the Communities Conference as a network

the Communities Conference as a network: an interview

by Paige Carlson

I sat down to talk with Sky, who has been helping organize the Communities Conference in varying degrees for 18 years, he is currently serving as the executive director for the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC), and is actively working on growing a flourishing lawn at the conference site at Twin Oaks Community, which is also where he lives. I was interested to know his thoughts and feelings about what goes on there. Following is my synthesis of what he had to say:

But first, i want to define intentional communities and the communities movement, in this writing, intentional communities is used to refer to “groups of people who live together or share common facilities and who regularly associate with each other on the basis of explicit common values,” (definition from the FIC values page) these often look like housing co-ops and communes. The communities movement is the social and economic movement towards co-operation in the stewardship of resources guided by explicit common values. These phrases are used to refer to communities that self identify as Communities as such and usually have some knowledge about the larger communities movement, though there are many other communities that do not formally identify as a part of the communities movement but have kindred structures, Wildseed community in New York is an example.

what is the Communities Conference? (or, the communities conference as a door)

First and foremost the Communities Conference is an opportunity for people living in, or interested in living in, communities to come together to meet, co-educate, and for the people who already know each other to gather in reunion. People camp, or stay at a neighboring facility, and all meals are provided. There are workshops which are relevant and useful to intentional communities. Last year the theme was inclusivity and diversity, and we had 8 workshops on the theme, most led or co-led by POC and folks from other marginalized groups. This year we’re carrying that theme forward, as well as bringing in content on cooperative business and sustainable building. 

In a segment in the program called Meet the Communities, the communities who are present share about themselves to the group, creating space for them to learn about one another. Sky says, “knowing each other and knowing what’s out there helps to strengthening our movement, especially when we rely so much on word of mouth and there is little to no frame of reference for what living in community is like for huge swaths of the population.” Sky also reflects that there are more and more people coming into communities and the conference these days by doing things like internet searching for “are there any more 60s communes?” and after discovering the conference attend without previous experience, or discover only one community on the internet and move directly to it. In this way the Communities Conference is a place in which people who know of only one community can come into knowing the larger networks.

who is best served by this event?

Sky says, “People from new and struggling communities can benefit from what they can learn from other ‘veteran’ communities, and have fun. If they’re new and struggling things are probably stressful at home for them, and there is opportunity to have fun with people who you know get the struggles you are having and are coming from a similar experience.” He gives me a knowing look here.

There is also a contingent of people who come year after year and have been coming for a long time, the conference is like a family reunion for them, and Sky, and he believes that from a movement building perspective that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Best served are also the people who just did an internet search or heard a whisper of community on the wind of communities. Sky says, “We do a good job of offering an introductory experience into the world of communities. Also, Twin Oaks is part of a sort of neighborhood of communities and part of the conference is a tour of the five neighborhood communities: Twin Oaks, Acorn, Living Energy Farm (LEF), Cambia, and Mimosa. You can come, maybe expecting to learn about just one community, and get a tour of four more all of different sized, with different focuses, and at different stages of development.”

what is the culture like at the conference?

There are structured group times, workshops and meals. Friday evening there is an opening circle, as wells as Saturday afternoon circle, and Sunday morning closing circle. Sky says. “These are spaces where we get people talking to each other and create space for them to get to know each other. We have more emphasis on that than other conferences do. We also discuss the norms of the conference, stuff like: taking photos, consent, peeing outside, quiet hours and smoking, which helps provide an experience of being in community intentionally. We make a lot announcements throughout the weekend and that’s an opportunity to create group cohesion. We have a work exchange as a payment option and we also have everyone who comes to the conference expect to work 2-3 hours as a way of sustaining the conference and building a sense of community amongst the participants.”

what about social justice? (or, the communities conference as a window)

Sky reflects and says “What does a future look like where all of these social and economic movements are successful? is a question that intentional communities attempt to answer,” or extrapolate on.

“The lived experience of being a part of communities is hard to quantify in terms of its ‘activism’ or ‘social change’ because they are often composed by and contain segments of broader social movements and the beginnings of expressing a holistic vision that we can work toward and hopefully live inside of.”

“Intentional communities ally with movements that are working for more explicit structural change within the current governing systems. This creates a strength via a two way street of resources and knowledge. For example the larger intentional communities organization, the FIC, is a member of the New Economy Coalition which is an organization fostering relationships between groups, organizations, and communities who are working to build more just, sustainable, and cooperative economies.”

“It is true that the communities movement is disproportionately white.” Sky says, “though, i think it’s less white than we think it is, because the communities movement is essentially a network of groups and white people have been at the center of it, who know each other in varying degrees. We tend to associate with people of the same race, leaders tend to be white tend and tend to have white friends, this directs who we know and who we know about especially. There are more people of color led intentional communities out there that are not within the “mainstream” of the communities movement.”

“In regards to the makeup of our communities, part of privilege is being about be able to avoid the conversation about it, and if nothing else I intend to keep bringing it up. The theme of last year was Inclusivity and Social Justice, and I hope that that becomes not just a theme but a regular part of the programming.”

Intentional communities put themselves in a position of stewarding resources. Sky wonders, “How can we get support to groups who are working on the ground by leveraging, funneling, and directing resources and knowledge?”

“Communities exist as models for collectivizing. As more and more people start to need to do it out of necessity models for doing it well will be more and more important.”

how does the communities conference effect twin oaks?

Sky says, “I think in all communities, especially rural communities, there’s a danger of becoming insular. It’s helpful for Twin Oaks to remember other people, other communities, and the broader communities movement. Sometimes people who live at Twin Oaks have never been to another community, so it’s a good chance to meet and see others.”

what’s your favorite part of the communities conference?

Sky smiles, “the dance party for sure! Also any time, when i look around and everyone looks really absorbed in each other and what they are doing. I’ve started doing this from time to time during the conference to see how we’re doing. If everyone seems positively, highly engaged, I feel like we’re doing something important. They almost always do.”

the beginnings of a communities conference national event

There are 3 committees conference around the country at similar times. The same weekend as Communities Conference, is the Southwest Inter-Community retreat at Llama foundation, and soon after is the West Coast Communities Conference. Sky shares, “It is a hope of mine for the communities conference to become a national event.”

in conclusion

From what i gathered talking with Sky it seems as though there are opportunities to learn more about communities currently in existence, meet people who may have similar interests and desired living paths, and camp in the woods in Virginia with people working towards more interpersonal and infrastructural organizational harmony and joy.  




30 years of community building

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Fellowship for Intentional Community. A lot has changed in 30 years.

For one, in 1987 the internet wasn’t commercially available. No websites, no email. As a child of the digital age it’s hard for me to fathom how people found communities before the internet, and how communities found each other. And yet, the network existed well before the FIC came

Communities magazine started in 1972 as an amalgamation of several newsletters about communal living, which was a result of meetings at that year’s Twin Oaks Communities Conference. The first issue of Communities included the first Communities Directory. It also mentioned the North American Students of Cooperation, which focuses on student housing cooperatives, and was formed in 1968. But like the FIC, it is a successor to an organization that goes back to the 1940s. We are growing this movement in very rich soil that’s been cultivated for generations by people all over the country who somehow had the passion, dedication, and faith to build their communities and build a movement.

The social and political landscape has also changed dramatically. The counterculture and back-to-the- land movements of the ’60s and ’70s birthed many of the communities prominent in 1987, yet the schism with mainstream society they represented was only widening and intentional communities were becoming increasingly obscure and marginalized. It was an important time for the FIC to come together to help keep the momentum going.

Before long, in the early ’90s, cohousing and ecovillages would join the mix and help begin the
process of bringing intentional communities back to a more mainstream audience. Progressive
movements and organizations in general were recovering from the Reagan era, and with the
explosion of the internet, organizing for peace and justice only became easier. Things like the
Zapatista uprising in Mexico,, and the WTO protests in Seattle in ’99 started
showing us what was possible.

The 2000s were about the world finally coming to recognize that there are global problems
facing humanity as a whole. And as we progress through the 2010s, it’s clear that more and more
people are looking for solutions. Intentional communities have always been models of integrated
solutions, merging social, economic, and ecological concerns. But while the stalwarts of previous
generations struggled to get this across to society, it seems younger people understand this
intuitively. A number of news outlets have contacted us about the surging interest amongst
millennials in intentional community; the interest major news outlets have been showing in
intentional communities clearly represents a growing recognition in society that there must be a
better way to do things.

There is so much wisdom embedded in the last 30 years of this movement and beyond. Sometimes wheels
do need to be reinvented, and sometimes people just need to learn from their own mistakes, but
sometimes knowledge can be shared and utilized and we can move beyond the challenges that
vexed previous generations.

In some ways, the world belongs to the youngest generation. They are the ones who will have to
deal with the mess we’ve made. The social, economic, and ecological problems intentional
communities have long sought to address are only compounding. Old ways of doing things might
simply no longer be relevant. But history does repeat, and the collected experience of decades of
community builders is invaluable. The commitment and perseverance that people brought to
their efforts to create the amazing intentional communities we see today cannot be
underestimated. Let’s carry forward the best of the past as we create a better future.

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 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.

An Ecovillage With Ambition

If you haven’t heard about Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage you probably will soon (in fact, you just did!) For the most part, people unfamiliar with intentional communities might still have heard about The Farm or Twin Oaks, which have both been around nearly 50 years and gotten a lot of press and study. By contrast, DR has only been around 17 years, but has become one of the most well known communities. Why? Because it’s on a mission!

PhotobyAaronMurphy4First off, it’s one of the few communities to make some serious commitments to ecological sustainability. It’s ecological covenants require it, among other things, to use virtually no fossil fuels, and only use electricity generated from renewable sources. It’s aiming to grow to a population of 500 – 1000. It also has a clear education and outreach mission, and the community incorporates an educational non-profit, DR Inc., to coordinate those activities.

In addition to running events and programs at the ecovillage, DR Inc. has been working with academics and researchers. One project is to create a carbon footprint test that works for communities (those that exist are all based on individuals or families.) Media interface is also key to DR’s work, and DR Inc’s Executive Director, Ma’ikwe Ludwig, has been on a national speaking tour following a wildly successful TEDx talk she gave. Also, DR has maintained a close connection with the Fellowship for Intentional Community over the years, with numerous if it’s members serving as Board members or Staff for the FIC.

At this point DR is up to about 70 people. There’s still lots of room to grow, and there’s also existing houses for sale, for those who want to jump into this lifestyle but aren’t up for the challenge of building a home themselves. Interested in more? Here’s a couple opportunities:

9-Day Permaculture Design Course at an Ecovillage
permacourseshareWhat do you get when you mix an ecovillage and a permaculture design course (PDC)?  An unparalleled adventure in sustainable, solutions-oriented living! Your ticket to adventure is right around the corner, when Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage hosts it’s first ever Permaculture Design Course, August 29-Sept 6, 2015. This PDC blends theory and inspiration with practical, hands-on, how-to activities, in a classroom that’s been a living experiment in sustainable human habitat for the last 17 years!
Come Begin Your Life in an Ecovillage
robiniaWant to live a low-impact earth-friendly lifestyle? Want to live in a community where others share your values? Does creating a culture of sharing, communication, and support sound good to you? If you answered yes, then check out Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage’s Visitor Program to find out if living at Dancing Rabbit might be right for you!

The Global Ecovillage Network

I became an international networker last week. I didn’t mean to. But apparently unexpected things happen at Findhorn Community, in Scotland. I was there for the 20th anniversary summit of the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN), and it was the first event I’ve attended with my new title of Executive Director of the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC).IMG_0272

I’d heard about GEN, and its regional counterpart, the Ecovillage Network of the Americas (ENA) soon after moving to Twin Oaks in 1999. GENs gestation began around 1991, when the newly formed Gaia Trust funded a study called the Ecovillages and Sustainable Communities Report. A seminal event, also at Findhorn, was held in 1995, 20 years ago. Apparently the creation of GEN, while in discussion, wasn’t even on the agenda for that event, but arose as a clear desire of those who attended. From the beginning the purpose of GEN has been to network and facilitate support for communities and the individuals working to develop them.

Twin Oaks Community has been an important node in the network of communities for a long time, and this network is a global network. Most Twin Oakers don’t realize this. But pretty much everyone I met from Europe, Latin America, or Australia/New Zealand, and some from other parts of the world, had heard of Twin Oaks.

IMG_0345While Twin Oaks has never identified as an ecovillage it certainly could. There’s no strict definition for ecovillages, and the definitions that exist act more like a vision of where we’d like to get to, as well as qualities to embody. Ecologically, Twin Oaks almost certainly has a smaller footprint than many self-identified ecovillages, at least in the developed world. And while many ecovillages may espouse sustainability, they’re not necessarily actively working towards it any more than Twin Oaks. But I’ve always appreciated how unpretentious Twin Oaks is. We’re not going to call ourselves something unless we’re willing to back it up. Also at play here is that the term intentional community already filled a certain niche in the US before the term ecovillage came along, whereas the term ecovillage filled a gap in other parts of the world. So, to some degree is just semantics, and Twin Oaks is seen as an ecovillage in the international network, and is certainly part of this global family.

IMG_0358A feeling of family on a global level was one of the most powerful things I got out of the summit. There were people from communities from dozens of countries on every continent, and it was amazing to experience the cultural affinity between people from such a diversity of cultures.  These are people working so hard from a deep reverence for the earth, a deep compassion and love for humanity, seeking balance. The passion and caring I heard in everyone’s voices and in their stories was awe inspiring. This is what they’re dedicating their lives to. It was humbling and an honor to have a place amongst these people.

IMG_0373There were some particularly poignant stories. A woman from China talked about how their ecovillage had been destroyed by the government three times. Apparently one time they were told that the reason for the displacement was that their ecovillage was too advanced for China.  At this point they’ve figured out that if they only have a few people actually living together and present it as eco-tourism they can get away with it.

There was a woman from Palestine, who lives part time in Tamera, an ecovillage in Portugal. She’s working on developing an ecovillage network in the Middle East, which is made difficult in part because, as a Palestinian, she has an Israeli passport, and the only countries in the region she is able to travel to are Lebanon and Egypt. She’d also like to support connections between arabic-speaking and Israeli ecovillages, but she said that in some places in Palestine she could be shot as a collaborator if she works with Israelis.

IMG_0343There were several people from Africa. It sounded like their governments are more friendly and embracing of the ecovillage concept, but again, it gets mixed up with eco-tourism, and the governments tend to want to exert some control. Also, the telecommunications infrastructure I so take for granted is so much further behind. They talked about trying to have meetings using Facebook messaging, and it sometimes taking hours for a message to get through to someone in another country.

It was interesting to hear how in developing countries, the development of ecovillages is as often about transitioning traditional villages and creating new ones. The Sarvodaya network in Sri Lanka, a GEN member, includes thousands of villages working to become sustainable.

It’s important to understand what GEN means by sustainability. It’s a multidimensional concept covering ecological, economic, social, and spiritual aspects of human life and habitat. At this point GEN embraces a wide range of different kinds of projects working towards sustainability, which is in part because the regions, most recently CASA, are embracing a broader range. This is something that has always been true for the FIC, and was a point of discussion in the last couple years in the conversations about the FIC participating in GEN activities.

IMG_0269Like Twin Oaks, the FIC is also well known in GEN. GEN is made up of regional networks, Europe, Africa, Asia/Oceania, North America, and South America, with work being done to form a network in the Middle East. Those networks are often made up of national networks, and the FIC is one of the few national networks to pre-date GEN. ENA was one of the first GEN networks to form, and a number of the people who helped form ENA were also involved with the FIC. In turn, some of the key people in ENA were key in the development of GEN in the first decade.

A funny thing is that this summit is where I first met a couple of the key people involved with GEN in North America. Jeff Clearwater has been involved with this stuff for a long time, and was active in the FIC quite a while ago, and is a name I’ve heard for over a decade. He turns out to be a really great guy, with a new initiative called Village Labs. Russ Purvis is one of the main organizers of the Ecovillage Network of Canada (ENC), and has been virtually engaging in discussions between the FIC, ENA, and ENC. I’ve heard his voice and read his emails, and now I know him as a real person who cares deeply and passionately about this movement. Diana Christian, a superstar in the movement, is someone I had the opportunity to met when I brought her to a Twin Oaks Communities Conference something like 12 years ago, but haven’t seen since. I also got to meet Alberto Ruiz, who has been an important figure in the movement from Mexico, and who the FIC just awarded it’s Kozeny Communitarian Award. He came with great credentials and recommendations, and as a Board member I took it on faith that he was the right person to give the award to. Now that I’ve met him, it’s abundantly clear that he was the right person, and gives us an opportunity to redevelop ties with our Mexican family.

IMG_0330ENA has been through quite a transformation over the years, and this summit appears to be an important turning point. Albert Bates, from the Farm Community, where he created the Ecovillage Training Center, and has been involved in all manner of networking and organizing, was one of the main emissaries from the formation of GEN to catalyze ENA. From the beginning it was clear to him and the people he pulled in that it needed to not be a white man’s network, based and most active in the US, with Latin America a supporting character. One of the first gatherings of ENA, while held in the US, included delegates from 19 countries. Over the years, much of the regional organizing was focused on Latin America. Another factor in the evolution of ENA was that the FIC was already on the scene doing regional networking in the US, and to some extent Canada, with important but minimal connections in Mexico. As the network in Latin America developed it became clear that as a culturally and linguistically distinct region from the US and Canada it needed it’s organization. In 2012 they split off and formed CASA, with Mexico joining them. Around the same time ENC formally left ENA, due to some conflicts and disputes. The GEN Constitution actually mandates that a global region of GEN must consist of at least 3 countries, and a special exception was written in to allow the US and Canada to constitute a region.

A couple years ago now, the FIC was invited into discussions with ENA and ENC in the reformation of the North American network. While what was left of ENA had been very active on the International stage, they hadn’t been doing much in the US, and were interested in shifting that. The ENC was also keen to partner with the FIC, to build the network in Canada and between Canada and the US. At some point it became clear that lingering tensions between ENA and ENC were hampering forward motion, and the FIC pushed for mediation, which it offered to facilitate, before considering further collaboration. This process largely took place before the summit over video and phone calls, and, in effect, continued during it. It was clearly useful to have people in the same place, talking face to face, and, again, it is ironic that we had to come across an ocean to make this happen.

At this point, the conflicts, while perhaps not fully resolved, seem to be resolved enough, and allowed for some key shifts to occur. One, ENA is going to rename itself GEN-US. Questions were still raised as to the point of continuing it as a distinct entity from the FIC, as opposed to a merger, but we’re taking it one step at a time. And now there is a serious proposal on the table to create a new GEN North America (GENNA) council, consisting of reps from GEN-US, ENC, the FIC, NextGEN North America, and possibly also CASA Mexico. These important shifts all come at a pivotal moment for GEN as well.

Just a couple weeks before the summit, Gaia Trust made an earthshaking offer to GEN. It proposed to almost triple its funding of GEN over the next 3 to 5 years, to support GEN creating a new strategic plan and business model, to both further the development and professionalism of the organization, as well as to move towards greater financial sustainability. GEN has been lucky to have a major funder for all these years, but it’s also meant that it hasn’t worked on developing diverse income streams and the ability to endure should Gaia Trust support decrease or evaporate. It’s a tricky proposal to increase this support in the service of helping GEN decrease its need for it. But in particular, this increase means that GEN will be able to adequately pay key staff people, which has been a barrier to developing the self-sufficiency of the organization.

This is the right time for this to happen. GEN and it’s regions, particularly in Europe and Africa, have had success in interfacing with a broad range of government agencies as well as NGOs, and are being consulted more and more often as leaders in transition strategies to sustainability. Strategic partnerships are on the rise, particularly with Gaia Education, another project funded by the Gaia Trust. Media attention is increasing (for example, in the last 10 months Twin Oaks has been visited by Al Jazeera America, CNN online, Yahoo! News, and, next week, by ABC Nightline news). A clear shift has happened in the public consciousness: an increased recognition and acceptance of the problems facing humanity followed by a desire to look for positive solutions.IMG_0382

One of the keynoters at the summit was Ross Jackson, who founded Gaia Trust with his wife Hildur. He talked about the importance of long range planning, and offered a quote about anything worth doing needing at least 40 years to come to fruition. We’re 20 years in, and we’ve built so much. It’s exciting to imagine what the next 20 will bring.


What does community mean?

Community is an important buzzword these days. People recognize that social structures are deteriorating and that people want more of a sense of connection with others. Suburbia is almost perfectly designed to keep interaction to a minimum. Consumerism and capitalism are other important factors. We’re bombarded by messages promoting individual ownership, which is supported by laws and financial institutions.


Members of Acorn Community, founded 1993.

Intentional communities have been working on this problem since the early nineteenth century, and since 1987 The Fellowship for Intentional Community has been their primary resource and proponent in the US. The term Intentional Community dates back to at least the 1940. There’s the communes from the 60’s. Housing co-operatives have been around since the industrial revolution, with the current branches being the North American Students of Cooperation and the National Association of Housing Cooperatives. Ecovillage is a more contemporary, and international term that many groups have adopted. Cohousing is a popular model of intentional community in the US, and was created in Denmark in the 1960’s. There are lots of new experiments popping all the time that don’t necessarily have a connection to these other models or the history of the movement, and may not even want to be associated.

Intentional community (IC) can serve as an umbrella term for these different forms of collective living. But what is it that connects these groups? What defines an IC?

strip mall town center

Is this community?

Before I deal with that I want ask, what does community mean? I’ve seen strip malls called things like The Springfield Community Center. There are online communities. Is a city of one million people a community, or is it a collection of communities? I want to offer a definition of community:

A community is a network of social and economic relationships and the places where those relationships interact.

This is a broad yet restrictive definition. It means that just living near each other, as in a suburban neighborhood, doesn’t mean you’re in community. There’s no economic exchange, and, for most, little social engagement. Classic condominium developments are more like what I would call community, because there are public facilities that are financed by fees, usually in the context of a Homeowners Association (HOA). But usually the social engagement is so thin that calling it a community feels like a stretch. Community is often used in conjunction with a group of people in a city or locale that are struggling together against some form of oppression. In these cases there usually is a strong network of social relationships, and often quite a bit of non-monetized economic exchange (e.g. sharing childcare duties so people can go to meetings or demonstrations.)

I’m on the fence as to whether online communities count. There are social and sometimes economic relationships, and they interact in certain places, even though those places are virtual. But I don’t think they serve some of the same functions that real life communities serve, at least not as well, but they are very important in many people’s lives.

Community is tangible; community is cohesive; community brings people together in ways that allow them to do things they couldn’t have done in isolation.

Within this context, this is how I would define an IC:

An IC has a shared purpose and set of values; the people who live in it are economically entwined to some degree; there is a definition for membership in the community and a process for becoming a member.


The People’s Food Co-op in Portland, OR, which operates as a consumer and worker co-op hybrid – a kind of intentional community?

There’s a lot of leeway in this definition of ICs as well. I think it’s important that a group articulate their purpose and values, but this doesn’t need to be a formal Vision/Mission statement. It could be entirely oral, but it needs to be present and understood in the discourse and culture of the community.

Similarly, the economic exchange could be minimal. It could look like a tool lending library and monthly potlucks, though that would be pushing it, and in itself would not constitute an intentional community (though I might call it a community). Generally, ICs are typified by shared ownership of property. In many communities it’s just the land that’s held in common, with individuals holding title to the actual residential structures. Usually there are some kinds of common facilities that members contribute to monetarily, and usually with some amount of labor.

The membership aspect is perhaps the key distinction for ICs. As opposed to a suburban neighborhood where you just buy a house and move in, intentional communities have a process by which they decide who gets to move in, or at least who becomes a member and what it means to be a member (i.e. rights and responsibilities). Again, condominiums with HOAs are much closer, and to some degree Cohousing, where the community may not have control over who moves in, could be seen as just an extreme version of the condominium model.

So, what’s the point of all this? Well, people want more community. Why? Because contemporary life in mainstream America (in particular; it’s certainly not limited here) is incredibly dissatisfying for most people. When people get more satisfaction from their interpersonal relationships they seek consumption and entertainment less. This has both an ecological and a financial benefit. It’s cheaper and wastes less resources.

Intentional community also has the potential to be a model for elevating poverty and homelessness, though currently the financial barriers make IC’s inaccessible to people below middle-class. It also has the potential to model how people can increase the power they have over the circumstances of their daily lives. This is a big deal if we can figure out how to make the model of and lessons learned by ICs more accessible and relevant to the broader public.

It’s time to bring community to the masses.

EarthDeeds: Carbon and Cash

danielI’ve known Daniel Greenberg for a while now. He pioneered the Living Routes ecovillage education program, which I was a big fan of. He’s also been involved with the Ecovillage Network of the Americas and the Global Ecovillage Network for a long time, not to mention a long time friend of the FIC. So when he contacted me about his new initiative, EarthDeeds, I immediately paid attention.

Money’s been on my mind for a while (don’t worry I’ll tie this back in). My efforts to revamp the Communities Conference kitchen had me do my first crowdfunding campaign. I’m working with a forming ecovillage that’s looking at a multi-million dollar development cost. The FIC is actively looking at how to increase revenues to expand programs. Money is a challenging thing, but it’s essential to all the amazing things we want to do. We don’t want to deal with it but were constantly trying to figure out how to get more of it. This is part of why we decided this year’s Monday program would be Money in Community.

earthdeeds logoEarthDeeds is working to funnel money towards eco-minded projects, while also addressing one of the core conundrums environmentalist organizers face: burning carbon to go to great events. Not only do a lot of the great things we want to do cost money, many of them involve burning fossil fuels. We’re working on creating a sustainable world, and organizing on national and international levels is an important part of that.

We decided to partner with EarthDeeds this year to help address our corresponding contributions to climate change. EarthDeeds is pioneering the concept of onsetting (as opposed to carbon offsetting). The idea is pretty similar, but with a much more grassroots approach.

Participants will be asked to calculate their carbon emissions from travel on the EarthDeeds website. This will give them an amount of money they’re asked to contribute or raise to go towards a project. There will be a crowdfunding aspect in that the participants can raise the money from others rather than donating it themselves, i.e. anyone will be able to donate.

We’ll be accepting project proposal until July 1st. By July 15th we’ll announce the finalists. At that point we will create a multi-voting system by which 3 projects will be selected for funding. Voting will end on Aug 15th, after which the 3 projects to be funded will be announced. Donations will be accepted until the end of the conference on Monday, Sept 7th.


West Coast Community Ramblings

I don’t know how to take a vacation. Maybe it would be different if I went to a typical vacation location. But even then I don’t think I’d know what to do with myself.

My vacations consist of visiting family and friends, which invariably means I end up visiting communities, and on my recent pilgrimage back to my native land of California I had the opportunity to visit several.

groundswell group shotA key goal in the trip was to visit the newly founded Groundswell Institute, which will be the site of the West Coast Communities Conference, October 9 – 11. This community, about a 2 1/2 hr drive north of the Bay Area, was started by a group of radical faeries from San Fransisco last August. They managed to purchase a full functional, permitted and certified summer camp, complete with commercial kitchen and cabin space for 80 people. The land is gorgeous, with a year round creek and spring (incredibly valuable in drought ridden California). They’ve already hosted 5 events since occupying the site and have a bunch more planned for this year.
oaec guest house for real

While in the neighborhood, I visited my good friend Janel Healy, former Twin Oaks Communities Conference manager, and now Online Projects Manager for the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. This community is heavily focused on educational programs. Janel showed me around their beautiful, brand new guest cabins, which were built to help accommodate more high profile supporters, like movie stars and politicians. It was interesting to see them and what they represent. In another context, the FIC and Dancing Rabbit, in considering a joint fundraising project, were faced with the concept of the culture of philanthropy. Basically, what do you have to do to be friendly to major donors? It’s a big question intentional communities with education and outreach missions need to face. Here I saw a direct manifestation of that.

tryon yurt group shotI made my way up to Oregon and made a quick stop at Tryon Life Community Farm, where I lived for a few months back in 2008. Tryon has been devloping it’s 6 acres and two large residential buildings into an education, demonstration, and events center for 10 years now. One of my favorite parts about the community is that they are surrounded on 3 sides by a 750 acre state park, but are only 5 miles from downtown Portland. You can be in the woods, gardening at this incredible community, and a 45 minute bike ride later you can be in the heart of possibly the most progressive city in the country. I got to catch up with my old friend Jenny Leis, a Tryon founder, who I’d first met when she did a visitor period at Twin Oaks in 2001. We’ve had the good fortune of staying in touch and getting to watch and cheer each other on as we’ve each grown as movement builders.

fullbloom1 copyAfter picking up Marta and Roberto, a couple more dear friends and former Twin Oakers, in Eugene, we drove down to visit Full Bloom community in the Little Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon. A couple we’d met two years ago at the Communities Conference, Victor and Elena, had just moved there for a trial period and we wanted to check it out. Full Bloom has possibly the most beautiful common house I’ve ever seen. And for a community that is organized around individual finances has some of the strongest emphasis on shared facilities I’ve ever seen. There’s a steep buy-in ($150K) but that primarily goes towards building you a home. fullbloom2 copyThey’re looking to expand their educational activities and are actively looking for new owner/members.

Everywhere I went I shared about what’s going at Twin Oaks these days, talked up the West Coast Communities Conference, and generally got to talk shop and compare notes on the nuts and bolts of community living as well as what’s up in the larger movement. It was an exhausting yet inspiring vacation. I wouldn’t have it any other way.






The importance of Cohousing

Cohousing is a fascinating model of intentional community. It originated in Europe, particularly Denmark. It’s success in the US (at least 135 identified communities in the US) is at least in part due to the fact that it looks and operates similar to existing ownership models, particularly condominiums.

coyotecrossing cohousing

Coyote Crossing Cohousing, Santa Cruz, CA

Cohousing communities are distinguished from conventional models by an increased emphasis on shared facilities and collective management structures. The square footage of units tends to be smaller, and decision-making is often consensus. They also tend to be designed to foster social interaction with parking lots and driveways pushed to the sides and pedestrian walkways connecting units that face towards each other.

The similarity to conventional models means that they are the communities most accessible to average, middle-class Americans. As a result Cohousing communities are more often “developer driven” than other kinds of communities. Meaning, they are constructed, physically and legally, by an individual or company who may or may not actually live there, and who sells units to individuals or families either after their built or after the property is purchased. This makes it much more tenable to get a new community off the ground (or, on the ground I suppose). The other benefit of this is that it’s a business model that financial institutions are familiar with.

There’s a benefit to the larger movement as well. Cohousing has done important work in establishing intentional communities as viable, and have developed ownership, financing, and governance models that are applicable to other models. They’ve helped created a framework of the questions groups need to be asking themselves.

There are some drawbacks too. Developer driven Cohousing communities are more likely to struggle with interpersonal conflict. Why? Living in community steps us out of our comfort zone in many ways. We’re simply not use to having to deal with other people, and the horizontal governance structures means that we have to deal with each other. Consensus decision-making and conflict resolution are skills that involve both learning and unlearning from our socialization. Work needs to be done both to develop these skills as well as building the relationships, the sense of trust and intimacy, that will support dealing with issues like what color to paint the common house walls (easily one of the most contentious decisions groups have to make). When this work isn’t done ahead of time a group can run into trouble.

Cohousing-Logo-Color-Round-Transparent-BackgroundBut many Cohousing groups have already been through this and are passing on their wisdom to newer groups. One of the best opportunities to take advantage of this is at the upcoming National Cohousing Conference, May 29 – 31, in Durham, NC. This year’s theme is The Next Generation. This is an important event for the larger Communities Movement as many Cohousing communities are pass the 20 year milestone and new groups are starting up all the time. Hope to see you there!