Seeking Group Renewal
Simon Poulter (Redfield, United Kingdom) describes “mid-life crisis” in his community, as an example of vexing issues common to established groups. He looks at the attempt to reestablish group cohesion after drifting away from the original purpose, and the importance of being clear on what effect the group can and will give to resolving conflicts among members. Simon is hopeful that increased contact with other communities will help Redfield make progress on its issues.
Many intentional communities created in the 1970s are now well over a decade old and in some cases approaching their twentieth birthdays. Since that period, when a lot of communities took off with high ideologies and aims to change society, political thinking has moved on. The ecological agenda has been pushed to the forefront as it becomes increasingly evident that we cannot continue to exploit our planet in unsustainable ways. Communitarians, in their pursuit of sustainable, cooperative lifestyles, have set out to demonstrate alternatives for the larger society. Yet, it has been argued that communities are “safe havens” for a few, and that our continued existence is dependent upon mainstream society.
But this is not an overview of the communities movement”rather it’s a report of my personal impressions of the community reassessment that has taken place at the Redfield housing co-op in Bucking-hamshire, England. Established in 1978, Redfield reached a point in the early nineties where community size and future growth dominated discussion. Consultations with other communitarians confirmed that the problems and identity crises that Redfield was experiencing were not unique to us. Other communities were waking up to the necessity of creating structures for the next wave of communitarians”either expanding existing communities or, more likely, providing close support to groups setting up the new generation of communities.
With our future as a species at risk, Redfield seeks to participate in national and international movements for change. So, earlier in this decade, our community considered a membership growth campaign. But we soon realized that first we had to define our group sense of purpose more clearly. A common remark among our members was that we had plenty of ideas and projects but no direction.
Three months of debate did not bring us to a position where we could say in a collective voice, “Our direction is.ä” But community discussions helped us move toward a clearer understanding of individual perspectives and the different ideas of what Redfield might become.
Looking back on our search for consensus, it seems we were shaken by the limits of our structure and unable to grasp the need for healing and cleansing in the group. When we embarked upon our reassessment, there were underlying stresses, fears, and disaffection among Redfield members. As our search for direction continued, it seemed some members needed the community more than the community needed them. Emotional support appeared to be inadequate except for those who appeared resolute in accepting their pain.
The reassessment needed to be both individually and collectively focused if the effort was to be productive. Our intention as a group was to lay out guidelines for revitalizing the community in order to allow prospective members to be aware of our community purpose, what the community is all about. The investment is heavy on both sides and clarity would be mutually helpful. After all, we seek long-term members interested in our projects and sharing life at Redfield.
Communities may survive the loss of individual members if enough committed people remain who are able to uphold the aims and objectives of the community. But a smaller community can be brought to a standstill if several people leave simultaneously. The result of our reassessment at Redfield was that a small group stayed, embarking yet again on a membership campaign”a very consuming project.
Still, the search for common direction attracted us. Community direction can be a set of values commonly recognized and agreed upon by all members, or it can be a manifesto of creative thinking. The first option can lead to boiled down and indistinct values, which can hardly be called a direction. But group attempts at creative thinking have brought us to armadas of opposed ideologies, though we do share common convictions about ecological sustainability.
Some members would like to see a community of 40 people living on this site and another 40 living locally as part of an extended community. Others would like to see seven members facilitating a vast visitor center in the main house. Yet, as members resigned, the pressure to recruit new people caused us to all but abandon the idea of direction. Presently we accept that we have multiple directions, partly lamenting our disunity, yet optimistically thankful for our diversity.
Reassessment of an intentional community is really only feasible when it is “safe” for all to put themselves, their visions, and their troubles into the collective arena. It wasn’t safe for everyone to do that at Redfield when we embarked on our search for direction. Consequently, we were stalled by divisions, grievances, and obvious incompatibilities”and we lost several members. New people coming here will in many ways unwittingly participate in our unresolved debate.
The group remaining at Redfield agreed to recruit new members based on their ability to complement the practical and interpersonal skills of current members. We seek to make room for enthusiasm and individual flair among both new and old members, while also emphasizing personal and collective responsibility.
Now we find direction and group identity through increased participation in networking with other groups, lobbying for the green political agenda, and providing support for the next generation of intentional communities.
Postscript by Jonathan How of Redfield
Many communities exist for the benefit of their members”whoever they happen to be. Some members will have personal ambitions; some will have ambitions for the community; some will have lots of connections in the wider world; and some are looking for a place where they can live closely with a small group of people. Although all of these states of being can be individually fulfilling for the members themselves, it can be difficult for the community, as an organism, to become a learning and developing organization amidst competing priorities. Members with ambitions for wider group development sometimes feel disappointed in Redfield; yet every organization must have a “core” business, and here that has always been the business of cooperative living together. Any organization that focuses on wider development without nurturing its core business is treading on dangerous ground, and it is just the same here. Of course, some day we may have “40 people on site and another 40 living locally,” at which point our core business might be radically different. But it will still be about intentional cooperative living.
About the Author
Simon Poulter is a multimedia artist, including oil paintings and computer art. Since establishing the Exhibition Gallery at Redfield in 1990, he and his family have left Redfield to work with an artists collective.