.

This book came out last year and explores the concept of bad decisions and why people make them, distinguishing between bias and randomness. With bias, things are slanted in a particular direction (consciously or unconsciously). With noise, the range of responses is randomly diffused—the more noise, the wider the diffusion. Things you'd prefer be consistent, turn out not to be. Examples include the sentences judges give people convicted of the same offense, insurance rates that adjusters set for the same coverage, the wide range of agreement among evaluators in assessing personnel candidates.

It turns out that wherever judgment is involved, there is noise—and more of it than most realize. Worse, it's not just found in differences between people. It also occurs when the same person faces the same situation, but at a different time of day, or on a different day of the week, or after the local sports team won over the weekend.  

Decision Hygiene

The authors have a number of specific suggestions for how to approach decision-making to reduce noise.

• Delay discussing solutions (potential decisions) until you've first agreed on the criteria you'll use to assess the evaluate candidate proposals. Further, allow people an opportunity to think about what they believe the criteria should be by themselves before discussing it collectively, as groups tend to be strongly influenced by the first couple of people who speak, and ideas are less likely to be lost if they have been written down ahead of time.

• To the extent possible, consider focusing attention on how the candidates rate, one criteria at a time, delaying a discussion of the whole until the end.

• Evaluation will be less noisy if you ask different people or teams to assess candidates in different criteria (the idea being that the wisdom of the group is typically better than the wisdom of an individual).

• In expressing where a candidate proposal stands with respect to each criteria, it's generally better to rank them comparatively rather than on an absolute scale, as there tends to be much tighter agreement about comparative standing than what is meant by an arbitrary numerical scale.

Impact of Noise in Cooperative Groups

While this was not a lens through which the authors of Noise looked, it occurs to me that this book has some things to say about how cooperative groups might enhance their decision-making. To wit:

—Matching the process investment to the stakes. The above outline for how to reduce noise needs to be in some reasonable proportion to consequences. When the outcome matters a lot, you can justify being more careful. When the impact is low, it may not be worth it.

—In cooperative groups, how a decision is made typically matters as much as what decision gets made. With that in mind, there can be a large value placed on inclusivity (the lowest possible barrier for someone's relevant input to be expressed and considered), and it behooves groups to be especially mindful of how default open discussion and rounds tend to inadvertently favor the quick, and those who are comfortable speaking in front of the group. Or, in situations where the group is unskilled at working with disagreement or with the expression of strong feelings, how those with thick skin or a loud voice can have more sway—independent of whether they have better discernment.

—Delegating to a manager or team may be expedient and efficient, but it probably means more noise. It might be useful to reflect on that tradeoff before blithely embracing it.

Who knew that paying attention to noise could be so productive?

Friday, August 19, 2022

The Gift of Good Process—All Delivered Before Xmas Morning

I'll be conducting a variety of courses from now through the end of the year, and I'm laying them out here—both because one or more may interest you, or people you know (and I'd be pleased to have your help banging the drum).

I. Facilitation Training

This is my signature two-year course, which I've been doing since 2003 and have delivered 15 times, reaching about 175 students. It will be conducted via Zoom (which I've experimented with the last two years and feel solid about, based on having conducted 15 training weekends and facilitated multiple group meetings via that medium).

The class meets for eight 3-day weekends (from Thursday evening through Sunday afternoon), spaced approximately three months apart. No prior facilitation experience is required—you just need a positive attitude, an open mind, and a reliable modem. In addition to teaching the basics, the course will cover considerable nuance about group dynamics in a cooperative setting—all of which applies just as well to leadership in cooperative culture.

In addition to receiving approximately 50 handouts, there will be a principal teaching theme for each weekend:

• Working Content
• Formats
• Conflict
• Consensus
• Power & Leadership
• Organizational Structure
• Delegation 
• Challenging Personalities

Half of each weekend is devoted to preparing for, delivering, and debriefing live meetings facilitated by students—as it's my belief that lessons are better grounded when facing live ammunition. The trainers (there will be three of us) will hold your hand throughout and be a safety net as you learn to fly.

Most students come affiliated with an intentional community, but that isn't a requirement, so long as you understand we are teaching you to operate collaboratively and inclusively.

While I am open to students from any situation and with any background, I want to make you aware of the potential this training provides when multiple people participate from the same group—it is much easier to digest and bring home the learnings when you have buddies, and much more possible to shift the culture and practices of your group when the inspiration comes from more than one voice. The benefits are geometric (that is, your group gets four times the boost when you double the number of students).

This is the most fun thing I do, passing along what I've distilled from four decades in the field. At a minimum, this course will make you a better facilitator or help you understand better what good facilitation is. At its best, it will change your life.

The new course is penciled in as follows:

Weekend I          Sept 22-25, 2022
Weekend II         Jan 12-15, 2023
Weekend III        Mar 30-April 2, 2023
Weekend IV       June 22-25, 2023
Weekend V        Sept 7-10, 2023
Weekend VI       Dec 7-10, 2023
Weekend VII      Mar 7-10, 2024
Weekend VIII     June 6-9, 2024

There is still room in this course for more students (we accept a maximum of 18). If we don't reach critical mass (12 students is the minimum) by next month, we'll postpone the start until January, bump back all the weekends and add a new date for Weekend VIII.

The cost is $450/weekend for full students (discounts are available if you pay up front) and $300/weekend for auditors. While both full students and auditors are welcome in all classroom sessions, only full students get to facilitate live meetings during class weekends, and receive detailed written comments about their facilitation. 

If you have questions or want additional details reach me via email: laird@ic.org

II. National Cohousing Conference • Aug 25-28 • Madison WI

Coming right up (next week!), I'll be traveling for work for the first time since March 2000—ending a drought of 29 months. (I used to travel once a month for work—my how times have changed.)

—Aug 25 (Thursday) • I am teaching an all-day (6-hour) intensive styled Consensus 301, aimed at helping groups who are struggling with consensus, to better understand how they might untangle and be get better results. I have been working with secular consensus for 45 years and have a deep understanding of both the problems and potential solutions. In six hours there will be plenty of time to get responses to individual questions.

Click here for details and the possibility of a one-day pass for this offering alone. I believe you can participate either in-person (best) or via Zoom (next best).

—Aug 27 (Sat) • I am offering a 90-min workshop entitled Consensus 101 (9-10:30 am), covering the basics of what you'll need to get off to the right start.

—Aug 27 (Sat) • I am offering a 90-min workshop entitled Participation (1:30-3 pm), unpacking the morass of issues that arise around non-monetary member contributions to the maintenance and well-being of the community. This topic is the single most requested that clients ask me to help with, because of its complexity. I'll lay out the key questions groups need to address in order to clear the fog.

Again, you'll have the choice of registering for just the workshops, or the whole megillah. Click here for your options.

III. FIC Webinars

Continuing an ambitious program of 10-hour online courses sponsored by the Foundation of Intentional Community, all of which have been offered once already this year, here are the ones being repeated in the months ahead. Each course will be comprised of 2-hour Zoom sessions, held at the same time of day and on the same day of the week for five consecutive weeks. For details and registration for each course, please click on the titles, which are hyperlinked to FIC.

Facilitation (Tuesdays) • Sept 13-Oct 11

Consensus 101 (Thursdays) • Sept 15-Oct 13

Conflict (Tuesdays) • Oct 25-Nov 22

Aging Gracefully in Community (Wednesdays) • Oct 26-Nov 23 (for this course only, I am part of a team of presenters, and I am only leading the first session)

Membership (Thursdays) • Oct 27-Nov 23 (note that the last class will held on Wed, to avoid Thanksgiving—the rest will be on Thursdays)

In addition to the main entrées listed above, here are a couple of 1-hour appetizers offered free of charge:

Facilitating Your Group Through Anything • Aug 23 • 2:30-3:30 pm Eastern

In this session I'll walk through how to handle the nasty stuff: topics that are complex and/or volatile. This is a teaser for the 10-hour Facilitation course listed above.

Understanding How Consensus Works in Cooperative Groups • Aug 23 • 6-7 pm Eastern

The key focus here will be on essential communication skills needed to make consensus sing. This is a teaser for the 10-hour Consensus 101 course listed above.

I hope to see some of your smiling faces soon.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Remembering Lina

My friend and mentor, Caroline Estes, died July 13, passing peacefully after four months in hospice. She was 94 and had lived a full and impactful life that touched me deeply.

We first met in the spring of 1987. I had taken Amtrak's Empire Builder from Chicago to Oregon, fresh from the first board meeting of the newly reconstituted Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) at Stelle IL. I caught up with Caroline for a cup of coffee at Alpha-Bit, the magical bookstore/cafe/art gallery that her community, Alpha Farm, operated in Mapleton—a wide spot in the road between Eugene and Florence, on the sinuous banks of the Siuslaw River (of Once a Great Notion fame). 

I had set up the rendezvous both to put a face to the name, and to fill her in on what had happened at the seminal FIC gathering. She had a reputation as a tour de force as a community networker in the Pacific Northwest, and I aspired to strengthen connections with communities on the West Coast. As an added incentive, Alpha Farm was an income-sharing community—just like my community, Sandhill Farm—and there weren't many of us around with whom to talk shop.

We clicked immediately, nattering nonstop for a couple of hours, pausing only to inhale and to refill our coffee cups. (I knew right away that I was in the right place because Alpha-Bit served half-and-half in a small pitcher.)

She spent her early childhood in a privileged family in Texas, before moving to California at the age of 10. As an adult she became a Quaker, which was the grounding for her understanding of consensus. Her nickname as a child was Lina, and I am invoking that term of endearment in this remembrance.

Caroline as Grandmother of Secular Consensus

We didn't meet face-to-face until she was 57, and already well established at Alpha (15 years after she'd helped found the community in 1972). By then she'd already worked to adapt consensus as a religious practice to meet the needs of decision-making in community settings. In response to requests to share her methods, Caroline had developed a five-day consensus & facilitation training, and I eagerly signed up for the next round. It came at just the right time for me. I knew enough about cooperative group dynamics to have a slew of questions, but wasn't so settled in my ways that I couldn't shift my thinking or practice.

Together with her protégé, Lysbeth Borie (also a long-time Alpha member), the two comprised Alpha Institute, a subsidiary of the community that offered consensus training and professional facilitation. In addition to steady work in cooperative groups throughout Ecotopia, for a number of years they were the consensus trainers of choice among Waldorf schools across the breadth of North America.

The occasion of Caroline's passing weaves together a number of threads for me. Lysbeth was the person who broke the news to me, and I have a fond memory of my first gig as an outside facilitator in December, 1987, when Lysbeth and I partnered to assist Appletree, a fledgling income-sharing community on Cottage Grove OR. Caroline helped us plan the engagement—even pulling out a packet of precious frozen blueberries from Alpha's larder, so that we could offer Appletree members a memorable dessert as part of our time together. For Caroline, good food and good dynamics went hand in hand, and it was a signature element of her penchant for interweaving engagement and conviviality.

Caroline as Mentor

Caroline was both a friend and a Friend, who was able to retain the spirit of Quaker consensus without necessarily defining it as a pathway to knowing the divine. Under her deft touch, it was also developed as a pathway to divine what was best for the group, which was the field in which she and I walked together.

Among the lessons I absorbed from Caroline was the preciousness of facilitator neutrality, without lapsing into passivity. It is an art knowing when you've heard enough from the group to be able to float a proposal that might balance the whole, and facilitators need to be brave as well as disinterested.

Caroline taught me how to read a meeting—which is a subtle combination of listening deeply to statements, while at the same time tracking the energy that lay beneath and around the words. (Neither of which, BTW, is enhanced by today's increasing reliance on social media, which has significantly degraded both attention spans and the ability of people to hear accurately. Impatience and consensus don't play well together.)

As a master facilitator she was a rock. When managing large groups (100+), which she did on a number of occasions at the height of her career, she had legendary stamina (and erect posture), and was able to redirect obstreperous behavior simply through her presence, the judicious use of silence, and a raised eyebrow. When the number of participants exceeded her capacity to track each person, she learned to scan sections of the group for discordant energy, following that up with individual scrutiny as needed.

She taught me how to toggle one's attention when facilitating, alternately lightly between what was being said (and how that applied to the topic at hand), and where the energy was trending—two things that are not always aligned, yet need to be to reach the promised land.

Based on her genteel upbringing, it was hard for Caroline to express or to work directly with strong emotions—especially negative ones—which is something I've come to view as an essential skill as a consultant/facilitator working with cooperative groups. To be sure, she understood fully when feelings were in play, but considered it unpleasant, invasive, or ill-bred to expose them in group. Thus, she was never comfortable sailing close to the winds of distress.

Caroline's gifts were overwhelmingly offered orally and in person. She left behind a paucity of written material—very few articles or reports. If she wanted to communicate, she would dictate an email, pick up the phone, or write a letter (remember when people used to do that?). To my knowledge, she didn't participate in social media at all, which, as you might imagine, contributed significantly to her disappearing from the radar of folks in need of what she had to offer the last couple decades.

While it's my sense that there is every bit as much need today as there ever was for what Caroline could teach, in the 21st century she had essentially outlived the ability to attract clients, given the limitations of how she functioned. Contemporary marketing had left her behind—making it all the more important for me to honor my professional debt to her in this eulogy.

For two decades (1988-2008) Caroline was a regular participant in FIC, which met semi-annually for three-to-four days at a time to discuss strategies and reset the gyroscope. Caroline was at the center of the wheel and a significant voice in how the organization evolved. For many years, the two of us made a point of carving out one evening at each gathering to go out to a local restaurant for dinner. For three hours it would just be the two of us—catching up, musing, laughing, and strategizing about the road ahead.

Caroline as Communitarian

I consider Alpha to be one of the most beautifully sited communities I've ever seen, nestled into a finger valley of Oregon's Coast Range. Bordered on two sides by BLM land and Forest Service property, it even features a babbling stream that feeds into Deadwood Creek and is home to spawning salmon. 

Many years before the community landed there, Alpha was the site of an early post office, when European settlers first populated the Willamette Valley. Interestingly, operating a rural mail route has been a mainstay of Alpha's balance sheet, offering dependable income in an otherwise uncertain backwater economy. (While Alpha-Bit was a solid success when it came to local relations, it was never a profit center.)

Caroline was devoted to Jim, her husband of many years. He grew up in Mississippi and shared her sharp intellect, political savvy, progressive outlook, love of language, and the discipline of speaking with a civil tongue (a diminishing art these days). He worked as a newspaperman, and would recreationally edit menus while awaiting service at restaurants. When possible, they'd attend live theater and symphony concerts, especially the annual Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene. He predeceased her by nine years.

In 2008, while Jim was still with us, I took the train to Oregon following my niece's wedding in San Antonio to attend Lina's 80th birthday bash at Alpha Farm. It was a joy to witness firsthand the appreciation of so many people whose lives she had touched—both in the community and among the Deadwood neighborhood. (I don't believe I've ever cooked so much fresh asparagus in my life.)

Caroline was also stubborn—especially when it came to Alpha. She cared deeply about her vision that the community be a sanctuary of sanity and a beacon of light in times of darkness. She was loath to delegate significant authority without her oversight. She insisted on a complex olio of social justice, hospitality, environmental consciousness, and graciousness—all of which was both inspiring and exasperating for those who sometimes wanted to balance things differently… especially the budget. 

Impressively, Caroline lived to celebrate Alpha's golden anniversary. She was there for every one of the past 50 years, and it's a monumental testament to dedication and service that few can claim.

Goodbye Lina, my mentor and friend. Please know that I will continue my grieving by baking a cherry pie, with Montmorencies harvested from a neighbor's backyard, topped with locally churned vanilla ice cream (nothing low fat about it)—all of which I know would make you smile.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Teaching the Rest of the Year—An Updated Menu

Back in December I posted a sneak preview of courses I'd be offering 2022 (Teaching in the Year Ahead).

While quite a bit of that has come to pass, some things have become more defined, and new things have gelled. So I'm inspired to offer this revised list of offerings for the remainder of the year.

Facilitation Training

As planned, I completed two rounds of my two-year training in recent months (I had been conducting three concurrently), which has made room on my dance card to launch another round. I have the teaching group lined up—all I need is students. Our hope is to start Sept 22-25.

If this interests you or your group, drop me an email (laird@ic.org) and I'll send you a flyer that lays it all out.

FIC Webinars

In addition to what's posted in Teaching in the Year Ahead I will be part of the faculty for a new offering, Aging Gracefully in Community, which will be offered for five consecutive Tuesdays (each session two hours long), starting June 21. To prime the pump there will be a free introductory gathering, May 31, that will last for 90 minutes. Click here for information about the teaser.

Workshops at the National Cohousing Conference • Aug 25-28

I'll be offering three things: 

• An all-day pre-conference intensive styled Consensus 301: Rx for Groups Struggling with Making It Work Well. This will happen Thursday, Aug 25.

Plus these two in-conference workshops (90-min each) occurring during the main event (exact times TBA):

• Participation: Issues in Member Contributions

• Consensus 101: Understanding the Basics

Podcasts

In the last month I've been interviewed for two different podcasts—which is a new platform for me:

Rebecca Mesritz put one together for FIC about Skilled Facilitation, and is available now.

Sen Zahn interviewed me this week as part of a segment on Conflict that she'll be editing for Peace Talks Radio, a program syndicated to 60 public radio stations in the US, and others abroad. As of today, no date has been set for when this podcast will be available.

Fortunately, I like being busy.





Friday, May 13, 2022

Property Rights & Social Contracts

A number of intentional communities struggle with the concept of a member's rights in relation to the community's rights, and I want to focus on a particular aspect of it that shows up when there's a vacancy.

It's relatively common for forming communities (this is particularly the case with cohousing groups) to promise prospective members that they'll have a free hand if they decide to sell. Understandably, this sweetens the pot for people on the fence about whether to buy a unit—helping the group to cross the finish line in selling out, which helps contain costs for early adopters.

The downside is that it's a questionable practice allowing a departing member to be in charge of selecting their replacement. While I don't want to be alarmist and this often works OK, the seller is generally more concerned with a quick sale at a good price, while the community's priority is a good fit—and those two objectives don't always align.

Worse, what if the seller is departing on less than good terms? Uh oh. They may not be motivated to care that much about how well the new buyer will blend with the community, or be completely forthcoming about the responsibilities and commitments that community members are expected to accept.

Key to sorting this out is understanding that an owner's property rights are distinct from a person's social contract as a member of the community. They are not the same thing. While it's very much in the community's interest to have property owners be members, the two do not automatically coincide.

While the property owner may have legal control over who they sell their property to (it depends on applicable laws and how things have been set up with the community), they do not have the right to unilaterally bless the buyer as a member of the community—which right rests solely with the community.

When these two concepts are conflated, mischief ensues.

The Power of Proactive Marketing

Because you want property ownership and community membership to go together, it is very much in the community's interest to play an active role in recruiting suitable buyers. In the ideal, the community will develop and maintain a waiting list of people you already have screened for suitability (value alignment, adequate financial means, and whatever else is on your wish list—maybe you're looking for a cellist for the chamber music ensemble, or a gourmet cook who can turn out elegant meals for 40), so that the exiting member will have an easy time selling and the community will be happy with the new member.

In one of the more creative versions of this, I know of a group where members have agreed to use the community as the real estate broker. In exchange for lining up a buyer (which the community has already determined it wants as a new member) it earns a commission on the deal, with the earnings going into a community improvement fund, thereby taking pressure off HOA dues. Nice.

However, if the group takes a passive, or hands-off approach in selecting the new buyer (which I don't recommend) it needs to step forward to assert its rights with respect to the social contract—establishing how the rights of membership in the community are tied to social behavior, not to property rights.

Misunderstanding Fair Housing Laws

Since 1968, it is US federal law that property owners cannot discriminate in who they rent or sell housing to on the basis of seven things: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status. (There are parallel strata laws in Canada, but I am not as cognizant of the details.) Many communities mistakenly interpret this to mean that they are obliged to accept as a member anyone who applies and can meet the financial requirements. Not so! In fact, it's legal to be selective on the basis of any criteria other than the seven protected classes. Of course, it's a nuanced question what qualities you may want to screen for—I'm only making the case that communities are not legally prohibited from doing so.

While communities may be constrained about who buys and rents real property, they have considerable leeway about who is a member of the community—and therefore eligible to enjoy the rights and privileges thereof. 

Make sure your group doesn't miss the boat on this.