The ubiquitous question what do you want to be when you grow up directly translates to how do you want to sell your labor? It’s a cliché that has little to do with personal growth, and at five years old my answer was that I had no plan of selling my labor. I wanted to be a businessperson, which was code for rich and successful, who ran a sweatshop à la Nike, Gap, or any other mega behemoth. The basic fact that sweatshops, with their criminal wages, unsafe working condition, long hours, and position within the larger global market of exploitation, were evil was quickly reasoned away with kid logic that held exploiting people was the best way to make a fast buck and that anyone saying otherwise was being stupid because they were sacrificing profit.
Obviously I don’t believe that anymore. I wouldn’t be spending my summer at an egalitarian community working as an intern for Twin Oak’s 2015 Communities Conference if I did, but it is absolutely terrifying that as I child I had internalized capitalist thinking to the extent that oppression felt not only like the natural end but the smart solution to the difficulties of production. It’s beyond terrifying that a good portion of adults still cling to the misconceptions of five-year old me.
I fell into community and co-ops by sheer luck and a massive mound of privilege. (I had the privilege to shop around colleges, to know that I was going to college, and to be able to foot the huge tuition bill. Yikes.) When I was college-touring in my junior year of high school, I visited Oberlin College and for the first time heard about co-ops and a large basis for college decision. The Oberlin Student Cooperative Association (OSCA) sounded like an absolute dream, and I didn’t find any other school that seemed to have an Experimental College (ExCo), where students, community members, and teachers can teach and take classes for credit. I’ve just completed my second year of study, and am involved in both of my giant swoons. I cook and eat in OSCA and am a committee member at ExCo. Both have prepared me well for Twin Oaks, which feels like OSCA with industry. Their labor sheet is our workchart, the quotas might be different but I don’t have to manage a full course load and other activities here, and their kitchen is beautifully organized. I swooned so hard when I saw it on the tour.
Capitalism narrows our vision. Tanya at eighteen would have bristled at the idea of communal living and income sharing because it seemed impossible to fulfill her hungry ambition outside of the corporate ladder, just as Tanya at five thought dehumanization and oppression were the only options in fulfilling her needs of connection, security, and comfort. The nice things I want are fresh goat cheese, warm food, infused balsamic vinegar, homemade ice cream, good friends, contra dances, an endless stretch of hammocks, a mountain range of books. I could get some of these nice things at some ritzy store that’s slowly corroding a neighborhood and stealing homes through gentrification. Or I can drizzle fresh produce with fancy handmade salad dressing when cooking in a co-op with my friends. More than anything, the nice thing I want is time.
To paraphrase R.A. Washington – poet, musician, founding member of Guide to Kulcher, a volunteer-run bookstore that operates Cleveland Books 2 Prisoners and Guide to Kulcher Press: time is the enemy of the poor because the day becomes a cycle to survive. Even in my position as a white-passing, economically comfortable woman completing a college degree, I need all the time I can get. All through high school I packed activities into every spare moment with the end goal of crawling into a good college. At Oberlin, I pack my schedule with classes, activities, projects, committees, and forty-five minute chunks of friendships that my friends sign up for on my calendar so I can hopefully get some type of job after graduation. It’s unsustainable. What I see as the magical potential of intentional communities and cooperatives is they can ensure survival by meeting at least the bare basic needs. Community allows people to reclaim time. It seems simple. In OSCA and Twin Oaks, you know that there’s going to be food for you. You don’t have to cook your own meals, buy individually packaged groceries, or clean each and every dish you do. At Twin Oaks, you can live your life, which is a marvelously underrated thing.
I am beyond psyched for the opportunity to plug into this work and continue learning and growing from those who have existed in community before I have. It was at the NASCO 2014 Conference that I heard about this income-sharing community that made tofu and hammocks and expanded my perception of the purpose and radical potential of community. When folks get together to share knowledge, experience, and challenge each other, wondrous things can happen. I’m absolutely gushy and ridiculously excited. The five-year-old Tanya who said she wanted to be a businessperson was ambivalent about exploiting others and perpetuating harmful systems. It seemed to be the only way to meet goals and needs that she couldn’t even articulate at that point in her consciousness. At this point, I’m already grown up and I don’t have an answer to the question of what I want to be. I’m weary about having to sell my labor. Finding alternative economic systems and alternative questions to ask ourselves and each other seems like a better investment of time.
Beyond my questionable childhood goals, here are some fun facts about me:
- I also want to recreate Jim Hodges’ “Untitled (one day it all comes through)” (2013) on the back of my jean jacket.
- I’m going into my junior year at Oberlin College, where I’m studying Comparative American Studies and collecting a ridiculous amount of minors.
- I crochet scrap rugs and have been collecting hammock scraps to crochet waterproof rugs.
- One of my close friendships was legit formed on a mutual love of garlic.
- I can recite all of Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass.
- I grew up in Thailand and recently discovered one of the members of Twin Oaks went to the same middle school as me.
- Because of cooking in co-ops, I have no sense of proportion. Absolutely a meal for two people needs five onions and a pitcher full of lentils.
- One of my life goals is to get good enough at embroidery to start doing ‘needle paintings’ of classic paintings. Some on the list include Frantisek Kupka’s “Study for Petals” (1919), Joan Semmel’s “Green Heart” (1971), Winslow Homer’s “The Fox Hunt” (1893), and feminist reinterpretations of John William Waterhouse’s “Ophelia” (1851-2) and “The Lady of Shalott” (1888).