Class, Race, and Privilege in Intentional Community

Posted on March 24, 2018 by

Excerpted from the Spring 2018 edition of Communities, “Class, Race, and Privilege”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

In my first year as a co-owner of Heart-Culture Farm Community’s land, I was shocked to learn that new residents, particularly raised-poor and people of color, felt I had pressured or forced them to vote yes on particular people moving in. I thought I was expressing an opinion, in the context of everyone having an equal right to their opinion. Certainly those who felt “forced” hadn’t said anything during the consensus process about not liking the new people. Nobody ever accused me of “forcing” them to vote a certain way during the seven years when I was only a renter!

The problem was one of privilege—not necessarily the “privilege” of being more officially responsible for helping our intentional community function well, which is what ownership actually means at Heart-Culture. The privileged status of my class and race backgrounds, combined with the experiences of our residents of living in the wider oppressive culture, made it hard for them to accept that they had a right to participate with an equal voice. In our resident consensus process, a block is a block, regardless of owner or renter status. How could I make that clear?

I learned to withhold my opinion and listen first, even calling on people who tend to remain silent, ensuring their voices are heard before mine. My position as a white middle-class educated person holds meaning in my relationships, especially when one knows that I am a community co-owner and 10-year resident. I’m also the rental manager, a job I got because nobody else was willing to sign eviction notices (even when all agreed one was needed).

Initially in my liberation work, I tended to focus on my hurts, on the ways I have been oppressed. As a woman who became a single mother at 23, sexism and male domination hit me especially hard. I now had a very important job to do, and one for which I would be frequently judged by complete strangers if I failed in even the tiniest detail—like the day a woman screamed at me on the street because my toddler was not wearing shoes. However, my important high-stakes job came with zero income. In fact, it increased my expenses. Though raised middle-class and educated at an excellent high school, I had not finished college. I joined the ranks of the extremely poor when I chose to parent full-time. My daughter and I spent two homeless years living on the grace of friends, and then found an intentional community that charged $85 per month to live in an eight-foot-diameter cardboard and scrap-wood dome and share facilities in a support house. I advertised at the local Organic markets until I found a job nannying for $80 per week (eight hours), and suddenly I had stable housing and extra income! Wow! Intentional community can totally rock for single mamas!

As I explored the ins and outs of sexism and male domination, and the effects of sexual assault, domestic violence, and the institutionalized exploitation of female labor on my own life, it slowly dawned on me that my own personal constellation included many aspects of privilege. A 40-hour volunteer training at our local domestic violence shelter included an exercise called “The Shape of Privilege.” To do this exercise, draw a circle, then intersect it with four lines to make eight spokes. Label each spoke with an oppression—for example, sexism, racism, able-ism, age-ism, classism, gender oppression, immigrant oppression, religious oppression. There are others; choose the eight that make most sense in your life. Then imagine that the center of the circle, where all the lines intersect, is the point of zero privilege, or most oppressed. The place where the lines intersect with the outside of the circle is the point of maximum privilege, or least oppressed. Now mark a point along each line to represent where you feel you personally fall along the continuum of oppression. Connect the points, and color in the resulting shape. This is the shape of your privilege.

When I did this exercise, I was shocked. While my point along the continuum of “sexism” snuggled up in the center (most oppressed), most of my other points ranged near the outer edge of the circle. I have a lot of privilege! Most inspiring, the facilitator of this exercise claimed that the position of privilege is the power position in terms of making lasting change. It’s easy for white people to ignore or dismiss people of color complaining about racism, but when white people stand up against racism, their voices are more likely to be heard. This argument hooked me. I resolved to use my privilege to make change towards ending oppression of all people.

I came to understand that the systems of oppression for all other constituencies function in much the same way as sexism and male domination: in order to exploit the labor and value of a large number of people (let’s say people of color) to benefit a few power-holding elites, a continuum of behaviors is needed. A minority of individuals in the privileged group do extreme violence (like routine police shootings of black people), and a majority of individuals in the privileged group perform microaggressions and fail to reform the institutions of oppression. The majority of white people can then deny being racist, without actually doing anything to end racism or recognizing the way racism personally benefits them.

As this light went on, I started a life-long learning. I will never be done with this personal work, but I have a few insights to share. The question: How can I use my personal life and my position as a leader in intentional community to break down the barriers between people caused by oppression? How can my intentional community be a microcosm of a society free from systems of oppression based on the visible markers used by our wider society, such as class, race, sex, or age? Here are some initial answers:

Lead from behind, listen first, listen longer, and keep my opinions “last and light.” This helps counteract the tendency for my voice to carry more weight because I am white, articulate, middle-class-educated, and in a leadership role in the community.

Relationship is more important than being right or being smart. Respect other people’s thinking, even if I totally disagree. Keep my opinions to myself if that might help the person who is talking feel more accepted. Really try to understand where they are coming from. As an example, I have eaten only Organic food for years, but instead of judging others in our community, I try to understand why they might make different choices around food. I have learned a lot about food access inequality, both from listening and from researching on my own (try Googling “Food Desert”). I have also had a positive impact on others. One of our residents (a person of color) told me he is trying to buy Organic food more, because he thinks it will be healthier for himself and his daughter. When he moved in several years ago he believed Organic food was impossible for his family; he felt separate from “judgmental hippies” and their “weird food rules.” I believe my consistent focus on caring about him and listening to him has given him room to make changes in this area.

Invite feedback and thank people for it. Make it safe for people to tell me how they are affected by me, even if they are in an oppressed group (for example, people of color) in relation to my privileged group (white). Don’t defend myself—just listen.

Proudly join the working class: the only class with a future (to paraphrase Harvey Jackins). Do the dirty work. If I don’t do it, some other person will have to do it. Do what needs to be done and don’t complain. Pick up the trash, put away the tools left out in the rain, and don’t bother to ask who left it that way. (It could easily have been me.)

Make sure every voice is heard. Notice if someone has not spoken about a topic of discussion, and call on them to do so. Someone who attends meeting after meeting in silence does have a valuable perspective and important things to say, and needs to know that their voice is welcome. In the history of our community, those who won’t offer to speak in meetings have been immigrants, women of color, and people who were raised poor (particularly those who spent several years living on the streets during their teens). If they are not willing to speak up in the group, even when called upon, it is helpful to delay any decision on the topic until someone can ask the person privately to explore their thoughts and feelings. This extra effort to make safe space pays off in the long run in greater retention of diverse residents.

Create financial structures that level the playing field. Every community needs capital to start, and continuing inputs of money to continue functioning. At Heart-Culture Farm Community, our mortgage payment alone is $2,600 per month, and utilities, taxes, and maintenance add another several thousand dollars. That’s before we add any “progress projects,” like installing water catchment systems, planting orchards, or building new housing. Creating a level financial playing field is tricky when the money needs to come from somewhere, quick.

This is a place where those who already have privilege (in this case, money) can leverage that privilege to make necessary change. Communities do better with “financial angels” who are willing and able to take on responsibility for funding projects until the community can support itself. These people are “angels” because they play a specific role, and use their specific gifts to seed the community, but they remain humble in their relationships with people; they don’t use power-over control tactics to micromanage the residents. Personality and ethics are really important in a financial angel. Other people in the community can help by making a commitment to see the angel as a valued and important human being, one who is approachable and wants connection and closeness as much as any other person.

Residents with lower incomes have a valuable role to play in community. We charge rents between $250 and $800 per month, including utilities and community fees, depending on the size of the space. This amount is low in our area of the country, but it covers our community’s needs, and allows our residents to do more than chase the dollar. One of our owners, for example, works three days per week in a near-minimum-wage job, and spends the other four days working on community projects and building relationships with residents. He isn’t going to bankroll any large projects with his monthly buy-in payments, but the attention he gives to community well-being during his days off is invaluable to the community’s good functioning.

Encourage sharing. Good relationships lead to innovative ways to help each other. When we can borrow a tool, there is no need to buy it. On a larger scale, we can help each other through stressful life transitions. Several times our community has taken up collections to pay for a resident’s rent for a month, when an injured resident temporarily couldn’t work, or when a new parent wanted to bond with a baby but didn’t have paid parenting leave. Because many of our residents live month-to-month, sharing brings a resiliency to our lives that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

Make ownership accessible. Anyone who can afford to live at Heart-Culture can afford to buy in to the ownership structure. This system was created for my family, and has since been extended to two other owners and codified into our policies. In writing, it says that anyone who lives here for at least three years and attends owners’ meetings for at least one year can buy in to the ownership of the land, provided they can obtain consensus from current owners to accept them as a new owner. The new owner can, if needed, receive a loan from the current owners’ group, which allows them to buy in to the ownership by paying the same monthly amount they paid for rent. Anyone who can afford to live here can afford to buy in.

In practice, the current owners look for certain qualities in a prospective new owner, and the three-year time lag exists to give us time to identify those qualities. We want people who will resolve conflicts that come up while living together, and who are guided by values we hold in common. They need to be able to form trusting relationships with the current owners, and participate well in consensus during both resident and owner meetings. We want them to think beyond themselves and their families, to consider how to help the functioning of the entire community go well. Ownership means more responsibility, to both the financial and social well-being of the group. Owners rely on each other to help solve problems and hold a strong container for the community culture. This container is especially important at Heart-Culture, because we do accept residents who are very diverse, including those who have no experience with social sustainability structures (like consensus and mediation) or physical sustainability structures (like composting toilets and greywater systems).

Learn about race, class, oppression, and privilege. Study the history of different groups of people. Why are race relations the way they are today? What were they like 100, 200, or 400 years ago? Learn the life histories of community residents; how do they relate to the histories of groups? For example, how does my life history relate to the history of white people in the United States? How does my Latina community-mate’s life history relate to the history of Spanish colonization of the indigenous peoples of Latin America? Don’t be “color blind” or “class blind.” Blindness isn’t a way to end oppression; it’s another way to avoid admitting to our own privilege. Unless we look squarely at the problems that face us, we will not be able to dismantle institutions of oppression and create a society where people are truly equal.

In the last six months I have seen signs that my efforts are paying off. One of our raised-poor long-term residents recently started speaking up in nearly every meeting, after years of cursory answers to invitations to contribute. An immigrant resident gave an unusually long speech in reaction to an emotional topic in a recent meeting. People are telling me they disagree with me—and I think that’s a good sign. I can tell we like each other, and I’m glad they feel safe arguing with me. I’m looking forward to seeing how our relationships evolve into the future!

Kara Huntermoon is one of seven co-owners of Heart-Culture Farm Community, near Eugene, Oregon. She spends most of her time in unpaid labor in service of community: child-raising, garden-growing, and emotion/relationship management among the community residents. She also teaches Liberation Listening, a form of co-counseling that focuses on ending oppression.

Excerpted from the Spring 2018 edition of Communities, “Class, Race, and Privilege”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

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