This is an online-only article associated with the Fall 2019 edition of Communities, “The Shadow Side of Cooperation”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.
The Branch Community
I lived and worked for nearly 10 years as the codirector of an intentional community and education center in Central America. The place was nestled at the base of a mountain in the tropical rain forest, along a dirt road so steep and roughly hewn, it often washed out completely. A single rickety bus left at six in the morning and returned at six at night. I remember riding the bus once as it rounded a bend, tried to stop, and then slid diagonally through the wet clay toward the edge of a cliff. We sat there for a minute, and then everyone just calmly gathered their bags and filed out the door to hitch hike home.
The Branch Community was located in the center of town, but town was so small that the word center wouldn’t really make sense unless you lived there. The Branch’s front gates opened up to the area’s single bar, restaurant, and bus stop, all in one go; the back transitioned into wildlife reserve which abutted more forest. The jungle was strange and fabulous and inescapable. Neon dart frogs hopped along paths, and blue morpho butterflies fluttered against a backdrop of vivid green. I often arrived at the open-air kitchen in the morning to find it laced with giant orb weaver webs as big as a person. I once woke up in bed to see a round-eyed mammal with a long tail climb in through my bedroom window and patter across the ceiling rafters. It was normal to carry a machete most places, either to cut back vines, to harvest ripe bananas, or to chop the heads off pit vipers. Farmers rode through town on horses that smelled so strongly of sweat I swear I can still pick out individual animals by scent alone. It would be weird to not to smile or say hello to someone you passed in the street.
The Branch operated as a residential education center, and we hosted groups and individuals from around the world. We were also an intentional community made up of the two cofounders and their young daughter, and several codirectors like myself who worked in exchange for eventual co-ownership of the business and profit share. We were so busy all the time, hosting groups and working on projects, that most people spent their time either on campus or within a one kilometer radius which included the bar and the soccer field. Living at The Branch felt like you were inside something, some kind of jungle bubble, that was hard to exit. It was its own special world. The finances and decision making were nebulous, but the place had such a joyful, creative exuberance to it that we just rolled with it. Idealism seemed like its own reward, and I guess at the time it was.
But the idealistic vision that anyone takes with them to intentional communities will certainly at some point come to face strange beasts. In the case of this community, this came in the form of sexual misconduct and gender inequality. I wrote about the experience of this situation more extensively in Communities #183 in the article “Sexual Misconduct in the Sphere of Power: The Nexus of Gender, Intimacy, and Discrimination.” In this article I described the way that men in our community sometimes used power in ways that were not in women’s best interests. This had personal and professional consequences for women which both constituted and perpetuated gender inequality. I eventually left The Branch because of this. About half of our core community left because of these and other related power imbalances.
It’s taken me a long time to reflect on these experiences fully enough to be able to articulate them in the way I am now starting to do. And the more I explore the threads of what happened and how, and the more I read and compare my experiences with the experiences of so many people who are currently speaking and talking about gender issues, the more fascinating and relevant it all becomes. Intentional communities are special pockets of human life. People generally come to communities because they want to live together in some semblance of harmony. Intentional communities are often culturally or physically isolated, and frequently develop unique methods of self-governance, economics, and communication. But within all this intention, and all this effort, and all this innovation, we can’t avoid ourselves. We can’t avoid our own complex needs for intimacy and agency. We can’t avoid the social structures that so often funnel those needs into patterns we had not intended. We have to face those needs and those patterns in ourselves and our communities too.
Recognizing Gender Inequality in Community
When I first arrived at The Branch, I was 24 years old, and I did not see any issues with gender inequality. They just weren’t visible to me, or to anyone else that I’m aware of who was there at the time. This is probably typical. Communities select for certain types of people who fit into their shared philosophy. People who do not fit in to that core power dynamic may choose to leave, be asked to leave, or may not be attracted to the community in the first place. Within that first year, someone outside The Branch warned me that several women had left because of gender issues. I cataloged this information in my brain, but otherwise did not think too much about it. The Branch was super cool. I did not see any gender issues. The warning was important enough that I still remember it, but otherwise did not immediately impact my perceptions.
But over a period of several years, I started to have a funny feeling. Something was very uncomfortable, and I didn’t know what. In hindsight (and after a lot of learning) I can now name and describe some of our issues. Women’s work was valued less than men’s work, and women were consistently funneled toward service and assistantship roles; we received periodic complaints about male sexual harassment; our male partners and co-instructors expected to have sexual access to our female students, even when it was not in those students’ (or anyone’s) best interests; women reported feeling unable to voice their opinions in our decision-making circles; over a period of years women seemed to consistently lose confidence in themselves and their work while men gained confidence in themselves and their work. It was really a lot of significant things and also a constant drip of more subtle stuff I just couldn’t put my finger on. I would now describe this as a culture of toxic masculinity. But back then, I just felt uncomfortable and didn’t know why.
When you don’t see gender as a paramount factor in power dynamics, it remains an invisible ghost. Male voices rise to the top “naturally.” Sexual harassment is just “boys being boys.” One community member actually told me that our male partners couldn’t help sleeping with our female students because it was “biologically programmed for men.” Another wrote that it was “inconsiderate” to question these issues in the first place. Didn’t I realize it might make the men in our community feel bad?
These lines of thought are the basis for sexism. The belief that male behaviors which inhibit, harm, or disadvantage women are natural, immutable factors is old-school patriarchy. These are the beliefs that allow us to condone and enforce behavior patterns which keep men in positions of power and women in positions of subservience. It is the mindset that allows men to take and retain economic and decision-making control, and exert domain over women’s work, personal lives, and bodies, regardless of whether or not it’s in those women’s’ (or anyone’s) best interests.
I am aware, as I sit at my desk writing this, that already I have gone too far. It’s uncomfortable for people to hear or read direct assessments of systemic sexism. Phrases like “exert domain” and “positions of subservience” push the social envelop for what people can emotionally handle and want to believe. We are not those people. We would never.
But we would, and we are, and we do. My beautiful community was a place where none of these things could have happened, and they still did. I learned about gender inequality from some of the nicest, smartest, most positive people in the world―because those were the people who were doing it. And those were also the people who were later unable to face the discomfort of acknowledging and addressing those issues in themselves.
And this is the game. This is the heart of feminist dissent and social change. Gender inequality is a systemic problem that even the kindest people and most radical communities perpetuate. And any time we see or seek to change destructive social patterns, we are going to get kind of uncomfortable. Addressing systemic problems and behavior patterns challenges our own identity, and our deepest understanding of ourselves and how we relate to others. In the context of social movements, this type of challenge is a fundamental pathway to social change.
Across the globe we are experiencing a new resurgence of women’s longstanding fight for equality. This resurgence and related social conversation is changing the way people think and feel about gender. Many behaviors and mindsets that used to be normal are no longer acceptable. These shifting expectations for behavior and thought apply to all of us. And in order to be open to these changes, communities need to be open to some form of feminist dissent. That dissent is going to challenge us and make us uncomfortable. But perhaps in the end that discomfort is what is most beautiful about any social movement, especially within intentional communities. It is not easy. It is very, very hard. But it’s a very hard thing that we have the opportunity to get through together.
Doing Some Learning
The only reason I ended up learning how to untangle my own discomfort about gender inequality in our community was because I had to: eventually The Branch co-owner (my employer) came on to me sexually in a way that forced me to acknowledge the larger power imbalances in our organization. Everything I had worked for, for years, was owned by this person, and my position, business, and home were ultimately dependent on his subjective opinion of me. But what if my likability was attached more to my sexual availability than my actual work? What if rejecting him, as I did, made him like me less, or view my work contributions differently, or want to spend less time working with me? (It did.) And of course, lurking in the back of my mind—was all of this somehow my fault? And―did any of it actually matter? These are the situations that force you to question everything, especially yourself.
My first reaction after this happened was to throw all the furniture out of my house onto the lawn, and then put it all back again. I felt angry, and sad, and deeply uncomfortable in ways I didn’t know how to articulate. The situation made me realize that something was wrong with the way our community was doing power. I felt responsible for fixing the problem, but what exactly was the problem? How could I solve a problem if I didn’t know what it was? I was in my late 20s, and this was all years before Harvey Weinstein, before there was a larger public conversation about gender inequality, power, and sexual misconduct. People weren’t able to talk about these issues the way they can now, and when you’re not able to talk about an issue it’s much harder to see and identify.
As cathartic as it was to hurl furniture out the porch window, I realized that what I really needed was to do some learning. I had to figure out what was wrong with our community’s power dynamic, so we could fix it. In hindsight when I think back to my younger self dragging the bed frame back into the house and drawing conclusions about personal education, I want to both laugh and cry. I really believed that we were going to figure these issues out and deal with them together as a community. I had no cognitive context for systemic gender inequality. I had no idea what I was getting into. So I just went for it. I kept my mouth shut about my employer’s behavior and just started reading.
I went through a whole series of books and articles on nonviolent communication and group dynamics. I started reaching out to other communities to ask how they managed power dynamics, and read all their recommendations. As I started reading about power dynamics and communication, a whole new world of context began opening up to me. I started seeing patterns I had never seen before, and understanding peoples’ behaviors differently, including my own.
Patterns and My Place within Them
Our community at the time did not have a formal decision-making structure, or any firm resources for communication or conflict resolution. People’s financial and work benefits were extraordinarily subjective. There were few objective measures for anything. We believed ourselves to be a cooperative, but even after five years there was no co-ownership or profit share. Within much of The Branch leadership there was a latent idolization of structurelessness. We expected that people would just sit down together in a group and make decisions equally and reasonably. If we were all sitting at the same table, didn’t that necessarily give everyone equal opportunity to speak and be listened to?
But of course it didn’t work that way. In our decision-making circles, power consistently flowed towards men and male voices. I could feel this imbalance for years before I ever started reading about it. Men spoke loudly and confidently. Women were quieter, more likely to acquiesce, or privately related they felt unable to say the things they wanted to say in front of the men, even for decisions that were very important to them. Female interns with assertive qualities were quickly labeled as “abrasive,” while men with those same qualities were celebrated. It was so subtle sometimes, and so deeply socialized, that I never would have noticed it if I hadn’t been reading about it. But once I started to see these behaviors, these little discrepancies, they were everywhere, and they added up. I was equally implicated in the way I “naturally” expected myself and other women to behave. Most of all, it was important for me (and by extension other women) to be polite. But for women politeness is often coded as smallness. We make our bodies smaller in the way we sit and move; our voices softer and lighter; we are expected to soothe and defer. All of these traits create an environment where women’s voices and presence actually have less power then men’s. We are socially expected to stand down, and when we do, our ability to both speak and be heard diminishes. When we do actually stand up for ourselves, it’s often seen as being rude, inconsiderate, or abrasive, and there is often a social cost.
In intentional communities, a “lack of structure” for decision making and communication does not equate equality. A lack of structure is really a lack of regulation for institutionalized power and bias mindsets. Without such regulation, even the most radical groups inevitably replicate socially ingrained power inequalities. Just because we don’t acknowledge underlying power imbalances doesn’t mean they don’t exist; and in fact, that lack of awareness makes it much more easy for those imbalances to continue or increase over time.
Women in our classes were also often sexualized by instructors. Women’s attractiveness as students or co-instructors was considered and commented on. It was normal for male instructors to have affairs with female students. All of the men on our core team of leaders slept with our students at some point, sometimes despite already having other partners (who were their co-instructors and community members). In any environment, but especially in isolated communities, this behavior marginalizes women professionally. It causes them to question their competency and leadership. After the community co-director came on to me, I frequently wondered how my attractiveness or sexual availability affected my job. I was often stressed and scared that female students would sleep with my partner (which happened). This stress was so strong that it made me sick.
As I read more and had more conversations with people who saw and understood these issues, I realized that if I wanted anything to change, the people in my community would also have to educate themselves. I realized that I would probably have to be the person to facilitate that education. But this was harder than I anticipated, for reasons I hadn’t expected.
It takes time for people to change. It takes time to grow our emotional capacity to engage in change. And that reality applied to me in this process as much as to anyone else.
I clearly remember the moment when I first presented information about effective communication to our team. It was several months after my incident with my employer, and I was deep into research about group dynamics. Another community had recommended Marshall Rosenburg’s classic text, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. After reading it I felt like it would be a good starting place for our leadership team. I realized that before we could talk about anything more complicated with one another, the first step was to learn how to talk together, period. This need applied to all of us.
We were at our annual planning retreat, and everyone sat around a wooden table. I showed everyone the book, and talked about why I thought we might learn from it. The men in our group haggled about how little time they had for things like that, but finally agreed to “try” to read it. Maybe they would find time or maybe not, but they would try. I still remember exactly how I felt in this moment. My mouth curled up in a tiny smile—I was shocked and elated that they had even vaguely agreed. It was my fifth year at The Branch, and for me at that time in my life, this moment felt like one of the most daring things I had ever done. To suggest to these men that they might have something to work on, to ask for something that would benefit me directly as well as all of us, and to actually push for it—this was not something I was comfortable doing. In most aspects of my life, I am a rugged, fearless person. I’ve biked half way around the world, hitchhiked across the Americas, faced down grizzly bears and flash floods and war zones. But finding a voice for myself that knew how to speak up and ask and persist in relation to male authority—this was terribly challenging for me in ways that I don’t think any of the men in my life have yet understood. When women are socialized to acquiesce, we do—until the moment we no longer can. To really understand the implications of feminist dissent, you have to understand how terribly difficult dissent itself can be for women. I was scared of offending or challenging the men I worked with and was close to. I was afraid that it would affect my relationships with them. These conversations are loaded from every angle and every side. It’s not easy to speak up, and when women do, we often face real consequences, both personal and professional. Even when we don’t cognitively know this, we feel it. And that felt experience is its own way of knowing.
In the end, I believe everyone eventually did read most or all of the book. I am grateful for that and honestly hope it will be helpful for people in their lives. But from that point forward, things became harder and harder for me at The Branch. In order to really benefit from effective communication, you do need to practice it, and that practice also takes time. This was not something the men in our group were willing to do.
I started addressing the issue from more angles. I bought books and resources on gender and group dynamics, hired a facilitator, created frameworks for decision-making structures and more objective work reviews, pushed for legalization of our cooperative, and eventually incorporated gender studies into my teaching curriculum. As I saw new issues I tried to solve them for us in new ways, to present information in different formats, from different perspectives.
We made a lot of significant improvements. But for me, going through this process was brutal, and each gain took a huge toll. When I asked for objective measures for work, my employer came back with his own personal rating of each person’s “work value.” Each man’s work was rated higher, numerically, than each woman’s work, even though we worked similar hours and had similar levels of responsibility. This assessment included his wife and cofounder, who managed the accounting, payroll, kitchen, purchases, childcare, and a whole slew of other things. Her work was less valuable than my male partner’s, who managed the orchard? It was incredible. Each inch forward uncovered new issues and new biases that required more and more education.
The people in our group with the most power were also the people who were least able to engage with the idea that we might have power imbalances in our community. They did not see male sexual misconduct, harassment, and sexualization of students as facets of gender inequality. I believed at first that this was a problem of misinformation, that once they learned more about these issues, they would naturally want to change their behaviors. Throughout most of this process, I really believed that if the men in our group just learned about gender inequality and their relation to it, they would want to make changes. But by the end of my time at The Branch, I had a different perspective. Even when the men in our group were willing to learn about gender inequality, they had an extraordinarily difficult time recognizing their own participation in it. Over time, many of them incorporated feminist language into their vocabulary, but never changed their behaviors. It was incredibly strange.
I eventually ended up teaching entire classes on the structure of gender inequality in groups. Many people, mostly women, thanked me afterwards for articulating issues that had affected them their whole lives. Occasionally my male co-instructors were present in those classes. They seemed to listen. But it was as if the information couldn’t reach them on a personal level. “We don’t have any issues with gender here; we do a great job with gender; everyone else has this problem in their organization but not us,” were variations of responses they gave me. They thanked me for my classes, talked publicly about how proud they were of our developments, and then simply did the same things they’d always done. As I type this now, I still feel astounded as I think back to those years and the way they progressed. But I am no longer as baffled as I once was. I now realize that this type of “performative feminism” is a common reaction to new information about gender and power. One of the most difficult parts of getting people to address gender issues is getting people to engage emotionally in the possibility that they themselves might have something to do with those issues. Breadth of knowledge and depth of engagement are different things.
In one conversation, I was discussing the problem of sexual misconduct with one of my male colleagues. He told me, “You should go spend some time in Syria with the refugees.” I assumed he meant because he understood how vulnerable women are to sexual violence in areas of political conflict, and with my background in gender studies I might be able to help. “No,” he said. “I mean because then you’ll see how good you have it here.” It wasn’t a threat, but emotionally it read as one: Be grateful, girl, we don’t treat you worse. This was just one conversation of many like it. And to really understand how maddening it was, you have to understand that these were really, really nice men. They were lovely guys, in so many ways―I loved these guys in so many ways. But something was truly dysfunctional about the way they loved me and other women back. In some deep, fundamental place, they didn’t seem to care, or know how to do care, in a way that was in women’s best interests. Over time, it became emotionally horrifying. I felt increasingly sad and anxious, and my health suffered.
Significant discrepancies in pay and opportunities, and inequality in roles and value persisted. Male instructors continued to sexualize female students, and the community erupted in new incidents of male sexual misconduct. Myself and about half of our core leadership team eventually left, forfeiting much of our investment in the community and business. It was a terribly hard decision to make.
The single hardest part of leaving my community was the feeling that I was leaving behind the people I loved. I desperately wanted the people I cared about to learn and change with me. From an emotional and philosophical perspective, I felt like leaving meant that I was abandoning them. I never wanted to write these articles or tell this story in this way. I mourned the loss of a different narrative.
After talking to many women on this issue, I really believe that women who stand up for their rights as equal humans do not want to harm or inhibit men. We don’t want to take men down; we do want to take men with us. I still feel sad that I couldn’t do that from within my community. I hope that these articles and the continued social conversation about gender and power will help all of us continue to grow, and I do believe that this is possible. But for the rest of The Branch community, that will be on their own time frame, and I recognize that I have no responsibility anymore for that outcome.
Frequently our feelings transcend our capacity to understand them, or they can be understood differently within different contexts. We have no choice but to accept who people are in the moment they are themselves, feeling what they feel. But in any type of healthy relationship, the capacity for the radical acceptance of being and feeling has a functional counterweight, which is the capacity for radical change. To truly accept ourselves and others the way we are, in any moment, means we have to have some hope that we will continue to engage and grow with the world around us as that world provides us with new information and new contexts. We have to have the curiosity to engage deeply with felt experiences, especially experiences of discomfort which uniquely challenge our perceptions of our own identity or the identity of the groups and relationships we are a part of.
No one enters a community as some kind of perfect form. And no community exists as a perfect example of human collaboration. We are all evolving, in motion. And the moment we forget that or deny that, we don’t’ stop existing, but we do stop growing, and that is really the difference between resolvable conflicts and unresolvable ones. We have to allow new pieces of information to change how we think. We have to allow the felt experiences of people around us to change how we feel. Communities, like any type of human relationship, are not tethered necessarily to any outcome. All we can ever do is be a part of the process. And this requires a type of engagement that can be both brutal and beautiful.
Women in the United States are still a marginalized group. That means that most of us in our lives will need to practice some form of dissent. We will need to define and create boundaries for our personal and professional relationships in ways that challenge the status quo. We will need to stand up and say hard things to people we love. We will need to practice radical acceptance and radical change. And sometimes we will need to get up and walk away. We will need to walk away from relationships and communities that are not working in our best interests.
In the midst of wider social movements in the areas of gender and sexuality, communities everywhere need a place for feminist dissent. It can be hard to face our own patterns of behavior, especially when those patterns impact others in ways we had not previously understood or intended. But as hard as it is, and as uncomfortable as we might feel, engaging in these conversations is ultimately what makes us stronger. Dissent is part of how we build resilience together.
For comments and responses, you can contact the author LK at interwebslk [AT] gmail.com.
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This is an online-only article associated with the Fall 2019 edition of Communities, “The Shadow Side of Cooperation”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.