How To Visit an Intentional Community
Kat Kinkade of Twin Oaks gives a communitarian’s perspective on visitors. She discusses visiting etiquette, gives practical advice on how to get the most out of one’s visit, and offers valuable insights about how prospective members may be viewed by existing community members.
The mechanics of visiting a community aren’t very difficult. One writes a letter, waits for a response, follows directions, and that’s that. But assuring oneself of a fruitful and satisfying visit is another matter. Most communities spend considerable time and energy talking about and worrying about optimizing visitors’ experiences. Yet there are still shortcomings and miscommunication from time to time. Visitors can help by doing some thinking ahead of time to set themselves up for a good visit. This article is full of advice to the prospective visitor. Read it with your own plans in mind. Maybe it will give you some ideas.
It is useful to consider the question: Why is this particular community open to visitors at all? What do they want or need from them? I think it’s safe to say that most communities that advertise in a directory are keeping an eye out for people who might join them. They may be openly seeking members, or they may be only selectively open, watching for someone with a high degree of compatibility.
There are other reasons for having visitors, and they will vary from group to group. Some may simply need help with their work. Others may welcome stimulation from outsiders. A number of groups make their living from welcoming visitors at various conferences and seminars. Some organizations are interested in spreading their philosophy or religion. What you can be sure of, however, is that a group opens itself to receive strangers for its own reasons and its own needs. It isn’t just exercising neighborly hospitality.
On your side, you have your reasons for wanting to visit. So, it makes sense to seek visits with groups that not only have something to offer you, but also have something to gain from your stay.
No matter what a visitor’s personal agenda may be, helping the community with daily work is quite likely to make the visit worthwhile on both sides. Work is appreciated, and good work is appreciated a lot! This is true on the smallest commune or the biggest cooperative. Shared work opens doors to friendship and mutual confidence that no amount of conversation can open. Most people know this intuitively.
Over the years my home communities have hosted thousands of visitors, a large percentage have pitched in willingly with our work — everything from collating newsletters to bucking hay — and they don’t begrudge the time. They have helped us build what we have today, and I am personally grateful. It’s one of the reasons we will probably continue to be open to thousands more. The visitor who feels touchy about being exploited during the few days or weeks of a visit just doesn’t understand the trade-offs from the community point of view, and is unlikely to get much satisfaction from the visit.
Sometimes a visitor is perfectly willing to work, and repeatedly volunteers, but the community members don’t seem to take the time or make the effort to find an appropriate job. If this happens and you aren’t the sort who can just intuitively find ways to help out, just make sure your offer is clear. Then, enjoy yourself doing something else. Some groups are not organized well enough to use visitor resources, and there’s no point in bugging them about it.
A mistake to be avoided is treating communities like a sort of Disney World, put there for the interest of the public. For the most part, intentional communities are not showcases, are not kept up to impress outsiders, and are not particularly interested in being looked at by casual tourists. Resident communitarians may put up with a certain amount of tourism for income, or for outreach; but residents live their personal lives in community, and generally they don’t enjoy uninvolved spectators.
Occasionally a visitor is not content with a guided tour, and causes exasperation by insisting on “talking to the residents to get a real feel for the place.” The resident members in any community are generally friendly enough, but they may see too many strangers. The only way to get a feel for the place is to stay awhile; and the best way to do that is to invest yourself in a visit that is useful to both yourself and the host community.
Let us assume, then, that you are prepared to establish your welcome in a community by one means or another, and get on to other issues. One of the other main issues is expectations.
It’s a good idea to read the printed material that a community provides. While no substitute for a visit, it at least gives you an idea of the self image of the community. Of course this material will contribute to your expectations, as it should. This can be upsetting when your actual on-site experiences don’t seem to have much to do with the lofty sentiments expressed on paper. Just the same, there are connections between stated group beliefs and their behavior norms. It is a mistake to ignore these connections, especially if you think of joining.
Years ago I knew a couple who read the philosophical material of a certain community and were appalled by it. They didn’t agree with the published community tenets and didn’t like the tone of the material either. However, they happened to meet someone from the group who was highly personable. So, they visited and found the entire group to be friendly, charming, and warm. My friends figured actions speak louder than words. They decided to ignore the declared goals of the community, believing instead the day-to-day behavior of the people they were getting to know and enjoy. They joined up. But as the months of their membership progressed, my friends found themselves more and more at odds with the founding members of the community. Everybody was warm and courteous, but their goals weren’t compatible. Serious internal dissension grew, which saw my friends in conflict with the original leaders over issues of community direction. Eventually the new couple left, and so did some other members, who were disillusioned by the bad feelings generated by the philosophical struggle.
This left the group weak, angry, and exhausted. It was a community tragedy, and not an uncommon one. I say, before joining an intentional community, read and believe the community documents. The chances are good that the published goals and values of every community are deeply respected by many community members, even though the behavior of some members may give consistent impressions to the contrary. Of course a visitor will have expectations of some sort, but it’s useful to keep them to a modest level. I can think of several common expectations that frequently meet with disappointment.
There’s the wealthy commune vision. At Twin Oaks we sometimes hear, “But I expected a rural group to have horses.” Some people don’t understand why the community isn’t bursting with artistic work, or doesn’t have its own school, or isn’t generating its own power, or creating more original architecture. Such visitors haven’t considered the wealth that must be allocated to realize such visions. Alternatively, visitors who look more closely can always find visions beyond financial survival that are attracting the energy of community members.
For instance, at my community we maintain a wide assortment of musical instruments and drums, and provide work credits for dramatic productions and a wide range of apprentice training. We have indexed an extensive library of books and tapes. The community maintains an intimate retreat cottage, mud pit, sweat lodge, swimming hole, gardens, pastures, and woodlands. We provide attractive transportation opportunities for political and cultural events, and a wide variety of conferences. The visions realized will vary in each community, according to the interests and skills of the members as they come and go.
Another more common expectation is the vision of a sense of community. Those with this vision expect to be included and loved fairly soon after arrival, because of an idea that all the people in a true community love one another. It is a serious disappointment when they realize that this kind of love grows only after time and mutual commitment, and cannot be grasped quickly.
Many people expect all communities to be wholehearted in their dedication to food self-sufficiency or healthful eating habits. I have seen some visitors to my community seriously shocked by our casual laissez-faire attitude toward diet. Some of us eat meat and frequently serve desserts, as well as indulge in a small amount of junk food. To many of us this seems moderate and reasonable, considering our abundance of whole grains, soy foods, and vegetables. To some visitors it seems like heresy and backsliding.
A viable community adapts to the needs and desires of its own members much more than it conforms to abstract ideals. The probability is high that it will not, if successful, be very fanatical in its ideals. There will be some determined core idealism, but otherwise compromises will prevail. Doubtless some communities don’t compromise. Some don’t last either. I suspect a connection.
Many visitors set themselves up for disappointment by expecting their visit to be blessed with a love affair or relationship. Now, who am I to say this won’t happen? In fact, it has happened to hundreds of people in hundreds of communities, and maybe you will be blessed also. But don’t count on it. If you join, that’s another matter. The chances of a long-term community member finding, at one time or another, a loving relationship within or through the community are quite high if not absolutely guaranteed.
But the visitor? My advice is to set that hope firmly aside and seek enjoyment elsewhere. Trying too hard will just make it even less likely. As to the notion of finding readily available casual sex in the commune, forget it.
The most interesting community visitor is a person who wants to join the community. Let’s say you have read the community visitor materials, and you’re ready for a change in your life. You’ve come with modest expectations, and the community looks pretty good to you. Even at this point, there are still considerations that may enhance the chances of a good connection to your chosen group.
Take this question: Shall I be on my best behavior while I visit, or shall I let them know what I am really like? By all means put your best foot forward! The experienced community makes allowances. We know that in a year or two you’re not going to be jumping up and volunteering to wash the dishes, the way you did when you were visiting. But the eagerness to make a good impression makes a good impression. We’ll like you wanting to please. It says something good about your social skills. We know that the real you is somewhat more of a mixed bag. So is the real us for that matter. That’s not the same thing as hiding vital information. If you have a serious medical problem or a sticky child custody situation or a history of drug abuse, you cannot expect a community to become involved in such major personal problems without prior knowledge and agreement.
Then there’s the question: Shall I let them know my real opinions, or shall I just go along with their assumptions? The answer depends on the nature of the group. Are you joining a group with a religion that all members must accept? If so, it seems questionable ethically to join such a group without embracing that religion. On the other hand, a group that is essentially secular should not concern itself with your private opinions. It is your behavior that matters.
Nothing is more obnoxious than the visitor who defies the important traditions of a community. Imagine, for example, a visitor passing out candy bars to children in a commune that accepts only healthy foods, using the argument that children should be free to choose their own diets. Joining any community entails giving up certain personal freedoms, even as you gain new ones (different ones in different communities). It is unmannerly in the extreme, to say nothing of ineffective, to insist on taking for yourself freedoms that the community members have voluntarily given up. A certain amount of “When in Rome do as the Romans do,” is certainly appropriate.
On the other hand, if you are thinking of joining, and your happiness depends on something that you don’t think the community has, don’t give up too easily. Make it a point to ask, without being judgmental. It might be that the community is more flexible than it looks. There are many things that can be done, within my own community agreements, that aren’t done very often for various reasons. If a prospective member who looks good to us wonders aloud if certain personal hobbies or practices would be supported at my community, we are happy to discuss possibilities. Certainly it’s worth bringing up the subject and checking it out.
The community you see during any one visit is not the whole community. It is almost impossible for visitors to understand this, but it is profoundly true. A little slice of time cannot give a deep understanding of the nature of an intentional community. Your visit is influenced by many factors that are trivial in relation to the entire membership experience. The seasons have a great impact on community activity, as does filling a big order for community products, participating in an emergency, or being there during a birth or a death. An influential member may be absent when you visit. Or, there may be other visitors at the same time who by their presence skew your impressions.
The particular issue being discussed avidly when you visit is probably only one of many. Your visit will not give you an accurate impression of either the long-term importance of the issue or the outcome. If you visit when somebody is angrily leaving the group, you will pick up on a different feeling from the one you’d get if you visit when things are going well and membership is solid.
Your impressions of the community will also be influenced by the group you hang out with. I strongly advise all visitors to be cautious of information from a member who is angry with the community and wants to air grievances. Negatively loaded information can give a sense of getting the lowdown on the community, but the value of such insights is questionable.
At a minimum, a visitor who hears about significant community grievances should make a point of bringing up the same issues with a member who is happy with the place. A disillusioned member on the way out is certainly not an objective informant. No place is perfect, but it’s probably not as bad as it can be made to sound.
Regarding community controversy, there’s not much point in a visitor getting involved. At Twin Oaks, public discussions are carried on in writing, on a bulletin board. The comments of visitors on controversies are not usually welcome. Other communities argue in meetings, and the same thing is true of visitor comments there. It may seem to the visitor that there is something quite relevant that hasn’t been said, and somebody needs to say it. But this is virtually never true. No outsider can really understand these issues after a brief stay.
Even after joining, new members will still blunder. Only after time spent living with longer-term members can new people gain an effective understanding of controversial community issues. All this doesn’t mean “Visitors should be seen and not heard,” but there is value in listening a lot and reserving your opinions for later.
It can be valuable for the visitor to listen to the controversial discussion and then later ask questions of individuals, outside of meeting time. Be aware of framing your questions in a neutral form, “Why is it so important thatÉ” or “What would happen if this approach were taken?” This personal approach will give you a chance to participate without being resented, and to learn more about community issues at the personal level. Be prepared to hear answers to your questions, and don’t be hurt if your input isn’t taken very seriously.
Every once in a while a visitor really does have knowledge that is immediately useful, and help offered in such cases is appreciated. Generally, this is technical help. For example, the community is having legal difficulties with a child custody case, and you are a retired lawyer from a firm that did a lot of custody work. Or the community is building a house, and you are an experienced builder. Or as a doctor, you notice that certain community norms are likely to lead to a particular disease. Note that the useful knowledge is not philosophical, but practical, the direct result of specialized training and experience.
In between solid technical expertise and personal opinion lie many visitor skill areas that may or may not be useful to share with a host community. The one I notice most often is massage. A lot of people are trained masseurs these days. Good. Offering to give massages is a courteous and friendly thing to do. You may or may not get any takers. The same is true for various schools of conflict resolution, facilitation, and therapy, and for artistic accomplishments that you can teach. If you have such a skill, your best tactic is to offer but not push it. If your guitar playing draws a happy crowd, good; you’ve added something to the group’s happiness. On the other hand, if nobody wants to listen, oh well, try something else.
Any community’s favorite visitor is the cheerful, helpful one who is genuinely impressed with the community and not very critical of shortcomings. Even if they don’t join, leaving the community with a positive feeling is a nice thing to do. Of course it’s always possible that some group at a particular time doesn’t really need congratulations; it needs a kick in the pants. Even so, be very careful before you elect yourself to the job. A word about doing the community circuit. People often set out to visit many different communities, but few ever finish their trek. They find out what they need to know after being at two or three places. This being the case, it makes sense to look at the list of groups that sound interesting, and visit the most likely looking communities first. Directories get outdated, so write letters to more communities than you plan to visit. Some of your letters may not be answered.
When my fellow communitarians learned I was writing this article about how to visit a community, they asked me to pass along several messages. “Tell them this is our home.” “Tell them not to drop in without being invited.” “Tell them they sometimes have to take no for an answer.” While I’m at it, I should explain that 19 out of every 20 visitors are a help and a pleasure to us. The growls and groans all come because of the exceptional twentieth.
Virtually all of those who publish the names and whereabouts of their groups do want and need a certain number and kind of visitors. So don’t be discouraged. If you really want to live in an intentional community, you’ll find one.
About the Author
Kat Kinkade is a founding member of Twin Oaks (1967), East Wind (1974), and Acorn (1993). She has written, and Twin Oaks has published, two books about that community, A Walden Two Experiment and Is It Utopia Yet? At Twin Oaks Kat is active in various administrative and clerical functions, as well as choral singing, barbershop quartets, and community musical productions.