Coming of Age in Service Community

Posted on September 21, 2016 by
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We’re Jen and Hil, 17-year-old twin girls born and raised at Magic, a service learning community where today about 20 people share three adjacent houses a few blocks from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Magic community is the keystone project of a public service organization also called Magic, which owns the properties we occupy. The mission of both Magics is to demonstrate how people can more successfully address individual, social, and environmental ills by using science to know and do good.

Magicians serve at several levels. A half dozen residents who’ve lived here from five to more than 40 years are “fellows.” They receive room, board, and other basics on terms similar to those offered by the Peace Corps and some monastic communities. Fellows serve residents here for shorter stays by modeling how to use valuescience to be healthier, to be more cooperative, and to care better for Earth. They lead other residents and volunteers from outside Magic in serving neighbors by closing streets to eliminate short-cutting, planting street and park trees, organizing picnics and block parties, lobbying local government to repair streets, and similar actions. Magicians also serve a larger surrounding community with programs that range from salvaging farmers’ market surplus for a social services agency that feeds the hungry, to planting and caring for trees and other native species on local open space lands, to life coaching, to teaching hatha yoga and swimming.

Researching and teaching valuescience—scientific methods and principles applied to questions of value—underpin and are central to Magic’s service. Fellows teach people from around the nation and the world at Stanford, at Magic, and in educational, business, service organization, and governmental settings in the US and abroad. They also publish in scientific journals with international circulation, and in the popular press.

In more than 40 years since Magic was founded, the San Francisco Peninsula where we live has gone from being birthplace of the Grateful Dead and the Whole Earth Catalog, and home to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, to birthplace of Facebook, Google, and Apple, and home to thousands of people who’ve joined the one percent by creating these and other technology enterprises. Magic has flourished through these sweeping changes by demonstrating how a valuescience approach to health, cooperation, and stewardship can be means to further individual and common good.

Growing up at Magic has been mostly fun, sometimes confusing. As the two of us transition to adulthood we’re understanding better benefits we’ve enjoyed here and challenges we’ve faced and may continue to face if we decide to stay here or base our lives on ideas we’ve learned here. We hope this writing will be useful to young people growing up in residential service communities, to parents raising children in such communities, and to anyone thinking about creating or joining a community of this kind.

When we were small children we took it all for granted: that we had more than one mom and one dad, that all of them were single, that we walked or biked everywhere, that we were outside exploring nature most of each day, that we were able to have fun without TV, junk food, new clothes, Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, or Tooth Fairy, and that we were able to be good people without god. We saw science as how everybody learned. We thought Saturdays were for planting and caring for native trees, shrubs, grasses, and forbs in parks and open space, that Sundays were for salvaging surplus food from farmers’ market for the food bank, and that when adults talked it was about how people can use evidence and reason for common good. Someone was always around to help us, teach us, or play with us.

Then we went to kindergarten at our local elementary school, because parents wanted to cultivate solidarity with neighbors by supporting public schools, and because they wanted us to be with age peers. It was our first taste of being different. We met nice kids and had good times, but we’d been taught from before we can remember to question everything, even what parents told us, and we were in trouble from the start when we did that at school. To PTA moms, “Why do you sell junk food to raise money?” To teachers, “Why do you let boys monopolize playground equipment? Why do we watch movies in ‘physical education’?” To classmates, “Why do you believe in god and Santa Claus? Why do you leave other kids out? Why do you throw clothing on the ground?” Everybody treated us as if we were weird. We had a hard time imagining that so much we learned at home was wrong, and an equally hard time concluding that everyone at school was crazy.

When we started in school we needed to eat before everyone else and go to bed early. Interacting with adults over supper and afterwards had been a big part of our social lives and we missed it. During first grade parents let us stay up in the evenings, sleep in, and go to school at 10:30, so that we entered without disruption as kids returned from recess. We were late so often that the district attorney threatened to put us in foster care and send Mom to jail. When she offered Mom a “no contest” plea with a $100 fine and a year’s probation, Mom said, “I’ll consider it.” One of us piped up, “Mom, we were late more than a hundred days. That’s 50 cents a time. Take it!” The DA looked surprised, maybe less because a seven-year-old did the math, than because she told Mom what to do in that setting.

Recoiling from this encounter with “the system,” parents enrolled us in a charter school that sends a teacher to Magic once a month to assess our learning. We settled back into life at home and started taking a more active role in the household and with Magic projects. We felt good assisting new residents as they learned about living in community, and in transitioning from being mostly cared for and supervised to doing more useful work.

One thing we really enjoyed was dragging adult residents to run and swim with us, and leading them on bike rides up and over the Santa Cruz Mountains to the ocean. We loved it when they called us personal trainers and told friends about us. Watching them shed pounds and become stronger and more enduring, we understood better why Magic fellows took so much satisfaction in helping people become healthier, and why prior residents so often came back and expressed appreciation for healthful living habits they formed while here.

By the time we were old enough to go to middle school we were supervising fieldwork crews on nearby open space where a half million people hike each year. Being young, and female on top of that, we had some “interesting” interactions with volunteers. Though many quickly realized that we were strong and knowledgeable, some ignored our instruction. We learned a lot explaining to men two, three, or four times our age and twice our size why the tree they planted was likely to die unless they dug it out and replanted it.

Magic fellows have been pioneers in drawing attention to and working to arrest decline of California’s native oak populations. They’ve led tens of thousands of volunteers in establishing thousands of native oaks. The oaks project is a great example of how Magic promotes health, cooperation, and stewardship based upon valuescience. Volunteers, many of whom have little experience with manual labor, dirty their hands, get tired and sore, and gain new appreciation for this kind of work and for those around the world who do it day in and out. School kids, retirees, clerks, venture capitalists, engineers, lawyers, and more come together and give. All of us feel good working together without any compensation except satisfaction generated by caring for the environment we share.

When fellows explain that species we plant can live for centuries, and that only if we and people everywhere re-examine and change our ideas about value—about what we want and how to get it—will they be able to do so, volunteers have incentive to reflect. One former resident, a mechanical engineer, started volunteering on the oaks project and is now Apple’s arborist. At the company’s new campus he’s overseeing the largest urban planting west of the Mississippi since Golden Gate Park in San Francisco more than a hundred years ago. A middle school volunteer later became Mayor of Palo Alto and described in his inaugural address how he and his family transformed their relationship with nature as a result of his planting with Magic.

Since we were 13 each of us has prepared supper one night each week for about two dozen residents and guests. We’ve a set of guidelines evolved over the years so that we eat in a way that reflects concern for diners’ health, for other people’s work and wants, and for Earth. We aim to be efficient in our use of labor and other resources as we procure and prepare food, and maintain kitchen, dining areas, equipment, and furnishings. We’ve become closer with several residents by inviting them to be sous-chefs to us in preparation for taking a cook night themselves.

As we’ve grown older we’ve become more able to participate fully in community social life and to interact with residents and the larger Magic service community more purposefully. One resident taught us to knit and included us in a knitting circle. Another taught us computer programming. Others help us learn to sew, to paint and draw, to play music, to dance, to repair bicycles, and to maintain buildings and furnishings. In all of these activities we’ve developed a better sense of how people beyond a single family can live together and learn to feel and express more love for each other and for those beyond our doors.

Ever since our experience in public school we’ve been aware that we were different. From the time we were nine until we were 16 a Magic board member took us and one of the moms to a family camp near Lake Tahoe. Being there was like school all over again. People frowned when they heard we lived in community. As we grew older we felt less and less comfortable with prying questions about family and home life. We sometimes wished we were “normal” even though when we went on overnight trips with the other kids we were glad to be different.

In the past year or so we’ve come to see growing up at Magic in a different light. We’ve paid more attention to valuescience, to how every part of our lives to date has been based on it, and to how we’ve gained and lost as a result.

We’ve heard thousands of conversations at Magic about valuescience and “ecological analysis.” For many years these seemed self-evident (e.g., Why drive when we can walk or bike?), or too abstract for our young brains (e.g., How might “saving lives” today adversely affect those who may live tomorrow?). Recently as we’re increasingly asked, “Where do you want to go to college?,” “What do you want to be when you grow up?,” we’ve been thinking more about what we want to ask of and offer to others, and looking at valuescience in a new way. Having been taught to question, we’re wondering how much of it to keep and how much to shed.

We first learned to describe valuescience in simple terms before we went to school. We understood in some primitive way that we had ideas about what we wanted, that we based these on predictions about how we were going to feel when we got it, and that we were sometimes mistaken. Eating too much pizza, getting sunburned, and playing in poison oak remain vivid reminders that what we think we want can be very different from what we really want.

From before we can remember we learned to think of science less as a set of facts or theories than as a way of life. We saw that by introspection and observation we were able to discern repeating pattern and use it to make predictions more successful than we were able to make by other means. We understood that this was a way to have meaningful choice, to get more of what we want and want more of what we get.

Only recently have we come to see more clearly how this has to do with public service. Effective service is a combination of good intention and competent action. Valuescience underpins both.

Though many of us have been conditioned to think that people who know better what we want and how to get it will ever more rapaciously plunder Earth and exploit those around us in pursuit of wealth and fame, we have growing scientific basis to reject this. More than 50 years ago Abraham Maslow discovered that loving and caring for others and ultimately transcending our sense of separate self are key to living and dying well. Researchers today are gathering mounting evidence for these conclusions. They’ve shown, for example, that we may derive more satisfaction by giving than by keeping for ourselves or receiving. And they’ve affirmed Maslow’s findings that people who work for common good are more satisfied and feel a greater sense of meaning and purpose.

Sound analysis also is essential to serve. Tube wells in Bangladesh are illustrative. With unanimous support of government, diverse NGOs, and expert consultants, Bangladeshis sank millions of tube wells to tap drinking water from a shallow aquifer and end reliance upon surface waters teeming with disease-causing microbes. Only later did public health workers realize that the aquifer was contaminated with arsenic, resulting in tens of millions of people being permanently damaged in what the World Health Organization terms “the largest mass poisoning in human history.” Countless other schemes to “help” others have similarly, albeit usually less spectacularly failed.

Only to the extent that we’ve evidence and reason sufficient to support predictions about outcomes of our service efforts can we anticipate that we will achieve intended results. We find this humbling, and it’s the biggest lesson we’re taking from valuescience practice to date. Even as we engage in putative service through Magic, we wonder how well we’re predicting consequences. Will trees we plant die young as a result of how humans are altering climate? Will volunteers think that planting a tree makes jetting around sustainable? Will salvaging food and feeding the hungry contribute to perpetuating a system where some lack necessities while others wallow in luxury? Will teaching valuescience be one more example of idealism forever short of real?

If we do embrace a valuescience-based existence with all its questions, how will we interact with those who prefer simple answers? Will we be shunned for eating, dressing, grooming, traveling, sheltering, relating, parenting, religing, communicating, and more in ways we think compatible with scientific understanding of our own and other humans’ place in the universe? Will we be able to create sangha, community of shared practice, with others who find merit in valuescience? Will we be able to evolve how we serve in a manner that we think has integrity and that others deem worthy of support? What lessons learned coming of age in a valuescience service learning community shall we carry forward, and which shall we shed?

Jen and Hilary Bayer live at Magic, an intentional community owned and operated by a public service organization located in Palo Alto, California, founded in the early 1970s on the premise that individual health and awareness, social peace and fairness, and environmental protection are tightly connected, and that ecology is a framework for addressing all of these issues. Magicians see themselves as cognitive activists, aiming “to bring about social change by evolving the framework we use to think about the world and our place in it, often by reframing debates or redefining terms.”

One Reply to “Coming of Age in Service Community”


Thank you for what you do and for sharing your story. Questioning is important, even more important is to continue doing what we can to help in the present moment. I hope you keep taking good care of yourselves and inspired to help others.

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