The law. In my anti-authoritarian household, the law isn’t always held with the utmost regard. There’s good reason for that. Here in what we now call the United States, our laws enforce racist standards and we put black communities in prison at alarmingly high rates. Women are prevented from making choices about their own bodies and their own safety. Cops are allowed to murder innocent (often brown) people. It is legal to pay folks with developmental disabilities below minimum wage. Queers and trans folks are often confronted with hate and violence. Migrants from other countries are deemed “illegal” and forced into detention centers. The list of unjust laws created and upheld by society could go on and on. Luckily, throughout history and today as well, brave folks have taken action to intentionally break, rewrite, and create alternatives to unjust laws.
If it’s not obvious, I encourage you to do the same. If I believed in a higher power, I’d thank it for putting the fight for justice inside so many kind souls. With everything inside of me, I sincerely thank those who have fought for justice and who fight for it now.
While collective action is needed to create large-scale, systemic change, intentional communities like mine can become the seedbed for exploring and exemplifying the world we envision. The challenges of the “real world” impact us and forms of oppression come in through the back door, but we also have room to create systems that promote equity. As an intentional community, we’ve chosen to create our own laws, our own agreements, and our own cultural norms that help bend us towards a fair and liberated shared experience. While that sounds easy—to decide your own rules together and then choose to collectively enforce them—it’s proven to be complicated and not always straightforward.
Here in our Columbus, Ohio-based community, the Midden, we’re a group of folks with good intentions who care about each other and the world. While that’s a solid foundation, it doesn’t mean we always have the tools, time, and energy to really show up for each other. For a long time, our household chose to systematically build a culture of empathetic communication. We agreed on a check-in system, where every member was “required” to check in (have some one-on-one time where both folks got to chat and share what’s going on with them and how things have been together) with every other member of our household. Sometimes, we did this well and it served us. Sometimes, we upheld this agreement, but it didn’t really serve us. More often, we didn’t create the time to connect with folks in that way.
Having an agreement like that, and watching it go by the wayside, can actually be more hurtful than simply never checking in. We tried to rework it a few times, tried to recommit, but right now, we’ve just stopped. For now, that’s how we’ve chosen to enforce it: by letting it go. It’s a bit more organic now; we regularly share with each other before we get down to business at our house meetings, and as a small household, we often have a sense of what’s going on with folks. Ideally, we even know how and choose to support each other.
In our community, part of our budget is set aside to help cover health and wellness needs of individuals. Folks can use it to pay for a doctor’s visit, for vitamins, for travel expenses to a support group, or whatever else folks need to take care of themselves. When we first set this up, we had an approval process. Folks would say what the expense was, and we’d all agree or disagree to help pay for it. Part of the intention was to get our wellness out of the dark hole of shame and into our collective consciousness that would allow us to support each other through our ailments. What actually happened, though, was a lot different. Folks felt judged for what they needed and felt like we were putting each other on trial for the very personal choices we make about how to tend to ourselves. After a lot of hurt feelings and additional shame, we decided to alter, or amend, that agreement. We didn’t ditch the whole thing, and we chose to keep our wellness fund. Now, folks use it however they see fit. There is no approval process. If you have a wellness expense, you can have the house help you cover it. We have lost some of the intention to know what’s going on with each other, but not all of it. We still see it as an expense if we want and i think we are more comfortable talking and sharing about our physical and mental health. While in many ways, this was a small change to our agreement, it has had substantial impacts in our community.
We’ve had a long-standing divide in our labor—the ways folks contribute to our shared home. We contribute in a variety of ways; much of that (like emotionally or energetically participating in each other’s lives) can’t possibly be calculated, and for the most part we’ve chosen not to. We’ve tried a variety of ways to account for the tasks that keep our home running—tending a garden, fixing the roof, walking the dog, cleaning the counter, etc. We’ve dug into those systems and have plenty of history and lessons to share, but more recently we’ve found ourselves focused in on how we pay our bills.
Bills in an intentional community that rejects capitalist principles?! Yes, of course. We have to pay off our house and pay our utilities, but we also choose to help cover shared food, tools, supplies, and other odds and ends. The question is, how do we do that in a way that a) covers our bills and b) creates equity amongst ourselves? We’ve had a variety of systems and agreements to help us achieve that. Most of our norms have helped us reach those goals in some ways, and failed in others. In our attempts to hold ourselves accountable, we’ve remade and we’ve significantly reworked our agreements. Right now, we’re trying out an income percentage contribution system. It’s working, but not perfectly. And to be frank, the hard part is how it feels. How it feels to folks to pay in at a certain rate, how it feels to have some people pay more or less than you, to cover expenses you wouldn’t personally choose, to not be able to decide you’d rather cut back that month to save up for whatevertheheck. How it feels to have a set of agreements, of laws, that tells you what to do with your money. In all of our agreements, that’s been the hard part.
Nobody likes bosses. Even when you are the boss. Even when you decide to get rid of bosses and share the rulemaking together. We don’t like being told we’re doing it wrong, that we’re not doing what we agreed to, that we are prioritizing ourselves individually over our shared, collective selves. Actually, I think we just don’t like being told what to do. Even worse than bosses? Laws. Once we put them in place, we have to choose how and if we are going to enforce them. And if we’re not going to enforce them, do they even exist? But without them, can we coexist and even thrive? While I’m still a firm believer in a need for rules, norms, agreements…laws…the lesson I keep learning is that those things don’t create cultural change. We create cultural change, and without that, our good intentions and our laws don’t take us that far. There is some magical balance out there, an equilibrium between the law and the culture. Here at the Midden, we’re striving to find it. We’ll keep striving, but if we come up with the solution, we’ll be sure to let ya’ll know.
Molly Shea is a member of the Midden, in Columbus, Ohio. She’s also a cooperative owner of Pattycake Bakery, teaches self-defense, works with the Beehive Collective, is an anti-sexual assault advocate, and is part of a radical cheerleading squad. Occasional reflections on her life can be read on her blog, www.moreadventuroustoday.blogspot.com.