Red Carpets and Slammed Doors: Visiting Community
Hoping to visit a community? The good news is that most communities welcome visitors, and a majority of those are open to new members. The bad news? Because so many community seekers are wanting to visit, many communities are facing visitor overload and are feeling burned out from the seemingly never-ending flow of strangers. The best news: if you’re considerate and persistent, the odds are good that you’ll be able to arrange a visit and have a great experience. An essential element of planning a satisfying visit is to get really clear about what it is, exactly, that you want from a community—what is the purpose of your visit? Further, you’ll save considerable time and effort if you learn to intuit how well any given community’s reality will match up with the picture you’ve envisioned. There’s definitely an art to this prescreening process, as it’s based solely on information from written materials, letters, phone calls, and perhaps a Web site—nothing physical that you can actually see, touch, smell, or taste. While you’re exploring communities from a distance, it also pays to sort through, point by point, all the different features and characteristics that you think you’ll want. Ask yourself which attributes are mandatory for you, which are strong preferences, and which would be nice but you could live without? This directory is probably the best resource you’ll find for helping you wrap your mind around the possibilities. Carefully study each group’s entry in the cross-reference chart and its written description (in the Listings section)—with practice you can learn to use that information to spot potential incompatibilities in visions, values, and social norms. And please, don’t assume that the community welcomes visitors just because they’re listed in this book. Be sure to check out the “Do you welcome visitors?” column in the charts. Even under stress, many overloaded communities will agree to the idea of hosting more visitors, usually due to a sense of mission or obligation, but beware: often it is only the visitor coordinator and a few others who are enthusiastic about the idea. Some community members, typically acting from instinct rather than clarity, will go about their daily lives while keeping a low profile and acting distant in a weary, mostly subconscious attempt to minimize interactions with the newest batch of “tourists”—which might turn out to be you. Try not to take it personally.
Introductions and First Impressions
Usually the best line of first contact is through a friend who knows the community and is willing to give you a personal referral. If you don’t have a friend with direct connections, friends-of-friends can prove just as effective. Use your network of friends and acquaintances creatively—let it be known that you’re interested in visiting certain communities, and ask your friends if they, or anyone they know, has a connection to those groups. If through correspondence, or especially through a visit, you make a good connection with a member of one community, ask that person if they can recommend an especially good contact at the other communities you hope to visit. If your feelers yield a connection, be sure to open your introductory letter or phone call by saying that “So-and-so over at Community Ôx’ referred me.” On the other hand, avoid giving the impression that you’re a name-dropper, or that you’re trying to do an end-run around their official channels—alienating the community’s designated visitor coordinator is a lousy way to start a visit. If no leads materialize, there’s still a reasonably good chance of making a fruitful connection through a self-introduction. Avoid sending a letter that poses a long list of questions about the community, but which provides little or no information about who you are and what you’re seeking. Although there’s a wide range of styles that can work well in a letter of inquiry, a good general formula is to give approximately equal emphasis to (1) describing what you’re looking for, how you heard about them, and why they interest you; (2) telling about your history, skills, and special needs; and (3) posing questions about their community and their visiting protocols. Your letter should be short, to the point, and engaging—if you send a long letter, you run the risk of overwhelming them right off the bat, or of having your letter shunted to the needs-to-be-answered-but-requires-a-lot-of-time-and-energy-to-deal-with pile. Such letters, unfortunately, only occasionally make it back to the top of the priority pile. Usually a one-page letter is best, and two pages should be the absolute maximum—anything longer than that reduces your chances of getting a prompt response. If you want to be remembered, enclose a photo, art work, doodles, an interesting article, or something else eye-catching to make your letter stand out in the crowd (but please—no confetti, glitter, or other mess-making surprises). And be sure to include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). Another helpful hunting hint is to consider first visiting one or more groups located in your region, even if they are not a likely candidate for where you’ll finally want to settle, so you can hone your visitor skills. The fact that they’re relatively easy to get to means you can get some visiting experience under your belt without a large investment of your time or resources. It can be pretty devastating to use up all your precious vacation traveling cross-continent to visit your dream community, only to discover that it’s not at all what you had in mind (which is fairly common, by the way). Instead, go through the steps face-to-face with real people, and get comfortable doing the interviews, the work, and the socializing.
The sad truth is that many groups don’t respond to letters in a timely fashion, in spite of good intentions (that’s why the listings in this directory include the group’s answer to the question “Can you commit to responding promptly?”). The reality is that living in community can be very demanding—there’s always so much to be done—and answering a stack of correspondence doesn’t usually rank as high on the chore list as milking the cows, supervising the kids, taking out the recycling, or building the new community center. If your letter has received no response after three to four weeks, a short phone call is probably in order. Try to pick a time when folks are likely to be around and not otherwise busy. Often early evenings, or right before or after a meal, are good times to call. If you reach an answering machine, identify yourself, leave your number, and ask them to call you back at their convenience. Suggest times when you’re most reachable, and explain that when they do get through, you’ll be happy to hang up and call them right back on your dime. When you finally reach a live person, first introduce yourself, mentioning your referral if you have one, and explain that you’re interested in visiting. Be sure to note that you’ve already sent a letter. Ask whoever answers if they’re a good person to talk with about visiting and arrangements, and verify that this is a good time to talk. If the time’s not right, make a date to call back at a better time. If they suggest you talk with someone else, note the new name and ask for suggestions about how and when to reach the identified contact person. When you do finally connect with your contact person, be sure to verify up front all the details related to visiting (see sidebar on the following page). If you wrote and got no response, it’s usually far better to call first rather than show up unannounced. However, if they have no phone listing in the Directory, or if their line’s always busy (fairly common these days with modems, fax machines, and teenagers), or if their published number has been disconnected and the community has no listing in Directory Assistance, then an exploratory “Hello” might be in order. If you’ve tried well in advance to reach a community but received no reply, it may work to “drop by” for a few minutes to introduce yourself—but be sensitive to their energy levels. Be prepared to find accommodations elsewhere, and arrange to come back when it’s convenient for them. A 10- or 15-minute visit may be all that’s appropriate if you catch them in the middle of something—but if your timing’s good, you might get the deluxe two-hour tour right on the spot, plus get invited to dinner. Be flexible. Drop-in visitors can be especially awkward for groups that are far off the beaten path, but in most cases you can locate a park or a campground within commuting distance. If they remember your letter, they’ll know you made a bona fide effort to set up a visit and that they were the ones to drop the ball by not responding—so make your letter memorable.
Always remember: the community you want to visit is also somebody’s home, so plan on using the same standards you’d use if you were visiting a hometown friend or relatives you see only occasionally. Often it’s helpful to figure out why they’re open to visitors in the first place. They may be:
- seeking new members
- needing help with the work
- wanting the stimulation of meeting new people
- spreading their vision (e.g., egalitarianism, ecovillages) or religion (including the promotion of “community”)
What will they gain from your stay? There are infinite ways to plug in and make yourself useful. Pitch in with everyday chores such as gardening, farm work, construction projects, bulk mailings, cooking, cleaning, dishes, childcare. You may gain “Much Appreciated Guest” status if you have special skills to offer: layout or graphic design (newsletters), computer skills, meeting facilitation, storytelling, music, massage. One fellow I met is a chiropractor who plies his trade, for free, at each community he visits. A woman therapist offers private counseling and group sessions to community members. Another fellow built a solar oven at each community he visited. Alternative building technologies, permaculture, and composting toilet expertise are all skills generally in high demand. Often, however, the most appreciated contribution is your willingness to pitch in to help with whatever boring chore needs doing at the moment. Some groups are not organized in a way that lets them take advantage of visitor labor, and your desire to pitch in can actually become more of a headache for them than a help. Use your intuition in such situations. Make suggestions, but be open—offer, but don’t push too hard. If they aren’t able to involve you in the work and don’t have much time to spend with you, be prepared to entertain yourself: bring books, tapes, musical instruments, etc. Some groups use a buddy system for orienting visitors, pairing each visitor with a community member who can serve as a guide and a liaison. Having an identified support person to turn to is often helpful, and if the community doesn’t use such a system, you might look around for someone willing to fill that role. It’s important to be clear about your underlying motives so that both your expectations and the community’s are realistic. Are you seeking a community to join, or gathering ideas about how groups deal with various issues so you can start your own, or perhaps just curious about shared living options and open to being inspired? Perhaps you’re looking for a love affair or relationship? That may, in fact, be a possibility, but usually you’ll alienate community members who sense you’re on the prowl for romance rather than looking for community. What you’re most likely to get in those situations is the hot seat, the cold shoulder, an invitation to leave, or some unpleasant combination of the three. Sometimes awkward situations will come up, and it can take fairly sophisticated interpersonal skills to set things straight with your hosts. After all, many people have been conditioned to be stoic, and your hosts may be reluctant to say anything “impolite” about something you’re doing that’s bothering them. In those cases it’s up to you to initiate the process of exploring any concerns or annoyances that they’re sitting on, and it’s much better to get those things out in the open early in your visit, before unexpressed resentments fester. Gracefully facing awkward issues head-on will give you the option to work on them and to develop a rapport with your hosts. Ignoring the tension will usually feed the sense of alienation or mistrust, and prompt your hosts to close up a bit more with every interaction. It’s a warm and wonderful feeling to be included by the group and to experience a sense of “being in community” during your first visit, but don’t count on it. Deep connections often take time, and sometimes come only after mutual trust and friendship have been solidly established.
Beyond First Impressions
“Being human” implies that we all bring along some baggage from our conditioning, and that we are seldom capable of living up to our own high standards. The discrepancy between our visions of an ideal world and the reality of our daily lives is probably the most common catalyst underlying the creation of new intentional communities. As a result, what we say we’re going to do, both as individuals and as communities, is usually a lot more grandiose than what we actually accomplish. Keeping that perspective in mind while visiting communities can help keep your expectations in line with probabilities, and may ultimately help you avoid setting yourself up for a lot of unnecessary disappointment. Visiting communities is much like dating—people have a tendency to put their best foot forward and try to hide what they consider to be weaknesses. It’s helpful to fine tune your eyes and ears to pick up pieces of the hidden story, and to sensitize yourself to what kinds of conversations and interactions will give you an accurate sense of the underlying day-to-day realities. Remember, undesirable habits are easily obscured when members are on their best behavior. If you visit at least a handful of communities, you can compare and contrast their strengths and weaknesses. There’s no better way than visiting to learn what to look for and where to find it. To dig deeper, learn how to ask friendly but penetrating questions. After you’ve gotten to know a new group well enough to get more personal, try posing such open-ended queries as:
- What are some of the things you like best about living here? The least?
- What’s the most difficult issue your community has had to deal with in the last year, or in the last five years?
- How many members have left in the past year or two, and why did they leave?
- How has the community changed over the years? What changes would you like to see in the future?
- What are some of the big challenges your community is facing now?
- How has living here contributed to your personal growth and happiness?
If the community members perceive you as being sincere, interested, and open minded, most will be willing to engage with you in a thoughtful dialogue. However, if they sense that you’ve already made up your mind about what’s right—and are likely to pass judgment on them when they fall short of your expectations—not much information will be forthcoming. Avoid stereotypes of how you think communities “should” be. If you assume they will have any particular standard or feature you associate with “communities”—things like art facilities, organic gardens, health food, homeschooling, sexual openness—you’re asking for disappointment. Many will have at least a few of those features, but few will have them all. Being outspoken or opinionated about the “shoulds” is an easy way to wear out your welcome fast (or to not get invited in the first place, if it shows up during the introductory phase). If something you value highly seems to be missing, ask them about it. Would they be open to it in the future? Would there be room and support for you to introduce it? Present your concern as “Is it likely the group would be open to this?” rather than “I couldn’t live here unlessÉ.” While probing for deeper understanding, be sensitive to members’ needs for privacy and quiet time, and to what kind of energy you’re putting out. If you make a good personal connection, chances are good that they’ll be happy to offer you hospitality; otherwise, hosting you tends to become a chore for them, or worse, an annoyance.
What’s Really Important?
Having talked to thousands of community seekers over several decades, I am convinced that most of us do not truly know what would make us happy, nor do we see how habits we’ve developed over the decades stand in the way of our accomplishing the things we say we want. It’s only after we’ve tried something a time or two that we really understand how important, or not, that thing is to our happiness. For example, I’ve witnessed dozens of back-to-the-land dreamers who moved to the country to do gardening, raise livestock, chop wood, and carry water É only to discover that those things are hard work that cause calluses, sunburn, mosquito bites, sore backs, and are subject to the harsh unpredictabilities of nature. Many of those dreamers adapt to the reality and subsequently thrive in that environment, but nearly as many decide to move back to a more urban, less physically demanding lifestyle. Real-life experience can be similarly eye-opening for folks with visions of a community based on shared ownership, cooperative businesses, and consensus decision making. Living that way can certainly be inspiring and fulfilling, but because most of us have grown up in a society that emphasizes individualism and competition, we are often surprised by how challenging and frustrating the cooperative life can be. Often we fail to see how our attitudes and actions are contributing to the problems rather than generating solutions. One problem stems from the fact that we do mostly mental research and don’t get nearly enough hands-on experience. The best way to learn about yourself, and about the communities themselves, is to visit. In that context you can experiment with balancing work involvement with social involvement, and experience how easy (or not) it is for you to adapt to a new culture.
Love at First Sight?
Investigating communities that are based on the idea of creating a better life can be very refreshing. However, be warned: there is a tendency to fall in love with the first group visited. It usually pays to check out a few more anyway. Your first impression may be based on the excitement of discovering the many ways the group’s vision matches your own, but be sure that you also look for the differences. For a good match, both you and the community need to be able to tolerate each other’s rough edges. There may have been some common interactions that you missed. Did you get to see the group go through a meeting process? Did you watch them deal with a challenging issue? People’s rough edges are most likely to show up when they’re under heavy stress, so unless you saw them under pressure, you’ll probably leave with an incomplete picture of how well they fare when dealing with interpersonal tensions. If you do witness them working on a conflict, try to hear both sides and watch to see if they approach differences with an open mind. If you develop a closeness with folks in one subgroup, you will most likely see and hear an incomplete picture of the issues and norms in question. Seek out members holding an opposing point of view, and see if you can understand their side of the issue. It’s also possible that a few influential members are away on trips, and the vibe at the community may be very different when they’re home—more supportive if it’s a primary nurturer/ diplomat who’s absent, or more strained if it’s the chief skeptic/troublemaker who’s gone. Additionally, there may be other visitors present whose issues or energy affect the dynamics. You can learn a lot from other visitors, and from folks living in other communities. Both groups have a perspective that’s somewhat detached from the hubbub of the everyday reality, and it’s quite possible that they’ve witnessed the group under stress. Ex-members are also a great source of perspective on what tensions might be lurking below the surface, and how deep they’re submerged. It’s usually a good idea to let your first impressions percolate before deciding to make a commitment to join a community. After a first visit, spend some time away from the group to see how well your initial impression holds up when you’re no longer being influenced by their energy and enthusiasm. It’s especially interesting and informative to listen to yourself handle questions about the community posed by your pre-community friends and acquaintances.
A Never-Ending Quest
No two communities are identical and, in fact, no community is the same today as it was five years ago—nor will it be the same five years hence. Visions change, priorities change, the cast of characters will change, people will get older, the weather will get colder. This ever-evolving nature makes the search for a community to join both interesting and challenging. What you experience during a first visit is unlikely to remain static, yet you must decide based on that initial impression. And you must be prepared to adapt to the shifts in values and priorities that will inevitably come with the passing of time. With that in mind, pay careful attention to the ideas and interactions that feel best to you, noting whether it’s the philosophy, the lifestyle, the place, or the people that touch you at the deepest level. If you feel yourself drawn most energetically to a group whose stated philosophy isn’t very well aligned with your own, it’ll probably not work out for you to be there for the long haul. However, if they’re open to it, consider spending more time with them in order to explore what makes it work for you on the energetic level. Similarly, for a community with ideals matching yours but a shortage of group chemistry, try spending enough time with them to learn about what’s either lacking or overdone—what’s getting in the way of the synergy? Sorting through all the complexities can be overwhelming, and the best thing you can do to gain perspective and solace is to connect with others who can relate to what you’re going through. If you know of friends who are also on a community quest, consider creating a support group to share experiences, insights, and leads. Scan the ads in the alternative press and on the bulletin boards of nearby co-ops and health food stores, looking for announcements of support groups and networking opportunities. Check out the Intentional Communities Web site, http://www.ic.org/, and follow the links from there. Or participate in one of FIC’s semiannual Art of Com-munity conferences, a veritable cornucopia of seekers, networkers, and communitarians coming together to share information on the hows, whys, and wheres of shared living—it’s a special opportunity to learn a lot in a few days about a number of communities, from a wealth of experienced communitarians, and in an atmosphere of community. Living in intentional community is a lot of hard work, but it’s a noble undertaking that offers great rewards for those with enough vision and perseverance to stick with it. The first step in that process is finding a group compatible with your vision of a better world, and the rest of the work—for the rest of your life—will require an open mind, creativity, flexibility, commitment, integrity, common sense, and a lot of heart. Daunting? Yes, but worth it. Happy hunting.
Geoph Kozeny has lived in various kinds of communities for 27 years, and has been on the road for the past 12 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 theCommunities Directory, and is a regular correspondent for Communities magazine. Presently, he is completing production of a full-length video documentary on intentional communities, due for release in the spring of 2001. He can be reached via Community Catalyst Project, c/o 1531 Fulton St, San Francisco, CA 94117, USA.