Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Reflections on Intentional Communities

I had two opportunities to interact with intentional communities last month; one as an observer and one as a participant.

I am taking a second round of facilitation training for communities, this time with Laird Schaub, who originated the two-year program. (Regular readers may remember that I did seven sessions with Tree Bressen in 2006 and 2007.) We had our second weekend together, and I am totally hooked on the high of being with 18 other people who are just as passionate about facilitating in communities as I am. I am also really amazed at all of the community-oriented activities that are happening in Asheville, NC.

Over the course of this, I got to observe a cohousing meeting. They were discussing what they could do with a plot of garden to grow more of their own food. First we had them visualize the garden five years down the road. Then they spent a long time brainstorming, and we had two scribes noting everything down. They were a pretty savvy group, and ended up covering all of the bases that a permaculture consultant would have addressed. I know this because DH and I recently had permaculture consultants develop a plan for our yard.

As the brainstorming wore on, I found myself thinking "why don't they just hire an expert and be done with it?" Which is not like me, as I have a high tolerance for brainstorming-type of activities. But 45 minutes pushed even my limits. However, I thought about a basic principle of organizational communication that I learned years ago: participation = buy in. The ideas they generated were their ideas, not somebody else's, who was telling them what to do.

The next part of the meeting was very lively. Our scribes cut up all of the flip chart pages so that each idea was on its own strip. Then we spread them all out, face up, on the floor. In the next 14 minutes, the cohousers put them into clusters. They moved the strips around, looked at what they had done, discussed, argued, negotiated, and moved them again. Then the facilitator had them review each cluster one more time, and come up with a label for that cluster. This exercise is called "snow cards" or "blizzard" because all of the white pieces of paper blanket the floor or wall like snow.

Now the clusters were manageable, and the group figured out where they would start, and who would shepherd the process until they figured out exactly how it would continue. The whole thing took three hours, and they were very satisfied with the work they got done. And how much fun they had.

Meanwhile, I was at the back of the room scribbling notes about the structures the group had and processes they were using to make this kind of decision. Another principle of organizational communication is that structures influence behavior. However, most people don't think about this when they are frustrated with the way somebody is acting. They usually attribute it to a deficit in that person. So it can be very useful to look at the structures and processes, and make sure they are aligned with the organizations purpose, values, and assumptions.

What I have learned from Laird and Tree and Diana Leaf Christian is that there are some very specific recommendations they make for intentional communities, gleaned from their years of experience living in and facilitating them. And as they haven't published their books on this topic yet (ahem!) I am creating my own process maps. Ultimately I am hoping that we can create an open source library of these maps that communities use, so that they can diagnose problems and don't have to reinvent the wheel.

I'll talk about my other adventures next time.

PS. Happy New Year!


Gardens-In-The-Sand said...

"participation = buy in."

May not work...

There's a lot of scammers out there taking advantage of generous hard-working people.

Telling people to get it in writing is less than useful, lawyers make a good living getting people out of contracts.

The simple truth is that if someone is untrustworthy, it doesn't matter whether you get a hand shake or a written contract.

What's desperately needed is a list of untrustworthy communities that people can add their experiences to.

Having been on the receiving end of the shaft, being thrown out of the home I invested 15 years creating, along with the rest of the builders in the community... And writing Laird had zero effect... I can state from personal experience there's a lot of people being screwed over with nowhere to turn.

When I post blogs detailing specifics, they are removed... Nobody likes whistle-blowers, but they are absolutely needed if the community movement is to survive.

Liz Logan said...

Hi Stone,

thanks for checking out my blog! I checked out yours, and really appreciated your post about "Drainbow" communities. I agree, its a really important dynamic to address.

I think in the cohousing context, it shows up in a different way, because everybody own their own homes. (Renters are another issue, but I will put that aside for the moment).

The issue in cohousing is usually described as "participation," which has many aspects to it, but one is "how do we get everybody to do their fair share--while at the same time, create policies that are flexible?"

In addition, the question is "once we create the policies, how do we get people to adhere to them?"

I think two key concepts are "social capital" and "peer pressure."

In the situations you are describing, when some people earn equity with cash, and other earn it with labor, you are right, the law privileges cash ownership. So labor investors are left to make their own judgments about whether cash investors are trustworthy, and will honor their agreements.

Ultimately, "social capital" and "peer pressure" can be part of the solution here, as well, which includes the reputation of the cash investors. And of course, the problems can happen both ways. I know WOOFA (wwoof.org) hosts that have been burnt by their laborer-guests, as well.

So yes, lists could be very useful--although you then run in to libel problems. In the meantime, something more informal might be useful.

Is there any kind of organization or forum for labor investors? Would you consider starting one?

Gardens-In-The-Sand said...

Liz, You are correct that I wsn't really responding to the blog post... A sentence caught my eye, & I addressed that...

When you're stuck trying to raise awareness on a subject that everybody slams the door to avoid discussing,
you get where you don't really see anything except how it relates to your own issue...

You raise some valuable points, & I'd appreciate some further input from you... especially concerning "starting an organization or forum for labor investors"... It's very hard to get people to stand up and insist on their rights.

I had one going for those who'd been ripped off in my own case... And when the ripper-offer wrote to my webhosts screaming slander, libel, web bullying, they shut it down...

The thing is... when it's [provably]the truth, It isn't slander, or libel or any of the rest of it...

---["once we create the policies, how do we get people to adhere to them?"

I think two key concepts are "social capital" and "peer pressure."] ------

I'm in agreement with your 2 concepts...

What needs huge consideration... is ... there are individuals who using force of personality and bullying can dominate a discussion and have an unrealistic set of demands placed on the group.

This happened in my situation... The founder's son told everyone that no-one had a right to be there, 15 years of agreements were out the door... We now had to agree to a new set of demands or get gone...

Unfortunately, the rest of the community seems too whupped to object to being thrown out of the homes they built, believing what they're told... that they didn't own anything... after making years of land payments.... purchasing building materials and building homes...

Of course, these abusers do eventually get theirs... But there's a string of victims in their wake...

It's hard starting fresh when you've been robbed of 15 years work & monetary investment.

As for the reverse... There is considerably more that can be done to warn the rest of the property-holders...

People are very willing to believe the worst of disaffected community members, but will remain in denial, refusing to do anything to stop the abuse of them.