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In Community, Intentionally

Knowledgebase > In Community, Intentionally

An Intentional Community…
“is a group of people who have chosen to live or work together in pursuit of a common ideal or vision. Most, though not all, share land or housing. Intentional communities come in all shapes and sizes, and display an amazing diversity in their common values, which may be social, economic, spiritual, political, and/or ecological. Some are rural; some urban. Some live all in a single residence; some in separate households. Some raise children; some don’t. Some are secular, some are spiritually based, and others are both. For all their variety though, the communities featured in our magazine hold a common commitment to living cooperatively, to solving problems nonviolently, and to sharing their experience with others.”
– Communities magazine

“I want more of a sense of community in my life.” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone utter that phrase, I could invest the funds, retire to my favorite rural community, and live off the interest.

What’s remarkable is that this inspiration is not coming only from folks that might be called “alternative”-I hear it from people representing a wide spectrum of values, ideals, and lifestyles.

Because of mainstream media’s lack of understanding of the phenomenon, most people fail to realize that the hippie communes of the ’60s were collectively just one small blip in history’s timeline of intentional communities. Efforts to create new lifestyles based on lofty ideals have been happening since we have moved out of caves.

Pursuing Dreams

What all intentional communities have in common is idealism — each one was founded on a vision of living in a better way, usually in response to something perceived as lacking or missing in the broader culture. Most communities aspire to provide a supportive environment for the development of members’ awareness, abilities, and spiritual growth. Most seek to create a life that will satisfy the basic human cravings: security, family, relationship, fellowship, mutual cooperation, creativity and self-expression, a sense of place, a sense of belonging.

Typically, today’s intentional communities are melting pots of ideals and issues that have been in the public spotlight over the decades: equality and civil rights, women’s liberation, anti-war efforts, ecology and conservation, alternative energy, sustainable agriculture, co-ops, worker-owned businesses, personal growth work, spirituality. Some groups focus on only one or a few of these areas, while others try to integrate them all into a coherent whole.

Although intentional communities are usually on the fringes of mainstream culture, the everyday values and priorities of community members are surprisingly compatible with the values and priorities of their less adventurous counterparts. Both tend to assign value to providing a stable home and good education for their children; finding meaningful and satisfying work; living in a safe neighborhood and an unpolluted environment;and participating in local organizations and activities. For many, finding a spiritual path that provides a context for the other goals, and a basis for making decisions in times of uncertainty is also important. The big difference is that the community members are not satisfied with the status quo. They want to do all those things better  than in the past – better than their parents did them, and better than the generations before that. Intentional communities are testing grounds for new ideas about how to live more satisfying lives that enable us to actualize more of our untapped potential.

Time is Not Standing Still

Most communities sound very clear and confident when describing their values and goals and practices, but such things inevitably evolve over time. When you come across a documentary or a directory listing that profiles a community, I suggest thinking of the description as a snapshot in the family scrapbook. Most of the images – the people, the buildings, the activities, the priorities, even the visions – are subject to change through time.

I’m amazed at the number of times I’ve heard someone say “I couldn’t live in a community without this,” or “I could never live in a community that did that” – only to interview them several years later and discover that they were happily living without the former and with the latter. I suspect this lack of wisdom about what we really need and want is due in part to the fact that society does not adequately teach us to explore this type of question, and because people’s needs change over time. On an individual level, needs can change as a person matures, while on a societal level cultural values and norms shift.

Major changes do happen overnight in communities occasionally. However, it is far more common for large shifts to happen over time. For example, I’ve visited at least a dozen communities that were radical and political in their early years (usually with a population of members mostly in their twenties). Within twenty years the members (now in their forties) had shifted their focus to improving the quality of their kids’ schools, worrying about health concerns, and making plans for their old age.

A Unique Experience

Another scrapbook quality is, contrary to popular stereotypes, every branch of the family is unique – no two brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, or cousins lead identical lives – and so it is with communities. In the Catholic Worker network, for example, all the houses are based on a core philosophy that was articulated in the 1930s, yet no two are the same. Each community varies according to the number and ages of members, the projects emphasized, local laws and customs, and the cultural backgrounds and personalities of their members.

Likewise, the level of affluence in intentional communities runs the gamut from urban poor, to suburban and rural middle class, to quite well-heeled. Not surprisingly, there is a prevalence of nuclear families, single-parent families, and singles … roughly proportionate to what you’d find in the mainstream.

Although there’s a full range of ages among the people living in communities – from newborns to those well into their nineties – that diversity does not reflect the demographics of the mainstream. Instead, there is a disproportionate representation of people in the 25-to-50-year-old age range, with the balance skewed towards the older end (the boomers). Likewise, many cultures and ethnic groups are represented in North American intentional communities, but well-educated white middle-class are present beyond their representation in the mainstream.

What Works

After living in six communities over fifteen years, I thought I knew what worked best – wrong! I’ve visited over 300 communities since then where I asked members and ex-members about their experiences, and observed what seemed to work and not work. My new revised opinion about which structures and decision-making processes work best: whatever the members whole-heartedly believe in.

I’ve seen reasonably well-functioning examples of communities using consensus, majority voting, inspired anarchy, and benevolent dictatorships. I’ve also seen examples of each of those styles that seemed dysfunctional and disempowering. Sometimes the same community covered both ends of the spectrum, depending on the issue at hand and the general mood of the community on that day. No amount of theory, dogma, and peer pressure can eliminate the need for clarity of vision, open mindedness, personal integrity, good communication, compassion, the spirit of cooperation, and common sense.

The structure a group uses is merely a tool; how it’s applied is what’s important. Strong leadership can prove to be inspirational and empowering, or it can prove to be dogmatic and repressive — and the same is true of decentralized individualism. What counts most is the resulting collective sense of well-being, empowerment, and community.

The more egalitarian the group’s vision, the more likely that there will be subtle internal power dynamics that go unnoticed, unacknowledged, or outright denied. This observation does not imply hierarchies have no inherent problems, including power dynamics, rather the way they describe their own decision-making process is normally closer to the truth than for those groups who aspire to equality. [See Jo (Joreen) Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” for a more detailed exploration of this tendency.]

While a sense of unity is typically one of the fundamental goals of “intentional communities,” is a quality often lacking, sometimes existing only in theory, or deferred as a long-range goal that will be achieved only when the community becomes more evolved. Unfortunately we are quite capable of imagining a glorious utopian future without having developed many of the skills required to live up to our own high expectations.

Novelty and Neighbors

One of the problems of pushing the envelope of mainstream society is running up against laws and regulations that make innovation either illegal, or full of bureaucratic hoops to jump through. Innovative construction styles such as strawbale, cobb, and earthships, as well as greywater systems, composting toilets, and organic farming technologies, have until recently been so far outside the norm that local inspectors rarely have a clue what the technologies are about. As a result, government officials regularly erect hurdles and walls in the path of such alternatives. Fortunately, the innovators have persisted, and local and national codes are slowly embracing the alternative technologies.

Zoning regulations have also proved challenging at times. Numerous cities have laws that prohibit more than three (or in some cases, up to five) unrelated adults from living together in one household. Although such laws were ostensibly instituted to protect neighborhoods from an excess of noise and cars, frequently they are enforced to protect against neighbors displaying non-traditional values and lifestyles. Some of these laws have been overturned in court, but many such laws still exist, and mostly don’t draw much attention because enforcement is often very lax or nonexistent.

Another set of legal obstacles surfaces around the ownership and financing of commonly-held property. Many communities seek to place ownership of their property into a land trust for reasons of affordability, equality, and land stewardship. Land trust philosophy has come a long way over recent decades, but much work has yet to be done before it’ll be an easily available option in a culture geared to the sanctity of the individual.

This is also true with funding. lf Bankers’ lack of understanding or confidence in cooperation and shared ownership makes financing community held property difficult. An example of this is that it took many years to get the cohousing movement up and running. Interim construction financing is becoming much easier to come by now that there are over three dozen existing prototypes to point to.

Further, because social innovations are often more threatening than technological and economic innovations, relations to the neighbors are often hugely challenging. The way the neighbors perceive the community – and more importantly, how they interact with it – can run the gamut from generic mistrust and violent hostility to hearty appreciation and mutual cooperation.

When there is a media “cult” scare in the news, some communities, most notably the secretive or isolated groups, experience unfavorable rumors and critical scrutiny from their neighbors. On the other hand, those deeply involved in local activities (thus having regular face-to-face encounters with folks living nearby) typically experience very little change in their neighborly interactions and the degree of acceptance locally.

This variance reflects the tendency in our culture to mistrust strangers and anyone “different from us.” Thus when a community settles into a new area, the usual default mode is that the locals will eye the newcomers with suspicion until the newcomers have “proven themselves.”

This guilty-until-proven-innocent mentality has been fed by the media since the inception of the tabloid, and probably longer. The prevailing attitude among mainstream publishers is simple: sensational news is what sells newspapers and magazines. Yet, for some reason it seems that most readers fail to take that – and the cultural biases automatically built into so-called “objective” reporting – into account when assessing what of the coverage to believe.

So it is that communities which are on familiar and friendly terms with their neighbors fare the best during times of widespread paranoia. When facts are scarce, the tendency is to fill the gaps with imagination. Unfortunately, these projections do not often give newcomers the benefit of the doubt.

Reinventing Wheels

Most of these “unique new ideas” are neither new, nor unique. They seem so to us only because they’re not commonly discussed or covered in standard history texts or the daily news. People all over the globe have been trying out similar, if not identical, ideas over many centuries often bucking resistance and persecution.

Many community groups are unaware of this history and end up starting the community-building process from scratch. There is also a tendency to resist advice from outside experts, usually because of a mistrust of outsiders, or a diehard sense “We need to be able to do this for ourselves if our model is to be self-sufficient and sustainable.” The reality is the insights of an outsider – someone experienced with the issues at hand but not caught up in the internal dynamics of the community, can often provide the exact piece of information or insight needed to break through an impasse and move the community towards a constructive resolution.

One way around this tendency towards isolation is to develop sister communities and networks built around common ideals and interests (the raison d’être for the FIC and this directory). Communities in close association with each other can share ideas, resources, and mutual support and thereby benefit from each other’s assets and experience. In addition, community networks can create common funds for outreach, to develop community-based business ventures, and to cover medical emergencies (in lieu of expensive insurance policies that drain working capital out of the movement).

It Ain’t Easy

Over the centuries well-intentioned attempts to live in community have generated a huge list of casualties. Countless thousands of folks have been inspired by a vision of a better world, and eventually ended up completely frustrated by the discrepancy between the vision and the reality.

At first glance this might seem peculiar, but it’s exactly what should be expected as most of us are products of an imperfect, overly competitive, alienating society. While we tend to be aware of some of our negative conditioning, most of it is totally beyond the grasp of our current worldview. If we’re serious about creating a better world, we need to face ourselves head on.

If you should happen to hear a glowing report about the perfect community somewhere – one with no rough edges, presume you’re not getting the whole story. There’s probably a shadow side somewhere that’s unexplored, and needs to be acknowledged before the members will be able to work through, rather than avoid, the underlying issues.

Conflict is inevitable, and traditionally it is handled so poorly that many of us have learned to dread it and avoid it. However, conflict is a useful indicator of points of mis-alignment. Working creatively with these points usually results in tremendous positive growth spurts for everyone involved, both individually and collectively. The key to using conflict constructively is to assist the affected parties to come to believe a solution is possible, and to commit their best effort to finding a solution that works for all.

Every one of us brings along our own baggage wherever we go, and a supportive cooperative environment is the best possible place for us to explore our personal growing edge. It will prove to be the most challenging and frustrating inner work we’ve ever attempted, but if we pick the right people to work with, and approach it with the right attitude, it’s entirely worth it — it’s the best path available for actualizing our full potential.

Author Bio: Geoph Kozeny has lived in various kinds of communities for 27 years, and has been on the road for the past twelve years – visiting, studying, facilitating, and consulting for intentional communities scattered all across North America. He asks about their visions and realities, takes photos, and gives slide shows about the diversity and vitality of the communities movement. He was a core staff member for the first edition of the Communities Directory, and is a regular columnist for Communities magazine. Presently, he is completing production of a full-length video documentary on intentional communities, due for release in the spring of 2000.
Geoph Kozeny
Community Catalyst Project
c/o 1531 Fulton Street, San Francisco, CA 94117
Email: [email protected]
Copyright © 2000 by Geoph Kozeny, All Rights Reserved

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