Your Guide to Starting a Residential Intentional Community
“As we have lost community to the culture of hyper-individualism and competition, many of us find ourselves longing for deeper human connections.
So what time is it? What is the historical moment we find ourselves in and why must intentional communities play a role in it?”
Table of Contents
Introduction: What Time Is It?
Part 1: Setting the Stage
- Chapter 1: Motivation and Ego
- Chapter 2: What Makes a Good Founder (and Founder Group)
- Chapter 3: Phases of Community Creation
- Chapter 4: Types of Communities
Part 2: Defining and Materializing Your Community
- Chapter 5: Visioning Your Community
- Chapter 6: Culture, Diversity, and Justice
- Chapter 7: Power, Conflict, and Decision-Making
- Chapter 8: Membership and Recruitment
- Chapter 9: Money and Labor
- Chapter 10 : Legal Structures
- Chapter 11: Land and the Property Search
- Chapter 12: Some Basics of Community Design
Part 3: Transitioning to Community Life
- Chapter 13: What to Do Before Moving in Together
- Chapter 14: Becoming a Good Community Member
- Appendix 1: List of Exercises
- Appendix 2: List of Figures and Charts
Living in community is an inherently radical act. We’re relearning how to think and relate as “we” in a culture of endemic individuality, which is a cornerstone to the global systems of oppression and exploitation that are driving us to the brink. The questions of applicability, accessibility, replicability, and scalability have to be addressed at some point, and we have to understand the depth and scope of what we’re dealing with.
— Sky Blue, former Executive Director
Foundation for Intentional Community
Introduction: What Time Is It?
Every movement comes out of a particular moment in history: they are context-specific. Cooperatives emerged from horrifying conditions of the working poor in the UK in the late 1800s as people started organizing for economic control over their lives. The scientific revolution was a response to a need for objective measurement to counteract the religious fervor of the day. The civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter have taken the form they have because racism is still a prominent feature in our systems. Movements form in response to deep and timely needs.
Intentional community is in part a response to the loss of extended family structures as the norm (at least among white and middle class families), and the demise of the village. Modern mobility has allowed us to explore the whole world, but has also meant that people can choose to move away from their places of birth and never come back. There are a hundred wonderful things about that. But what all of this means is that community can no longer be taken for granted. If we want it, we have to work to create it in our lives.
As we have lost community to the culture of hyper-individualism and competition, many of us find ourselves longing for deeper human connections. So what time is it? What is the historical moment we find ourselves in and why must intentional communities play a role in it?
There’s a lot to answering that question.
More than ever before in the US, there is a call for reckoning with our racialized, colonial status quo. Climate disruption is now killing and displacing millions of people every year, and individuals and communities are scrambling to know what to do with such an unprecedented, universally impactful ecological crisis. Economic disparities within the US (as well as between nations) are getting worse, and the connection between societal collapse and these kinds of disparities is well documented. In short: things are a mess.
Underlying all of these crises is a cultural reality that makes them all the more frightening: from police violence to domestic violence to self-harm to international wars, we seem to default to violence over and over again as a problem solving tool. I think there are better tools available to us.
This moment is one of unprecedented changes and challenges that require more human ingenuity and cooperation than ever before. We are also in a time where learning to cooperate, learning to resolve things peaceably and make decisions grounded in our collective interests is rarely on the standard educational menu. Those who raise the possibility of such things are often treated like we are naive or escapist.
There is a permaculture principle that says that the problem is the solution. Is it possible that the large populations of marginalized, economically disenfranchised people with our eyes open to ecological crises (currently being labeled “a problem” by various people in power) might be able to come together collectively, and be the solution? I think so. This book is written in a spirit of solidarity with both the planet and the many marginalized peoples of the world in deep suffering. I am part of those masses; I am one of the many people simultaneously affected by what does not work in this world and working actively to change it.
I am writing for the people who want collective answers, and who see the deep benefits of community living as a key piece of that. I see community as a place to get the social connection we need to stave off what has been called a loneliness crisis, to share resources and lower our carbon footprints, and to have access to each other’s creativity and let it spark our own so that when the crises hit close to home, we have the best possible chance of surviving them and even thriving in a new world.
I also take inspiration from many other movements and know that they are not separate from the communities movement. What many people picture when they think about community is oddly monoculture: we mostly think of young white people heading for rural places to start their version of utopia, or middle class people using the tool of community to create an even more comfortable and “safe” neighborhood for themselves. Increasingly, the mainstream press is also profiling professional white people embracing co-living in urban areas. But those versions are far from the whole history (or current reality) of this movement.
Fannie Lou Hamer was a civil rights activist who rubbed shoulders with more well known Black leaders like Ella Baker and Malcom X, and lived communally for years in Wisconsin. The Black communal movement includes many notable figures and communities, including Hamer, MOVE in Philadelphia (still the only place to be bombed by the US government on US soil), and the community building activities in Jackson MS, organized under the umbrella of Cooperation Jackson.
Community has been used as an effective tool for economic sovereignty and liberatory political organizing for as long as community has existed. And of course the oldest human habitations on this continent were Indigenous Peoples with cultures more cooperative and oriented toward obligations to society rather than personal rights. The recent burst of indigenous-led and -centering intentional community projects is one of my brightest spots of hope right now. People who are more focused on their obligations to the people around them and the planet rather than their own individualistic rights are creating pockets of social and ecological resilience all over the world.
The urge for community to meet core economic needs is another thread worth tracing, and we don’t have to go back very far at all for this one. When Covid 19 hit in 2020, people in the US experienced empty grocery shelves for the first time in many of our lives. Seed sales in 2020 skyrocketed, interest in all things “back to the land” jumped, and mutual aid became a phrase no longer relegated to the fringes of socialist organizing and urban BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities, springing into common usage seemingly overnight. Helping each other, and often doing it on the land in relation to our food and soil was the first thing many people reached for, and we saw this across the political spectrum.
While that sense of urgency has faded for many, the core truth of that moment remains. A return to deep, authentic relationship to each other and the land is part of what we all need to survive and potentially thrive when crises hit.
Several years before I decided to write this book, I was one of a handful of people involved in visioning a project for the Foundation for Intentional Community. We called it the Community Land Trust for Collective Liberation. The project description started with these two paragraphs:
The Community Land Trust for Collective Liberation is being created to provide access to land for community projects that could not otherwise afford land. The CLT will navigate the current legal and economic system to permanently remove land from the speculative real estate market and place its stewardship into the hands of people practicing justice and sustainability. Our work embodies the spirit of decolonization and reparations, and recognizes the primacy of land access for resilience, sustainability and stability for all peoples.
The CLT is a place of radical solidarity between poor and working class people, Black, Indigenous and people of color, and the land. The project uses the frameworks of intentional community and community land trusts, and is part of larger, growing movements for cooperative culture, collective liberation, and racial, economic and climate justice. Our Advisory Board and staff are made up primarily of people on the front lines of economic and racial justice struggles, and it is their understanding of practical needs and justice that drives our organizational priorities.
While this project has yet to get off the ground, the vision is one that still encapsulates much of what motivates my work. I offer this book to the world in the spirit of the CLTCL: I believe that intentional communities with awareness of the social, economic, and ecological realities of our time are essential for the survival of humanity on the planet. Community is no longer an “interest area”; it is a necessity.
This book is written in part for those people who share my sense of urgency for the communities movement to be a significant player in shaping the next chapter of humanity, one that is in a deep and abiding relationship to land and with marginalized people. You can, of course, use this book even if your motivations are not identical to mine, and I hope all projects that use this book will be better for it. But you should be aware that I am going to frame many aspects in this book in terms of liberation and relational organizing, and hope you will join me in this orientation before you are through.
Just as there are many systemic reasons why the time is now to create community and return to cooperative stewardship of land, I am also tracking the personal, psychological, and often spiritual motivations for living in place-based community. Many of us realize that we cannot grow and mature into a greater experience of wholeness without becoming accountable to a circle of people and a place on earth. Community and land are both whole and complex systems that require deep personal reflection and responsibility to be in relationship with.
When we stay in a place, and deepen our emotional intimacy with people, we change. Often, we become more self aware, mature, wise, and able to see our impacts on others and the world — both the good impacts and the bad. We learn to listen more deeply and speak with more intentionality. The learning journey of living in intentional community brings us in contact with our values and ethics, and we get to see where we have work to do.
While this is challenging to the ego, it ties us to the greater work of our times. Growing through whatever narcissistic tendencies and unexamined biases we’ve been trained into is world work, culture change work. It develops much needed personal skills for transforming systemic injustices.
An Interconnected World and a Colonial World
We do indeed live in an increasingly interconnected world: spiritually, economically, and socially. We literally evolved from mud and electrical charges in an ecologically interconnected world, and one way to measure the health of an ecosystem is by how many relationships are operating within it. But despite the fundamentally interconnected nature of things, there are very few places in the world not also sporting legacies of being built on stolen land and with enslaved labor — both of which are representative of a whole series of profound disconnections, and are rife with the complexities of privilege and trauma. How can we create movements and communities that appropriately reckon with this?
I’m attempting with this book to interweave answers to that question with a more nuts and bolts guidebook.
I know that many people who pick up this book just want me to tell you how to start a community. Sounds simple, right? A few checklists, some timelines, a little guidance on finding your land and a group, and voila! Community! Twenty or even ten years ago, I might have been able to write that book. Five years ago, I did include a chapter in Together Resilient which largely offered that kind of guidance. But even then, that chapter was in a book about the climate crisis. That crisis is one of the many reasons this book is no longer able to be that simple.
Cassandra Ferrera (who was an early consultant for this book) often talks about the lens of becoming a good ancestor. This is a book that tries to speak to that. Our friend Ridhi D’Cruz talks about the DNA of movements and how much they are in need of changing to get to a world of justice and sustainability. I am trying to speak to that as well. I intend to contribute ways of creating community that are not unquestioningly built on top of white supremacy and a profound disconnection from the earth.
Many of us who have been in this movement for a long time believe that meeting each other in circle (in community, with authenticity, humility, and courage) is part of how we become good ancestors and change the DNA of this movement. We also increasingly believe in not just meeting on the land, but meeting with it. Land is not just a surface to build buildings on and to landscape to be pleasing to the human eye. Meeting with the land is a process of listening, asking, and responding. It is the basis for liberatory relationships between humans and the planet we call home.
This is what I believe residential community creation can be: a liberatory space for genuine mutual aid between humans, and restored integrity between us and the lands we collectively steward.
This book interweaves the how-tos (the practical advice, and yes, plenty of bullet-pointed lists of things to do and consider) with the motivations and actions that can make this movement transformative for all beings on this planet. I write both as a 25+ year veteran of this movement and an experienced founder, as well as a woman dedicated to dismantling oppressive structures within a movement I love.
The slice of the movement I am most interested in supporting with this book is challenging social norms of privacy, isolation, and building security in a very personal, “look-out-for-number-one” way. Intentional communities often have collective values that challenge the basic assumptions of capitalism (whether they articulate it as such or not) and seek to share resources, reduce waste, and resolve conflict in ways that they hope will help repair the broken social and ecological world that they are differentiating from.
Anti-oppression work is not specific to the communities movement, but it is our work as much as every other movement’s work at this time. Ultimately, I believe all true movements for justice and liberation are one movement: this thing we call the communities movement has the potential to be a land-based branch of that bigger movement in the same way that the Black farming movements and Land Back movements are. To live up to this potential, we will need to do this deliberately.
How I Came to This Work
To be totally honest, I was dragged kicking and screaming into my first community. I was pregnant with my son and their dad basically said, “I’ve been wanting to live in community ever since I spent a year on a Kibbutz in high school . . . now that we are having a kid, I feel like it’s now or never.” My response was not very charitable: “There’s no frickin’ way I’m moving to some stupid hippie commune in the middle of nowhere!”
My response was based on all kinds of stereotypes about communities: that they were escapist, drug-laden sex pits, and certainly no place to raise a kid. And I was wrong. Deeply wrong. I often say that I was stubborn but not stupid. It did not take long for me to look around at the community we had landed in and understand that here were people actually doing the things I had been talking about — intellectually exploring — for years as an activist, including feminism and sustainability work.
In many ways, community became my activism. I raised my son in a series of communities and still believe it is one of the best contributions I will ever make to the world. And I slowly learned how to become much more deliberate about my life choices: no longer getting dragged anywhere, I started to be able to create.
It was a mess a lot of the time. I was a mess a lot of the time. But I also learned. I particularly noticed a pattern: organization after organization (including community after community) failed in large part because people did not know how to cooperate, how to make decisions together, how to resolve conflicts. For many years, my community work focused on social dynamics.
In 2002, I got involved with the Foundation for Intentional Community because I saw deep value in the movement. I had seen enough by then to know that the struggles and failures I was seeing in my home communities were actually happening (with variations on the theme) all over the place, whenever people were attempting cooperation and communal living.
Over those years, I was in the role of founder four times. One I would call a resounding failure. Two were limited successes. The fourth made a huge difference in the lives of both the people who have lived there and the local community it influenced over the 5 years it was up and running.
You learn stuff when it goes well. In some ways, you learn even more when it flops. What I bring into this book is both kinds of experiences. I’ve also now been teaching workshops and longer courses on starting a community for long enough that I’ve gotten feedback from people who took my advice (or didn’t) and know a lot more about what actually works for more than just the groups I have had direct involvement with. The words you are reading come with a big load of gratitude to all of my co-founders, clients, and students over the years who have helped me refine this work, as well as the many other founders I’ve been lucky enough to have deep conversations with about their own struggles and wins.
As you begin your own founder’s journey, I’m happy to be in this with you and grateful for the opportunity to pass on a whole lot of people’s wisdom in the form of this book.
Starting a community is hard work and intense personal growth, regardless of your intentions. I know I am asking you to bite off what can seem like “additional” pieces that will make this even harder in the name of creating a more just and equitable world through our community-making efforts. I do this because after years of observing this movement, and tracking global trends, I’ve come to believe that this particular version of “harder” is needed in order to build communities with the deepest possible lasting value to the world. I am asking this not just for you and your community mates, but also for the many people who would otherwise not be able to see themselves in your community, and, ultimately, for the next seven generations. I invite you to dream just that much bigger, and to see yourself as part of something deeply transformational, not just for you, but for all of us.
Sounds heavy and huge, right? It can be. I get it. But here’s some of what makes it easier.
First, you are not alone. The deep longing for more authentic and real lives — together — is a bug that bites a large number of folks every year. For each one of you daydreaming about communal living, there are thousands of other people dreaming similar dreams. As you step into being a founder, know that you really are part of a much larger — and quite old — movement.
The dream to create a more whole and connected life is one that awakens in people of all walks of life, with various histories and levels of access to land and wealth. The yearning to belong to a place and a people could be said to be inherent in our very nature.
Second, the skills needed to create meaningful community are very similar to the skills needed to unpack oppression dynamics, and doing both sets of that work has great potential to be mutually reinforcing. You need to understand who you are, what role(s) you play in this life, how power works, and how resources are best used and directed for everyone’s benefit, not just your own. Communities that are not a container for a dance between self-awareness and community good are not very strong communities, by any reasonable measure.
Third, you have companions on this journey, including me. Many of us are active in sharing the things we have learned on that journey, and there is nothing theoretical here in this book. You do not have to figure it all out because many prior founders have stumbled our way through a lot of common mistakes, and we now know a heck of a lot about what not to do, as well as what to do.
My two prior books are additional resources for this work. Together Resilient: Building Community in the Age of Climate Disruption (2017) has chapters on legal and economic reform, and the cultural and emotional work, as well as profiles of a number of communities and projects that all have documented reduced carbon and ecological footprints. It is an especially good companion book for groups who are motivated by ecological resilience and sustainability, and would benefit from some community role models.
The Cooperative Culture Handbook: A Social Change Manual to Dismantle Toxic Culture and Build Connection (co-authored with Karen Gimnig, 2020) breaks down the many cultural and social dynamics that will create barriers to real cooperative work if left unexamined. It has 52 exercises in it that your facilitators and other leaders can use to help ease this transition and get to a place of functional community. Karen and I have articulated a kind of North Star to help guide the culture change aspects of community building and living. If you are as baffled and frustrated by your fellow humans as we often are, the Handbook will help.
The Journey in this Book
This book is divided into three sections: Setting the Stage, Defining and Materializing Your Community, and Transitioning to Community Life. Here’s a very quick peek at each:
Part 1: Setting the Stage offers some context for this work: why (and why not) to start a community, traits of both good founders and good founding groups, a rough overview of phases that community start-ups typically go through, and an overview of types of communities. All of this is offered to help get you situated in this process.
Part 2: Defining and Materializing Your Community is the guts of the book and where almost all of the “how-to” stuff lives. I walk you through visioning, navigating culture and diversity, a brief introduction to power, conflict and decision-making, membership and recruitment process recommendations, guidelines for developing money and labor systems, legal structures, property search, and finally some brief guidance on basic community design.
Finally, Part 3: Transitioning to Community Life gives some advice and perspective for navigating the gap between being a founder and becoming a good community member.
Welcome to the journey!