Author: Lois Arkin
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #155
“I just don’t like you,” I said in a very matter of fact voice to Jeanette*, after one particularly difficult meeting, and in front of many of my neighbors, several of whom also did not like her. I felt obligated to show some leadership in the situation. With this one small honest remark, I had intended (however naïvely) to build a bridge. But now Jeanette, who had never been particularly friendly toward me, saw me as her worst enemy.
Truth telling was an important basis for creating community, right? Maybe by getting it out, we could learn to like each other. I thought she and I could agree to disagree: that we could be civil once our mutual dislike was on the table. That we could work together in spite of it. How dumb was that! I was dead wrong! It became a two-year nightmare as Jeanette became the center of a divisive clique in the community.
Of course, the worst part of it was that Jeanette was a woman of color. “Lois as racist” was planted firmly in Jeanette’s mind, and in the minds of many of my community-mates. Years before that, I had serious concerns when Jeanette’s membership was up for consideration, but, as founder, I didn’t want to block at a point where the Los Angeles Eco-Village (LAEV) community was beginning to empower itself. Unfortunately, my concerns continued to be amplified during succeeding years.
Practicing what I thought was cohesion-producing honesty—let’s get our cards on the table and learn how to work together from there—really backfired.
“Lois as Racist”
There were other reinforcing signals of my “racism.” On a long-past occasion, I had commented to one of my neighbors during a community event at which she was squeezing oranges and was gathering the kids to help her: “Evelyn*, be sure to get the kids to wash their hands.” Years later I heard this story told to me, as an example of my blatant racism, as: “Evelyn, be sure to wash your hands before squeezing the oranges.” Many of my neighbors had heard that story about me long before I did. Of course, Evelyn was a person of color, thus the reinforcement of the idea of “Lois as racist” since Evelyn-would-not-know-that-she’s-supposed-to-wash-her-hands-before-handling-food-for-others!
But, 10 years later, my comment reminding Evelyn about the importance of the kids’ hand-washing seems racist even to me. Why wouldn’t a 40-year-old woman with four kids know that she’s supposed to remind the kids about hand-washing before handling food?!
I had failed to consider one sweet little note in my life—that I am a person of privilege: white, from an upper middle class background. For me college had been a leisure-time activity, rather than a stepping stone into the middle class. I was everything that Jeanette and Evelyn were not. To boot, I controlled a lot of money in my community; I represented “the landlord.” That just added insult to injury. Both Jeanette and Evelyn were consistently late paying their rent, and I had to be the rent collector.
Have I been a perpetrator of personal and “institutional racism”? And what did they mean by that latter phrase, anyway? I asked myself these questions many times during the first decade or so of L.A. Eco-Village, when this phrase came up so frequently.
My vision for L.A. Eco-Village in the mid 1980s—nearly a decade before we were even on the ground—was to create a demonstration neighborhood that was post-racist, post-classist, post-sexist, post-ageist. In my mind, I was the living manifestation of that post-ism society. If we could learn to get along among this diversity, then there was hope for the world. Why were my community-mates frequently accusing me of racism?
But one day about five years ago, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was innocently standing on the corner of my intensely urban neighborhood at a traffic light—along with a dozen others on various corners of the intersection. No cars were coming. Like hundreds of times before in my three decades of living in this neighborhood, I simply crossed against the red light in the safety of the traffic-free street. But always, especially in recent years, I wondered why no one else ever crossed. They just stood there waiting for inordinately long lights which, much to my chagrin, always favored cars.
In my sense of living post-racist, I had failed to recognize that the people waiting for the light were all persons of color: Latinos, Asians, African Americans. If I got stopped by a police officer, I might get a warning, or maybe a jay-walking ticket. If the others were stopped, they might be searched, hands above head, hand-cuffed, taken off to jail, deported, who knows what else. I saw such activities frequently in my neighborhood, read about such things all the time, and had heard horror stories for years from my community-mates and friends working in the areas of immigration law and human rights, and/or from persons of color who had been so victimized for minor offenses or no offenses at all.
I knew this stuff. I just never related it to my community. Weren’t we all beyond that nonsense, I always thought. But we weren’t, especially me. We brought the baggage from our mainstream culture—every last one of us—most being raised with some form of overt and/or often covert racism, ageism, sexism, classism.
But in LAEV, it was racism, and especially “institutional racism,” that got the most attention. And now I was beginning to understand what it was. So many of my neighbors who kept using that expression were so much younger, college-educated four to five decades later than me, an educational era—even in high school—where Black History/African-American studies, women’s studies, Latino studies, racism in contemporary society were all part of the normal curriculum.
No matter how much I might have been in denial, I was perhaps the most guilty, always being the oldest, even from the beginning of L.A. Eco-Village in 1993 (I was 56 then, am now 75). Those younger folks didn’t have to rush off to Wikipedia, like me, every time some familiar-sounding name came up, not quite placeable by me in the history of race, class, and gender in our society.
For many years, I was the front-end gatekeeper for those inquiring about membership in the LAEV intentional community. I was very sensitive to our diversity issues in the five areas that I had initially envisioned: ethnicity, gender, generational, household composition, income. Each year, I published a demographic chart and posted it to our community bulletin board to let the LAEV community know how we were doing in these five areas of diversity. Generally, we were pretty much on target in terms of gender, income, and, from my perspective, ethnic diversity, the latter always being the dominating diversity issue in our community. For most years, we weren’t doing very well in generational and household composition, since for long stretches, I was the only senior, and there weren’t any children.
To tackle the ethnic diversity issue, I thought 50 percent persons of color and 50 percent white was a good balance, since that approximately reflected the census numbers during the past decade in the City of Los Angeles. That is the ratio I was always conscious of as persons expressed interest in membership in our community. Telling white folks that we were a little out of balance, and that they should apply next year, after we had gotten more in balance with persons of color, was highly offensive to some members of the LAEV community, especially when they heard that I had mentioned this to their white friends, even though I would do this in a way that I thought was very sensitive and caring of their desire to become a member. Many folks really wanted to join our community because of its diversity, but these were mostly white folks. So, had they all sailed through our membership process, we’d be pretty out of balance in the ethnicity/race category.
In spite of my thinking that 50-50 was a good balance to maintain, the demographics for persons of color was much higher in our immediate neighborhood, about 85 to 90 percent—a majority Latino, but substantial numbers of Asians. So, several in the LAEV community strongly felt that 50 percent was much too low for persons of color, since it was not representative of the neighborhood demographics (as distinct from the city’s demographics). Others felt we shouldn’t pay attention at all to such ratios in any area of diversity, but that we should do a much more intense outreach in communities of color.
I tended to disagree that the 50-50 balance was too low. I felt it was a good move toward more ethnic integration of the neighborhood without the negative gentrification that happened in many other lower-income minority neighborhoods, since we were deeply committed to permanently affordable land and housing for lower-income households.
And I certainly did not want the LAEV community to fall victim to some of our earliest errors in judgment, when we accepted several persons of color more for their ethnicity than anything else. The subsequent problems resulting from that bias were divisive, expensive, and destructive to the community.
An example was the Jeanette situation described at the beginning of this article. Eventually Jeanette voluntarily left the community, but with a good deal of financial help from the Cooperative Resources and Services Project (CRSP), LAEV’s parent nonprofit.
In another case, we had to evict a member. She was charming, articulate, smart, participatory, and interested in everything we were doing. In our enthusiasm we didn’t check her references. It turned out she was a rent-scam artist; she’d rent a place, pay rent for three months, then just stop until she was in court for eviction, at which point the judge would direct her to work it out with the landlord. The landlord would be so happy to get rid of her without forcing her to pay back rent, the case would be dismissed before the eviction went on her record. And on to the next apartment she’d go, with her convincing charms.
Fairness or Bias?
As I witnessed our struggles with these issues, I imagined that if I were a person of color and had the qualities that we seek in membership, I would not be interested in joining the LAEV community since I would have enough similar things to do in my own community. For example, the LAEV community is open to those who can demonstrate over time their commitment to more ecological and cooperative living, preferably are car-free and bicycle-friendly, are proactive advocates for environmental and social justice, enjoy engaging in the community’s activities, and can make substantial time commitments to participate in a variety of ways, including weekly dinners, weekly meetings, monthly work parties, committee memberships, public advocacy in our areas of interest, planning and participating in public events, etc. If I were such a person of color, rather than join LAEV, I imagined I would prefer to be in coalition with the organization and others working on similar issues in their own neighborhoods and others who have common purposes in our city, to build organizational friendships across color and ethnicity lines.
When I mentioned this way of thinking to one of my most active neighbors in race and gender issues, who is a grad student in her mid 30s, she expressed some surprise, stating that she knows lots of young people (20- and 30-somethings) of color who would welcome the idea of living in a multi-cultural community. As I thought about that later, I realized that my experiences were quite limited with that generation outside the LAEV community and the young people I meet on our tours, so perhaps she makes a valid point.
On the other hand, would such persons of color be interested and available to participate at the depth that we would want? I will leave it to her and other community members to continue to introduce such persons to the LAEV community, and encourage them to move into our immediate neighborhood whether or not they choose to enter the LAEV membership process.
Of course, diversity in intentional community begins with the membership process. I like to think that I treated every member inquiry in a personal and fair way, answering their front-end questions, and frequently referring them to other resources if I did not think they would be a good fit for LAEV, though always also directing them to more information about our process, if they chose to pursue it. These personal responses were problematic for other members of the LAEV community who felt that every inquiry should be responded to exactly the same in the interest of fairness. Many of my neighbors also felt that I was acting in a presumptuous manner in thinking that I knew who might be a good fit and who not.
My directness and occasional curt remarks to visitors were sometimes seen as unfriendly and unwelcoming. Word of such remarks would occasionally get back to other members of the LAEV community who were concerned that I was not welcoming when I was informing some of their friends and acquaintances of our consensed-upon policies regarding visiting dogs, smokers, or folks overstaying our midnight curfew on loud social events.
Much to my relief, a few years ago, the community formed a Welcoming or Bienvenidos Committee, a primary purpose of which would be to respond to resident inquiries! I felt relief to no longer have to be responsible, and happily shared any of my experience that Bienvenidos committee members might find helpful. I did grow more careful in how I greeted and spoke with visitors, even when they were about to violate our policies. For example, I’d offer to dog-sit with a visiting dog outside on the sidewalk, while their owner visited inside our large building where dogs are not allowed.
Bienvenidos/Membership created a standard form letter to reply to all member inquiries. Within a few years of Bienvenidos taking over this member inquiry function, the deficiencies in our generational and household composition numbers were made up, and our ethnic composition actually went up slightly as well, if one counted those whom we had accepted for extended short stays, if not actual members of the intentional community (which requires a four- to six-month process while not living in our buildings). Where we had only two seniors before, we now have five, all highly participating. Where we had no households with children before, we now have five households with a total of seven kids, six of whom are children of color (and, incidentally, one of whom was born at home in the eco-bathtub made by his father)—again with substantial interest and participation in community activities.
Several persons of color have taken on very pro-active leadership roles, convening committees, joining the boards of our Beverly-Vermont Community Land Trust and our Urban Soil/Tierra Urbana Limited Equity Housing Cooperative, staffing our Management, Finance, and Membership Committees. In years past, although we had the 50-50 balance on ethnicity, we didn’t have the strong leadership among persons of color that we have today. I believe that this has happened partly because I have stepped out of the way. (Generally, there is some tension between founders and those who come later, and once founders feel secure enough that the community will survive without them, it often becomes easier and easier to just let go. At least this has been so for me.)
Although the Bienvenidos/Membership Committee was directed by our Community Meeting (the weekly meeting that forms the main oversight governing body for the community) to answer all member inquiries with the same form letter, I still feel uncomfortable with this approach. I would like to see some inquiries given more personal treatment, answering questions that may not be answered in our membership process documents, and making further inquiries of the inquirer which may hint at some special qualities or interest that would be very welcome in the community, assuming their other qualities make for a good fit.
Some of my neighbors feel that we still have a long way to go in working through racism—institutional or personal. “We could do a better job of making space for people who are new,” says one long-time member, “to try to understand others better than we do. We could do a better job of listening to what others think. We could practice more nonviolent communication, learn and practice more how to give and receive personal feedback without directing negative energy toward the other person or being reactive.” We do not yet have an adequate regular forum or process for giving and receiving personal feedback, an issue that came up in our most recent retreat. I volunteered to work on that issue, to bring a number of process options to the LAEV Community Meeting for consideration.
Hopefully, in the not-so-distant future, we will be practicing such a process of giving and receiving personal feedback regularly. And when we are really good at that, perhaps people of any race, ethnicity, age, gender, class committed to the LAEV vision and values will be able to breathe easy and think, “Ahhh, there’s room for me here.” And, hopefully, LAEV members or applicants won’t be thinking of themselves as weird for joining such a community, feeling that they don’t quite fit in the mainstream of society—because maybe by then, we will be the mainstream, living on a planet that is surviving, and, hopefully, thriving because we learned how to transcend our “isms.”
*Names have been changed in this article.
Started in 1993, the 40-member Los Angeles Eco-Village Intentional Community is located in an intensely urban working class neighborhood three miles from downtown L.A. Our vision is to reinvent how we live in the city by effectively integrating the social, economic, and ecological systems of our neighborhood in ways that demonstrate a higher quality of life while reducing our environmental impacts.
1.Celebrate and include joy in all our endeavors.
2. Take responsibility for each other and the planet through local environmental and social action.
3. Learn from nature and live ecologically.
4. Build a dynamic community through diversity and cooperation, giving and forgiving.
5. Inspire compassionate, nurturing, and respectful relationships.
6. Create balanced opportunities for individual participation and collective stewardship.