Archive for the ‘Communities’ Category
Well folks, we started our journey on Ollie (and started this blog) back in November 2010, a whole year and a half ago, and I am delighted to announce that this particular voyage has officially come to an end and we have settled down permanently in Oakland. We found a lovely house called the Barnyard Collective, a small but vibrant group of rad folks dedicated to urban homesteading, home brewing, dog loving, vegan cooking, dumpster diving, and the queer things in life. It feels like home.
Ollie is parked in the spacious yard, providing a needed shade area for the chickens as well as a convenient storage space (and perhaps a cheap room for a lucky someone in the future?). Ivy seems to have taken to house living more easily than I (I haven’t lived in a room in a house in four years!); she still sleeps between us, under the covers, at night, and she has found her favorite nooks and crannies (as well as illicit chewables) around the common spaces.
This doesn’t mean that Max and I won’t continue to visit intentional communities, of course. There are tons of said communities around the Bay Area, many of which aren’t listed on ic.org. We kind of knew we’d have to live here before we even heard about the coolest ones.
But expect less frequent posting, as we will no longer be driving wildly from Davis to Seattle in the dead of night, nor will we be picking up too many more dead deer along the interstates. Those days are over… for now.
Struggle Mountain‘s three young kids went up the mountain with their families to observe the eclipse, so the rest of us were left to our own devices here on the property. Three eclipse-watching tools were procured: a very thick, dark piece of glass; a plastic cup-style pin-hole projector; and a cardboard box-style pin-hole projector. The results were impressive!
This last picture shows the weird shadows cast by the sun at the peak of the eclipse — the edges of our shadows are very strange (check out Max’s hand!).
We are currently searching (somewhat casually, which is how we generally do things) for a place to park permanently in the East Bay. In the meantime, we’ve settled quite comfortably at a beautiful community in the Los Altos Hills (10 miles from Palo Alto) called Struggle Mountain. We visited this community back in December ’10 — it was one of the first communities we visited on our travels. We loved it so much, we decided to come back for a little while. Here are some pics for your viewing pleasure.
The Establishment, an aptly named 19-person community that was founded in the 1970s, was the only community we contacted in SLO. The 19-bedroom house used to be a hotel and was originally located next to the railroad that runs through town (it was moved — rolled on logs and pulled by oxen — in the early 20th century). Jack Kerouac is said to have stayed in the hotel during his famous train hopping days. The Establishment’s community members, all in their 20s and 30s, seemed to be a fun-loving family; interests included roller derby, bikes, and Burning Man. There weren’t any all-community events during our stay, and community rooms were small so people seemed to spend a lot of time in their bedrooms (which were also quite small), so we didn’t get to spend much time with too many people. The folks we did chat with were very welcoming; one told me I should “feel free to walk around the house like it’s a weird museum.” I did.
The Sugar Shack, a 10-year-old, 15-20 person community in Los Angeles, occupies one of the most striking houses I’ve ever seen. It used to be a store (on a street full of smallish shops and no other houses), then a church, and probably some other things that I can’t remember. It fell into disrepair and the founders of the Sugar Shack purchased it for cheap, turning it into a vibrantly colorful, playful, dare I say hippie-esque mansion of sorts.
Bus downstairs (!!):
The Sugar Shack’s ic.org description is quite brief:
The Sugar Shack is a Los Angeles intentional community committed to social change through cooperative living, art, and activism. We do this by living communally in mid-city and providing free of charge spaces for individuals and group gatherings.
Perhaps they figure that words are relatively meaningless if people don’t come visit and see for themselves, talk to residents, and experience the colors and sights and smells in person (I quite agree!). I was told by one of the founding members that there is an unwritten rule of utmost importance: NEVER try to talk someone into moving in. An applicant really has to want it, on a deep, instinctual, personal level, for their membership to work out. Coming from a community that’s always struggling to make rent (and is therefore constantly recruiting), this rule seemed like a huge privilege!
I visited the Sugar Shack twice, the first time with a number of Technicolor Tree Tribers for a dinner visit, where everyone except me and Max got to mingle and chat because we were babysitting our very food-driven puppy. I felt like parents of an infant in a stroller, both of us completely occupied by feeding, cleaning up after, monitoring, and talking about our charge while the rest of the noisy world just passed us by.
Because I didn’t get to learn much about the community during that first visit, I made a point of returning just to chat, and ended up spending a few hours talking with the founder and property owner of the Sugar Shack. The visit was very satisfying; I felt like we were on the same page.
Unlike with most of our community visits, I went through my list of “interview questions” and we spoke about each one. I’m usually frustrated when people say that the intention of their community is to “live together,” because any group of people can try living together and so often it ends up like random housemates who maybe do their basic chores but rarely talk about the greater societal implications of communal living (examples might include gender disparities in housework/yardwork/construction, lack of racial diversity in the community, opportunities for using the community as a hub of political activism, etc.). The Sugar Shack was different. It’s true, my host/guide did tell me that their intention was to “live together and share resources.” But this community definitely took it farther than that; the nature of the art and the diversity and openness of the people I met made it clear to me that the Sugar Shack really is committed to social change through art and creative expression.
The Sugar Shack is impeccably clean. The community abides by a clever indoor adaptation to the decree “Leave No Trace,” as community members are asked not to leave their personal belongings in the common spaces. There is also a complex (but apparently manageable, since it clearly works!) system of chores. There are two parts to the system: Sugar Love, which involves each community member committing 1-3 hours of general cleaning tasks; and Energy Exchange, wherein each community member does certain tasks for the community and records their work on a paper spreadsheet, tallying hours as they go. Work hours/tasks can be traded and exchanged among members, and it seemed they were always in flux.
When I asked about conflict resolution, my guide had a lot to say, and a lot of experience to back up her statements. She said that the community is always working towards greater transparency and personal accountability, and that she believes the best way to work through conflicts is to have everything out in the open — no secrets. We talked about the difference between gossip and constructive discussion among friends. Gossip, she explained, requires keeping secrets; talking to one person and asking them not to talk to others leads to divisions in the house. Talking to as many people as possible, especially at a weekly house meeting with a goal to resolve the conflict in mind, airs out the issue and lets everyone know what is going on, so that no one is talked about behind their back. She explained that back when she and the other founding members were looking for a house she insisted that it had to have only one kitchen. The kitchen is where everything comes out — at the TTT this is also very true. Multiple kitchens would lead to factions, which could be the community’s demise.
I have often wondered if many (if not most) of the TTT’s problems were simply due to age: everyone there is in their late teens/early-mid20s; the more “mature” people often end up spending most of their time in their rooms because they can’t stand the mess/noise/whatever of the rest of the house. Well apparently the Sugar Shack has recognized the implications of having a lot of young community members; another unwritten house rule is to never accept more than one or two applicants in their early 20s, OR to accept a whole group of friends in the early 20s so that they can have their own area of the house to contain their energy (and stuff). I found this very interesting. I’ve never lived in a community with a large age range, and I often wonder if the older people resent being pushed into a “parent” position (I feel this at the TTT, and I’m still in my 20s!). I can see how this “unwritten rule” takes care of some of those issues.
In conclusion I’ll just mention I’m telling all my LA friends who are older than 25 to live at the Sugar Shack. I think it would be the perfect fit for most of them: colorful, joyous, genuinely socially/politically conscious, and also quite mature.
Some intentional communities’ main focus is to help members recover from addictions or live with mental illnesses. Communities for whom this is not the main focus, however, still must decide how they want to handle these issues. Some are clear in their application materials that if an applicant is struggling with addiction, they need not apply. Harsh, but understandable if the group is unprepared to help. Others make no mention of such common difficulties, and deal with issues on a case by case basis.
Should intentional communities generally be places where people can heal from addictions, trauma, inclinations towards violence, PTSD, etc? Let’s assume we’re all working under the same premises:
1. People who have experienced violence, especially in childhood, are more likely to be violent themselves.
2. Being a member of a supportive, loving, accepting social group is important for many people in healing from violence.
3. Intentional communities are often supportive, loving, accepting social groups (or at least they strive towards this goal).
4. Violence (and other behavior such as addiction) perpetrated by a community member can make other community members feel unsafe and is generally viewed as unacceptable (sometimes leading to the person who has committed or threatened violence being asked to leave the community).
5. When someone is asked to leave a community, or when their behavior is labeled as unacceptable by the community, the community becomes a much less supportive, loving, accepting place for that individual.
So when someone who has experienced violence in their life, perhaps in childhood, commits violence in their community, is it the community’s responsibility to remain as supportive, loving, and accepting as possible, allowing them to stay and perhaps providing counseling or other services which might help the individual? Is it right or moral to ask that person to leave without any other comment? What if the individual refuses counseling or cannot afford it? What if the violence was committed against a non-community member? Is there ever justification for violence? What of verbal aggression, threat of violence, intimidating behavior, violence towards non-human animals, etc?
Some optimistic community members believe that living in an intentional community will automatically heal people who have experienced violence or trauma, regardless of that individual’s current behavior. Others believe that communities, in order to function well (often with limited or no professional counseling resources) must be diligent in their recruitment/acceptance procedure in order to ensure that people who have any inclination towards violence whatsoever and for whatever reasons are never accepted into the community. Such people, it is thought, must take responsibility for themselves and seek the professional help they need before they can be effective members of any community.
Being a member of an intentional community certainly takes a lot of effort, and not just because you have to clean the kitchen once a week. Living successfully with 20-100 other people isn’t easy, especially since most of us were raised in comparatively isolating, single-family environments. When someone ticks you off, how do you respond? Can you let it slide for the sake of group harmony? What are your limits; what if someone says something truly unacceptable, such as a racist slur? How do you respond then? And perhaps the slur wouldn’t elicit a response from you if it were uttered by a stranger or even an acquaintance, but when it’s your housemate?
How much of a choice is it when someone acts with violence? If they were raised in a violent environment and struggle with controlling or channeling anger and other intense emotions, can they be held fully responsible for their actions within their community as an adult? If they have significantly more emotional/psychological needs than other community members, is it the responsibility of the community to meet those needs?
Of course the answers to these questions depend on the specific community. Some communities have common money which could pay for professional counseling. A community whose sole focus is permaculture might behave quite differently than, say, a spiritual community. My purpose in writing this post is to ask communities to think carefully about these issues before they come up or get out of hand. I personally believe that intentional communities can be places where all community members can heal from the diseases of mainstream society (materialism/consumerism, patriarchy, capitalism), but unless their focus is to address specific issues (such as addiction or mental illness) each community must draw a firm line at what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior, for the good of the whole group. Which is not to say that people who behave “unacceptably” should be automatically kicked out. They are community members, too, and should be treated with respect as human beings who have probably experienced a lot of trauma and need a lot of support. They should be provided with as many helpful resources as possible. But they, and all other community members, should be very aware of where the line is. We can accept and understand the fact that violent behavior is often a result of being the target of violence, but that doesn’t make violence acceptable. A community’s goal shouldn’t be to shun people who have experienced trauma, but rather to help them end the cycle of violence that they are perpetuating through their behavior. If they do not understand how they are perpetuating this cycle, or if they do not understand why their behavior is unacceptable, then I do not believe that they can, at this moment in their lives, live successfully in community.
The “Old House” on Orchard Street, which housed the Technicolor Tree Tribe from 2007-2009:
The TTT ’08/’09:
The “New House” on 28th St. which is the TTT’s current home:
The TTT ’09/’10:
The TTT ’10/’11:
The TTT ’11/’12:
For more information about the TTT, please check out these sites:
Life in Technicolor, the TTT’s blog
The TTT’s Fellowship of Intentional Communities (FIC) profile
A short, slightly chaotic video Gerardo made at the house
As official as we get
And finally, look us up on facebook!
The Los Angeles Ecovillage, located just northwest of downtown LA (and only three miles north of the Technicolor Tree Tribe), is a well established 40-person community that I’ve been wanting to visit for years. Their fee (though small) for official visits was a bit off-putting. But I stalked their website for a while until an interesting free event came up, and a bunch of us from the TTT biked over to check it out. The event was a potluck and forum where people from the greater community (those affiliated with the Ecovillage but not necessarily residents) could present about conferences, workshops, and other special events they’d recently attended.
I RSVP’d to the potluck/forum only a few days before the event and never received a reply. When the eight of us showed up at the door, we were almost turned away! The woman who answered our knock looked startled by such a large group of visitors, and told us that she hadn’t received any RSVP for this many people. When she asked for my name I introduced myself as “Rachel from the Technicolor Tree Tribe,” a title which has become increasingly comfortable and automatic for me over the past year. Our host immediately warmed. “The Technicolor Tree Tribe!” she exclaimed excitedly. “I’ve heard so much about your community! Thank you for coming! Come in!” And we were admitted.
The Ecovillage’s main building is an apartment building, and though the foyer has been turned into the colorful, friendly, poster- and post-it note-filled space that is common for community buildings, the hallways seemed as bare as any apartment building occupied by strangers. Apparently the Ecovillage purchased the building (and the surrounding buildings) while people who weren’t affiliated with the Ecovillage still lived in it, and some still do. There is a gradual process of those people leaving and their spaces being filled by Ecovillagers.
The potluck was delicious and plentiful, and the other guests seemed genuinely excited to meet real live members of the Technicolor Tree Tribe, which most of them had apparently heard of. We were younger than any of the other guests by a decade or two, and they seemed to think of us as the “younger generation” of community builders. Ignoring some bits of condescension here and there, we had some interesting conversations about our house and what we do.
Before the forum started the host asked us to give a short description of the Technicolor Tree Tribe to the assembly of 40 or 50 people. We hadn’t prepared for anything like this, of course; we’d assumed we were going to be the audience! But Michaela gave an excellent description and we all took turns fielding questions (there were a lot of questions!). Then we listened to the real presentations, which covered a wide range of topics from permaculture to time banks to the LA Bicycle Kitchen.
The presentations were interrupted at one point when someone announced that those with bikes parked outside (us) should move them inside; there was a person wandering around with a bolt cutter.
We all rushed outside, but we were too late: two of our bikes had been stolen. One of them was Max’s spare, and the other belonged to a cooper who didn’t know it had been borrowed. Strangely, the event host mentioned a couple times that the Ecovillage would assume responsibility, but then nothing came of it. One Ecovillager absolutely insisted we tell the police, which we only did after quite a bit of pressure (we try never to involve the LAPD, preferring to find anti-racist and anti-classist alternatives to the “criminal justice” system). Of course, nothing came of that, either.
[BTW, if you're interested in anti-racist/sexist/classist alternatives to police, check out these great resources! Alternatives To Police Revolution Starts At Home]
The evening turned out to be a very mixed experience for the eight of us. It’s (almost) always cool to visit another intentional community, and I’m definitely always delighted to bring TTT members to other communities in LA. The presentations at the forum were awesome (time banks are the shit!!), and we met some folks who were very interested in the TTT and it’s always fun to talk about ourselves to interested people. On the other hand, we had the awkward situation at the door and our bikes were stolen (an Ecovillager was kind enough to give our bike-less friends a ride home). And it’s always difficult to visit communities that are so predominantly white and middle-class. Oh well. Intentional communities are still relatively new in LA, and anti-oppression seems to be relatively new within intentional communities everywhere.
Mariposa Grove is a retrofit co-housing community of about 20 people (aged 50s to young children) in Northern Oakland, very close to where my friends live. Most of the property is owned by a community land trust, though one of the houses is owned by an absentee landlord. We’ve visited retrofit co-housing projects before; the term refers to an intentional community consisting of several neighboring houses which were standing before the community was created, and which were (usually) purchased by the community in their original locations to be owned and operated communally.
Mariposa Grove’s Mission Statement: Mariposa Grove is a member-owned, consensus-based intentional community in an urban setting that supports sustainability, social justice activism, creativity and the arts. We are creating a permanently affordable home, a physical and social space where we share resources and responsibilities, grow together and support each other to fulfill our personal dreams while providing a model for the larger community of which we are a part.
Mariposa Grove is technically “low-income housing,” though most members own their homes and pay mortgages (the exception is the house owned by a landlord). There are all-community meetings twice a month and decisions are generally made using consensus, though not everyone who lives at Mariposa Grove is members of the land trust, so the land trust board has more power in certain decisions.
The top floor of one of the houses is communal space, with a large kitchen and living area. There is a beautiful garden (even in winter), nine chickens, and a grey water system which feeds out to a stand of fruit trees. Despite its location, it doesn’t feel urban at all.
I was only able to meet two community members (one being an infant!), but I spoke at length with my guide about diversity at Mariposa Grove. Almost all members of the community are white, and though some members would like more racial/cultural diversity, this has always been a challenge (despite the diversity of Oakland generally and Mariposa Grove’s neighborhood specifically). Recruitment usually happens within an already-established East Bay co-housing community which seems to be predominantly white and middle-class. Despite Mariposa Grove’s Mission Statement, which mentions support for social justice activism and “providing a model for the larger community of which we are a part,” the co-housing community appears quite separate from the larger community of people in this area. I didn’t ask my guide what Mariposa Grove meant by “providing a model for the larger community,” but I often find such intentional community models to be gentrifying ones.
The one house which is soon to be rented out by its landlord is, despite the unideal situation of being owned by a landlord, a potentially positive situation because it could provide housing for lower-income people who cannot or will not buy in to the community land trust to pay a mortgage on a house. This option, which is relatively new to Maripiosa Grove, seems similar to what Monan’s Rill was planning during our visit there; it might lead to a more diverse community. Of course, for people of color to feel comfortable living at Mariposa Grove, the current members would have to be willing to listen to their needs and concerns, and change (perhaps drastically) their status quo to make their community more welcoming, and this is entirely up to the current members.
I’ve been putting off writing this post, because I knew it would be difficult. Our stay at Monan’s Rill, which is located 12 miles northeast of the city of Santa Rosa, was one of the most memorable in our year+ of traveling. It’s not easy to explain why. It was partly the land: the sheer ruggedness, breath-taking beauty, and marked isolation of the Rill’s 400 acres created the feeling of being in true wilderness, while also surrounded by a close-knit human community of about 20 adults and several children. Monan’s Rill (named after a line in Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake) was founded by several Quaker couples in the 1970s. At the time the land was purchased, it was completely wild; the founders built the roads, the buildings, and the water system (fed by a natural spring). None of the original founders still live at the Rill, but the longest standing members have lived there for close to 40 years. There is very little turn-over: most people who join Monan’s Rill intend to stay for the long haul, raise their children there, retire there, pass on there. This is part of what made Monan’s Rill feel so special to me: the long history of weddings, childbirths, deaths, the traditions and place-names everyone knows but whose origins no one can remember. The cycle of life is tangible there, among people who have become family to each other despite their diverse backgrounds.
Despite the community’s isolation (the steep dirt roads aren’t very bike-friendly!), many residents are activists in the Santa Rosa area and beyond. Santa Rosa isn’t huge (pop. 168,000) but from what we heard, the Occupy Movement has taken a strong hold there. We went with a couple community members to one Occupy event during our visit, a presentation by Abraham Entin, founder of the North Bay Affiliate of Move to Amend-the Coalition to end Corporate Personhood (watch the whole presentation here — we’re probably in it!)
Monan’s Rill is home to teachers, artists, Burners (one of their awesome BM projects), musicians, parents, retirees… one member is the Executive Director of the non-profit organization Rites of Passage which guides youth and adults on wilderness vision quests, another has traveled to several countries in the Middle East as a peacekeeper and citizen diplomat and is a member of the European-American Collaborative Challenging Whiteness, an anti-racist research group.
The community has a large organic garden, an orchard, and facilities for large farm animals though no one’s taken up that project yet. There is a relatively new community building where twice monthly all-community potlucks and meetings are held; as often happens, a community meeting took place during our visit and we were invited to attend part of it. It would be an understatement to say that Monan’s Rill treats group process like an art. I’ll let the posters on the walls prove the point:
As with most communities which use consensus-based decision-making, the roles of facilitator and note-taker rotate. Stack was taken publicly on a white board so that everyone could see their place in line.
Monan’s Rill has a number of committees which address issues such as membership and finances; one of the committees had a meeting using the fishbowl format, where non-committee members sat in an outer circle around them and listened. The committee’s inner circle included an extra chair so that non-committee members could take turns jumping in if they had input for the committee.
We went on a long hike around the land with community members who picked edible mushrooms and told us the stories and traditions of the Rill. I pulled out my flute and played violin duets and energetic folk music with some of the resident musicians. We helped in the garden pulling up tomato plants and talking with long-time residents about how the community started out as a place to follow the Quaker value of simple living, but that it has since veered from that path. I woke at 5:50 AM one morning to join several community members on a chilly hike to watch the full lunar eclipse. We attended an intimate membership meeting, and discussed the other communities we’ve visited and what we look for in a community.
At the moment none of Monan’s Rill’s members are in their 20s, and multiple people told us emphatically that they don’t want the Rill to turn into a “retirement community”; they want to attract younger generations, and are interested in coming up with creative ways to do this. They asked us for an honest opinion of the community, and we did our best to provide this. It was the first time a community visit really felt like a reciprocal experience: the community was generous enough to host us and teach us about their lives, but we were able to give something meaningful back, telling them about what we look for in community and providing some recruitment ideas and suggestions for their new website.
The Rill is interested in having work-traders/WWOOFers and renters, to provide younger, more transient people with the opportunity to be a part of the community. The membership meeting we attended addressed questions such as, Would a renter have equal say in consensus decision making (if not, which topics would they have equal say in)? How could we maintain a non-hierarchical community when certain members are contributing so much less monetarily and can’t commit to living at the Rill long-term? Would renters go through the same application process as long-term buy-in residents? Is it better to have a casual, flexible work-trade program where the work-trader makes most of the decisions about their work, or a more structured program where long-term community members decide what work needs to be done?
Our visit to Monan’s Rill went by too quickly, though it felt like we’d spent much more than three days there. I felt like we’d been given an in-depth, personal look into this community, which is rare for such a short visit. As much as I enjoy the energy and passion in houses packed with 20-somethings, it’s those houses that have too many visitors for residents to take much notice of the next hippie bus that’s stopping by. Monan’s Rill is peaceful, homey, isolated in the way that is most comfortable for me (ie. not too far from civilization, but far enough that there are cougars and bobcats), and I was appreciative of the political activism it attracts. It is my honest hope that Max and I will visit again someday, hopefully for a much longer amount of time.