Author: Jim Schenk
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #148
I’m celebrating “being overthrown.” OK, it actually isn’t that dramatic.
In 1998 Imago, an ecological education organization established 20 years earlier, began a process of developing an ecovillage in Price Hill, an inner ring neighborhood of 40,000 people in Cincinnati, Ohio. Some years earlier it had begun looking at walking its talk, and focused on developing Price Hill as a green neighborhood. The opportunity to develop an ecovillage in Price Hill seemed like a logical move in this direction.
Imago was already located in a community that was, in many ways, ideal for an ecovillage. The area surrounds Imago’s 16 acre nature preserve. About 20 percent of the residents on Imago’s street (including my wife and I) were living there specifically because of Imago and the desire to live sustainably, the neighborhood was a good size (80 buildings and 90 households), and it was stable.
One of the issues we deal with is the fact that the street is reportedly the longest no-outlet street in Cincinnati, about three-quarters of a mile long. It sometimes makes communication a challenge.
We began the Enright Ridge Urban Ecovillage in 2004. Imago assigned me to be the coordinator of this project. Our goal was to develop an urban ecovillage in an existing community. (You can read more about our ecovillage in Communities issues #129 and #141.)
As we began, I was very influential in the creation of the ecovillage. We decided to become a nonprofit organization because it was the structure that I understood the best. We set up a board of directors composed of all the residents of the community who chose to be members of the organization. (Membership required the contribution of $10 or more.) This was a framework for a board that I had found very successful in the past. We began purchasing and rehabbing foreclosed properties in the ecovillage—something that I had both the resources and experience to do.
The group proceeded to develop the board, select officers, and set up committees. The board and committees did an incredible amount of work in the areas of housing, beautification, marketing, conservation, and the recruiting of new members. I was also assigned the title of ecovillage coordinator by the board and given a salary of $100 per week. This wasn’t a lot, based on the 35 to 40 hours of work I was doing per week, but it did designate me as paid staff, which helped in relating to other organizations and funders.
While residents of the ecovillage carried out much of the work, I had a great deal of influence because of my position and because of the amount of time I was willing to spend on ecovillage projects. I did a significant amount of work. As mentioned, I had a central role in the planning for rehabbing houses. I helped in developing a budget for the ecovillage. I found ways of funding additional staff, and was a major influence in hiring. I did a good number of presentations about the ecovillage, and was responsible for bringing in many new members and volunteer assistance. And the list goes on. This is not to say I was the only person working for the ecovillage; each of the committees was doing major work. However, they had to deal with the challenge of the long street, which made it difficult to easily coordinate and bring people together. Because of time spent, years of experience in community organizing and administration, commitment to developing an ecovillage, and my position, I did have the most influence.
In the fall of 2008 we began talking about developing stronger committees that would take on more of the power. It was an acknowledged fact that the organization needed to delegate more leadership. Toward this end we planned the board meeting in January 2009 using a system called “Storyboard.” At this meeting we told the story of each committee, putting the information on cards and placing them on a pegboard with stickpins. This gave the ecovillage board a chance to see what each committee was doing. The meeting was a great success. For the next meeting we planned to look at the storyboard to find overlaps and areas not being covered. Using the storyboard we could move the items around from committee to committee, add new ones, and in this way decide who would be responsible for each item and assign new items that were not being covered. The board was so excited that when the coordinator of the process asked each committee to write in detail what they saw as the goal and purpose of their committee for 2009, along with its projects and actions for the year, all the committees came through with their document. It seemed like a transition was on its way. The February meeting was set to continue this process.
At the February meeting the process came to an unceremonious end. An irascible member, almost from nowhere, began the meeting by accusing the housing committee of doing shoddy work and not handling the funds for the houses well. This was followed by another member demanding that we hand out a list of all income and expenses for all the houses at each board meeting. A third member, who had a dislike for me, chimed in her support. The treasurer of the ecovillage expressed her confidence in the bookkeeping, which did little to squelch the demands.
I knew this was a smoke screen. I had directed nonprofit organizations for 30 years with budgets in the quarter- to half-million dollar range. I had been involved in successfully rehabbing over 20 houses. The Enright Ridge Urban Ecovillage had an annual budget of $20,000, along with the funds for rehabbing two houses.
I also knew that giving people a list of income and expenses was not the way to help them make sense of finances. I said, with the small salary I received, I was basically as much a volunteer as everyone else and was not willing to spend a lot of time running off meaningless financial reports. However, I would be willing to sit down with anyone and go over our books. When we had completed that, then I would be willing to run off any information that the people who went over the books with me wanted. Not one person accepted the offer, and the demands to run off the numerous pages of financial information continued from these two people. I committed to doing this if they would sit down with me and understand the bookkeeping system first. They refused. I refused. The meeting ended in turmoil.
The demands of these two people, in my estimation, were so irrational that I believed the issue would blow over. However, it didn’t. I could feel the beginning of sides forming. Accusations continued. Several months passed without any resolution.
It was suggested that we hire a mediator to help with the problem. The group agreed, interviewed three possible mediators, and hired one. Finances were tight, so he was to be paid by splitting the cost among those who attended the mediation session.
The mediation session was scheduled for July. Two days before the session I received word that my brother in Venezuela had died. My priority became to attend his funeral. However, the group decided to still hold the mediation session.
When I returned I was told that the mediation session had happened and that the mediator was summarizing what had happened. That this mediation session happened without me seemed a little strange, as did the fact that the mediator was writing up a summary—not what I would consider the role of a mediator. It had been decided that we should have another session with the mediator, this time with me present. We were handed his report at the session. Much of it was negatively directed at me, most of it around finances, with some general statements of appreciation for starting the ecovillage. During this meeting a couple people were critical of the report in that a lot more positive was said about me than was recorded, but the majority of the 15 people at the meeting were basically silent in this regard. Not having had time to really digest the material, I had little to say except to ask some clarifying questions, but was personally hurt by the silence.
I mulled over this report for several days. Finally, at the end of July, I wrote a somewhat scathing response. Among other things, since finances continued to be the main issue, I offered to set up a time to sit down with four people or more to go over the books with them, and to provide them with printed information of anything they wanted at that time. I offered to hand over the books to anyone who wanted to take them on. I also told them that since they were paying me $100 per week, and since the going rate of someone with my experience would be a minimum of $50 per hour, I was willing to do whatever they wanted me to do for two hours per week. The rest of my time I would volunteer, doing what I felt appropriate, like everyone else. However, if they wanted me to continue as coordinator I needed three things:
1. Have this document rewritten so that it reflects the positive contributions I have made to the ecovillage, at least equaling the length of the negative statements,
2. Include the strengths and weaknesses of those attending the mediation sessions and the changes they need to make.
3. Reflect the incredible accomplishments we have made together in only six years.
Two people responded by writing up what they saw as my positive contributions, but were told that the mediator’s report was a final document and could not be altered. This made it pretty clear to me that the beautiful opportunity for shared power that opened up in January was now dead in the water.
Despite my “threats” I continued doing most of the work that I had been doing before. In fact, 2009 was a very successful year for the ecovillage. The Urban CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) was a huge success. Proposals were written and approved for Americorps volunteers and staff hired and supervised. We wrote a grant and received money to pay off the greenhouse for the CSA. The two houses being rehabbed were completed. A number of new people moved into the ecovillage.
However, no one else stepped forward to take over any of my responsibilities. And no one stepped forward to go over the finances, until, after some cajoling, four people finally agreed to go over the books with me, one being the treasurer. This was done just before the September board meeting, held on the last Sunday. (No August board meeting was held.). Their report, in effect, stated that the books were in good shape.
In my response to the mediation document I had also recommended that the board:
1. Figure out how it is going to pay me or someone else for this position, and if it wants me to volunteer my time as coordinator that it figure out a way to recompense me, possibly a combination of monetary and non-monetary compensation.
2. If you don’t want to do these things, figure out a way to get another volunteer coordinator or decide to run without a coordinator.
By the first of October only my request to have four people look at the books had been met and none of my recommendations were followed. At this time I felt that it was necessary, both for my own sanity and for the ecovillage, that I resign as coordinator. This I did in a letter to the president of the board on October 11, 2009. I offered to stay on as long as the board wanted me, but no longer than December 31, 2009. Within four days I had a letter from the president saying that my resignation was accepted. It was clear to me that I had made the right decision. It said that my date of termination would be December 31 as I requested. (I had not requested to stay on until then, but had simply offered to stay on that long if they wanted.)
The next three months were somewhat unnerving in that there was not a lot of movement around taking over my roles. I was approached about meeting around my roles early on. I typed out a three-page list of things that I was doing and offered them to the five people who met with me, explained each of the items as best I could, and offered to consult with them in the transition. The board instead concentrated on developing a new mission statement and bylaws, which felt mostly like busy work, as the mission statement was reworded, but basically the same concepts, with few significant changes made in the bylaws beyond the change in the board structure.
One of the problems that I was aware of was that the new board would be elected at the end of November. The bylaws were changed so that all members would no longer make up the board, but instead the elected officers and chairs of the committees would make up the board. This new board would not take over until January. All new officers but one were elected, while many of the chairs of the committees remained the same. At the end of December, the new president told me that the board was ready to take on the responsibilities.
January 1 came, and little transition had actually taken place. The board was not scheduled to hold their first meeting until the end of January. I had offered to do a few things like supervise staff, since I was authorized to do this by Americorps. This offer was rejected; however, a new structure was not set up for supervising them.
I refused to allow myself to become vindictive. I understand power and leadership and transitioning. I won’t say that it didn’t hurt. Understanding didn’t totally take away the feeling of rejection and the lack of appreciation. Despite these feelings I was determined to be available to help in the transition. The ecovillage is really important to me.
Finally, with the end of January, the transition began. The books were finally taken over. I worked with the new bookkeeper to help him understand the process, and handed it on. The supervision of staff was designated, but was slow in the transition. The responsibility for the houses was taken over. I am now simply a member of the CSA and of the ecovillage, available for consultation if anyone is interested in my input. There have not been a lot of requests.
One of my strengths is being able to give up power. This I have done a number of times. However, I do catch myself reverting at times. We had 12 inches of snow and the houses we rehabbed were snowed in. One of my fears is having the houses look vacant, which make them a mark for being broken into. I began shoveling the snow at one of our rehabbed, vacant properties. My wife pointed out that I was no longer on the housing committee and so this is neither my responsibility nor my right any more. With great effort I quit.
I need to keep my distance for a while, work within the structure of the ecovillage where others and I feel comfortable with my involvement, and learn a new relationship with the ecovillage. Hopefully, over the next year, those who have taken power will come to feel comfortable with my presence, and I will feel comfortable around them.
My fears are that they will:
● Blame any perceived failures on those who have been involved in the ecovillage since its inception, including me. That they will view the past as negative and as a result feel they need to totally recreate the ecovillage from what they feel are the ashes. In trying to create everything new I fear they will burn themselves out because of their refusal to learn from and build on the past, and leave the ecovillage in shambles.
● Focus on developing a bureaucracy rather than community. I believe we are tribal animals, but in the huge cultural push toward individualism, we have forgotten how to live in community. For this reason we feel more comfortable in a bureaucracy we can control than in community, where we need to learn to relate.
My hope for the new group in charge is that they will:
● Come to understand, respect, and learn from the history of the ecovillage.
● Focus on creating community and relationships.
● Involve a lot of people in the exciting next step in the development of the ecovillage.
My hope for the community is that we will:
● Learn the lost art of living in community.
● Continue to expand our notion of community to include other species that interweave in and around Enright Ave.
● Develop a method of conflict resolution and mediation that works.
● Evolve a style of leadership that will be supported and respected.
● Become a positive example of developing an urban ecovillage.
We are at the cusp. We are in crisis—at the point of danger or opportunity. These are truly exciting times in Enright Ridge Urban Ecovillage! I personally feel immense relief, no longer having the responsibility of the ecovillage on my back. As an eternal optimist, I believe that a healthy shared power will evolve, that the people sharing this power will feel energized by it rather than burn out, and a deep sense of community will develop. The next year will tell.
And while it unfolds, I do have my own plans for the coming year. I believe the difficulty we have in developing community is the biggest challenge that we face. My focus will be looking at how we might develop it in the ecovillage.
My first response to Jim’s article is that I wish we all would write up our versions and share them. Maybe we could understand each other better and take responsibility for our part in the conflict. Conflict is, after all, natural and a way to grow. I say that as a mediator and peace educator who is supposed to know how to deal with conflict. I have also lived on Enright for 24 years and was the Ecovillage president for the first two years. I feel hurt and a mixture of other feelings about this conflict, including relief (as Jim mentioned) not to be working so hard. My consolation is that having worked in visionary nonprofits for 20 years, I know expectations can be high without the necessary skills to totally fulfill them.
Jim (and Eileen) have initiated some amazing projects and organizations where I have tried to be a worker bee. Some people used the term “founder’s syndrome” to describe the conflict; they didn’t want Jim leading the way anymore. In “founder’s syndrome,” the organizational structure can take on the strengths and weaknesses of the founder; to overcome it, he/she needs to know when it’s time to move on, if it’s a community organization. Since the founder lives on the street, he was involved with the transition of power. Why then did the ecovillage temporarily turn into a soap opera?
Key dilemmas I heard voiced: Are we building a nonprofit or a community or an eco-community? Are we doing everything right? Do I know everything going on? I was content with what we were doing, but some others weren’t. People moved to Enright for what they perceived was happening, but there was no application or discernment process for membership and no orientation. We had dual roles as neighbors, ecovillage members, and some as employees. We also had the lives we were leading off of Enright. We were “creating the road (to an ecovillage) as we walked.” Instead of dealing with key dilemmas, too often we had parking-lot conversations without whole group conversations. Several members were so frustrated that they used email and a meeting or two to blame and attack, which fueled people’s moving into camps. We had no clear conflict resolution processes. My attempted mediation in one of the conflicts failed. Some of us didn’t know each other enough to have the trust or commitment necessary to continue to take the increased time to work things out.
With all that, we continue to be an imperfect model of creating an urban ecovillage in an existing transitional neighborhood. Some people are trying to be bridge builders. I’m trying to learn my boundaries and take on what I enjoy. We are urban pioneers. Amazing projects abound. May we all learn and grow together in service to the planet and each other.