Where Do We Go From Here?

Posted on March 25, 2024 by

An open letter to the Intentional Communities Movement – January, 2024

A couple quick notes: 

This is focused on the movement in the US and Canada (though I think there are some significant differences between those two as well). This has nothing to do with nationalist sentiments. It’s purely practical. It is by far what I am most familiar with, and I don’t think what I see happening applies or translates well to other parts of the world. Not that there aren’t things to learn across global regions. I’m all for collaboration on all levels: the ultimate goal is global transformation of human society. 

I employ generalities in this piece, mostly avoiding examples because I didn’t want anyone to feel called out, it would have made it a lot longer, and I think there are important patterns to look for beyond the details of any particular community.

Thank you for reading!

In community,

Sky Blue



What are we really going for?

Intentional Community has shaped me, and I have witnessed how Intentional Community transforms people. I have spent my life working to foster greater cohesion and coordination in the movement to manifest the potential of ICs to effect greater change.

For years, these questions have guided my work: How are ICs applicable and relevant to the world, and how can they have the greatest impact possible? This is more pertinent now than ever. 

At this point, I don’t think the movement is having a meaningful impact given the scope of the problems we face. 

What is a meaningful impact?

I estimate there are around 3000 things you could call Intentional Communities in the US, and the number of current and former adult members of ICs to be around 220,000, which is about 0.1% of the US adult population. 

This movement is still predominantly cis-hetero, white, and middle-class. This is shifting, but the shift is small and slow. Not for lack of genuine intent, but efforts have been largely symbolic. 

ICs by and large still tend to be islands, mostly expecting people to come to them, or are primarily where people live but largely engage in service or activism outside.

Despite these issues, ICs do make a positive impact, particularly in ways that are hard to quantify. The ripple effect from that 0.1% is real and significant. 

Some concrete examples:

  • The single most impressive is Koinonia in Georgia, which birthed Habitat for Humanity
  • The Housing Co-op city ordinance in Boulder, CO
  • The food co-op, bike system, and learning garden run by the LA Eco-Village
  • The membership of Twin Oaks helping swing a local sheriff’s election
  • Acorn managing a learning garden with the local food bank
  • Ithaca Ecovillage partnering on studies with local colleges
  • Various communities hosting meetings of local organizing groups 

I’m sure there are many more. 

However, these examples are more the exception than the rule, and all of it together does not measure up to a meaningful impact in the context of larger society. The vast majority of the global human population is dependent on unsustainable and unjust systems. Even if people knew about and wanted an alternative, it isn’t available for most. I estimate the number of spots available for people to move into existing ICs in the US to be around 10,000. Society has continued to follow a path of self-destruction for as long as ICs have been a thing, and our window for shifting it is rapidly closing. 

I’m not putting it all on ICs, or implying that ICs can do it alone. Far from it; we’re one part of a much larger puzzle. And things might be even worse if it weren’t for the efforts of this movement. But I think we do ourselves a disservice by putting a positive spin on things and neglecting to be clear about our goals. We need to identify and re-evaluate the designs and organizing efforts of our ICs and the movement.

We also have a solid and growing ecosystem of movement-building organizations doing good work to support communities, community-seekers, and reach a broader audience. But they tend to be chronically under-resourced and are mostly ignored by people living in ICs.

We are not seeing the kind of collaboration and coordination amongst ICs that would allow for a more rapid expansion of the movement to a scale that could have a more meaningful impact. Beyond ICs, we are not seeing the kind of partnerships between various branches of the cooperative movement that are possible and have existed in the past. We are not seeing substantial impacts on local economies and governments away from a reliance on global capitalism and dominance by the wealthy. We rarely, if ever, see elected officials coming out of ICs, or changes to laws that support equitable and resilient communities. 

Our current efforts are simply not sufficient to catalyze the change needed in the timeframe needed.  

Acknowledging where we’re at

I have tons of compassion and understanding for what we’re all going through. The problems are complex, interlocking, and overwhelming. There are catch 22’s everywhere. We lack the resources needed to generate the resources needed to deal with whatever we’re dealing with. 

Being honest with ourselves and each other about where we’re at and what we’re doing is essential for greater impact. And the positive impacts of ICs point to their potential. There are no easy answers, but I want us to ask ourselves: What does the world need from us? How much greater of an impact could we have? How do we manifest it? 

What are we really going for?

For ICs to be applicable and relevant, and to have a meaningful impact, I believe we need a renewed understanding of ICs, a shift in focus, clarification of our goals, and a rethinking of the strategies on which ICs and the movement are based.

We need to get real about the challenges we’re facing, in a way that we have been unable or unwilling to do so far. And this isn’t just recent history. Reading For All The People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America by John Curl, it’s amazing to see how many similar quandaries have come up again and again over the last 200 years. 

We have not learned from our history, and we are very much repeating it. 

Why Intentional Community?

Intentional Community is an idealistic response to a critical analysis of the problems with human society. Inherent to Intentional Community is the fulfillment of a dual purpose: 

  • To be good places for people to live and work together, according to values that support their mutual wellbeing; 
  • To be vehicles for social transformation by experimenting with and demonstrating ways of living that show how society could look if it were based on a different set of values. 

ICs are not just an end to themselves, and they’re not just a means to an end, either. They’re both. But how we hold this dichotomy is key, and I believe most ICs and the movement as a whole has defaulted into predominantly being about making nice places to live, despite proclamations to the contrary. 

What do ICs have to offer? 

The experience of living in ICs cultivates belonging and accountability, which inspires us to act from a deep understanding of our interdependence. Some of the key aspects of this experience include:

  • Living together intentionally, with an articulated understanding of shared purpose, and engaging in consent-based decision-making.
  • An emphasis on intimacy and care in relationships, and relating to ourselves and each other as whole people.
  • Sharing resources, and the responsibility for generating and managing those resources, and getting to see our efforts directly benefit our community. This shifts us out of a commodified, transactional way of relating, and towards a paradigm based more on the root word of economy – eco, from the Greek word for home.

This is an experience that transforms people, extending beyond their time living in ICs.

While ICs are by no means alone in addressing these matters, their integrated, place-based nature provides unique opportunities to address a variety of issues in a holistic way. As places for sharing lives, resources, and land, they provide and maximize an interconnected set of ecological, social, and economic benefits. The spaces ICs create allow for experimentation and learning about ourselves, relationships, culture, and systems in a unique way. This includes practices such as:

  • Cooperative and equitable governance and economic models that fundamentally address oppression in its myriad forms (colonialism/racism/patriarchy/capitalism)
  • Undoing internalized oppression and recovering from mainstream socialization
  • A mutual, interdependent, de-privatized/commodified relationship to land
  • Ecologically regenerative and sustainable lifestyles and livelihoods
  • Systems and cultures that are trauma-informed and consent-based, and that foster personal growth, self-expression, healthy interpersonal relationships
  • Localizing and collectivizing resources to meet our basic needs equitably and sustainably
  • Supporting local/regional systems towards greater cooperation, justice, and resilience

The Intention of Intentional Community

The implication is that there is some intention that makes a community an Intentional Community, and each IC decides for itself what that is. While that is true, the history behind the coining of the term, and the creation of the original Fellowship of Intentional Communities in the late 1940’s, suggests that there was an original intention for Intentional Community as a concept.

In an article titled “Where We’ve Been; Where We Might Go” from 1997, Communities magazine #97, Al Anderson, who was involved in that original effort, discusses the need to come together around a shared commitment, and describes the commitment that brought the original FIC together: “To help build the foundations for a more humane and equitable global society.” 

He discusses the importance of service, a focus on justice, and the challenges early ICs and the original FIC faced. There are striking parallels to the movement today. He also articulates the dual purpose of Intentional Community, discussed above. 

The problem is that in this dual purpose, the gravity will always be towards making nice places to live. The American culture of hyper-individualism, the way capitalism fosters it and makes creating alternatives exceedingly difficult, the increasing effects of climate change, the polarization of society, and the resulting trauma we’re experiencing, is a particularly toxic stew. It will incline people, often subconsciously, to focus on their individual comfort, security, or survival, which influences how we design and operate our ICs in ways we don’t realize. 

This is totally understandable, but if left unchecked, it defeats the purpose.

We’re not going to turn the whole world into a bunch of ICs. ICs should be seen as pre-figurative. Eventually there may still be things that look like today’s ICs. But if we’re successful, they won’t be needed in the same way, because regardless of where or how people live, it will be according to values like cooperation, equity, and resilience.

For a beautiful and brilliant vision of what this world could look like, check out A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers.

The American culture of hyper-individualism, the way capitalism fosters it and makes creating alternatives exceedingly difficult, the increasing effects of climate change, the polarization of society, and the resulting trauma we’re experiencing, is a particularly toxic stew.

Sky blue

Residential communities with a mission

Intentional Community is an iterative process. Since the coining of the term Intentional Community, there have been successive generations of different models, each of which are responses to and products of their time. This has created a certain range of models and concepts that form the basis for our current understanding of what an IC is. 

A key spectrum is whether an IC is more focused on its residential aspect or is more mission-driven. Over the decades, different models have emerged, and with different starting points on that spectrum.

Arguably all ICs are at least a little of both, and simply starting an IC in the first place is a mission-driven endeavor. Overall, the bulk of interest and efforts to form new ICs is and has been focused primarily on creating residential communities, not on mission-driven communities. And the bulk of energy with established communities is simply to maintain them.

Even the more mission-driven ICs, which often tend to short-change the residential aspect, tend to fall into maintenance mode over time, lose touch with their sense of purpose, and struggle to remain relevant or attract younger members. Or the more mission-driven activities, often encompassed in a nonprofit, becoming increasingly separate from the residential community, with most members being largely disengaged. 

Of course, that’s not what people say they’re going for. Usually there is a strong expressed desire to be eco-focused, to model alternatives that will inspire change in society, to serve as some kind of learning/healing/cultural center, or they have some other kind of lofty vision/mission statement. 

I don’t question the intent. I question how honest people are, particularly with themselves, about what it is they actually want, in large part because I don’t see people being realistic about what it would actually take to manifest their espoused vision.  

Let’s get real

For the most part, the models being used by most ICs, particularly regarding ownership and economics, tend to focus on individual lives and households, with insufficient capacity being collectivized towards a larger mission. If you simply tally up where people in an IC are putting their time, energy, money, etc., it is highly skewed towards individuals, with the community usually being given the minimum, and the mission getting way less than what it needs.

While I am advocating for a shift in focus and approach, on some level what I really want is for us to just be real about what we’re actually going for. Most groups are stuck in a conflict they aren’t even directly addressing, between people who want to focus on making a good place to live, and people who want to experiment, go deeper, and have a greater impact. I want groups to have a unified direction and spin their wheels less. I want people to see who their allies are in achieving success, however they define it.

By and large, over the decades, ICs have been designed based on strategies that were not particularly well thought through in the first place, and are now completely out of date. For one, many communities since the 80’s were premised on stopping climate change. That ship has sailed, and was probably inevitable, so perhaps a different goal made more sense, and certainly a major pivot is now called for. We also haven’t fully adjusted to the steady economic decline of the past few decades, and most ICs are struggling to adapt because no one has the capacity.

The need for new models and strategies

The goals may have been well intentioned but they lacked a theory of change, a sense of foresight, or a commitment to dedicating the resources necessary to generate meaningful momentum. In other words, there is an idea that if we do X (start a certain kind of IC)  then Z (change the world) will naturally happen. But we don’t think through Y (how will the community change the world), which is what would actually make Z happen. And in the absence of that, it’s entirely unclear whether our vision for X makes sense.

If Intentional Community is an iterative process, and the current iteration of models for Intentional Community that we’re familiar with are not designed or equipped to respond effectively to contemporary challenges, what is the next iteration of models needed?

Doing the impossible

An overwhelming and existential set of challenges

I am in touch with people from a lot of different communities, and with people who are also in touch with a lot of different communities. From what I can tell, the vast majority of communities are struggling to some degree. For some, there is dissatisfaction or dysfunction within the community; for others the struggle is more existential. 

Even for those who are struggling less, there still seems to be a lot of questioning: What are we doing? Why are we doing this? Or, people are ignoring whatever problems exist out of a sense of survival. Which, I totally get, but I don’t think it’s sustainable, for our communities or the world.

The world is not a friendly place these days. We are dealing with extreme stress and scarce resources of every kind. There is a pervasive sense of despair, angst, and stress. 

What ICs and their members are dealing with

Some of the biggest challenges we face are from within our communities, many of which arise in all kinds of cooperative organizations: Inertia, entitlement, apathy, overwhelm, trauma. These show up in many ways, and no one is immune. This shit lives in all of us regardless of identity or background, it just manifests differently. 

The isolation and alienation of mainstream culture is both what drives people to seek community and makes it hard. We want it but we don’t know how to do it, and we don’t know what we don’t know. People tend to have unrealistic expectations of what it takes to start or live in a community, and communities tend to have unrealistic expectations about what they want from new members.

ICs are mostly only passively able to help people learn and unlearn what’s needed to live well in community. It’s largely up to individuals to take advantage of the opportunity, but most lack the capacity and/or the inclination to do the work to recover from mainstream society. 

Accessing the money to start or even maintain an IC is getting harder and harder. Most individuals are struggling to get by, which means they don’t have enough to give to their communities, which means their communities don’t have enough to give to the movement. And ICs are mostly too small to have a critical mass of social and/or economic activity to best support their members, let alone have a larger impact. 

There is also a tendency to lean on economic and ownership models that perpetuate individualism, inequality, and inaccessibility (either within the community or in larger society), that don’t foster a sense of commitment and responsibility or generate community capacity, and that create dysfunctional power dynamics. Many groups are struggling from a lack of succession planning, particularly in their ability to attract or be affordable to new, younger members. Many also struggle with rates of turnover that are either too high or too low.

Groups tend to lose their sense of shared purpose over time and fall into maintenance mode (which usually amounts to gradual deterioration) and lowest common denominator politics. Once this happens, they tend to lack the capacity to change and adapt, which makes regaining a sense of shared purpose even harder. Most communities also tend to become insular, which can lead to a lack of perspective on what they’re dealing with, difficulty attracting new members, and a failure to access resources that could help.

Without a sense of purpose, it’s much easier to let passive-aggressive, conflict-avoidant behavior prevail, and there is an epidemic of unresolved conflict in ICs. This then makes addressing other forms of dysfunctional and problematic behavior in constructive and compassionate ways even harder. Tensions around identity politics make people who could be cooperating turn on each other. And groups tend to have tremendous difficulty in having open, direct conversations, particularly around trauma, identity, and different levels of maturity or capacity.

Many communities get stuck in a polarized dynamic between those who are resistant to change, typically those with more power and privilege, and other, often newer members, who criticize or attack others, or the community, in generalized and exaggerated ways, without offering anything constructive or a willingness to hold responsibility. 

Because people don’t take the time to learn about different models, or deal with the baggage they bring in, there is a tendency to fall into inefficient, ineffective governance and decision-making. People become unwilling and incapable of making changes. This leads to frustration, disengagement, and classic dynamics like martyrs vs. slackers, or mavericks vs. authorities. There is also tremendous ambiguity around what constitutes appropriate leadership. 

There are usually people trying to bring their communities together to address these kinds of problems, and they usually get burnt out and either leave or retreat into their corner of the community. 

In addition, there aren’t that many established communities to choose from, particularly when you factor in common requirements like geographic location, dietary restrictions, or buy-in cost. Many communities are not listed with any organization and are difficult to find in the hurricane of information that we’re swirling in. 

What the Movement and movement building Organizations are dealing with 

Movement organizations and organizing efforts are chronically under-resourced, which tend to make people feel like they’re trying to fill a bottomless bucket and not really getting much in return, especially if they are already stretched thin. This limited capacity makes other challenges, which might be otherwise manageable, much more difficult. It also makes it hard for most people living in communities, who are not part of those efforts, to see how they matter or make a difference. 

This movement doesn’t tend to attract people with a lot of money, and people who do have a lot of money tend to want to do their own thing. The movement is also too small, scattered, and isolated, and not focused enough on marginalized populations or key issues to be attractive to big funders. There is a catch 22 of the movement not being relevant enough to attract the funding needed to become more relevant.

There is a lack of connection between ICs, which leads most people to see their ICs as special or unique, either in good or bad ways. While each community is special and unique, there is far more they have in common, and the potential for mutual benefit is sorely underdeveloped. 

There is a lack of commitment to a set of shared values, goals, and strategy amongst a critical mass of ICs. Organizing efforts in the movement have tended to be too sweeping or too specific. Broad definitions of Intentional Community, and a desire to include groups that are not aligned on core issues, don’t allow for the kind of cohesion necessary to motivate groups to provide resources and stay engaged. Being too narrowly focused can help with cohesion, but limits what is possible.

I do think a middle ground is possible. Having been intimately involved with the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, and the Foundation for Intentional Community, I have long thought that there is something that could capture the best of both worlds. 

Where the FIC is too broad in the kinds of ICs it serves, the FEC is too narrow. The FIC is an educational and networking nonprofit run by a Board and Staff independent of any kind of membership, with the majority of funding coming from fees for services. The FEC is made up of community members, governed by representatives, and is entirely focused on mutual aid between its members. Mutual aid is important so that ICs see what’s in it for them and feel like it’s worth it, but so is the broader education, resource development, and outreach the FIC does. The FIC’s governance and management structure is more agile and adaptive, but lacks buy-in from the ICs that are the foundation of its work. 

I’m not necessarily saying that creating a new organization is the answer. But if we did pursue that, there would still be the problem of resources.

With any kind of organizing effort along the lines of what I’m suggesting here, there is a very big hump to get over, and I’ve tried a number of times with different groups to get over this hump in a scrappy, volunteer way. I’ve come to think of this as speculative organizing. The basic premise is, we’re doing something awesome, and if we just put enough effort into it we’ll attract the resources we need, because, for example, there must be some rich person out there that would want to support us. 

Don’t get me started. This is another example of where we as a movement tend to be unrealistic and don’t think through our strategy. We rely on wishful thinking and repeat the same mistakes over and over. 

And here’s that catch 22 again. We need to be doing more to attract resources, but we don’t have the resources we need to do more. 

This dynamic is both external and internal. It is possible that an effort like this could be self-funded by a network of ICs. But actually getting enough people in enough IC on board would be an incredibly difficult task that would still take more time than is realistic for a volunteer effort. Without money to pay people to do it, we’ll likely just spin our wheels again. And without seeing internal momentum, and when the IC movement is still predominantly white and middle-class, why would anyone externally want to fund us? It’s not that we haven’t tried, but our analysis and strategies have not proven effective, and I don’t see more of the same producing a different result.

I believe that shifting the movement will require a foundational change amongst a critical mass of ICs. Daunting, yes. Hopeless, not quite.

A Shift in Focus

We don’t know what we’re doing as a movement. The purpose of ICs is very much not clear. The nature of trying to transform society is that it will always be a struggle to some degree. We need a sense of shared purpose to help us feel like the challenge is worth it. 

And just as individuals need a sense of purpose that is greater than themselves, ICs need a sense of shared purpose that is greater than themselves. Without an inspiring context, in the face of such adversity, we languish.

What future are we planning for?

We can’t know the future. But we know enough to assess the likelihood of different scenarios, and make plans that make sense in both the worst and best case.

Global warming, climate change, natural disasters, and the mass extinction event we are already causing are going to increase. The availability of affordable combustible fuels is going to decrease.

Large scale, particularly global, economic systems will become less and less tenable. Large scale governance systems will have an increasingly difficult time maintaining order amongst increasingly polarized and destitute populations.

How quickly will this happen and how bad will it get? We can’t know, but we can make educated guesses. 

In any likely scenario, the effects will vary by region, and people will be increasingly reliant on local and regional systems. But at this point, most do not have the capacity to accommodate that shift. 

As is already happening, people will come together for mutual aid. But this is mostly happening on very small scales, and in the event of significant systems collapse, most people, even on local levels, would be left out. And if most people are left out and scrambling to survive, this will overwhelm and collapse small scale mutual aid systems as well.

ICs by themselves, as we currently conceive of them based on existing models, are too small to be sustainable. We need to be thinking on scales of human organization that allow us to meet our basic needs, while maintaining a degree of comfort afforded by modern technology (think hip replacements or extracting wisdom teeth, or nails and tools to build houses), and while also sustainably integrating human habitat and activity into the natural world. 

ICs can certainly play a role in that, but we need to be thoughtful about what that role is. People like to talk about making a “totally self-sufficient community” or “growing 100% of our own food.” This is not realistic, and even if it were possible, it would mean a degree of isolation that, for example, in the context of climate or economic refugees, would be dangerous for an IC. 

The ability of local and regional systems to respond effectively for the mutual benefit of all people and the ecosystems they live in will depend on whether their governance, economics, and culture can be cooperative, equitable, just, resilient, and work to reverse ecological destruction. And this is what needs to happen even if things don’t collapse, because things already suck for a lot of people. 

Transforming the world

By “transform the world,” I mean the fundamental transformation of global human society based on values such as cooperation and interdependence, reverence for all life, equity and justice, sustainability and regeneration. 

Barring major collapse, humanity is likely to continue to interact on an inter-continental scale. Trade and travel has circumnavigated the globe since the 1600’s. We’re not going to stop. Even if we did revert to intra-continental trade and travel, which has been happening for thousands of years, we should still look ahead to maintaining peaceful and mutually-beneficial relationships between autonomous groups.

Tribal warfare has existed across every continent throughout time. As much as we idealize and romanticize tribal lifestyles, this can become another “back to the good ol’ days” perspective that glosses over problems we don’t want to perpetuate or recreate.

A problem in progressive movements is a focus on treating symptoms. Not that treating symptoms isn’t important. We need to do what we can to care for and protect each other from oppressive and exploitative systems. We also need to have a clear sense of what we’re ultimately going for, so we can address underlying causes, and in our efforts to treat symptoms, find solutions and strategies that also work towards the end goal. We need a vision of where we’re going so we know we’re moving in that direction, not just stuck in a cycle of endless defense. 

It’s not that we know exactly where we’re going or what it will look like. But we have some idea of the principles it should be based on, and lots of experiments, like ICs, to look to for inspiration. It will always be an iterative process of experimenting, learning, and adapting. 

The destructive systems and culture of mainstream society are gaining ground. Eventually they will run us over, directly or indirectly from the damage they are causing. At best, ICs will continue to be little islands in a rising sea, scattered and struggling, with little hope for much more than basic survival. Eventually, as is increasingly true now, just carving out nice places to live won’t even be feasible. 

We need to embrace a much higher degree of collective resource sharing and solidarity, both to make better use of limited resources, and because this will help address some of the key issues of relevance related to diversity, justice, equity, and accessibility. Our best hope is to leverage the resources and learnings from ICs to support the ability of our local and regional areas to meet the needs of all people without compromising ecosystems or oppressing and exploiting certain groups of people for the benefit of others.  

Regional self-sufficiency and resilience, combined with cooperative and equitable economic and political systems, are our best bet for weathering the coming storm, regardless of its strength. Rather than eschewing local and regional economic, political, and social systems, we need to participate in their development. 

It is not a given that they will be developed in a way that takes care of all people in a just and equitable way. For example, the current transition to renewable energy, such as it is, is mostly perpetuating wealth inequality. In various collapse scenarios, relatively sustainable neo-feudalist or totalitarian regional societies are totally possible if the owning class in a given area are willing to leverage private militaries. Despite what is commonly portrayed, we know that in the face of disaster, the tendency of people is to come together. And if a region’s governance, economics, and culture already lean towards cooperation and equality, it’s more likely they will lean further in that direction in the face of major adversity.

We also need to consider how our regions will interact with other regions, and ultimately scale up to encompass all of global human society.

It would be wonderful if people in communities could simply live simple lives that are good for them, and that do no harm to their surrounding world. However, in society’s current state of oppression and exploitation, death and destruction, there is no neutral ground, no “step to the side, live well, and be absolved” option. To some degree we have no choice about whether we participate in it. But we do have a degree of choice over how much we work against it and create meaningful alternatives.   

Even if things don’t get much worse, it’s not okay to leave things the way they are. We have a responsibility to leverage whatever privilege we have to make things work for everyone. It’s not just that it is in our self-interest to participate in this effort, we have a moral imperative.

Active resistance is crucial. The creation of alternative systems that allow people to get most if not all of their needs met outside of harmful systems is also crucial. And this needs to happen at scale. If we don’t seek to affect this kind of change in the world, at a scale that can actually have a meaningful impact on the direction society is heading, it is likely that many, if not most of our communities, due to a combination of internal and external circumstances, will become untenable. 

If we’re not using ICs as a vehicle to address this, then what are we doing?

Renewing our shared purpose

The focus, or central purpose, or intention of ICs, should be to transform the world. Not at the expense of being nice places to live, but encompassing that purpose as well. The whole point of Intentional Community is to embody the kind of world we’re trying to create, but it can’t end there.

Personal transformation, resisting and changing destructive systems, and creating alternatives do not have to be separate. While many of us may focus on one, they all need to inform each other. 

We know that we need spaces to heal from trauma and recover from mainstream society, to learn and grow. Spaces where our transformation can lead to transforming the world. We know that people need intimate relationships with a diversity of people (particularly intergenerational), where they care for and are cared for by others. We know that we need to foster healthy interpersonal relationships and a deep connection with the natural world. We know that we need to have fun and enjoy life. 

All of these are not separate from or superfluous to the goal of transforming the world, they are integral to it. If we hold them as such, they will be part of the design of our communities. 

This shift in focus prioritizes collective needs. But that does not mean sacrificing individual needs. If individual needs are held as collective needs, because the individuals are integral to the collective, then the question becomes how to reasonably meet individual needs within the context of how to meet the larger goals of the collective. The focus shifts to creating collective solutions that meet all needs.

This is the opportunity of Intentional Community, and what Intentional Community at its core is all about: Sharing. Sharing is a vehicle for healing and fostering cooperative culture. It is what will allow us to generate excess capacity that can be leveraged for the benefit of ourselves, our communities, our local and regional areas, and ultimately the world. This is what is needed to help move towards the kinds of cooperative, equitable, and resilient cultures and systems that will give us a shot at creating a world that works for everyone in any scenario. 

To some extent this means risk and sacrifice. Some amount of that is unavoidable. Sharing resources is hard and scary. Given the hyper-individualism and expectation of mobility we come from, feeling trapped and struggling with commitment is unavoidable. Conflict over behavior, ideology, or strategy is unavoidable. But that’s the point.

Living in community is hard, and that’s the point

The whole point of Intentional Community is to address the problems of society. It’s naive to think that by creating one and stepping into it that these problems will magically go away. 

Of course we’re going to have a tendency to recreate those problems, either by how we design our communities, or through the behavior we learned from mainstream culture. ICs are microcosms, but they are also more than microcosms. By trying to do something different, we create the opportunity to make different choices. This means we have to look at the problems, where they come from, and how they’re playing out, and if we really want to be applicable and relevant we have to be willing to share about it too, both with each other and with the world. 

This is why it’s important to be clear about our shared purpose. To have a north star to guide us, and to feel like we’re doing it together. It’s what makes it feel worth it.

Personal transformation, resisting and changing destructive systems, and creating alternatives do not have to be separate. While many of us may focus on one, they all need to inform each other. 

sky blue

Where do we go from here?

Short answer: I don’t know. I’ve tried a lot of different things over a lot of years, and, frankly, I’m at a bit of a loss. But I think we need to ask ourselves, as a movement, what are we going for? 

The kind of change I’m talking about has multiple aspects, and needs to happen on multiple levels. 

It’s going to take a critical mass of people in ICs who are willing to support each other in helping (perhaps insisting) their ICs to come together. This will take people to doing their own work, and likely involves some very hard conversations. It will also take a willingness to embrace complexity and nuance to find workable solutions. 

I see lots of people in ICs doing this already; they need more people to step up.

It’s also going to take a critical mass of ICs as entities to be willing to devote the resources needed to address their issues and implement solutions. Members need to support those taking the lead, as well as find ways to meet the needs of those who are obstructing efforts (even if unintentionally or indirectly) while setting healthy boundaries. ICs need to get to a place where they are functional and resourced enough to meet their own needs and have capacity to give to the movement.

Together, we need a theory of change based on a shared analysis, vision, and strategies, and a set of commitments:

  • Leaning further into sharing resources and the practices I outlined above.
  • Engaging in mutual aid and accountability with each other and as a movement, both to increase the number of ICs and their accessibility to a greater diversity of people.
  • Generating excess capacity to leverage for greater impact, both in their local/regional levels and for larger movement.

I am well aware of the barriers and challenges we face. I don’t think there are any easy answers, and I don’t know how to make this happen. And maybe that should call what I’m saying into question. 

But we have to keep trying. And I think “I don’t know” can be a very powerful place to stand from. 

A precursor to consent-based, collective decision-making is collective sense-making. We have to make sense of things, together. We need a shared understanding of what the problem is before we can come to a shared understanding of what to do about it. 

If you feel aligned and inspired by what I’ve shared here, let’s talk.

About the author: Yes, my name is Sky Blue. Yes, my parents were hippies. They met at Twin Oaks Community, a 56-year old, rural, income-sharing IC in Virginia. I went back and joined when I was 19, raised a kid (who is now 21) in a poly family, and put in 14 years of membership.

I am 43 yo, gender-fluid/non-binary, socialized-as-male, white, able-bodied, and come from a counter-culture, working-class background. I am on a life-long journey of learning how to recognize & leverage my privilege, and practice anti-oppression in my life. 

I’m a massive intentional community nerd, and this movement has been my world for 28 years. I’ve lived in 7 different intentional communities, including a Cohousing community, a Student Housing Co-op, a Coliving house, and several places that could be called ecovillages. I’ve visited over 130 in North America and Europe. I’m a networker and movement builder, most notably serving as the Twin Oaks delegate to the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, as the Executive Director of the Foundation for Intentional Community for 4 years, and as the primary representative of the FIC to the New Economy Coalition. I also spent 4 years as a community organizer in Charlottesville, VA.

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5 Replies to “Where Do We Go From Here?”


I hear a couple of requests for clarity or growth in the thinking people do about ICs; one is around “what are we going for?”, and the other is around what is our model for success and theory of change. I believe these are fundamentally interwoven – what we are going for implicates the successful strategies of getting there. Through my philosophical journey, I’ve found what I consider to be a fairly unobjectionable framework for both of these. I’m open to participating in dialogue and to being wrong, but I ask that you sit with what I say for a little bit – let it percolate and fester – before jumping into theoretical response. Here’s my best attempt to answer some perennially contentious questions:

It seems clear that every person does what they think is best from their own standpoint. They choose what THEY THINK IS BEST best from the options they can consider. This is a fundamental aspect of our experience of consciousness – to be a thinking, feeling, acting organism IS TO choose what seems best from the options given. This is a statement about the nature of our existence – the experience of striving – that conveys a moral standpoint. That people “do what they think is best” means that people do what they think is best FOR THEM TO DO from their own perspective. That is to say, people do what they think is best for them. Psychological theories like evolutionary psychology, humanistic psychology, and Non-violent-communication also highlight that people have values/needs related to survival that drive action and emotion. It’s seemingly the undeniable factor of life; life strives to survive. Evolution by natural selection is one perspective on this – our own experience is another. Taking this seriously, we can expect that people will do what they expect to be best for themselves – whether that’s self-sacrifice in war for protection of their tribe, or whether that’s making lots of money. The common thread is that they are both trying to fulfill a desire for self-protection, where even self-sacrifice is in service to the self-identity of the family or tribe (the protection of loved ones is a protection of a part of the self even if it requires a sacrifice of another part of the self). So, we’ve already arrived at more clarity about our intentions, theory of change, and theory of success. We all strive to create more positive lives – thriving, healthy, and happy by meeting our needs for safety/survival more fully. Many of us expect that intentional community / eco-villages will do such a thing. If we can create MORE of a sense of thriving life within eco-villages than elsewhere, life in ecovillages will be attractive to others – if we can better secure our health and happiness through material and relational abundance, while being ecologically sustainable/regenerative, people will become aware that this life is better, and will choose to live it.

The application of this theory to ecovillage life is also complex. However, I expect that a more explicit awareness and articulation of our own intentions – that we are trying to satisfy our deepest desires / needs – will help. I also expect that interdisciplinary collaboration will be vital – deep dialogue, group-intelligence, and probably a utilization of computer technology and ecological technology in tandem. Ecological design is a field I aspire to develop deeper knowledge of, and what I like to call socio-ecology design, which integrates social/interpersonal relating methods with social/ecosystem relating methods. “Relating methods” is a term I use to understand ‘technology’ in its fullest, deepest sense as ways in which we relate with the world.

In solidarity,
With care,

Timothy Fayth


Dear Sky,
Thanks for writing that. I resonated with coming up with new, shared sense-making (especially about theories of change), and with wanting ICs to be more impactful in addressing our civilizational problems. I have strategic ideas based on my understanding of and research in multi-level selection and emergence theory (primarily biology, but also applicable to sociology, and economics), and my study and experience with ICs. I would love to talk with you. Please contact me at clejan.iuval@gmail.com and we can see where it goes.

Grey Lee

Thank you Sky for sharing your well-earned insight. This note really resonated for me as a multi-decade cooperator who is not currently in community. I would love to talk with people about this but my short note is yes, I think there is a lot of “refugee” style ICs where people can find (attempt to find) a safe place for their alternativeness. I think to the degree that ICs are often cooperatives, there is not enough cooperation among cooperatives to advance much solidarity of the alternativeness. Perhaps seeking core common principles, and leaning into being a counterculture, could help organize energy. Someone or some party has to take the risk of asserting a set of organizing principles and build a movement with them, rooted in the lived in-community experience which to me rests upon compassion, curiosity, and caringness. Good luck to all the communitarians and cooperators, may your togetherness evolve us toward thriving!


Thank you for this thoughtful message. I learned a lot just reading. I get a sense of what you’re feeling, and why. At 69, I’m trying to envision next steps with freedom from a full-time stressful job, and limited income. Nothing feels solid these days, and many such as me are in much worse shape physically, mentally, spiritually and financially. I am grateful for you.


Thanks for speaking about the important things, Sky. I strongly agree that equal focus on mission to quality of life is essential and life-giving for self and for others.

I wish everyone would read Robes by Penny Kelly to understand the changes happening.

I would differ in a few assessments. I do think we can live well and do no harm, but it is simply much more challenging than most people perceive. Most communities are still doing harm, contributing indirectly (monetarily) to harm. The polyester hammocks, the packaged tofu–these are not positive contributions to the world. These are not really aligned with anyone’s vision of contribution. Seeds are much better, but even this can continue to evolve into an entity of education and support for seed-saving within all neighborhoods.

The material interconnectedness–of the computer I’m typing on and the electricity it’s powered by, but much more of the heat/smoke emissions that most communities are using and the contributions to dysfunction through overuse of “green” (it’s not really) electricity for a lot more than just communications technology–is so pervasive and is in our blind spot. After heat is food, and how Twin Oaks grows food is inefficient, material-intensive, labor-intensive, and impoverishing. That is why Twin Oaks has still participated in the external dysfunctional food systems. With more listening to inner knowing, Twin Oaks members could recreate their food systems and easily feed themselves and neighbors, while also modeling real self-sufficiency for the world. It would mean letting go of old ideas and a bit more focus, but it would not be a dreadful sacrifice–not more than the sacrifice of sweating in the tofu factory. This is in agreement with your point about focus on meaning and mission, but pursued through non-doing more than doing.

I have learned what not to do. I have learned it by doing, and by not-doing something else: plugging into the electrical socket. For example, drilling a hole with a hand drill allowed me to learn how much electricity had been making things seemingly easy and artificially changing my perception of reality up to that moment. Now I have more accurate perceptions. Now I have a sense of proportion.

Making a good place to live–this area also needs more shoring up. It will carry the message much more powerfully than any amount of comparing to the ills of “mainstream” or trying to bring food to the poor in the neighborhood around the intentional community or swinging occasional local elections even (although this last one matters some). If the intentional communities were happier places to live, I might live in one, and so might a lot of other sensitive people.

One aspect of this is better and wiser treatment of self and newcomer. To blame individualism is not really telling the full story; people do crave connection. Better education about _how_ to cooperate, coupled with titration of the emotional challenge of making the shift, and deep respect for the newcomer in their flailings, are necessary to carry a positive message and create a happy home. Among the 30 “oreos” (orientations) that Twin Oaks holds there was not a single one that was an experiential cooperation exercise in which participants would be nudged to cooperate in a way that they might previously have gone it alone, or consider the needs of the group where they might have only stood for individual rights. Some kind of experiential learning, even just a taste of it, in a safe container with deliberateness and practicality, would go a long way to changing culture.

This, in essence, is the intentional communities’ mission: to educate, mostly by example but also by creating safe places for people to try and fail, the individual in how to be a cooperative being. Carl Ratner makes this case very strongly in regards to the worker cooperative movement, and from all I’ve seen the same can be said the living cooperatives.

The ripple effect of being a happy “city on a hill” is also powerful.

Lastly, it’s not necessary to save the world. It’s not possible. It will either save itself or it won’t. We (as individual persons, as tiny communities) can help a percentage, and we can provide an example. We as communitarians must live in a way that _could_ be a replicated model for the whole world, taking all of life into consideration and doing no harm, while also ignoring most of what others are seemingly doing, even other intentional communities. We can speak up when someone’s activities appear to be affecting the whole, but we can only police those within sight, not those in faraway places. Pooling money may be helpful but it is likely to deteriorate relationships also. Money is a slippery instrument. Keeping as much local as possible, focusing on relationships over speed, is essential at every step, as frustrating as this truth may seem. (But in the long run it does lead to more true prosperity.)

The failures of cooperation are really failures of the self to release expectation. The whole world, unfortunately, will most likely not save itself; but a percentage will and is doing so.

In my own life, I participate in Town meetings while also making a contribution to connectedness ad sustainability/energy solvency in my own example the best I can. I am making progress to being truly net zero by 2027. (Not with more than a tiny bit of reliance on photovoltaics or turbines). I don’t have high expectations for what influence I can have on the Town, but I take a shot at it. I also reach out to neighbors some, and there’s more leverage there. My own “community” of two humans is very much the “nuclear family” norm, and is isolating, but for certain reasons that’s the position I’m in, and I can only focus on the things I do have control over from here. But I have control over a lot. I could be doing FAR worse if I had less awareness. I do make a difference and I do serve the mission of connection and sustainability every day.

Overall, I strongly agree with your main point–equal mission-drivenness alongside quality of life, or the whole movement will stagnate and deteriorate. I only differ in my understanding of how to pursue the mission, in focus on non-doing and awareness far more than on doing, and on those doings that are local rather than traveling somewhere else or doing-at-a-distance.

Again, I would invite everyone to read _Robes_ to get a fuller understanding of the changes that are happening now.

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