Intentional Communities: How do we grow this movement fast?

Posted on October 19, 2017 by
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It’s been quite a year. This is a synthesis of what I’ve been hearing and what I’ve been thinking about intentional communities, or whatever you want to call them.

There’s a lot of interest in replicable, scalable models and best practices. People seem to be feeling more of an imperative to have an impact on the world.  

What do we need to scale up?

Systems, structures, and programs that provide tangible, effective support to groups:

Top three:

  • Connecting People – Individuals to communities, communities to individuals, and people who want to form – Matchmaking – Communities Directory 2.0
  • Consultancy and Education – Best Practices/Wisdom harvesting, Storytelling, Manifesto, Education, Consultancy, Research, Events
  • Financing Businesses, loan fund, connections to funds, foundations, financial institutions and services

The next two I would add:

  • Portals/The grab – Media (mass, social), intros (documentary), immersions, events
  • Movement Building – Communities helping each other and forming groups, community clusters, regional networking

This is an abridged list, see the full version below.

What scares me about scaling up

I don’t think we’ve figured out what the replicable, scalable models are and I feel immediately skeptical when I hear someone talking as if we do. People have certainly been working on this, particularly in the housing co-op and cohousing movements. There are external forces impeding rapid growth, but I don’t think it’s just that. We have pieces of it, but lots to figure out, and we need to keep re-evaluating and trying new things.

I think we’ve done better at figuring out best practices, but there are still limits. If you looked at a dozen ICs that have been around at least 20 years there are lots of things you can point to that are similar that contributed to their success, and lots of unique circumstances that contributed as well. Best practices aren’t a replacement for being thoughtful and flexible. But much wisdom and experience is available, both from the successful communities and the failures, and we could be doing a better job capturing and distributing it.

The thing I worry most about is the realm of relationship building, clear agreements and decision-making/governance, and conflict-resolution. My impression is that running into problems around this stuff is more common when trying to move quickly, or with developer-driven projects, or where there’s just one or two people with a vision and the resources and take the build-it-and-they-will-come approach. I think we need to really emphasize the need to, if you will, build community while you’re building the community, and provide lots of resources for doing this stuff well.

I think business and finances are the other big, common problem area for many groups. Most groups grossly underestimate their importance and, at least in the US, have a tendency to focus on the residential side of community and minimize the economic. This includes businesses as well as resource sharing systems (e.g. car sharing, clothes or tools libraries – cheaper and more ecological, and supports development of community social-culture).

We want to figure out how to help them do this well, connecting people with business models and plans, start-up capital, and financial management skills and technology. The cooperative business world has obviously worked these problems much harder, but there’s minimal collaboration between ICs and cooperative business. ICs and worker co-ops in particular seem  like such natural partners.

As long as we are subject to capitalism we need to know how to play the game so that we can start developing the cooperative economic system in parallel to the system that it will ultimately replace. Thanks to Werner for focusing this year’s West Coast Communities Conference on this topic and Diana Leafe Christian for her presentation there on the importance of communities supporting businesses and entrepreneurship.  

Why do we want to grow this movement? What’s the big picture?

The problems humanity is facing seem to be fostering a sense of urgency and imperative. More and more people are feeling called to do something. For intentional communities, this means recognizing that creating nice places to live, mini-enclaves where we can shelter away from mainstream society, is not enough. We need to become part of mainstream society and help in the process of fundamentally restructuring it based on cooperation, sustainability/regeneration, and social justice.

Creating a sustainable, self-sufficient community, as many people dream of, is not enough if the world around you is unsustainable. While ICs will always represent opportunities to live our values and benefit from them right now, more and more people seem to recognize that we need global transformation under the same values. We are killing each other and making the planet unlivable for our species. Our lives are at stake.

What would it look like to turn whole towns and cities into intentional communities?

This is a thought exercise I’ve been engaging in for the last couple years, and it seems like others are thinking along similar lines. Scaling up in part means showing how these principles can actually be applied on much larger social and economic scales.

FIC’s definition of intentional community: A group of people who live together or share common facilities and who regularly associate on the basis of explicit common values.

What would need to change for towns and cities to fit the definition? Looking at the FIC’s current definition of intentional community, the main thing that’s missing is common values. I would also argue that the lack of public space or meaningful democratic control over development doesn’t match the spirit.

At some point it occurred to me, the Transition Town model is essentially trying to turn whole municipalities into intentional communities, particularly with the goal of having the local government adopt a community-developed energy decent plan to prepare for peak oil and climate change.

In this vein, California just passed a bill declaring itself a sanctuary state. Does that make it an intentional community? Again, imbalance of private property over public space and lack of meaningful democracy (particularly regarding money affecting politics) are incongruities in my mind, but the coming together around common values the sanctuary state bill represents is an indication that it’s possible to apply the same kinds of principles intentional communities are founded on to much larger social structures.

There’s also nations that we can point to. Could Cuba be seen as an example of a nation that became an intentional community? Or Bhutan with its Gross National Happiness index? (I’m not trying to gloss over the problematic aspects of both countries).

What does sustainability and social justice mean to intentional communities?

The FIC’s current definition of intentional community is descriptive rather than prescriptive. This was intentional. But we do want to start being prescriptive as well? We hold cooperation, sustainability, and social justice as core values, and use that as a lense for how we talk about intentional communities and who we focus on. GEN’s 4 dimensions of sustainability is another lens we frequently use.

When I think about what makes an intentional community what it is, sharing is probably the first, most simple, most quintessential aspect. Another aspect is what I’ve been calling collective self-determinism, and finally, non-violent conflict resolution.

Sustainable and regenerative

It seems clear that we need to incorporate regeneration/regenerative into our understanding of sustainability, which is increasingly seen as a co-opted, watered-down, meaningless term. Borrowing some language from GEN, here’s what I’ve been putting out:

    • Sustainability: Harmlessly integrated, continuable into the indefinite future
    • Regenerative: Healing from the damage we’ve done to the earth, society, and ourselves

The problem of capitalism and private property

I don’t think we can dance around this anymore, simply taking these for granted. Capitalism assumes and depends on exponential growth, which does not work on a finite planet. Private property is the foundation for a system that denies people access to the resources needed to sustain themselves (and the construct of private property is particularly ridiculous in the face of the history of genocide and dispossession of first nations and indigenous peoples). Both lend themselves to the exploitation of land and people, consolidation of wealth and power, and the creation of police and military states to defend it. They are antithetical to democracy. We live in a world where our political and economic systems essentially make it legal to kill people by making it impossible for them to survive.

What if our political and economic systems were based on the idea that those who are affected by a decision are the people who get to make the decision? You could scale this out to all of humanity. This wouldn’t preclude individuals and communities having what is referred to in the Housing Co-op world as exclusive use of a space, within certain guidelines. This of course assumes a legitimate, democratic system of governance in place that is equally accessible to all people.

Intentional communities, to some degree or another, try to reduce the practice and effects of capitalism and private property internally. Why aren’t we advocating for that outside of intentional communities?

What does social justice mean?

Folks from the People Of Color Sustainable Housing Network have been expressing the idea of moving beyond diversity to liberation, and Ed Whitfield of the New Economy Coalition and Fund For Democratic Communities has talked about moving beyond rights to power.

The definition I’ve been using is, the fair and reasonable distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges in a society. This means that every step along the way we have to examine how privilege and oppression play out along lines of race, class, gender, and more, internally, interpersonally, and systemically. The idea that the class system is inherent or natural, that people somehow deserve or are entitled to be in whatever position they’re in, or that the possibility of class mobility, the American Dream, somehow makes it all okay, needs to be dealt with.

If we want to meaningfully address the problems facing humanity we need to recognize the injustice that’s in play and look to those who are most affected by those problems as leaders in figuring out what the solutions are. For those of us with privilege, we need to use that privilege to help make sure the resources needed to not only survive but thrive are available to all people. ICs have the potential be powerful vehicles for this.

“Why don’t people want to join my community?”

I keep running into very well meaning privileged people who own land and have access to money who don’t understand why they can’t get people to join their community. There are often a variety of factors, but frequently the level of financial/legal control they have is translating into a control over the decision-making of the project that is not enticing to most people. They may even recognize the need to give up control, but often their future is at stake. They don’t want to just hand over everything, because what if it fails and they lose everything? They want to know that they’re going to have what they need as they get older.

This seems like a totally solvable problem. We have the financial and legal tools we need, and new tools are in development (check out Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, being developed by the Sustainable Economies Law Center with others). Start-up capital is always challenging, but solvable with the right mission and plan. We know how to do the personal and interpersonal work to deconstruct privilege and entitlement. Can we figure out a way to move property and capital into collective ownership and management that also makes sure the people providing them don’t end up on streets in their old age?

Communities supporting communities

I think we should be encouraging communities to support each other more. This means established communities helping start new communities, and supporting other established communities in trouble, and new communities helping each other. Figuring out how to do better local and regional organizing seems key to this. How can we make it easy for them?

Communities in socially and economically friendly areas definitely have an advantage, but regardless, I think we should encourage groups to get involved in their local economy. There are examples of clusters of communities in the same county that create a greater social and economic mass, which can be hugely beneficial; I also think we should encourage new communities to form near established communities.

In general, I think we want to be encouraging groups to think of themselves as part of a movement and get them thinking about how they can support that movement.

Speaking of political movements

Intentional communities are clearly part of a much larger movement, though it’s hard to define it. Shout out to the New Economy Coalition, of which the FIC is a member, which I think is probably the best platform we have available right now for connecting to the wide range of groups out there trying to change the world along the same values.

What are the barriers?

Naming and facing what’s in our way:

  • Drama, petty conflicts, personality conflicts
  • Fear of loss/Deprivation
  • Overwhelm
  • Privilege/entitlement – particularly straight white male ego
  • Oppression and exploitation
  • Finances – lack of access, corrupt systems, and personal baggage
  • Neo-colonialism
  • Global Capitalism
  • Wealth inequality
  • Private property

Who we should be supporting

I want to support the leadership of oppressed and marginalized people because what we’re doing is meaningless if it doesn’t address the needs of all people. I want to figure out how to amplify and elevate their projects and organizations, help funnel resources in their direction.

Some examples (in no way anything like an exhaustive list) of groups I’ve recently heard about or had contact with:

So, what I’m trying to say is…

I’m excited. I’m starting to see what seems like a viable path forward. It’s an honor and a privilege to paid to work for this movement.

Thank you.

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