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Throwing in the Founder’s Towel

Posted on September 7, 2009 by
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Author: Ma’ikwe Schaub Ludwig
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #144

The following article is adapted from a blog entry originally written in mid-2008; because it encapsulates so well the challenges and “hard times” often involved in starting a new community, we reprint it here.

I’ve just thrown in the towel.

It’s not like me, and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it. But the truth is that I’ve spent the past seven years working on the rather intimidating goal of starting a residential intentional community, and I’ve finally admitted that I might not be up to the task. Conventional wisdom says that every new community needs a burning soul, and I’ve burned brightly, burned joyfully, and finally, burned out.

The first year and a half, I lived with my mother, stepfather, and son, and the three of us adults worked diligently on visioning a community that we could be happy with. But it turned out that our visions were too different, and my relationship with my stepfather deteriorated to the point that it wasn’t worth the effort anymore. I had one of my worst-ever human behavior moments about a month before we called it quits, and actually threw a plate during a meeting. (You can’t tell me that people can’t behave badly and intend well in the same breath!) Garden-variety conflict, combined with a lack of a basic values match, killed the first project.

I spent that next summer at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Missouri. It was a great summer: inspirational, reinvigorating, and just plain fun. But there weren’t other kids for my incredibly social son, and I couldn’t figure out how to make a living in rural Missouri. I left with some real regret, but the confidence and hope that I, too, could make something like this project happen in the world. So I moved to Albuquerque with a promise from my son’s father that we’d start a community together.

The next year and a half was a time of concentrated growth and learning. We rented two houses next to each other in a residential neighborhood, painted the porches a wild turquoise and lavender combination that just screamed “cultural creatives here!,” hosted weekly neighborhood dinners until all hours, and supported each other in following our dreams. In a classic example of too-clunky process without much training, it took months to arrive at a name: Sol Space was christened months after we moved in. (Sing it to the tune of “Soul Train,” bob your head a little, and you can capture a little of the giddiness when we finally arrived at that one!)

This was the group that supported me in writing a book, having a baby for close friends, and learning about just how important good facilitation is. We shared expenses (and therefore all of our various neuroses around money) and tight quarters (which meant sharing lost its charm fairly quickly and became instead a platform for growth and clarifying what was really important to each of us). Sol Space was a truly amazing social scene…a little wild at times, but characterized by a lot of care and grounding.

Things came apart for two main reasons. The bad news was that we weren’t savvy enough about our conflicts, in spite of being creative and dedicated to our friendships with each other. On the good side of the ledger, half of us were chasing bigger dreams: we combined efforts with another cooperative group and began work on a full-fledged ecovillage, wanting to be a model project for urban revitalization. Sol Space was a limited success, short-term but with high impact on a lot of lives, and the initial testing ground for a lot of our ideas and relationships.

So Sol Space morphed into a project that eventually became known as Zialua Ecovillage (or ZEV) and had a much wider draw than the dozen or so folks who lived together in our small co-op. For four years, a typically urban mix of dreamers, teachers, activists, artists, and business people shared a dream of cooperative living. We did our best to correct for past weak points: we committed to consensus training, spent a lot of time working on our vision, and made efforts to get real about money, diversity, and space issues early in the process. It felt, most days, like we were just keeping our heads above the water, but ZEV was powered by inspiration and honesty, and most days that was enough.

I made some huge mistakes as a leader. I confess to pushing the group too fast, being unable to separate my personal needs from the group’s agenda, and doing my share of simple whining when things didn’t go my way. I also did a lot of things right: got that facilitation training I had been missing, insisted that we learn consensus, connected individually with everyone who showed the slightest interest, and preserved all the friendships I ever made in the process. And yes, I got good at confession, and slightly better at humility.

Things almost fell apart in mid-2006. It was the first period where we started to understand that the three women who had been most central in the leadership of the group had different enough priorities that things were not moving easily ahead. I think, in retrospect, that we loved each other too much and just couldn’t bring ourselves to let go of the particular individuals in order to get to the point of having an ecovillage. The wisest of the three of us stepped back into a support role. The other two of us apparently couldn’t take a hint: we barreled ahead, convinced we could hold everyone’s dreams in one container, if we just tried hard enough.

In the fall of 2006, the group landed on a city block with a vibrant, member-owned business, and a development model similar to N-Street Cohousing. This move was an interesting one, and for me, a compromise. We lost people, some of whom were really close friends of mine, and the people who shared the more communal and radical parts of the social vision. I think we lost me, too, though that wasn’t immediately clear.

Somehow, I had missed the sweet spot between flexibility and sticking with a vision that inspires me. While the less structured model of community building, in which you let it unfold organically, has huge advantages financially, and also keeps open space for a spontaneity that fed a lot of my companions, it left me feeling flat and unmet in my heart’s deeper needs.

I wanted people in my life who were excited to commit to showing up for a shared adventure, not just sharing our tales of the individual ones we were each pursuing. I wanted meals together and a shared vision that we could each contribute to in a meaningful way. I wanted to know that the people I see every day have made a commitment to something bigger than ourselves and that we can lean into each other when we need it. At the bottom of it all, my ecologist’s daughter’s roots were too strong to ignore, and the chance to really experiment with sustainability outweighed the stubbornness that had kept me at it in New Mexico for five years.

In the fall of 2007, just a year after my group migrated to a city block in Albuquerque, I found myself at the 10-year reunion for Dancing Rabbit. I looked around and realized that the village dream I had found so compelling (and really, had been trying to re-create in the five interim years) was progressing along quite nicely while I was off somewhere else. And suddenly, being “somewhere else” was untenable. After years of being the “starter,” I found myself wanting to join in. And my practical side could finally see it too: enough kids to satisfy even my rambunctious 11-year-old, while the progressed finances of both my life and Dancing Rabbit’s suddenly opened a door I had shut, with regrets, five years earlier.

Something else got triggered that weekend, too: in a way I never anticipated, I found myself longing to return to the country. Urban living had worn me thin, and I wanted to wake up to the sound of crickets instead of jet engines, look out at gardens instead of streets.

And so now, almost a year later, I am happily settling back in as the latest resident at Dancing Rabbit, humbled and a bit battered by the lessons and hurts and stretches of the past seven years. I find myself both relieved and inspired to serve a vision that someone else crafted, with a group that happens to hit that sweet spot for me between flexibility and a strong vision. Now when someone wants to know what the hell the founders were thinking, or why we do things like that, people’s eyes train on my friend Tony and not me. I feel a little guilty that I am finding it far easier to support him than to be him.

But only a little. I feel like I did my time in that particular hot seat, and am enjoying a well-deserved break and a chance to develop other parts of myself that were put on hold while trying to hold it all together.

What I left in Albuquerque was another qualified success. While the ecovillage never fully manifested, our work over those years spawned a dozen or so meaningful projects that are a legacy of sorts for the Southwest. We still love each other, but now, it isn’t “too much” because we aren’t trying to make each other fit into a box that doesn’t work. The block we claimed is a vibrant neighborhood, in part because we claimed it, and may yet be an exemplary example of what the Foundation for Intentional Community calls “creating community where you are.” In the sense that community means having people who see each other, care about each other, and are genuinely interested in each other’s lives, ZEV was (and is) spectacularly successful.

And I’ve walked away with a profound respect for founders and their unique struggles: feeling responsible for everything, the exhaustion of constantly re-explaining why we are here, and the flashes of joy and pardonable pride when your dream suddenly manifests as a real, meaningful thing (flashes that no one else seems to really grok). Your work has made it possible for me to take the next steps in my own life and, perhaps, finally find my best way to serve and create community. Thank you.


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