Three Kinds of Community—Three Kinds of Experience and Learning

Posted on December 1, 2015 by


When I went overseas just after college I never imagined I’d end up working there with a movie actor in a high-stakes community project, or later become immersed in an inner city community about to explode, or help to organize an intentional community committed to sustainable living.

In my 20 years of schooling I learned a lot. But I soon found that the learning outside of the classroom and campus went way beyond even what my best teachers had to offer.

I. Community for Refugees

It began in the early 1950s. World War II had ended and Europe was just beginning to dig out from the rubble of massive destruction. After biking across the Swiss Alps with three classmates, and carrying rocks up a steep mountain in northern Italy to help build a youth center, I happened to meet Dr. Teofilo Santi.

An Italian medical doctor from south Italy, he was volunteering his skills and giving out food and clothing to thousands of people living in caves and ruins in Naples. Naples was one of Europe’s most heavily bombed cities, and Santi’s work centered in the slums where most of the homeless existed on the margin of life. He invited me to join him and his dedicated staff if I agreed to stay for at least six months. My subsistence would be covered.

I soon saw that simple relief work wouldn’t solve the problem. Together, then, Santi and I organized Casa Mia (My Home), a social assistance center in the heart of the rubble. Every day we served hundreds of the homeless with meals, clothes for entire families, a kindergarten, literacy classes, vocational training, and a medical clinic, as well as helping to find jobs and new housing. We recognized that only comprehensive help, becoming involved with whole families over a long period, could lift these desperate war victims out of hopelessness.

In 1953 I finally left Naples with my future wife, Lisa, whom I’d met at Casa Mia. My plan was to enter grad school back home. First, though, I spent a couple of days orienting my successor, Don Murray, a conscientious objector who was putting in his two years of alternative service.

Three years later, Don called me. Back in America, he had just finished his first film, Bus Stop, playing opposite Marilyn Monroe. I hadn’t known he’d been an off-Broadway actor; now he was up for an Oscar and was in the Midwest on a promotional tour. Lisa and I had since married and now lived in the “rabbit patch,” a warren of prefab huts for student couples at the University of Chicago.

Don stopped by, and the three of us sat up most of the night reminiscing about Italy. Don said, “I have a few dollars in my pocket now, but I’m not ready yet to go to Hollywood to be one more movie star. There are thousands of refugees still stagnating in those barbed wire camps in Italy and I want to go back to help. I need you.”

While working with homeless Neapolitans, another of our assignments with Dr. Santi had been to provide welfare for refugees in five camps ringing the city. These were Iron Curtain escapees from communist East Europe, as well as leftover “D.P. s” (displaced persons) still in camps after the war. They were all “hard-core”—they’d been rejected for emigration and all other solutions. The United Nations and Italian Government authorities had given up on them.

I told Don I had a new wife and a two-week-old baby to consider, and had to finish my Ph.D. Don pleaded: “At least go back to Italy with me to make a study.” I did, and we ended up buying 135 acres of virgin land on Sardinia, the island off the west coast of Italy. I postponed my degree, and Lisa, young Eric, and I moved there in 1957 for the next two years. Our project with Don gradually transferred 15 families, a few at a time, to Sardinia. We created a small community based in farming and small industries, such as poultry and manufacturing concrete blocks for refugee homes and the local market.

In the course of our two-year stay on Sardinia, and then two more with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Rome, with a job to help clear the camps, there were valuable lessons:

1. Never Say Impossible. We were told again and again by top authorities: “The project you propose to resettle hard-core refugees on Sardinia won’t work. These refugees have lived in the camps for years and are completely dependent. Having been rejected by everyone, they have no faith or trust in anything. They will never become self-sufficient. We appreciate your youthful idealism, but you’d be wasting your time and our resources. Your project is impossible.” Don and I could only reply: “You’re probably right, but we’ll give it one last shot.”

The first Christmas, we invited the refugees in Sardinia to visit the camps again in order to take a break from their more rigorous life in our project. Obviously, their work had been hard compared to their former idle life. In the early months with us, even though they didn’t trust each other, they united as one bloc to voice their complaints against us, the Americans. I wrote Don in Hollywood: “Much as they hate the camps, they may not come back to us. We may have to accept that the authorities were right.” But every refugee did return to our community, and they brought several new ones. Their small industries began to flourish, they gained confidence, and integrated into the neighboring village. Later on, I asked the U.N. mental health consultant from Geneva who visited us: “How do you explain our success when others far more experienced failed?” He said: “You created a community where trust was built. This restored their faith in themselves and in life. You showed them that when you plant a seed, it will grow. Also, you never read the details in their thick dossiers; since you didn’t know all their problems, you assumed they could make it.”

2. Equal Opportunity Doesn’t Assure the Same Outcomes. We made sure that the minute the refugees left the camps they would be treated with maximum equality. This would be one way to build trust. But we soon found that this policy didn’t work. For instance, there was Mario from Yugoslavia. His resume included harrowing escapes from the Nazis and later the Tito communists. In the camps he’d lost one lung to T.B. and subsequently was rejected by 13 emigration commissions. It turned out that he was quite a brilliant entrepreneur. We helped him to manage and eventually own the block industry, employing others. Or there was Nyc, a Czech, who had been in camp for years with unknown problems. Smart and independent, he worked his piece of land on his own; he hired no one and wouldn’t work for anyone. Or Tony, a Spaniard who’d been moved from camp to camp since the Spanish Civil War. He preferred to hire out for a daily wage so that he wouldn’t have to take personal responsibility. Each refugee was absolutely unique. The dogma of “equal opportunity” really made little sense because each one related to opportunity differently and required different solutions to his needs.

II. Inner City Community

After the refugee work in Europe, Lisa and I returned home. I was soon dealing with a very different kind of community. I completed the Ph.D., and with two small sons now, we moved to Wisconsin in 1962 where I joined the University of Wisconsin faculty. Working out of Milwaukee and Madison, in due course I helped the university organize a new department dedicated to “doing something” about poverty and racism. This was not just an intellectual exercise; the city of Milwaukee’s inner core—the heart of one of America’s most racially segregated ghettos—was ready to explode.

A several-square-mile area north of downtown, it had all the economic, social, political, and educational liabilities of disadvantaged central cities. People were not actually starving as they were in Naples, but they were more ready to challenge the system—violently if necessary. The university realized that it had to get involved.

The residents themselves referred to the area as “the community,” but their interpretation of community was quite different from that usually discussed in this magazine. Many people didn’t know or couldn’t personally relate to one another, yet their lives fit into an array of experiences, needs, and complaints they all shared. Their “community” was as well defined as any intentional community.

A brilliant local black activist, Reuben Harpole, took me under his wing. We sat in inner city bars, met pastors in the churches, spent hours in the schools and just meeting folks. Some local leaders thought an important need was to find out what was happening with the young people. My department helped to organize a house-to-house, random-sample survey covering 60 central city blocks. We trained 30 volunteers from the area and they administered 300 one-hour questionnaires.

We found not only shockingly deficient reading skills, but by the time the kids reached sixth and seventh grade, a cluster of related problems followed: school tardiness and absenteeism, then all the usual behavioral problems. We organized a summer demonstration reading project in one school located in the middle of the area. At first the kids wouldn’t show up, so our teachers had to go and actually drag them out of bed. But the project worked, and eventually it led to expanded cooperation with a sizable number of schools in the area.

Since these were local institutions, they needed empowering support from the neighborhood. A nucleus of residents worked with us to create the Harambee Revitalization Project (Harambee is Swahili for “Let’s Pull Together). HRP is a community organization initially based in 12 square blocks. Later it expanded to encompass 30,000 people. Given the multiple needs, along with the school projects we organized major initiatives dealing with housing and economic development, health, human services, and also the Ombudsman Project. This latter was an amazingly effective network of 200 block leaders trained to respond to the individual questions and problems of everyone on their block.

From this experience of serving an inner city community, here is what became clear:

1. Defining “Need” Is Far More Complicated than Assumed. I’m convinced that this is one reason so many well-intended programs don’t work. Needs are often an interrelated collection of problems, not just a single variable. It’s also easier to focus on overt symptoms rather than the underlying causes, and we tend to invest most resources to measure results that may have the least real significance. Take, for example, a “reading problem” facing a central city youth. Start with how the school system works: Can the teacher and administrator reach the student? Is the curriculum relevant to the child’s background and interests? What about the home environment—is there at least one interested parent or guardian present to help with studying? Is there space to do homework? Is there nutritious food and attention to health? Or look at the economic system: Must the child work to help support the family? Is there money for books and reading matter, not to mention clothes? Or the political system: Does the family accept the legitimacy of the school authority? In other words, giving the child a real chance takes more than analysis of reading test scores.

2. Dealing with Racism Requires Personal Immersion. As I moved around in the inner city and its largely black population, I quickly recognized the gap between the people I was working closely with and the many other folks I dealt with in the larger environs of Milwaukee and the state. I developed respect and admiration for the energy, resourcefulness, and effectiveness of Reuben and my other minority colleagues on our university staff. I was amazed as I viewed the results of the 200 block leaders in the Ombudsman Project. On each block, folks volunteered their time, participating in training to become mediators/facilitators between their neighbors and authorities in the larger political system—whether it was contacting services in the bureaucracy or getting garbage picked up. When I met the teachers we worked with, I became aware of their sensitivity and desire to serve their community. Yet when I talked with employers in the corporate world, or officials in the maze of agencies, or with some school administrators and many folks in the larger (white) public, there was often a jaundiced perception of the black population. Since no one, of course, would admit to racism, this was a bias conveyed in many subtle or bureaucratic ways. However, the people I ran into who actually knew Reuben and many others I could mention felt as I did: that by far the surest and best strategy was through both races working shoulder-to-shoulder to counter one of our most fundamentally intractable cultural issues.

III. Findhorn and High Wind

While I was still deeply involved with inner city issues, in October 1976, my wife Lisa visited the legendary Findhorn community in Scotland. This may have been its spiritual heyday, with people attracted from around the globe. The some 200 residents were not only designing a model of “the good life”; they were trying to live it every day.

Lisa brought back bundles of notes from talks presented there, including those of David Spangler, a mystic and teacher who, early on, articulated the vision of Findhorn as a seed point for a coming “New Age.” He said there would be a “fundamental change of consciousness from one of isolation and separation to one of communion and wholeness, to build a future different from what we already know or expect.”

After more than 20 years of marriage, I’d never seen Lisa so fired up. She obviously didn’t want to be dragged back from the heights of the New Age into Wisconsin’s mainstream culture.

I arranged for her to report on Findhorn at a big conference in Chicago. The room we’d signed up for 15 people had 400 folks waiting expectantly for her presentation. I’d invited my dean to the conclave and he was fascinated to see, in a period of declining enrollments, this astonishing public interest. He urged me to organize similar education events on our campus. We invited the Findhorn cofounders to speak at the university’s largest space. Twelve hundred people showed up from all walks of life—folks I had not imagined would be interested.

In 1978 I figured it was time for me to visit Scotland, and I did become convinced of the significance of this model for rethinking the future of our culture—both from a philosophical standpoint and also considering the looming, worldwide crisis of natural resource depletion. Over the next years I got approvals from university officials to line up a series of seminars that drew not only traditional students and academics, but people from across Wisconsin.

Some 50 people, of all backgrounds and ages, attended virtually every class we offered, and bonded as a group. Many of them traveled to Findhorn on study trips we organized. At a certain point, there was a small rebellion: “We love these classes, but now it’s time to stop talking and do something that will be a practical, real-world demonstration.” This led to the creation of High Wind, an intentional ecological community on rural land 50 miles north of Milwaukee.

Since the High Wind story has been written about in this magazine (most recently, in “High Wind: A Retrospective,” issue #145), and detailed in several books, I’ll simply focus on a few of my own observations.

With a full-time university job, I often valued my periodic distance from the details of community life and relationships because I could weigh what was happening at High Wind against my larger world. When the community was cohesive and members felt clear and excited about creating an alternative model, this truly pointed up the dysfunctional culture I experienced in the mainstream. But also, relationships sometimes soured, and now and then members would leave, disgruntled. At times, meetings were endlessly unproductive because our consensus process paralyzed decision-making.

Most members were working their hearts out—with little monetary compensation. We held regular “community building” meetings and internal conferences where everyone was encouraged to express needs and wishes and gripes. Sometimes when feelings ran high over an ongoing dilemma, we brought in an outside resource person.

When I didn’t get upset if things weren’t working out, or when the interpersonal “stuff” boiled up, I was criticized for being “insensitive.” My own postwar overseas experience, when I was dealing daily with people in dire life and death situations, forced me to develop a thick skin—not always advantageous in intentional communities!

One of High Wind’s impacts had to do with education. We sponsored courses and major conferences, often with the university. Our Three-Community Seminars brought a small group to live for a month each at High Wind, Findhorn, and a third community. People from all over descended on High Wind for tours and workshops. We contracted the public schools for inner city kids to spend time at the community. On the national level, we cooperated with various groups to begin designing a holistic think tank to recast national policy. The common underlying element was to rethink our culture, pushing for a change in consciousness, which in turn could begin transforming institutions to build a sustainable world.

Among the significant insights of these years with High Wind, I cite two:

1. Ordinary People with an Extraordinary Mission. What made us think we had something to offer about birthing cultural change? How could we stand up to the sometimes hostile status quo environment? How could we—ordinary, flawed human beings, often disagreeing as to how to proceed, and also finding it difficult to fit our diverse personalities into close living quarters—possibly offer a credible alternative to the larger world? I, for one, sensed that there must be mysterious forces at work—the unexplainable insights that popped out from some depth within us, faith that defied logic, belief in the potential of ourselves and others beyond all reason, the impulse to drop everything else to serve—all these came from a source I’d call spirit. Some call this “Factor X,” that added intangible dimension that makes things work. And ultimately we did achieve successes, and the number of those attracted to what we represented multiplied.

2. Alternative Community Redefined. A few years ago the High Wind board conducted a survey of some 200 people who had had close contact with High Wind. In analyzing results, the board was impressed with the significant impact on many lives. I learned from my years at High Wind and from all the folks associated with us—residents, event participants, outside supporters—that we needed to redefine the meaning of “community.” My concept now is that it might be a place, a residential enclave, but it also represents a paradigm or set of values delineating how one sees the world and the commitments one is prepared to make. This dramatically opens up the potential for historic change because while residential communities, important as they are, will remain limited in number, the expansion of consciousness is unlimited.

After graduating from Oberlin College in the early 1950s, Belden Paulson created innovative projects overseas, was a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin for 35 years, and with his wife Lisa, cofounded the High Wind Community near Plymouth, Wisconsin. His varied adventures are detailed in Odyssey of a Practical Visionary, and in Notes from the Field: Strategies toward Cultural Transformation. He and Lisa still live in their solar home in the now “relaxed” eco-neighborhood.

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