Content warning: discussion of trauma, institutionalized racism, mentions of sexualized violence
With the Communities Conference hurtling around the bend, I’ve spent a good time digging through how I relate to community. Online articles have not been a particularly helpful reflection. Surprise, surprise. It’s easy to sensationalize the unfamiliar, and writers tend to haphazardly throw snake people into the mix. We are the ultimate paradox of a generation, simultaneously problems and martyrs.
Thankfully, my internet experience has been blessed by a Google Chrome extension that swaps “snake people” for “snake people,” which leads to charming titles such as “A Snake Person Named Bush” or “The Snake Person Commune.” In the case of the latter, the image of a New York high-rise filled with entitled, lizard overlords feels incredibly apt. (In the case of the former, the image of a family of lizard overlords steering the nation into disaster is also on point.)
With Purehouse’s website, the parallax scrolling might be sleek, but the description is incredibly coded: “An intentional way of life for adventurers and creators alike.”
The archetype of the young adventurer and creator is intimately knitted with the dynamics of neo-colonialism and the myth of individualism. Focus is centered on how an individual’s drive and how their individual actions hinder or cultivate success instead of the structural inequalities that govern what labor people perform, what resources they are given, as well as how their bodies are policed. The realities of class, gender, sexuality, nationality, ability, and race are erased in favor of ‘will power’. Beyond the elementary conversation of privilege – who gets what because of systems of power – there’s the consideration of harm. The archetype of the adventurer might be better recast in the role of the thief. The main page of the website used to feature two photos of a white man, back to us, surveying the rolling clouds and the sea. He’s probably going to go “discover” cooperatives (see: Columbusing), and this narrative of the plucky white adventurer leads to nonsense like a white man saying that, “Brooklyn lost its whole sense of adventure for me,” before skipping off to gentrify Detroit.
Who can afford this type of housing? Who is doing the labor of caring for the domestic space? It’s not the tenants for sure. Maid, laundry, and sometimes food service are included in the rent. It works because there is a team of curators who are actively building and maintaining this communal space, as well as others who are carrying the domestic labor. (GPaul Blundell, one of our workshop leaders, has already penned a pretty incisive critique of the packaged group-living situation and its snuggly relationship to capitalism.)
The creative class, which Stage 3 industries – mentioned in the original article “The Snake Person Commune” – actively caters to, is a class. It exists because lower classes complete the labor necessary for society to function. Entrepreneurs – and this should surprise no one – come from money. Where did that money come from? How was that money maintained and invested?
Why am I so relentlessly picking the bones of a short description? What does unfurling the narrative to peer at the sinews of the adventurer, the creator, and the creator have anything to do with cooperatives, group living, and communes?
Well, my academic training is in parsing apart stories. Narratives are our batteries: they power us forward and give energy to our action. The archetype of the adventurer, of discovering a “new place” (read: a place where folxs of color already live), feeds into a larger system of social power, and cooperatives and communes, by their very design, aim to disrupt that power.
Communal living can be a mode for survival under capitalism. The finances of it are pretty intuitive: you’re sharing resources and labor with a group of people, so you can do more for cheaper. What I’m interested in, however, is the emotional connection of community.
My long-term aim is to work as a psychotherapist specializing in trauma and bodywork, who dedicates her time to working with queer, low-income folx. (I use the term “folx” instead of “folk” to mark a politicized identity, similar to how Latin@ marks a politicized identity.) I want to find some way of integrating the model of residential and transitional living homes with cooperatives. Especially with marginalized folxs, their traumas are tangled with state and societal violence. It’s difficult to climb towards healing when you’re treading water, when your wages are being stolen from you, when your body is marked as a site of violence.
I chose to focus specifically on trauma and not coping mechanisms (such as addiction, eating disorders, self-harm) and mental illness as a general category. Trauma, and the construction of what is deemed traumatic or not, is a political enterprise. To recognize trauma is to acknowledge that something is wrong. Acknowledging the horrors of police brutality, of the prison industrial system, of sexualized violence, of homelessness is to be forced to action. Denial is a magnificent coping mechanism. It’s easier to erase an experience than come to terms with its full implications and then choose inaction.
This plugs right back into the idea of narratives.
The wide-scale treatment of trauma requires a political environment capable of holding the traumatic reality. With the Anti-Vietnam War movement came a fuller understanding of combat trauma. With Second Wave Feminism came the validation of children and women’s domestic reality and sexualized violence. There is more work to be done, however. When Americans think of PTSD, they tend to think of combat veterans and not womyn+, femmes, children, formerly incarcerated folxs, trans folxs, native folx, disabled folx, or folxs surviving poverty. Being in community, especially politicized community that educates itself on trauma and the dynamics of oppression, is a great way to safeguard ourselves and children especially against traumatic stress. Bad things will happen. They always do. But they don’t have to be absolutely life crippling if handled with compassion and stability. (The model of the isolated nuclear family is a disaster. We need to be more accountable to children and their experiences.) Trauma is serious business, and the buck doesn’t stop with the individual carrying the traumatic experience(s). It crawls into the family dynamic and might even impact the genetic material of children.
Communities have the marvelous potential to become sites of personal and political healing. To build systems that can feed, house, employ, and nurture people is therapeutic work. Having a place where your labor is valued, your needs are met, and where you have friends shouldn’t be as revolutionary as it is. At the most basic level, being in community makes me happy. When I’m in the whirlwind of school, overscheduled and underslept, being able to cook, clean, and share space with a co-op keeps me sane. I’m happier when I can work alongside peers and not for a boss. One of my favorite things of the moment is working with a student-run experimental college where we can follow our initiatives, trust each other, and have an astonishing amount of autonomy. I do better work when I’m engaged and responsible. Let’s make worker-owned everything happen, please.
Of course community is not going to work for everyone. It’s not a prescription but a possibility. Each person’s recovery looks different. What I would really love to see and help mold is an explicitly therapeutic cooperative model that can help launch people into other prospects.
This is why the packaged model of cohousing rubs like sandpaper. If what you’re doing isn’t challenging the main power structure and creating spaces for those who are marginalized, you’re maintaining the status quo. When you actively marketing narratives of capitalistic success and neocolonial exploration, you’re entrenching the status quo.
I don’t really care whether or not the packaged co-living model works. As critical as I’ve been, I feel tenderly towards the goal of creating a community that people can plug into. It breaks my heart slightly. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to be shoved down the avenue of co-ops and intentional communities, which only happened because I had enough privilege to land me in an expensive liberal arts college with a large co-operative system, I’d totally be hype about Purehouse and the chance to have friendly people asking me about my day. Loneliness and isolation suck. At least Purehouse is real with what they’re trying to do. They’re not trumpeting the revolution, and – at the very least – having a community to come home to is going to vastly improve the quality of life of its tenants. They can have that (as long as they’re paying their staff living wage).
Note: For those interested in reading more about trauma, Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery is a gem.