Service and Activism in Intentional Communities

Service and activism go hand in hand with intentional community. In a sense, central to the intent of intentional communities is providing the service of modeling an alternative society. But it’s also common for intentional communities to engage in service and activism beyond themselves, and our history is full of examples.

The Lord's SupperAn early Cooperative Community, New Harmony, founded in 1825 by Robert Owen, created the first store where items could be purchased based on labor credits. One of the first self-identified intentional communities, Celo Community, founded in 1937 by Arthur Morgan, received criticism for its opposition to World War II, and many of its early members were Quakers and conscientious objectors. In 1940, Arthur Morgan was also one of the founders of the original FIC, the Fellowship of Intentional Communities (now, we’re the Fellowship for Intentional Community, a subtle but important difference), a mutual aid association governed by representatives from member communities. Catholic Worker communities began appearing in 1933, practicing radical hospitality, advocating nonviolence, and opposing economic inequality and social injustice. Koinonia Farm, an interracial Christian community, was founded in 1942 on the principles of the equality of all persons, rejection of violence, ecological stewardship, and common ownership of possessions. Members of Koinonia would eventually start Habitat for Humanity in 1976. The Farm, founded in 1969, is often credited with rebirthing the midwifery movement in the US, and in 1974 formed Plenty, which is well known for its four-year presence in Guatemala helping rebuild after the earthquake of 1976.

Newer examples abound as well. The Camphill Communities and Innisfree Village have created communities for adults with developmental disabilities. Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon is a community with city support for the homeless population. The now defunct Rhizome Collective, in Austin, Texas housed a local Food Not Bombs chapter, a books to prisoners program, and a bikes across borders program. The Baltimore Free Farm cooked food for hundreds of demonstrators during recent protests in Baltimore following police shootings. Various communities, such as Occidental Arts and Ecology, Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, and EcoVillage at Ithaca, run education centers and programs. I was recently contacted by a woman interested in creating an intentional community for returning veterans, and I know of a retreat center looking to convert to a transitional community for people coming out of prison. There are individual members in just about every intentional community I’ve visited who are involved in all manner of peace and justice organizations.

“No [person] is an island,” and no community is an island either. It’s not possible for a community to be completely self-sufficient and sustainable in an unsustainable world, and there is no freedom or justice until there is freedom and justice for all. Inherent to the creation of intentional communities is a desire for another way of living. Creating and maintaining another way of living will always be an uphill battle until that way of living is accessible to everyone. As a predominantly white, middle-class movement, intentional communities have some soul- searching to do. It is not possible to remove yourself completely from the global economic system at this point. At their worst, intentional communities can be little more than examples of white flight, and by taking advantage of their privilege to avoid dealing with systemic injustice they are tacitly condoning those systems.

I’m writing this just days after the murders of Anton Sterling and Philando Castile by police. The aftermath, including the shooting of police officers in Dallas, has made the need to address racial injustice more apparent than ever. There is a resounding call for white people in particular to start showing up for racial justice (check out SURJ, which stands for Showing Up for Racial Justice, for some great ideas on what you can do and find local chapters at www.showingupforracialjustice.org). This doesn’t necessarily mean everyone should drop everything you’re doing, but it might mean some expansion of activities or a shift in focus, and it does mean that what you’re doing should be looked at to see how it can challenge systemic injustice, which disproportionately affects women, poor people, and people of color.

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 7.08.06 PMAnd as I write, I’m attending CommonBound, a conference organized by the New Economy Coalition (NEC), of which the FIC became a member last Fall. There are over 150 members of this coalition, including Yes! Magazine, the Highlander Center, Code Pink, the US and Canadian Federation of Worker Cooperatives, Earth Island Institute, Equal Exchange, and on and on. What they’re helping make clear is that all these issues, from housing and finance, to race and culture, to criminal justice and militarization, to climate change and energy, are interconnected.

At the opening plenary of CommonBound, the NEC’s program director, Anand Jahi, shared the story of his cousin, who was unarmed and shot by an off-duty police officer two years ago (you can find a full article by Anand on Yes! Magazine’s website). His cousin had been visiting the apartment complex he had lived at before he had been fired from his job for filing a racial discrimination complaint and then been evicted. The officer tried to arrest him for trespassing, eventually shooting him. Anand talked about the need to understand the economic devastation, which disproportionately affects people of color compared to whites, that is often the backdrop for these shootings. It’s dangerous to be black in America, he said, but it’s even more dangerous to be black and poor in America.

The privilege to create and live in communities where you have a relative level of economic security and physical safety should be a right to which everyone has access. The power to have an equal say in the conditions of your life, for the decisions that affect people to be made by the those people, should be a right. A key theme of the opening plenary was sovereignty and self-determination for people and communities. Intentional communities are often seen as laboratories, and I’ve often thought that self-determination, through collective ownership and participatory governance, is a key aspect of what intentional communities are trying to develop and model. There are many forces working against this: the criminal justice system and prison industrial complex; the military industrial complex; corporate rule and neo-colonialism; systemic racism, sexism, and classism in financing, housing, and business; lack of access to basic resources needed for self-sufficiency. The right to self-determination and the access to the resources necessary for self-sufficiency were quintessential aspects of the commons, a social structure that has largely disappeared in today’s world, but was once the basis for livelihood for masses of people. The earth is the commons and all people should have equal access to the resources and decision-making about our common home. For those of us with the privilege to enjoy this access, at least to a greater degree than others, we have a responsibility to help make those privileges available to all people equally in a way that is sustainable for the planet

The nature of intentional communities is that those of us who live in them are in service to each other. As self-managed, self-governing entities, we are collectively responsible for meeting the needs of the community as a whole as well as the individuals, because the individuals are part of the whole community. An attitude of service goes a long way to creating harmony in community, and the world. As social experiments, those who live in intentional communities are essentially activists, and must be active in their responsibility both for the success of the community and in the impact the community has on the world around it. Being an activist is essentially about responsibility and accountability, and taking those on also goes a long way to creating harmony in community, and the world.

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