The Art and Ethics of Visitor Programs

The Art and Ethics of Visitor Programs

Author: Blake Cothron
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #155

All around the world we’re now witnessing an exciting upsurge of interest in intentional communities and alternative living arrangements. This is very promising news for any of us who are proponents of a more conscious, equitable, regenerative, and sane world. Major challenges face the intentional communities movement and any similar projects. The challenge I’d like to highlight now is the integration of new members and volunteers in a holistic, ethical, and meaningful way. We must ask, what are we in our individual situations doing to provide an ethical, hospitable, meaningful, and fair introductory experience for newcomers in our community?

How often have we in community witnessed the following scenario: an enthusiastic and good-natured new person is invited into your community who has useful skills, heart, and potential to contribute much to your community, but soon experiences internal challenges, becomes disheartened, and then departs? I’ve watched this drama unfold too many times (and been the disillusioned new person myself). As facilitators and creators of intentional communities we need to deeply consider why there is such a high turnover rate of potential new members and communitarians. We can start by first exploring a few crucial questions: why do people enthusiastically decide to explore membership in intentional community in the first place? Why do they often leave so soon? How can a visitor program better meet the holistic needs of new people and warmly integrate them into the community?

People choose to pursue intentional community life for many different reasons. Some are looking for a way out of the “rat race,” and a simpler, more natural and holistic life. Others choose cooperative living to engage in educational or humanitarian work. Some wish to pursue their spiritual path while living with other seekers and practitioners of their faith. I think most can agree, however, that we basically all choose intentional community for very similar foundational reasons: we want deeper connections with other people and the Earth, more meaning in what we do, and to live a healthier, simpler, and more regenerative lifestyle. Personally, I chose to first explore community living in 2006 because I believed there had to be a much better way to live than I was experiencing in my struggling and crowded hometown. I craved a more integrated existence, simplicity, deeper relationships, involvement in organic agriculture, and living more in tune with nature.

I think it’s important to remember how we all felt when we were first new to community. How did you feel? Were you excited, amazed, maybe a bit bewildered? Were you very open-hearted and generous, or were you quiet and reserved? I was a bit of all of those and also painfully idealistic and naïve. It’s important for us to remember that joining a community is usually an enormous step out of the status quo and our privacy-addicted mindsets; it can be a culture shock. We can easily forget what it’s like for a new person to join the group and how much of a dramatic internal shift they often must make to function cooperatively.

Sometimes we just expect them to understand what is to us common knowledge: why recycling is important, the virtues of not having a television, or the real dangers of GMO’s, for example. We sometimes expect new people to accept our community lifestyles outright, with little to no time for adjustment. It’s important to remember that anyone who is exploring intentional community is in the rare two percent or so of the population and deserves recognition and patience for that fact alone.

We must be real here and recognize that welcoming new people into our communities and farms is no simple task. It takes much time and effort to host someone properly, and even more consciousness and energy to create an integrated and holistic experience for them. And of course there are always some people who try, and then find out that community living is just not for them, or who are simply not good matches for the community. Yet the way we go about hosting someone will dramatically affect their experience and the likelihood of any future involvement in our community. What is often overlooked out of perceived practicality is the loving human touch and interaction, as well as practical arrangements like good housing and trying to match compatible people to your project, which makes all the difference.

Many times I traveled to a community as a prospective member or intern and experienced myself and others being treated like the means to a goal, and later on I also caught myself embarrassingly on the other end as well. It’s all too easy to view new people, whether interns, apprentices, or prospective members, as energetic, free labor for all of our needy projects, and to treat them in that one-dimensional way. From experiences I had facilitating WWOOF volunteers in a farm community, I realized I had to become more sensitive to the fact that every person is a multi-dimensional being with different needs, desires, proclivities, fears, skills, dreams, and maturity level, and that interacting with them sensitively and respectfully is essential. We need to honor each person’s journey and complex needs while treating them in a holistic way.

The first step, before we even begin to offer live-in programs in our communities, is to discern why we wish to begin a visitor program and how to best meet the needs of the visitors. Are we wanting to temporarily host someone simply to lend us a hand and teach them a skill, such as natural building, or are we offering an opportunity to explore potential membership? These two scenarios necessitate different strategies and arrangements. Depending on the purpose of the visit, we then can make arrangements to meet their basic needs and organize for their guidance from a community member or team.

Beyond this physical, basic level, I am advocating for the creation of a nurturing environment for interacting with a new person based on their multi-dimensional existence, so that they feel sustenance on many levels and both they and the community can better get their needs met. Let’s explore some of the factors involved and how this holistic approach can be manifested.

In most successful community endeavors I will attest that effective communication is the foundation, and in general most deep, fulfilling relationships are based on open communication. So it’s important to remember that people come to community generally seeking a more meaningful, fulfilling, and connected reality. The modern world is depressingly impersonal, as more computers, machines, and isolation prevent genuine human interaction and communication, even on a basic level. Integrating intimate, meaningful communication and sharing into a newcomer’s stay is therefore vital. Imagine a new person being warmly welcomed over chai and relaxed casual conversation, instead of practical details and “breaking them in” with immediate work projects or orientations. How does the first option feel over the second?

We need to make sure we extend respect and warmth while fostering personal communication with new people. Too often I’ve seen rural communities operating like little boot camps with new people treated impersonally like “new recruits.” The focus is on productivity, labor, and accomplishing goals, often for the benefit of a desired image or material aim. Personal development, reflection, spirituality, and emotional/artistic expression are curtailed in favor of pushing onward “the glorious mission.” This is not a sustainable approach. We need to examine our community situations and very honestly ask ourselves, “are we collectively facilitating a sustainable, meaningful, and holistic experience for ourselves as well as newcomers?” Likewise we need to ask, “are our advertisements and outreach material accurate, up-to-date, or even true?”

Here’s a story to dramatically illustrate this point: several years ago I found online a listing for a dynamic-sounding intentional community, complete with a dedicated group of conscious permaculture pioneers and an incredible organic mini-farm educational center overflowing with abundance and diversity. I was excited and scheduled my visit as an intern. As I pulled into the property backed dramatically by thousands of acres of steep, wild, dark, misty mountains; I was in awe of the beautiful setting. There indeed was an impressive diversity and abundance of fruit orchards and gardens…but what I quickly noticed an absence of was a community. The center was operated entirely by one man and his wife.

“Well,” I figured, “this place is so amazing maybe it will still work out somehow.” That evening I was shown my choices of housing. One was a dark, creaky, musty hundred-year old barn outfitted as a sort of dormitory, with lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling and raggedy old blankets and mattresses strewn about. The other option was a small, 8′ x 8′ unheated shack with gaps between the uninsulated wall boards just big enough to let the freezing March wind and snow blow inside during my first night. The “simple, organic diet” they offered consisted of nearly-spoilt dumpstered food, and the consensus decision making was made between the man and his wife. As educational as this center was, I left after about three days, feeling relieved to be gone yet disappointed and somewhat scattered.

It was not the cooperative and holistic community it was advertised as, and now I was very inconvenienced and hundreds of miles away from home and had to abruptly make new plans. The lesson for me was to not be naïve about trusting that a website is entirely accurate and honest, and to openly ask a lot of pertinent questions before making a move to a community. The online description of this community was 10 years old and obviously needed a lot of revision. Portraying our projects or community as something they are not is simply not ethical. Likewise, it’s not ethical or useful to offer new people substandard housing and food or inhumane work and living arrangements, yet it’s all too common.

Now ask yourself, how would you feel being asked to eat and live in what is being offered to your interns or visitors? The fact that an arrangement is “livable” (sometimes survivable is more accurate) does not make it sustainable or humane. We need to extend our own human needs and desires to newcomers in community, who are vulnerable people as well. Let’s be as generous as we can. Create living arrangements which are nice and inviting and foster a sense of privacy, safety, and nurturing. These things go a long way in helping a new person feel welcomed, appreciated, and respected, which will likely lead them to consider staying on longer.

As well as meeting basic physical needs, it’s just as important to make an effort to meet the emotional and mental needs of a person. This is why I advocate scheduling a special time, perhaps once a week, to hold a “checking-in” session and ask them how their experience is going. How have they been feeling? What do they like best? What has been challenging? How has their image of the community changed so far? What is inspiring them? What would they change if they could? This could be done in a comfortable private room, over dinner, or in a nice natural setting. Try to facilitate it as a warm, personal exchange, not like a formal interview or going down a list of questions. And, unless necessary to do otherwise, keep their answers private or at least not completely public.

This small, simple exchange, I believe, can make a dramatic impact on a new person’s feelings of connection and being cared for, as well as facilitate more internal clarity about their own experience. This will help not only them, but the community also, to have more clarity about how the visit is going and to help balance out any issues and potential problems early on.

Many times, new people will leave a community for very simple and often avoidable reasons. Lack of a private room, lack of vegan diet options, etc. can all be deal-breakers. Many times this can be avoided by clear communication and agreements beforehand. However, I’d say a majority of people leave community because of lack of integration into the group. Communities can become very close-knit or even form cliques that can be difficult or nearly impossible to penetrate, with new people often treated like outsiders. This can be avoided by inviting new folks to community events, meals, and outings. Allow them to introduce themselves in front of everyone and share a bit about themselves. Host an open mic or talent show and encourage them to express their artistic sides. Have fun! If they express interest, facilitate a small personal project for them; perhaps painting the kitchen or planting a fruit tree. This will help them feel a sense of contribution and meaning—innate human needs.

The act of integrating new people into our communities is a delicate, sacred responsibility. We want new people to feel positive about joining our communities. Both parties are taking a risk. They are trusting us to facilitate a good experience for them; to keep them safe and nurtured, and to offer them what we have advertised. We want them in turn to have a positive, dynamic, and educational experience, and contribute to and potentially join our community. We all want to get our needs met by the whole event.

I admit, I’m still an idealist. I do not mean to offend those who offer well-meaning, but still deficient visitor programs. I believe that integrating even one (or more) of these suggestions into your visitor program will dramatically improve the experience of your visitors and lead to better outcomes for everyone involved. In summary, I’d like to highlight these important points:

Be Honest: Make sure any outreach material is accurate, honest, and up-to-date. Be very clear, honest, and descriptive about the housing situation, food quality, daily schedule, spirituality or religious focus, privacy, fees, local climate, mission of the community, alcohol/tobacco use, and the communities’ basic expectations of visitors. Ambiguity leads to problems, disappointments, and chaos.

Be Fair: Make sure your situation is nurturing and balanced for a multi-dimensional person. Share decent housing that is clean, heatable, at least somewhat private, and that feels cozy and safe. If all you have available is sub-par, make that very clear, and post pictures of it. Create their schedule to be livable and not arduous. Allow at least one full day per week of off-time for rest and reflection, ideally with no expectations of their attending anything. If you are to charge something, take into account all the labor they will be doing.

Connect: Welcome new people warmly and stay in close communication with them throughout their stay. Get to know them and engage the new person in events and outings. Have a friendly, personal, and private meeting time with them at least once during their stay to check in and connect. Be sensitive to their needs, varying moods, and desires. People usually join community because they want more connection, meaning, and deeper relationships.

Create space for new people to express themselves and contribute: If they show an interest in a personal project or contribution, try to help them to do it. Keep it small and realistic. Share opportunities for art, music, dance, and recreation.

Be Real: Be open about (at least some of) the challenges and issues facing the community. Be open and real about the mission, focus, and mood of the community, and expect openness from them as well. Learn from each other and be accepting of their enthusiasm and a fresh, new perspective on your community.

Editor’s Note: We invite responses from communitarians to the questions and concerns Blake presents in this article. We’d like to present a diversity of perspectives on the issues raised, and you can help with that. Please let us know what you think.

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2 Responses to The Art and Ethics of Visitor Programs

  1. Christopher cairn says:

    Thank you for writing this. I have been told by Spirit to start looking into intentional communities, and this article provided me with helpful information.

    Only love exists,

    karen

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