The Common Fire Foundation was established in the early 2000s to support the development of intentional communities strongly committed to social justice and environmental sustainability. It was involved in the establishment of a housing co-op in Tivoli, New York (shuttered in 2013) and a cohousing community in Beacon, New York, and it was involved with a group of people in the Bay Area in California that did extensive foundational work over several years but never turned the corner of acquiring property or moving in together.
Common Fire is no longer actively working with groups, but some of the resources they created, including their original vision document and video, are available at www.commonfire.org.
The author cofounded Common Fire, worked with each of the three groups to some degree, and played a central role and lived in the two communities in New York.
Anybody striving to create an intentional community couldn’t do better than to read Diana Leafe Christian’s book, Creating a Life Together. The depth and breadth of information she offers is staggering and invaluable. The following tips are humbly intended to add to or tweak some of what she and others offer, or to highlight some of what she offers that we think is just so important (or that might be taken for granted or misinterpreted, etc.) that we urge everyone to really take the time to appreciate them.
They come from our own sometimes triumphant, sometimes traumatic experiences in community. Some represent things we did really well and are grateful for. More often they are things we didn’t do well and we paid a heavy price for. Our prayer is that they may help you tip the scale towards ever more triumph and ever less trauma in your own journey with intentional community.
A number of people collaborated with me on this article, and these are ideas that have been voiced in different ways by many people in the three Common Fire communities. So I offer them as “our” collective learnings. However, this article still very much reflects my own perspective, and the way I have come to understand our experiences and prioritize the lessons learned. So in that sense, I want to be clear that I am not writing this as representative of anyone else who has been involved in those communities or the Common Fire Foundation.
1. Set a High Bar for Selecting People Who Fit Your Vision, and Stick With It
Diana Leafe Christian’s chapter on “Selecting People to Join You” is fabulous and you should take her advice very seriously. If you have misgivings about anyone joining your founding group or community, or just have a gut concern, no matter how wonderful they may seem in other ways, you should simply say no, or at least hold off on accepting them. And if you think you’re already setting a high bar, set it just a little higher. Really. And that includes being sure that you’re selecting people who will themselves help to maintain that high bar for other people joining.
Think especially about how people seem to handle conflict, and explore how successful they have been in long-term relationships including friends, family, and partners, as well as their history in past communities and group living situations. Talk with some of these people or involve them in the process in some way.
People have compared joining a community to marrying someone. The comparison has its limitations, but it can be a very helpful idea. The interweaving of lives on such an intimate scale, and the interplay of such complex and often triggering elements as money, family, home and place, power, decision making, and legal structures—all of these mean that we become very interdependent and have a huge impact on each others’ lives exactly as we are dancing with very profound personal questions and issues. This can be a good thing—it is exactly why many of us are drawn to community—but it amplifies the challenge and gravity of grappling with these issues, and can be deeply draining and traumatic. We need to be very thoughtful in who we bind to our lives in this way.
As hard as it may feel to say no to someone, take any feelings of regret, shame, sadness, resentment, distrust, etc., that come up and imagine them being blown up a hundred times over, and imagine being tied to that person. That and more is what you are quite possibly inviting into your life and the lives of everyone else in the community, including this person, by dealing with someone who is not right for your community after they’ve been accepted rather than before.
(One person with extensive experience in community who gave feedback on this document suggested that we offer a tip entirely on the topic of “We Live in a Violent, Disassociated World and Everyone Is Screwed Up and You Are Screwed Up Too.” I didn’t manage to make this its own tip, but I think the title alone says worlds about tips 1, 2 and 3.)
2. Deal with Conflict and Conflictual People Immediately
Conflict is inevitable. Depending on how we approach it, it can be a path to self-discovery and stronger connections within the community or it can block all forward movement in the community and make people want to run for the hills. Part of addressing conflict in a positive way is dealing with it as quickly as possible, when it comes to both small and big things. The small things add up to big things fast, and they set the tone for how easily and effectively people deal with the big things. A seemingly minor conflict that is not addressed can become toxic.
The same thing goes with someone who is very conflictual or doesn’t deal with conflict in a healthy, proactive way. Set some clear boundaries for them and stick with them, including requiring them to leave if necessary, or you will pay a much higher cost down the road.
Most people are conflict-averse. Many are VERY conflict-averse. One thing we did in the Tivoli community that was very helpful: at our one night a week together, we had a specific time for “Elephants in the Room.” People were expected to use that time to name anything large or small that was bothering them, and we made it clear that it was unacceptable for people to let anything bothering them sit beyond that weekly gathering. In that way we helped normalize discussing concerns and problems, people got more comfortable and skilled at it, and people didn’t have to take the initiative or find the time during the rest of the busy week.
(Sometimes we didn’t need much time at all for this. However, we capped Elephants in the Room time to 30 minutes unless the whole group agreed that extending was more important than moving on to the other things on the agenda. I should also note that we tried to introduce this practice at the Beacon community at a point where there was already some serious conflict and it was too late to be effective or welcome.)
3. Adopt Some Clear Norms around Good Communication, Deep Connection, and Conflict Resolution
We were very successful in creating spaces that invited people to share deeply with each other, to invite the fullness of who we each are and what we are experiencing in our lives into our communities, and to really go deep when problems arose to try to get at the fundamental issues within ourselves that were being triggered or stimulated. This was primarily thanks to our use of the Be Present Empowerment Model and trainings from Be Present, Inc., which are incredible resources. (See www.bepresent.org.)
This allowed our communities to be very rich and connected, and it promoted a huge degree of personal growth. This level of seeing and knowing each other went a long way to helping prevent conflict in the first place, and to easing moving through conflict when it did come up. More than once this was named as essential to the Beacon community surviving some challenging times, and it was cited by many people in all three communities as the glue that held them together and the most precious part of their community experience.
At the same time, what we did not do so well was have a more immediate and solution-oriented process for our groups to use when conflict came up. People are not always able to rise to the occasion of trying to process things at a deeper level, of being that vulnerable and introspective or compassionate, and in that case a complex and demanding tool like the one we used is vulnerable to being undermined or abused. That kind of processing can also require a good amount of time. When people are pressed for time or when a number of different issues start to come up at the same time, it can overwhelm even a group that has a strong commitment and practice of doing deep work with each other.
There needs to be something in place to provide some immediate relief and clarity, to help the group get through those times, and to provide some accountability and clear next steps around particular issues or individuals. Having these norms and processes in place early on is critical, because trying to introduce them when something really big has already come up can be very tricky, and you miss the opportunity of practicing and getting everyone more comfortable with the process by working on smaller issues.
[We created a draft document on the topic of “Empowered Relationships and Conflict Transformation,” that is available on the Common Fire website that goes into all of this in more detail.]
4. Hold a Balance of Connection Time and Logistics Time (or “Don’t Rush! But Don’t Be Too Slow Either”)
In California the time for checking in, connecting with each other, and learning more about each other often took up most or all of the monthly meeting time, leaving little room for any forward movement on the logistics front. The group did powerful work creating a rich human community, but after several years they had not been able to move forward much in terms of a physical site. For some in the group who had long been dissatisfied with the group spending so much time on connecting, this was demoralizing, and it undermined some people’s faith in the group’s ability to move forward.
In Beacon, there came a point where the emphasis shifted so significantly to the logistics side of things that almost no time was given to the connection time for a number of months. Most people felt a strong need to take a step back from the emotional processing of the group for a while because things had been so emotionally taxing leading up to and during people’s move-in, and there were so many logistical things to take care of. But it meant that issues lingered for months, people became disconnected from each other, and some of the tensions in the group deepened and contributed to the eventual fracturing of the group.
Both pieces are necessary for the group to not only thrive but even survive as a human community and as a group of people striving to accomplish some very real logistical goals as well.
5. Sequence the Big Things So They Come at You One at a Time and Stagger When and How They Affect People
The Beacon community purchased a small apartment building one October. The months leading up to October were very stressful, dealing with money and legalities, deciding who would live in which apartment, and so on. There were some important renovations to do before we moved in as well. While those were going on, people were paying the monthly costs on their new apartment while also paying for the place they were still really living. Then we all had to move, which involves time and money and support from friends, and also affects us deeply in terms of our connection with place and people and things familiar to us. All of this means that there was no time for us to process people’s issues and triggers right at the very time when lots of issues and triggers were inclined to come up.
By January most of us had moved in, but not before some of our relationships were damaged and we were deeply wounded as a group.
What if we had bought the building and then filled much of it with short-term tenants from outside our community, perhaps with a mix of six-month and 12-month leases? We could have spread out the stress and been more available to support each other.
6. Be Detailed in Your Visioning
Diana Leafe Christian’s chapters on “Community Vision” and “Creating Vision Documents” are invaluable: yes, start with a very small group; yes, make the visioning one of the very first things you do; yes, write it all down; etc. The idea of community can be deeply seductive, and it can indeed be very rewarding and purposeful. But a bunch of people banding together to pursue the seduction without getting really clear about just what that means for each of them is a recipe for potentially serious conflict down the line.
That was true with our Beacon community. What we did not have the insight to do well was to make our visions sufficiently detailed. Make sure you have someone with experience living in community providing support around what kinds of guiding questions to use. Folks who don’t have experience in community may not be able to identify up front some of the topics that will be central to the community experience further along. For example, in one situation someone felt deeply betrayed by the community when some of us had hesitations about loaning her $300 a month for six months while she transitioned to a new job. (“I thought we were a community.”) In another situation someone was disappointed and scornful that the rest of the community didn’t hang out more outside of our scheduled time together. (“Where is our community spirit?”) In another situation, we experienced a conflict in which someone was deeply hurt and angry that the community didn’t agree to add a training on race issues to our schedule. This person felt that a training on race should be a top priority; others felt it was not so important as to bump the other trainings scheduled or to add onto the existing schedule. (“What kind of community won’t add a training around something one of the members is really struggling with?”)
I don’t think there is a right answer to how a “community” should respond to each of these situations. Yes, you want to support each other in times of need, but are there limits to what seems fair or healthy in terms of time or money and how it balances with other commitments? Yes, you want to live sustainably, but are there limits to what you should expect of each other in your daily lives? Yes, you want to be kid-friendly, but what should be expected in terms of community members being available to look after other people’s kids? And so on.
You aren’t going to be able to figure everything out ahead of time, and you are going to have disagreements about what is right for the community for as long as the community exists. But taking the time to go a level or two deeper with your visions will help you identify potentially serious differences that will help people make the best decisions for themselves and the group about how to move forward.
(Another tip that was suggested to me for this article was “Developing Appropriate Boundaries in a Counterculture.” I think that is relevant to thinking about conflict resolution as well as to clearly articulating expectations of each other in community.)
[Common Fire has a guide for groups to use in discussing this topic entitled “Why Community?” It is very rough but it is on our website in case it is helpful.]
7. Establish a Clear and Relatively Easy Process for Removing Someone from the Community
We used consensus decision-making in all three of our communities and were generally happy with it. The Beacon group had an important exception to consensus, requiring only a simple majority vote to remove someone from the community. The idea was that most people will set a very high bar for themselves around this kind of decision already, so if more than 50 percent of the community believes that someone really needs to go without any more processing or trying to work things out, then the community—and probably that person as well—will be much better off just getting on with it than investing the vast amount of time and energy it would take to get to consensus-minus-one or somehow keep that person in the community in a way that doesn’t leave other people feeling completely exasperated and exhausted, and quite likely to just leave themselves.
Also, our experience is that there are some people who are so uncomfortable with the idea of kicking someone out that they cannot ever bring themselves to do it, short of that person perhaps being a physical threat to other community members. It was difficult to actually exercise this 50 percent option when the question of removing someone from the group came up because we had developed such a strong norm around consensus. So we spent a huge amount of time trying to get to consensus because one person continually rejected the idea of kicking someone out, and this was immensely damaging to the group. So when we did finally use the 50 percent rule we were deeply grateful we had it to turn to, and most of us wished we had used it much sooner.
8. Strive to Balance Autonomy and Community, and When in Doubt Go With Autonomy
In seeking to create a community, we are all seeking a greater degree of closeness and interrelation than we already have with each other and with most other people. And yet, the more we weave our lives together:
● the more opportunity for conflict to emerge, which requires additional time and energy to process;
● the more each of our lives can be disrupted by what’s going on in other people’s lives, as well as by each other’s baggage;
● the more decisions that have to be made collectively rather than individually or as families, requiring more time and more shared vision.
This means that the more we weave our lives together, the more time and the more aligning of visions and values that will be needed from each person. Think about what it takes to launch even a single project or nonprofit or business. Between 50 and 80 percent of businesses fail within the first few years. Diana Leafe Christian has estimated that 90 percent of communities “never get off the ground.”
We want to give ourselves the best shot at success by keeping things as simple as possible. Through the visioning process we want to establish some real confidence about the things we definitely do want to do together and the ways we do definitely want to be in each other’s lives more, and anything that does not feel essential is best left to be done separate from the community—either as individuals, collectives, businesses, or workshops, either within the community or with people and groups outside the community.
For example, is a birthing center, a CSA, or homes for immigrants, etc., an essential part of the community this group wants to create? Or is it instead an important dream of some or many of the people present, but distinct from the essence of what people want in community? We want any ventures that are not essential to the community to experience their own challenges, slow-downs, speed-ups, shifts in members, conflicts, etc. without having too significant an impact on the success of the community and the “essential” aspects of the community.
[That same guide, “Why Community?” can be helpful with this.]
9. Some Brief Offerings on Decision-Making
All three groups came away with appreciation for the benefits of modified consensus but many people in the Beacon community also had serious concerns about it, feeling that the benefits simply were not worth the vast amounts of time it required. We did not ever get to the point of exploring other options, but the idea of supermajority voting was named as attractive to some because of the idea of “most people getting most of what they want most of the time” while spending so much less time on decision-making. Also attractive to some was the idea of sociocracy.
The Tivoli co-op very happily used a modified form of Formal Consensus as described by C.T. Butler and Amy Rothstein in On Conflict and Consensus (www.consensus.net/ocaccontents.html). Our most significant departure was that we allowed more time for processing emotions than that process generally allows because we were a small enough group and we saw that as a key part of how we learned and grew as a community, even though it compromised some efficiency.
10. It Takes a Lot of Time to Create Community
It’s just that simple. It takes a lot of time. So people need to be ready and able to commit to carving out a good chunk of their lives to make this real. Some people can’t do that, and that’s fine. Have them be consultants. Invite them to join later. But make sure you have a critical mass of three to 10 people who are committed and can make the time. Otherwise you’ll spend all your time trying to just corral people to meetings and there will be little forward progress—a disappointment to you and to the people who were gung ho and only later realized they can’t really make the commitment.
At some point in all the communities that we know of, one or more people made the switch to working for the community at least part-time if not full-time. This is especially critical at certain junctures (like when you’re purchasing property). There will be certain tensions around power and vision as the people with more time move things forward for the group, but you just have to work with that as best you can.
Creating community is important and potentially deeply-nourishing work. We wish you all the best in your journey!
Jeff Golden cofounded Common Fire and worked with each of the three intentional community groups that it nurtured.