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How have intentional communities fared through the pandemic?

Posted on July 8, 2020 by
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New research shows how intentional communities have responded to the coronavirus crisis.

With people’s lives upended across the globe, we can’t help but wonder, how would we have responded to the coronavirus crisis if we all lived in intentional communities — ecovillages, cohousing and the like — instead of our conventional neighborhoods? 

And how have existing intentional communities fared through the pandemic? Are they better off or worse than the mainstream? What can we learn from how they have dealt with this crisis?

Maybe intentional communities are more financially or materially self-sufficient and therefore more resilient during a pandemic. Perhaps their highly communal living arrangements make them more susceptible to the disease. Could they be suffering less from loneliness and isolation during lockdown? Are they more stable and even generous during this time? 

To find out the answers, the Foundation for Intentional Community (FIC) partnered with the Intentional Communities Desk in May 2020 and sent out a survey to intentional communities in our Communities Directory so we could learn how they have responded to the pandemic. 

Of the 75 intentional communities that responded to the survey 68% are based in the United States, with others spread out from the UK to Peru and all the way to Australia and New Zealand. 

The stories these communities share are fascinating. With some rural communities basically unaffected or even experiencing positive changes since coronavirus, and other more urban communities especially challenged to step up together and support each other through crisis. Communities have had to come up with creative ways to keep each other safe and to stay connected even while typical community activities, such as shared meals, are on pause. They have had to navigate internal tensions about how seriously to take the virus and what levels of response are appropriate. 

Intentional communities offer possibilities for how we all can survive and thrive through crisis by coming together.

Survey Results

Our analysis of the survey results shows that communities have been impacted by the virus in a variety of ways on a pretty clear spectrum. On one end of the spectrum are communities who have been minimally or positively affected by the pandemic (approximately 15% of survey respondents). On other end of the spectrum are communities who have been severely or negatively impacted (approximately 5% of survey respondents). Most communities fall somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum.

A few remote and land-based communities report how for them daily life hasn’t changed all too much. Residents were already used to growing much of their own food, delegating trips to the grocery store to a few individuals in the community and earning an income within the community’s economy or through remote work. 

“Nothing has really changed for us.  We set up [our community] with a design to ride out these types of events – pandemics, natural disasters, financial meltdowns. We are a closed community on over 1000 acres with private roads and two access points to BLM and state land.  We have a full Equestrian Center, Library (books.over 350 DVDs, games, puzzles, magazines), gym, spa and 3 miles of interior roads/trails for walking, biking, riding.  We are adding a pool table and probably a pool this year.  We have a garden and our permaculture people are getting set up to add an additional 80 acres of food forest, aquaponics, and massive greenhouses.  We have a resident only grocery store opening up this fall.  We keep chickens and ducks for eggs.  We have an Exchange Program for cash/barter/trade for/exchange money within the community and we hire work done from within the community so people still have an income.  We are remote so most people stock up on personal supplies.” 

— Zhenna, Caballos de las Estrellas Intelligent Living Community, New Mexico and Arizona, USA

Some community members even report experiencing an improved quality of life since the pandemic. 

“As an urban intentional community focused on social and environmental justice, our members are often all over the city and traveling around the country in service of movements. During the shelter-in-place time there has been a unique magic of all being here together, gathering so much more often than we used to, eating together, growing more food than ever, processing herbal medicine, distributing food, medicine and supplies to our neighbors… To me, it feels in many ways so much more like the ‘village’ life we’ve been longing for, that the pressures of our current systems so often pull us away from.”

— Morgan H Curtis, Canticle Farm, CA, USA

“We have 33 people trapped in paradise, 9 of which are volunteers from many countries. We are enjoying it immensely…”

— Tom Charles Osher, Chambalabamba, Loja, Ecuador

“We are functioning better than in past years, due to circumstances related to the pandemic…There is an apparent feeling of solidarity everywhere inside and outside the community.”

Huehuecoyotl Ecovillage, Santo Domingo Ocotitlán, Morelos State, Mexico

“We are all healthy and agree that we are lucky to live in a beautiful setting with plenty of green space, and plenty of meaningful work and occupation to keep us happy and engaged. We have created a ‘new normal’ – work teams based on house groups, celebrations too, and leisure time pursuits, all within the same groupings. This has given rise to a buoyant mood, creativity and caring for each other. Our day attendees and some employees are not able to join us at the moment, but each house group is in frequent contact (via Skype, phone or Zoom) with those who belong to their group, and some members have produced a lovely newsletter each fortnight which can be shared with families and friends.”

— Elisabeth Phethean, Beannachar Camphill Community, Aberdeenshire, Scottland

Still other communities have experienced a degree of stability that has enabled them to look beyond caring for their own community and help out in the surrounding area through distributing food to essential workers, sewing free masks and producing medicine. 

“Those who are younger and healthier kept themselves busy by sewing about 2,000 surgical masks.  They would take them out to places where there were elderly people, or to shopkeepers, and offer them for free.  Our immediate vicinity was noticeably more protected as a result, and one clinic said there have been no infections here so far.”

Dave, Jesus Christians, Victoria, Australia

“As we have a laboratory of medicinal plants, we here daily making a natural tonic to prevent the entry of the virus and to boost our immune system…”

— Sri Advaita, Willka Hampi, Perú

Not all communities have had such an easy time, however. Some have had to make major adjustments and even deal with internal disagreement or differing interpretations of coronavirus itself. Much of the public divisiveness over the degree of seriousness and action required in the pandemic has played out in the microcosm of intentional communities. Residents have had to wrestle with issues such as wearing masks or not, requiring heightened levels of cleanliness and sanitation, restricting visitors and more. All of this has created tension and additional anxiety in some communities. 

“Being at the epicenter of the crisis in NYC, we have stopped our short term sublets and guest room rentals. Our long term residents have worked together to come up with  social distancing and disinfecting guidelines used throughout the house. We have had one resident with Covid 19.  He was quarantined for 20 days.  We were diligent in providing him with food and a private bathroom.  The virus did not spread through the house.  WooHoo!!   It is a work in progress and has been emotionally exhausting.”

Robin Drake, Pennington Friends House, NYC, USA

“There were tensions.  Some people were critical of the efforts of others, and accused them of ‘not taking this seriously.’  … We also have experienced, well-trained facilitators who guided us through these difficult times with good humour and grace. We started out in an atmosphere of fear and anxiety, but as time passed, we adjusted.  I feel incredibly fortunate to be living in such a supportive community during this kind of social upheaval.  It bodes well for the future.”

–Kathryn-Jane Hazel, Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community, Nanaimo, B.C. Canada

“We have been seeing conflicts in some of our houses in person differences of how to manage mental and social health vs physical health. Co-op staff and leadership continue to guide houses to follow CDC guidelines when these issues are brought up.”

— Nola Warner, MSU Student Housing Cooperative, Greater Lansing Area (Lansing and East Lansing), Michigan, United States

“The residents have had a number of meetings and opinions vary from strictly following every single state guideline to looking for ways we could vary some. We’ve had some contention about acting (example inviting a visitor) without us all agreeing. This has led to good discussion, no perfect resolution but aware that even with our current decision method of Sociocracy this is a unique situation. Do we all have to agree on everything; if one or two disagree how does it feel if they choose to self-isolate in their home? No answers just the impact of this situation. Generally we are being very cautious and careful with protocols to stay healthy.”

— Kirsten Rohde, The Goodenough Community, Washington, USA

“There has been stress. Our community has 30 members. About a fourth think we need very disciplined health safety measures, about a fourth think there is no need for them to be extreme, and about half more or less are inclined to to have more safety procedures than not but they’re rather relaxed about it. Those estimates may not be completely accurate but they do represent a difference in opinion. This all came to the fore when some from the ‘more minimum safety procedures’ people wanted to create an exercise room (something to which we have never really given much thought). This horrified the the ‘maximum safety people.’ In our last community meeting, the issue was not really resolved but the gym people pushed forward, many think in a very heavy handed way, and went ahead and created the gym. The coronavirus situation, therefore, occasioned a discord that probably would have never surfaced without. First, interest in the gym was largely driven my the ‘shelter in place’ orders and second opposition was strong because it was seen as a risky practice. The good news is that there now is a general agreement that our community should objectify its decision-making process and make it much more clear by putting it in writing. There was never much motivation to do this in the past due to some unique conditions in our community. The fracture making this necessary has appeared precisely because of matters related directly to the virus.”

— Terry Bergdall, GreenRise Intentional Community, Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois, USA

“Some of our community members had envisaged to leave for other places/communities. They continued staying with us, as travel or moving was not easy or possible. So we’re now stuck here with people that don’t fit/want to stay with us…”

— Rainer von Leoprechting, Obenaus Community, Austria, Steiermark

Some communities have come up with creative ways to keep vulnerable members safe or to protect the majority of members from a minority of essential workers living within the community. 

“The hardest issue has been knowing how to handle the fact that we have a frontline healthcare worker who, by the nature of his job, is put at risk every time he goes to work. As he starting working directly with COVID-19 patients, the anxiety of some of the members with preexisting conditions went sky high. We finally had a meeting in which we discussed how we could keep the risk in the community low while still supporting him. We came to an agreement in which he uses a different kitchen (there are two in the building), one bathroom in the house is dedicated for him, he generally doesn’t use most of the rest of the house, and if we do see him, we stay six feet apart. In turn, we cook for him and do his chores so that he can rest when he is home. We also leave him flowers and notes. When he is here on community nights or special occasions, we use a very big room that is not our dining room. We set up separate tables, like a restaurant, that are all at least six feet apart. he sits at his own table at the head of the room and we serve him. Then he can still be with us and we can talk. This isn’t the perfect solution, but it is what we can all live with for now.”

— Lisa J Rademacher, Sophia Community, IL, USA

When coronavirus first became apparent in early spring, numerous intentional communities recognized the threat to their highly communal resident population and were quick to establish ad hoc committees to produce guidelines or safety protocols for the community. Here are a few examples of such protocols

“At the very beginning of the Corona Crisis, a Safety and Health ad-hoc Committee formed, and came up with some guidelines for the community.  We met via Zoom, and agreed to basic precepts, such as no meals and no use of the Common House except for essential activities such as laundry, to avoid possible Corona contamination.  Basically, we’re sheltering in place in our homes, going outside only for exercise and essential activities such as medical appointments and grocery shopping.  We’re communicating both for meetings and for social events through Zoom, but see each other occasionally on the walkways as we get our mail, and can chat from an appropriate distance.  So far, I think people in the community are doing okay, given the strange times we’re in.”

— Laurie Friedman, Muir Commons Cohousing, Davis, California, USA

“We held emergency meetings as soon as the B.C. government announced the COVID-19 restrictions, first, using social distancing, and then, via Zoom.  We followed the Jamaica Plains Cohousing model as our guide in setting up protocols, moving through stages one through six as the crisis worsened. We have two nurses living here who gave us good advice on disinfecting, social distancing, and other information we needed to keep our vulnerable community members safe. We set a schedule for disinfecting all the touch-points in our building – door handles, light switches, entry phone, mailbox, elevator buttons, etc. – and established a buddy system so that all the residents had someone they could call on for help if needed.  We set up a buddy family system so that the children could play together and still maintain the protocols.  We let families with children who had to work from home use some of the common rooms as their work-space, with the condition that they had to maintain and disinfect them after every use.”

–Kathryn-Jane Hazel, Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community, Nanaimo, B.C. Canada

“Of our 28 or so members, most of us are sheltered in place.  One or two have to work outside. Several others have relocated to family in other states to weather the storm.  We have a strict regimen isolating from each other by wearing masks whenever we are in the kitchen (all other commons have been closed, except for a gym we set up), and try to maintain a 6′ distance from each other.  When we enter the kitchen or other common areas, we immediately wash our hands.   We’ve replace our vinegar/water solution for wiping off counters with a weak bleach/water solution and teams on cleanup duty sanitize all countertops, drawer/cabinet pulls, light switches, faucets, etc. Separate solution spray bottles are kept in the bathrooms and showers to sanitize those facilities. We have gloves for when we go shopping.  Upon returning with groceries, we wipe everything down with our bleach solution before bringing it into the kitchen.   We have a plan, protocols and a room set aside if anyone comes down with the virus.”

Steve Ediger, GreenRise Intentional Community, Uptown, Chicago, IL

“We have a volunteer pandemic task force that is making recommendations to the community and working to make the building work best for this situation (altering ventilation in some areas, leaving fans on, making signs to leave certain windows on a certain amount for X long, adding whiteboards outside common house rooms to indicate when they are available for use).  We wear masks outside and maintain a 6′ distance.  The Task Force is meeting this evening to make a reco on what kind of gatherings are recommended (how many people at how much distance in what areas) – as we try to get our social mojo going again.  Common meals were discontinued in late March.  Our Interiors team (with the help of the task force) has set up a list of areas that are sanitized daily by volunteers.  Some are helping those at more risk by doing their grocery shopping, or asking around to see if anyone else needs something so fewer people need to go out.  Socially, our biz and team meetings have gone to Zoom (with a purchased subscription to allow more than 40 minutes time).”

— Patricia Boomer, Mountain View Cohousing Community, CA, USA

Nearly all the communities who responded to the survey reported an increased use of technology to stay in communication with each other. No longer able to participate in shared meals or in-person gatherings (often the essential “community glue”) groups have had to get creative about how to socialize and manage their community while practicing physical distancing. 

“Meetings that would otherwise have been held in person in our common house are now held via Zoom or in smaller open-air front porch gatherings with social distancing.  E-mail and a village Discourse forum are used for asynchronous communication.  An increased emphasis on community supported agriculture in periodic combined bulk orders supplies food that may otherwise have been bought individually from grocery stores.  Shared meals served in the common house have been replaced with virtual meals in which smaller groupings of residents eat meals prepared in their individual townhouses while sharing a discussion via Zoom.  Some village residents participate in a silent meditative walk through the village in the evening.”

— Todd Lewis, Shepherd Village, West Virginia, USA

“We have also tried having Common Meals where one house cooks, then neighbors bring dishes to be filled, which they take home to eat.  The cooks find this unfulfilling because most of the fun of Common Meals is the camaraderie of cooking and eating together.  We are going to try a Zoom Common Meal where everyone makes the “same” meal and shares time with each other via Zoom.” 

— Kenyon Erickson, Blueberry Hill Cohousing, Virginia, USA

New members recruitment and membership onboarding processes have also had to go virtual in light of the pandemic. 

“We’ve held Virtual Open Houses via zoom.  We have one available unit for sale and given the need for physical separation and the need to limit visitors to our lodge we are communicating with potential buyers by telephone and videoconferencing.  If a potential buyer has reviewed the available information and indicates an eagerness to proceed with the transaction we will work to set up a safe on-site visit.  Most importantly, we are supporting each other as best as we can.  Shopping for a neighbor is a great example.  We are all looking forward to enjoying common meals again!”

— Jacque Bromm, Wolf Creek Lodge, Grass Valley, California, USA

Communities that rely on visitors and program participants for their income are now facing financial loss. Some are experimenting with moving in-person programs online. 

“We are concerned about our annual budget because we rely on income from our guest rooms.”

–Ellen Kemper, The Commons on the Alameda, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA

“We are unable to hold the usual full summer of events, ours and those of other groups who use our center. This will create a very large financial loss for us… We will soon be very short of finances as our contingency fund runs out. Our finances are tied up with the retreat business and function through two nonprofits that have always run on a very tight budget. We are engaging in fundraising. 

We enjoy gardening and working on projects together and feel blessed that we are on these 67 acres while some are cooped up in a single house or apartment in Seattle. It has been an unusually beautiful spring. This has brought us closer through working together but we also feel the weight of what is going on in our country, now with the murder of George Floyd and protests on top of the uncertainty, anxiety, even fear that can free float due to the pandemic.”

— Kirsten Rohde, The Goodenough Community, Washington, USA

An overwhelming number of community residents who responded to the survey shared how grateful they are to be living in an intentional community right now. They talk about being able to care for vulnerable residents, finding creative ways to stay connected and combat isolation, as well as seeing the crisis as an opportunity to strengthen relationships to community and place. 

“We are very fortunate to have a lovely trail right out our front doors to enjoy a beautiful, shaded walk along our namesake, Wolf Creek. Our gardens our beautiful and provide lots of lovely outdoor gardening time.  We are enjoying a great deal of zoom time, be it the daily coffee hour, meetings,  yoga and ukulele practice.  Lots of reading time such as ‘A New Kind of Science’ by Stephen Wolfram or our latest book club entry, ‘The Words of My Father’ by Yousef Bashir.  Knitting, sewing, jigsaw puzzles and adult coloring books have been fun.  We have enjoyed impromptu drumming concerts on the terrace while practicing physical distancing.”

— Jacque Bromm, Wolf Creek Lodge, Grass Valley, California, USA

“We meet every night – without fail – at 6pm for Happy Hour on the greenway. About 8-15 people attend and we socialize for 30-45 minutes. We meet rain or shine, and we capture every evening in photographs. We had one week long ‘fashion week’ where the young people dictated how we would dress (many complied). We have celebrated birthdays and anniversaries outside, generally 6′ apart, clumped by household.”

— Anna Newcomb, Blueberry Hill Cohousing, Virginia, USA

“Mostly, it is has been a blessing to be in community at this time because we are not so isolated. We have each other. We have game and movie nights on weekends. We used to all be so busy with work and running here and there, but now we are mostly all home.”

— Lisa J Rademacher, Sophia Community, IL, USA

“Most importantly, we investigate and appreciate to the fullest extent the hidden meaning of the situation, the ‘gift’ or learning that it offers us: to increase relational work within the community, to increase efforts for personal and community autonomy and empowerment, to foster the deepest and most effective relationship with the place where we live, to prepare the way to radiate more towards society in general the importance and usefulness of experiences like ours so that other groups and individuals can use it as a stimulus and inspiration, and to detect opportunities for change within the community in tune with the ‘winds of change’ that are shaking the planet profoundly.”

— Kevin Lluch, Ecovillage Los Portales, Sevilla, Spain

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One Reply to “How have intentional communities fared through the pandemic?”

keshavboddula

interesting observations, thanks!
for analysis considerations, it may be important to remember that although intentional communities have tendencies toward social and environmental justice, it is not necessary… so, perhaps if there is more of this study/comparison, a hypothesis is to focus on the extent that communities are observed to be involved (directly or indirectly) in activities that separate/dominate Nature*, or that are part of a less ecologically-sound way of life. like, right now, there are those “sustainability practices” listed on the IC directory that would be one such indication.

also i was little bit surprised, for some reason i thought i would read about a community that was doing just fine / better even, AND how they dealt with potential outsiders (off limits, a quarantine period, etc.)

*like Vox’s “How humans are making pandemics more likely”[https://youtu.be/qp5CEcIyk94]

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