The Desire for Diversity: A Cohousing Perspective
What is meant by “diversity” can include a wide range of traits, including age, income, family structure, occupation, sexual orientation, ethnicity or race. Most cohousing communities have succeeded in attracting diversity of age, income, family structure, and occupation. Ethnic and racial diversity continues to elude these communities, even in locations where the general population is extremely diverse. Indeed, this is the case for most intentional communities in the United States, and not just cohousing communities, and as I speak about my cohousing experiences in this article, much of it can be extended to apply to the wider movement, as well.
Why We Currently Lack Ethnic and Racial Diversity in Cohousing
I believe there are basically four reasons why we are not seeing more ethnic and racial diversity within cohousing communities. The first reason may be the basic definition of what it means to be “diverse.” When a new group, almost always composed of white, middle-aged professionals, sets a goal of an ethnically diverse community, they often set aside space for a “realistic” number of nonwhite households. At the Nyland community in Lafayette, Colorado, for example, the goal was to save five of our of 42 homes for nonwhite members. However, from the perspective of people of color, a diverse and thus “integrated” community may have been closer to 50 percent nonwhite.
A second, more subtle factor affecting the composition of a cohousing group is its mission statement or vision. The mere fact that a cohousing group values a certain location, shared resources, clustered dwellings, and consensus decision making, and its members have the time and ability to attend numerous lengthy meetings, greatly limits who wants to join. A cohousing group that values energy conservation and the environment assumes a range of philosophical beliefs that may not be a priority for a large portion of the wider population.
These larger principles are often apparent to newcomers considering joining a cohousing group. However, the more subtle values and lifestyle issues (including parenting and communication styles, daily schedules, eating habits, and a host of other personal preferences), can also lead to incompatibilities. Cohousing groups need to take time out to discuss these differences and how they might affect the evolution of the community, and who they might attract.
For example, Kevin Wolf, a member of the “N” Street cohousing community in Davis, California, explained in a Denver Post article that cohousing communities are like “native tribes, in which a clear cultural set of beliefs, philosophies, rituals, practices, and tenets become dominant, and are eventually imbued in the subconscious fiber of all who live there.”
A third reason for the relative lack of diversity is that the vision being espoused by cohousing communities is in many ways contrary to the traditional, materialistic “American Dream.” Owning a single-family detached house, a two-car garage, and a private yard is quite often contrary to the vision of many cohousing groups. The majority of cohousers have grown up living some version of that lifestyle and are now looking for a simpler, less materialistic, more sustainable way of life. It may be unrealistic to expect that nonwhite potential cohousing members, many of whom have grown up in limited material circumstances, are going to want to live simply if they have never had the opportunity to live out the “American Dream.”
This view is reflected by an African-American member of the Tucson cohousing group, who says that most of her friends are still in the accumulation stage of their lives and are not interested in “living with less.” This perspective needs to be acknowledged and the question asked: “If we truly want more diversity in our cohousing communities, are we also willing to allow a more materially accumulative value to be a part of our vision?”
I believe a fourth reason that cohousing communities are not attracting ethnic and racial minorities is because in considering the search for “community”—that longing to reconnect to family, friends, and neighbors — it is the white population that apparently has experienced the greatest loss of community. People of color often look at the white population in disbelief when they extol the benefits of community, because in many nonwhite communities, they’ve never lost it!
Suggestions for Forming Cohousing Groups
How could the perspective of ethnic and racial minorities be included in the ongoing discussions of a cohousing group? And what would it take to make cohousing communities more diverse?
Many cohousers assume that cohousing is filling an important need in the larger society. However, when approaching members of ethnic and racial minorities, it is critical to first check those assumptions. A short one-on-one conversation with a sympathetic person of color could save a cohousing group months of wasted effort.
Further, the initial marketing approach that a cohousing group uses can create a public image which, once established, can be very difficult to alter. I suggest that the tone of all informational materials about a particular co-housing group be targeted to the diverse populations desired for that community, whether they be single parents, families with small children, or people of color.
Established Groups: Focus on the Diversity Already Present
I believe it is imperative for cohousing communities to focus on and celebrate the diversity that already exists within their membership. Only after that has been accomplished will it be possible to take the next step. (I have seen cohousing groups struggle with much simpler aspects of diversity than ethnic or racial issues — including vegetarian and nonvegetarian, parents and nonparents, old and young, owners and renters, television watchers and book readers, A- and B-type personalities, etc.) The Nyland community, for example, was willing to address the differences of sexual preference among its members — exposing many members’ beliefs, fears, and expectations — and this discussion considerably deepened and strengthened the community.
If cohousing communities can successfully establish processes to deal with and even encourage diversity within their members, they will have learned an important skill well worth sharing with the larger society.
Updated by the author and reprinted with permission from Communities magazine, No. 85, Winter 1994.
Zev Paiss is a resident of the Nomad cohousing community in Boulder, Colorado, is the Executive Director of The Cohousing Network, and is busy along with his wife, raising their two infant daughters.