Taking Sharing Further: A Co-Oper’s Experience of Twin Oaks

Originally posted on The Commune Life Blog


Until about a month ago, I called a housing cooperative in California my home. Affectionately named Cornucopia, it was a place of shared responsibility and benefit. Together we cooked meals, split the cost of common food, kept books, tended the garden, and so on. Though much was shared, each member still paid rent and board, many of us working nine to five jobs earning the money to do so. I wanted to contribute more of my energy directly to the community and less to the pursuit of a paycheck. Wanting to take the cooperative ethos further and, having been interested for some time in income pooling, my desire for radical sharing led me to Twin Oaks.


For those who may not be familiar with it, Twin Oaks is an income sharing community in rural Virginia, home to around 85 adults, as well as some children. It is well established, approaching it’s 50th year. Twin Oaks is relatively structured compared to some other income sharing communities, sporting labor sheets assigned to each member and visitor weekly and a robust collection of policies. The visitor program at Twin Oaks is also relatively structured, designed to give those visiting the community (and possibly applying for membership) the best possible look into how the community works and what daily life at Twin Oaks is like. The three week visit is packed full of orientations (or “oreos”) to various aspects of life at Twin Oaks, covering topics such as the labor system, social life, and governance structure, among many others. Outside these orientations, visitors spend their time at Twin Oaks much in the same way a member of the community does: engaging in the community’s various areas of labor, eating two meals a day at the steam table, attending community events, or otherwise spending their free time as they wish. Visitors even live in their own small living group (SLG) at the visitors cottage, much as members of the community live in their own various SLGs at the different residential buildings. Coming from a housing co-op, this three week visitor program was my introduction to life at a commune.

It was immediately apparent that Twin Oaks had a lot in common with the cooperative community I arrived from, and so I felt comfortable as a visitor very quickly.  In many ways it felt like I never left home. A day spent at Twin Oaks shares much with one spent at a housing co op: both are filled with gardening, small construction projects, cooking, cleaning, and generous amounts of time spent with community-minded people, either over work, a shared meal or just enjoying one another’s company. Cooperatives and communes have similar atmospheres, being built around similar values and sharing community as their center point.  It would actually be inaccurate to say Twin Oaks is not a cooperative; it is even more so a cooperative than a housing co-op.


Degree of Sharing

Sharing is the main uniting factor between co-ops and communes, but they are set apart by a difference in the degree of sharing.  Housing co-ops are places where some time, space and resources are shared, whereas communes are places where nearly all time, space and resources are shared. Few Twin Oaks members own their own tools, instead using the community’s. Bike racks located throughout the community are full of bikes, available for use by whoever happens to take them. Members of Twin Oaks even share clothing, borrowing from and returning to their collective closet as needed. Most importantly, Twin Oaks shares its income, generated through community owned businesses, including the manufacture of tofu and hammocks, as well as others. One need not leave the community to participate in these income generating businesses, and work in these businesses is valued the same as domestic work, such as gardening or cooking.

This generation of shared income through cottage industry creates a blur between home life and work life not present in housing co-ops. Members of housing co-ops often split costs, but the money used to pay those costs usually comes from outside jobs that members work. Consequently, co-op members must budget their energy between their community and their jobs. At Twin Oaks, this split need not be made. Members are always at home and always at work, since their home and their work are the same. Eliminating the need to earn income elsewhere means members of Twin Oaks can focus energy more intently on their community, but it also means they cannot leave work when off duty and have less opportunity to take space from personal conflict. A community without cottage industry allows members to escape work at home or vice-versa, but this is not possible at Twin Oaks

For me, the blurred line between work and relaxation at Twin Oaks, had a therapeutic effect: I found myself to be more relaxed, even though I was just as busy as before I arrived at Twin Oaks, if not more so. My personal theory is that I was experiencing the recovery of energy that would otherwise be wasted on the tension between work and home life. While working at Twin Oaks I was not anxious to be done, and while relaxing I was not stressed about work. I found myself better able to put my energy into the moment at hand, since I didn’t feel I had someplace else to be. Where else was there to be, besides at Twin Oaks? While the combination of work and play may feel claustrophobic to some, I enjoyed the merge since, in my eyes, a life of work-play is more desirable than one with an artificial divide between these aspects of life. While living and working in the same community may be difficult when conflict occurs, such conflicts may provide opportunity to develop new relational capacities. Though combining work and home may come with challenges, I believe many would find the challenges outweighed by the benefits of increased continuity between career and community

TO Bikes

Labor and governance systems

Aside from its increased level of sharing, Twin Oaks also differs from a housing co-op in its labor and governance systems. Very little labor at my previous co-op was assigned, most being done on a voluntary basis, and our governance structure followed what I would consider a fairly standard model for a non-profit, featuring a board of directors and a handful of committees that advise that board. In contrast to Cornucopia’s minimal assignment of labor, members of Twin Oaks must meet a weekly labor quota of 42 hours. Some creditable work can be picked up anytime, such as weaving hammocks, but most is scheduled each week by labor assigners, who take the schedules and work preferences of each member into consideration. Labor balances are tracked such that members consistently working more than the required 42 hours accumulate vacation time, and those consistently working less than quota fall into “the labor hole,” which can be grounds for expulsion in extreme cases.

The governance system at Twin Oaks, a unique planner-manager system modeled after B.F Skinner’s novel Walden Two, is closely coupled to it’s labor system. The internal economy of Twin Oaks contains around 100 labor areas, like garden, dairy or tofu, each area with a manager or managerial team. Each manager leads decision making in their particular labor area, determining how to allocate available money and labor in that area while keeping within yearly financial and labor budgets. Managers at Twin Oaks have considerable decision making power, but they operate transparently, with community input, and unpopular decisions can be overturned by appeal or popular veto.

Unlike within the decentralized, planner-manager system of Twin Oaks, most decisions at my co-ops of origin were made by the same body: the entire group. Some members were entrusted to oversee particular tasks, for example the house bookkeeper, but such roles came with very little decision making. Instead, house level decisions would be made by the entire residency using consensus, and organization level decisions would be made by the board of directors (also using consensus), with input from its various committees.

Since most decisions at Twin Oaks are made by its numerous managers, its central leadership can afford to be very small. The top decision making body at Twin Oaks is its board of planners, built of three planners on rotating 18 month terms. The planners do not micromanage the managers, but instead are only responsible for affairs that fall outside any managerships or arise in an emergency, such as long term visioning for the community or mitigating unexpected damage to a building. In comparison, the non-profit corporation that Cornucopia belongs to houses a number of people similar to Twin Oaks, but has around 15 directors on its board. This is partially because the governance structure used is less decentralized than at Twin Oaks, so proportionally more decisions fall to the board of directors.

TO Greenhouse

Written versus spoken culture

The last point on which I will compare Twin Oaks with my co-ops of origin is a significant difference in their cultural mediums. While communication at Cornucopia and many other communities I’ve visited takes place though conversations and at meetings, Twin Oaks has a largely written culture. It is rare to find any majority of Twin Oaks members gathered in a single meeting, a fact made possible in part by the decentralized planner-manager system. One of the few times this does happen is during “feedbacks,” when a member has broken an agreement and the entire community offers their feedback to that member. More frequently, small groups will meet to discuss some shared interest or work area, but most community wide conversations take place on the O&I (opinion and idea) board, located in the main dining hall at Twin Oaks.

Two dozen or so clipboards hanging on the O&I board act as a forum for just about anything members of Twin Oaks want to discuss as a community. The O&I is home to proposed policy changes, commentary on community projects, ideological debates and articles members would like to discuss. Members read and comment on each other’s papers posted to the O&I, often discussing topics more thoroughly than would be possible in the space of a meeting. Even when announcing an event to the community, asking to borrow something or communicating one to one, the culture of Twin Oaks is uniquely written. The main dining hall at Twin Oaks contains a prominently displayed board designed to hold 3×5 cards, on which members make announcements, call for help with projects, seek community around a shared interest, and so on. Older cards are slid to the right and eventually removed, or cards denoting an event are moved to the “today” board on the day they occur. The Twin Oaks dining hall also has a wall of  pouches, one for each Twin Oaker, where members can leave each other personal notes on 3×5 cards

The written culture of Twin Oaks, decentralized governance system and sparsity of meetings make it easy for members to ignore conversations not relevant to them, and even makes it possible for members with different areas of focus to generally not interact with one another. While some may see the option of avoidance as a weakness to the Twin Oaks system, ignoring one conversation can allow a member to focus on another more intently. Forced participation is unenjoyable, both for reluctant participants and those working with them, so allowing members to choose their own areas of engagement is universally more fulfilling, and does not create needless tension. Still, there are clear benefits to being well informed about happenings in the community, and many members choose to remain widely engaged, even though nothing forces them to.

TO Card Board

A co-opers conclusion on communes

I came to Twin Oaks for the same reason I first joined a cooperative: to live a deeply held belief that society should be based on sharing and cooperation, instead of on cutthroat competition. Those who joined cooperatives for a similar reason may find the move to a commune such as Twin Oaks a natural one to make, and the similarities between these two types of communities are abundant. Communes hold the same basic values as housing cooperatives, but they go further to live them. Sharing income may be an alien and somewhat frightening concept to some, but if we wish to create an economy in which resources can be shared fairly, sharing resources fairly among ourselves, as is done in a commune, is an important place to start.

Some challenges may arise in an income sharing community, but ultimately I believe these challenges have the potential to make us better people. Living and working with the same group of people may make it difficult to escape from personal conflict; let it be an opportunity to solve our personal conflicts. Some people may prefer to keep their home and work lives separate; let their combination be an opportunity to have fun with our work and be serious about our play. Sharing decision making with 100 other people may feel like a sacrifice of personal freedom; let it be an opportunity to be kind to one another and find common ground.

Visiting Twin Oaks was a superb first experience of commune life, and I now find myself at the start of a journey exploring other income sharing communities, both urban and rural. Housing co-ops are wonderful, and I am so glad to have lived in one, but if I may make a suggestion to current co-opers, it would be this: go further; join a commune.  

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! http://www.dancingrabbit.org/permaculture/
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! http://www.dancingrabbit.org/visit-dancing-rabbit-ecovillage/visitor-program/

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!


Community Clusters

acorn steel building fire

Also posted on Grassroots Economic Organizing.

In 2013 Acorn Community suffered fires to two of their buildings. The first was an accident in their steel building, home to their auto shop and clothing storage, among other things. Several barrels of different kinds of fuel ignited, destroying everything inside. The second was an act of arson to their main residential and office building in the middle of the night by a disturbed guest. The fire was put out quickly and no one was seriously injured, but considerable damage was done to several rooms. These damage from these fires was about $125,000 and represented a huge number of person hours to repair.

Acorn, started in 1993, is in Louisa County, VA. There are 3 other intentional communities in the county, Twin Oaks (1967), Little Flower Catholic Worker (1998), and Living Energy Farm (2012), and a couple more within 100 miles. There’s also a substantial community of ex-members of all these communities living in the area. There are also a number of ex-members of one community now living at another community in the area.

east-winders-help-destruct-heartwood-450x337When the fires happened the outpouring of support, emotionally, financially, materially, as well as in volunteer labor was tremendous, and the benefits of having a connected group of communities became wonderfully apparent. The three nearby communities donated considerable labor to clean up and repair efforts. There is also a labor exchange agreement between these communities so that any labor Acorn needed beyond what was donated could be done then and worked off later. Shannon Farm (1972), a community about 75 miles away collected $2,000 in donations. A number of individuals made donations of clothing and equipment donations were made to replace what was destroyed. Acorn (along with Twin Oaks) is also part of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities a small but national network of groups that, among other things do labor exchange. Seven members of East Wind Community in southern Missouri trekked 1000 miles to come help with the rebuilding effort.

nyedancinThere are numerous ongoing benefits to having a cluster of communities. Labor exchange is a regular thing between the communities, which means there’s more people around, with more skills and more person power. There’s a standing open invitation to most social events at one community to people at the others, as well as to the extended ex-member community. Dating between communities is somewhat common, and often it’s possible to be a dual member. People sometimes move from one community to another if they figure out that the other one suites them better. There’s also an outreach benefit. Someone who finds out about one community invariably finds out about the others, and people often end up visiting more than one.

There’s a similar cluster of communities in northern Missouri: Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, started in 1997, with a strong education focus and firm ecological covenant, Sandhill Farm (1974), which makes food products as it’s primary income source, and Red Earth Farms (2005), a collective of homesteads practicing extreme self sufficiency. Similar labor exchange arrangements exist, there is local currency between the communities, and a number of products made in the different groups are sold or bartered between them.

What is perhaps most notable and important is that both community clusters have regular ultimate frisbee games attended by members of different groups.

smallWeb (11)These community clusters are providing a model of grassroots economics. Each community, which range in population from 10 to 100, has it’s own collectivized form of economics, usually including both money and labor in their accounting, with land (and sometimes other resources) held in common. The combined population of the cluster in in central VA is about 200, which is doubled if you include the ex-member population, and total operating budgets of well over $1 Million with assets in the several millions. The communities engage with each other in ongoing and one-off economic arrangements, both formal and informal. Association by individuals or between groups is voluntary and based on mutual aid.

One of my jobs at Twin Oaks is managing the Communities Conference. We have a rustic conference site where we’ve been hosting this gathering for 20 consecutive years. While it serves as one of, and certainly the most consistent conference for the intentional communities movement, hosting it is a labor of love for Twin Oaks, which has often done little more than break even on the event, not including the approximately 1000 hours it takes to run it. What this means is the community has often been hesitant to invest much money in maintaining, much less improving the site.

This year I wanted to do some work upgrading the infrastructure. I’d worked hard last year to make sure attendance was high (about 200 people, the most in at least 10 years) to help justify the expense. I ran a crowd-funding campaign, using the Fellowship for Intentional Community as our fiscal sponsor, and kicking it off with a donation from the Federation of Egalitarian Communities of $1000. Twin Oaks then matched the $6000 I was able to raise. The primary project was to expand and re-equip the kitchen, which had mostly fallen into disuse. The cooking for the event and been moved to the main community dining hall for the previous few
years, which was inconvenient for the conference and high impact on the community.

DSC00592I hired an ex-member of Twin Oaks from the 80’s as the project manager. She’d been living in Louisa County ever since she left and now works as a General Contractor (she’d also been hired by Twin Oaks as the General Contractor to expand the production facility for it’s tofu business). The main builder on the project was also an ex-Oaker, who recently had moved to a newly formed off-shoot community of Acorn called Sapling. Sapling is a small group, and having her doing labor exchange for Twin Oaks means they’ll be able to call on Twin Oaks labor in the future. It meant much lower labor costs for expanding the kitchen. It also provided an opportunity for a number of people to learn basic construction skills (a women’s construction workshop was organized as part of the building effort).

Watching Nina up on the roof of the kitchen addition, putting the rafters in place, I was struck by the very human and personal implications for putting these important principles of economic solidarity into practice. Upgrading the kitchen would also mean bringing back a central aspect of community to the Communities Conference, cooking together. Soon there will be 200 people learning about cooperative living and working, helping in the kitchen and eating together, and getting to experience community in a space built by community for the purpose of bringing more community into the world.

4 weeks to go – need a ride?

DSC00606Site Prep In Full Swing

We’ve been doing a tremendous amount of work on the conference site this year. You can look forward to an expanded, fully-functional kitchen, new dome shelters for our workshop locations, and an all-around better-looking site than we’ve had for a long time.

Workshop Lineup

Here’s a selection of workshops we’ll be hosting this year:

DSC00616We’ll also have workshops on Anti-Oppression Work in Community , Ecological Footprinting on a Community Scale, and Urban Community Building among others.

Ride Sharing

Need a ride? Can you give a ride? Once you register, if you say yes to either of this questions, you’ll be plugged into our ride share system. So, now’s a great time to register!

Benefit Auction for the FIC

Every year we hold a benefit auction for the Fellowship for Intentional Community, during which we bust out the desserts, and for the second year we’ll be served homebrewed beer and soda by the Baltimore Free Farm. You can bring an item to donate to the auction, and bring your generosity and form of payment for when the bidding starts.

Why should you care about intentional communities?

I’m excited to say this is also my first post to the website for Grassroots Economic Organizing! – Sky
25 social work

Twin Oaks Community has been my home off and on for the last 15 years. It’s one of the flagships of the Intentional Communities movement, and yet is fairly unique as one of only a handful of secular, income-sharing communities. Twin Oaks has been an active experiment in solidarity economics since 1967. At almost 50 years old it’s a successful, viable model, and, like all solidarity economy projects, it’s a work in progress.

We have 92 adults (plus 17 children) sharing finances, running businesses, managing a small scale farm, sharing housing, a fleet of vehicles, and covering all other basic needs, including health and dental, collectively. No money is exchanged internally; all work is valued equally and is organized through a labor system. By contributing 42 hours per week you have full access to the resources and governance of the community.

You could look at Twin Oaks as a bundle of co-ops rolled up together. It’s a big amalgamation of a food co-op, vehicle co-op, housing co-ops, worker co-ops, clothing co-op, health care co-op, and the list goes on. It’s also big enough to have a robust social culture, complete with traditional and community-specific holidays.

The founders of Twin Oaks, back in 1967, were trying to bring to life the fictional utopia of Walden II, by B.F. Skinner, creator of behaviorist psychology. Twin Oaks was different from other ’60’s commune’s in that it wasn’t started by hippies, but by academics and writers. According to founder Kat Kinkade, “the hippies came later and ruined everything,” probably referring to the abandonment of behaviorism as a guiding force for the community by the mid-’70’s.

15 housing4According to Kat Kinkade, in addition to social experimentation, addressing classism was a major motivator in the design of the community. Twin Oaks holds egalitarianism as a core value, and it’s primary expression is income sharing. Generally speaking, each member is not suppose to have significantly more access to either the communities resources or outside resources than other members. It also means collective budgeting and accounting for the entire finances of all our members, all our businesses, and all the shared resource systems we’ve create.

It’s not easy, but it pays off. Income sharing allows for the creation of an internal economy that allows us to essentially pay ourselves (through labor credits) to do work that we otherwise wouldn’t get paid for. Our systems of sharing mean that we need a lot less money to have the same quality of life that many middle-class people enjoy. On average members only work about 15 hours per week in one of the communities businesses. The rest of their 42 hours goes towards cooking, cleaning, child care, gardening, the dairy, community governance and management, etc. Most of these things of course being things that most people have to do on top of a 40 hour work week and don’t get paid for. Add to that unlimited sick time and about 4 weeks “paid” vacation, with the option of working over quota to earn extra vacation time.

05 what it looks like2It’s something of an accident that Twin Oaks is also a very environmentally friendly community. We consume and waste a third or less (and sometimes a lot less) than the same number of average Americans. Environmentalism is written into the bylaws, and it is very important to many members, but the real reason Twin Oaks is so “eco” is simply because of how much we share.

The other important benefit to intensive sharing is there’s an intimacy pay off. I’ve visited dozens of communities, and what I’ve seen is that the more communities share, the more they have to deal with each other, the closer they are and the more satisfying their lives are. It takes some interpersonal skill and maturity to make this work, as well as robust organizational structures that can carry things when there are majo01 an unusal placer conflicts. Trust, responsibility, accountability, and communication are things you learn about really quickly (sometimes the hard way) in a community like this. But when it’s good, it’s amazing.

I have no illusions that this kind of community is for everyone. We are not going to reorganize society into a lot of little rural intentional communities. But what Twin Oaks, along with other communities in the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, have modeled for us is that it’s possible for a group of people to come together, cover all their basic needs plus more, and eliminate poverty, homelessness, and crime. We have to learn how to share all our resources, even money. Because isn’t that the challenge we face as a global species? How do we share the earth’s resources equitably and sustainably without resorting to violence?

Twin Oaks isn’t the answer, but it’s a piece of the answer.