Book Notes Conscious Coliving

Creating a Life Together by Diana Leafe Christian – Summary and Notes

Notes on Diana Leafe Christian’s Creating a life together: practical tools to grow ecovillages and intentional communities (2003). An excellent handbook on how to create intentional communities. Extremely useful with telling anecdotes, concrete practical steps and a lot of wise advice based on long and diverse experience — not only did Christian live in community but she was editor of Communities magazine for many years.

It is also worth quoting a favourite adage of Christian’s that she credits to cohousing activist Zev Paiss.

Living in community is the longest, most expensive personal-growth workshop you’ll ever take.

Zev Paiss

I’d add to that: … and it’s also one of the most powerful, valuable and sustainable workshops you’ll ever take!

Contents hide

NB: first and second level headings are directly from Christian’s book (chapter and section headings. Third level headings are our additions.

Our Summary

Key Points

  • Intentional communities are "a group of people who have chosen to live together with a common purpose, working cooperatively to create a lifestyle that reflects their shared core values."

  • Ecovillages: Many intentional communities are now ecovillages which means they "aspire to create a more humane and sustainable way of life."

    • Or, more specifically according to the defintion by Robert and Diane Gilman: "human-scale, full-featured settlements in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development, and which can be successfully continued into the indefinite future."
  • Most recent (intentional) communities are either spiritual or ecovillages or both: "Every community formed since the early 1990s that I know of, has been motivated by a spiritual impulse and/or by environmental and social justice concerns."

  • Most fail, some succeed: 90% of communities fail, 10% succeed.

  • For a community to succeed it …

    • Needs to boot up: i.e. get a core group together, align on vision and purchase land/property and start building
    • Needs to sustain itself: deal with all the emotio-spiritual dynamics plus be financially sustainable
  • Communities end up needed to dealing with "shadows" which is a big reason why they fail (this is not about communities but about human beings in their current state of emotional and spiritual development).

    Community does involve psychology stuff — which, in my opinion, is why roughly 90 percent of new communities fail. [Ed: big +1 ie. it’s the psychology stuff that’s the biggest challenge]

  • Also: Community life is more satisfying but … not as good as we hoped (and that gap causes problems)

    Community life is more functional and satisfying than life in mainstream culture — but often not as functional and satisfying as we’d hoped!

    [Ed: I also think the high energy vs low energy equilibrium point is also important for why communities can struggle. Community is valuable (high energy) and therefore hard to build yet (relatively) easy to leave. In short: high energy equilibria are more unstable than low energy equilibria (but more valuable!).

  • You need good governance structures, good practices especially for "shadow work" … and people who are psycho-spiritually mature and coachable (up for and able to grow)

    • Consensus as a top level process is good if you really understand consensus and have been trained in it
    • You probably want equal or close to equal ownership/control over the underlying land asset (situations where there is an owner and others don’t work well)
  • Be strict about who you let in and have a long engagement period

Excerpts and Notes


90% of Intentional Communities Fail

… Most aspiring ecovillages and community groups — probably 90 percent — never get off the ground; their envisioned communities never get built. They can’t find the right land, don’t have enough money, or get mired in conflict. Often they simply don’t understand how much time, money, and organizational skill they’ll need to pull off a project of this scope.

And … 10% succeed — what can we learn from those that succeed (and fail)

I wanted to know about the successful ten percent, those groups that actually created their communities. What did they do right?

I’ve sought the answer to this question ever since, in my years as editor of Communities magazine, and by visiting dozens of communities and interviewing scores of community founders. And I’ve seen a definite pattern. Generally, founders used the same kinds of skills, knowledge, and step-by-step processes to create widely different kinds of communities, from urban group households or rural ecovillages.

What Are Intentional Communities and Ecovillages?

An intentional community is a group of people who have chosen to live together with a common purpose, working cooperatively to create a lifestyle that reflects their shared core values

A residential or land-based intentional community is a group of people who have chosen to live with or near enough to each other to carry out their shared lifestyle or common purpose together. Families living in a cohousing communities in the city, students living in student housing cooperatives near universities, and sustainability advocates living in rural back-to-the-land homesteads are all members of intentional communities.

Community is not just about living together, but about the reasons for doing so. “A group of people who have chosen to live together with a common purpose, working cooperatively to create a lifestyle that reflects their shared core values,” is one way the non-profit Fellowship for Intentional Community describes it.

What most communities have in common is idealism: they’re founded on a vision of living a better way, whether community members literally live together in shared group houses, or live near each other as neighbors. A community’s ideals usually arise from something its members see as lacking or missing in the wider culture.

Ecovillages are intentional communities that aspire to create a more humane and sustainable way of life. One widely quoted definition (by Robert and Diane Gilman) defines ecovillages as “human-scale, full-featured settlements in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development, and which can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.”

Cohousing communities are small neighborhoods of usually 10 to 40 households which are managed by the residents themselves

Cohousing is another increasingly popular form of contemporary intentional community. Cohousing communities are small neighborhoods of usually 10 to 40 households which are managed by the residents themselves, and which have usually been developed and designed by them as well (although increasingly cohousers partner with outside developers). Cohousers own their own relatively small housing units and share ownership of the whole property and their large community building (with kitchen, dining room/meeting space, and usually a children’s play area, laundry facilities, and guest rooms). Cohousing residents conduct their community business through consensus-based meetings, and enjoy optional shared meals together three or four nights a week.

A cultural shift is happening and that is why intentional communities are on the rise

I believe we’re experiencing a culture-wide, yet deeply personal, phenomenon — as if some kind of “switch” has simultaneously flipped in the psyches of thousands of people. Aware that we’re living in an increasingly fragmented, shallow, venal, costly, and downright dangerous society, and reeling from the presence of guns in the school yard and rogues in high office, we’re longing for a way of life that’s warmer, kinder, more wholesome, more affordable, more cooperative, and more connected.

Remember this was written in the late 90s. Switches take time 😉

Is This Advice “Corporate”?

No it’s pragmatic in the sense of pragmatic utopianism

As you skim these pages you’ll see many figures and percentages — “business and finance” information — and you’ll no find advice on the spiritual principles involved in forming a community. Is this book just some representation of “the system” you may be trying to leave behind? Why is there no mention of the spiritual aspects?

I’m presuming that your own spiritual impulses and visions about community are already well developed; that you know very well why you want to live in an ecovillage or intentional community or create your own. As for all the business and finance advice, consider it a set of tools designed to get you from your unique personal impulses of spirit to the manifestation of that vision in physical form. And while I’m not part of “the system,” I study the system in order to learn how to use some of its more useful tools to create alternatives to it. As an old adage from India says,“It takes a thorn to remove a thorn.” At the present time, anyway, it takes budgets and business plans, and a rudimentary understanding of real estate and financing, to create alternatives to a society in which these tools are necessary. Consider the skills and steps in this book to be the shovels and soil amendments you’ll need to grow your own community, from the seeds of your vision into a flourishing organism.

An excellent response — and also informative that she has to provide this kind of justification. Indication that in this area utopianism is/was perhaps overwhelming pragmatism.

Chapter 1: The Successful Ten Percent — and Why Ninety Percent Fail

How Many People do You Need?

Spiritual communities experience more structural conflict than most groups because they aren’t as rigorous about governance and the practicalities

Newly forming spiritual communities seem to experience more structural conflict than most groups; probably because spiritual community founders sometimes tend towards a soft-focus, whole-picture orientation — what’s popularly called “right-brained” thinking. This often frustrates and even repels other potential cofounders who may use more logical or systematic “left-brained” thinking. Like Sharon, founders of spiritual communities are sometimes accused of deceiving others about money and power issues, when in fact they simply hadn’t focused on clear, explicit communication about finances and decision-making, and didn’t realize such clarity was necessary. These founders often dismiss the primarily “left-brained” potential cofounders who could help them, considering them merely “bean counters,” when the latter simply want to understand the financial, legal, and decision-making arrangements before they leap in wholeheartedly.

If you operate more in right-brained mode, I urge you to ally yourself with more left-brained compadres who can help ground your community ideals in workable business and legal strategies. And if you’re a hardcore left-brainer, I urge you to hook up with more holistically oriented colleagues who will help you keep your heart open and help you remember why you want to bring forth this wonderful vision in the first place.

Building an intentional community is challenging – the longest, most expensive personal-growth workshop you’ll ever take.

It doesn’t just take information and skills, money, time, and people to form a community, but also a sense of connection, sometimes called “community glue” — born of group experiences like preparing and eating meals together, work parties, weekend trips, and long, intimate conversations. Gathering and weaving the thread of skills, information, money, time, people, and experiences is complex, and often overwhelming — what cohousing activist Zev Paiss calls “the longest, most expensive personal-growth workshop you’ll ever take.”

Chapter 3: Getting Off to a Good Start

When you already own a property

If you want to keep ownership it doesn’t work well usually

In summary there is a significant imbalance of power and responsibility that makes it hard to build community.

Many aspiring community founders are people who’d like to turn their family-owned land into an intentional community, or groups of friends who have just purchased land together and ask, “Now what?”

Frankly, property owners who want to turn their already-owned land into the site for an intentional community often have the greatest challenge, even though it may seem as if they have already overcome the largest hurdle. When one or more people are the owner-landlords and the rest are tenants, or when a land-based business is also involved and one or more people are the owner-employers and the rest employees, there’s an imbalance of power. The owners have enormous power over everyone else, who can be evicted or fired at any time. And the owners have privileges the others probably do not, such as, for example, the right to all financial knowledge concerning the property or business, and the right to enter or lock others out of any building on the property.

The owners often have a genuine desire to experience a sense of community in the group, as well as a strong desire to retain control over all aspects of property use and any activities which could affect property value — since, after all they bear sole financial risk for it. But these two desires are essentially incompatible. You can’t simultaneously have “community” and total control over the whole property. This situation often resembles a “feudal lord and serfs” situation. People move there believing the place is a community, yet have no financial/legal risk or responsibility and no real decision-making power, even when the landlord/employers may have set up some kind of “consensus” process (which they can of course override anytime). Not to mention that the tenants/employees may consciously or unconsciously resent the owners for having all the power. Or that the owners may truly believe they don’t want power over anyone — but are unwilling to relinquish it until or unless others shoulder their load of the financial, legal, maintenance, and other responsibilities. Or that however benign the owners, the others may project all kinds of parental/authority-figure issues onto them, further clouding the issue. Such inadvertent “fiefdoms” tend to repel competent, solvent, and informed community seekers, yet attract people with few skills and limited funds who are, perhaps unconsciously, seeking a generous “parent” to take care of them. The owners end up functioning like a substitute mom or dad — whether or not they welcome the role — with a passel of community “children” to look after. This isn’t community — no matter how badly everyone wants it!

Very insightful and relevant to current LI situation.

When you already own the property you probably need to release total control

"If you’re a property owner seeking to create community on your land, please take these issues into account. Be willing to release total control and find ways for people to become fully participating, responsibility-sharing fellow community members. And if you cannot or don’t want to release full control but still want live in close proximity with others, please do so and enjoy it — but don’t advertise it as “community”!"

Organizing Your Group

Magical thinking” and the anti-business attitude


Bill Fleming, a cohousing founder, cautions community groups against using “magical thinking,” a term for a belief common to four-year olds in which simply imagining something means it will happen. “Mommy, I can fly to the moon!”

Community founders engage in magical thinking when they disdain facts and research gathered by other members on, say, legal options or environmental issues, and consider the research results to be mere opinions, no more valid than anyone else’s. Magical thinking is in play when people distrust the process of counting or measuring anything to predict likely outcomes (acres, square feet, years, dollars, amounts of principal and interest) in favor of intuitive guesses and inner guidance, or by dismissing tools such as budgets and business plans as being “oppressive” or “restricting our creative flow.”

This is related to the pervasive anti-business feeling which is common in communities — distrust or outright fear of financial planning, borrowing money, interest on loans, contracts and written agreements, corporations and other legal entities, and the like. I can understand it. In my younger years I was against anything remotely related to business, multinational corporations, or the government. Like many other countercultural folk, I was also intimidated by tools and processes used by the mainstream, didn’t understand how they worked, and turned them into symbols of everything I rejected.

But over time I learned not to mistake the tool for the motivation. I learned “business” is not the same thing as deceitful business practices, money is not the same thing as domination and the lust for power, legal structures are not the same as corporate greed.

Every community formed since the early 1990s that I know of, has been motivated by a spiritual impulse and/or by environmental and social justice concerns. Their founders learned to understand and use tools also used by mainstream culture — creating legal entities, buying property, borrowing money, paying interest — in order to create viable alternatives to mainstream culture. They use these tools to help create the kind of world where people share resources, make decisions cooperatively, and are mindful of their relationships with the Earth, their plant and animal relations, and each other.

I urge you to do the same.

Very interesting side point:

Every community formed since the early 1990s that I know of, has been motivated by a spiritual impulse and/or by environmental and social justice concerns.

Chapter 4 Community Vision — What It Is, Why You Need It

Why you need a vision document: the story of Willow Bend

IT WAS CRISIS TIME at a community I’ll call Willow Bend. This small community in the rural Midwest launched itself in the early nineties with no vision or vision statement. That means they had no shared expression of their desired future, no “why we’re here” agreement that aligned community members and inspired them to work toward their shared aspirations.

Then the bottom fell out of the market for the wooden children’s toys they manufactured as their primary community business. Overnight they lost almost half of their annual income base. Under severe financial strain, the members held long meetings to figure out what to do. Unfortunately different Willow Benders had widely different ideas about their purpose for being a community.

“We’re here to show people a low-consumption lifestyle that works financially,” says Tom. “We’ve got to recoup our losses somehow.” “No way!” exclaims Kathleen. “We’re just here to enjoy ourselves and not have to work for the man. We’ll just eat beans for awhile.” “How can you say that?,” asks Andy, incredulous. “We’re supposed to radicalize people! We’re supposed to show that you don’t have to compete so much and can share things equally and all get along!”

Except they weren’t getting along, and were competing mightily themselves, for the underlying basis of Willow Bend’s reality. With no common vision, they had nothing to return to — no common touchstone of values, purpose, or aspirations about why their community life mattered, how it fit into the larger world. Because they use consensus decision making, no majority of Willow Benders with the same vision could determine the vision for the whole group. On the surface it looks like they were arguing about money. But they were actually expressing the inherent structural conflict of not all standing on the same ground. And unlike folks in forming-community groups, people with different visions can’t simply go their separate ways and start different communities. Willow Bend was their home, and no one could ask anyone else to leave because of their “wrong” vision. As the conflict grew intense several people saw no way out and left the community. Now Willow Bend had two crises — not enough money and not enough people to carry out the tasks of their other community businesses.

I hope this (true) story illustrates why it’s so important to establish why we’re here as a basis for creating community — and why everyone in the community needs to be on the same page.

And a similar story from Kat Kinkade of Twin Oaks about the problem of ignoring the vision documents when joining

Kat Kinkade, cofounder of Twin Oaks community in Virginia, describes a similar circumstance. Once some friends of hers were appalled by what they read in the vision documents of a particular community. But when they met someone from that community whom they liked very much, they decided to visit, and found everyone there to be friendly, warm, and charming. Figuring that actions speak louder than words they decided to ignore the community’s declared vision and values and join anyway.

But as Kat’s friends lived there over the months, they found themselves increasingly at odds with the community’s founders. While everyone was warm and courteous at first, the newcomers’ values and goals weren’t compatible with the community’s, and soon they were embroiled in serious conflict over the direction the community. Eventually the dissension and distrust grew so bitter that Kat’s friends left the community — and so did several other members, disillusioned by the bad blood generated by power struggles over vision and values.

“This left the group weak, angry, and exhausted,” says Kat. “It was a community tragedy, and not an uncommon one.” I’ve heard this same story more than once about other communities.

So the first major task members of a forming community group is to clarify and write down their vision, and make sure they all agree on it.

Some well-known, long-lived, apparently successful communities don’t have and never had a common vision, or at least, never wrote anything down. This can work — but in my opinion it doesn’t work well for long. Not having a common vision can blow a community apart when a major challenge or crisis occurs. Or it can slowly erode everyone’s vitality and well-being over the years as each conflict arising from different visions adds to the accumulation of resentment.

“A common vision is neither necessary nor sufficient for starting a new community, since many have gotten by without one, and some that had one failed,” observes community activist Tree Bressen. “But a common vision greatly increases the probability of success. If your group is going to all the trouble to start a community, can you afford not to give yourselves the best possible chance?”

Chapter 5 – Creating Vision Documents

Creating a vision document is a minimum of a few months with a small well-aligned group and more than a year for larger more diverse groups

"Some groups finish within a few weeks or months, but only if they’re relatively small, their members know each other well, or they’re fairly homogeneous in interests and values. But if your group is large, your members diverse, or your plans ambitious, it can take more than a year. The six cofounders of Shenoa Retreat and Conference Center spent a year and a half identifying and crafting their vision documents. The 15 to 20 members of Earthaven’s original group spent two years.

You probably want your visioning group to be 3-5 people and preferably less than 10

Some community veterans say it’s better if the group is relatively small, for example between three to five people, or at least no more than ten. Visioning with a smaller number of people helps reduce the likelihood that the group will try to contort itself this way and that in order to include the diverse visions often found in a larger group."

More Than One Vision?

Don’t try to include everyone – it is better for the visioning group to split than try and create a one-size-fits-all vision

"When your group is diverse, do you adopt a vision that will cause some people to stay and others to leave, or do you try to mold the vision to meet everyone’s different values and interests?

Don’t try to create a one-size-fits-all vision. “All too often there’s the temptation to accommodate or shape the vision to suit the needs of each person, either because the group needs to recruit new members or because they have a misguided sense of wanting to take care of everyone or be ‘all things to all people,’” says Stephen Brown. “ To be successful, a forming community, like a business, needs to hold a relatively narrow focus and sharply defined objectives. If the community tries to do too much, by attempting to meet the needs of all who come along, it will spread itself too thin and either not get off the ground or run out of steam fairly early on. The vision therefore also defines what the project does not intend to accomplish. If your vision is too broad or comprehensive, and tries to please all of the people all of the time, it will fall of its own awkward expansiveness, trying to be in too many places at once.”"

“That’s Not Community!” — Hidden Expectations and Structural Conflict

People often have hidden expectations about what community means that usually aren’t realistic

Most people drawn to community have expectations or assumptions about what “community” means. They believe they know why they want to live in community, and what they’ll expect to find there. Some expectations or assumptions focus on activities — we’ll share some resources, we’ll share some meals, we’ll cooperate on decisions. Others arise from painful experiences from the past and focus on emotional states the person hopes to feel in community — connection, inclusion, acceptance. Past emotional pain can motivate people toward community because at some level they believe community will provide what’s missing from their lives. “Missing” factors that propel people toward community can include affection, acceptance, inclusion, and emotional safety. This can involve conscious loss and known expectations — “It’s going to be like a warm and loving family” — as well as unfelt pain and unconscious expectations (“…and I will be totally loved and accepted, finally!”).

Hidden expectations about community usually aren’t realistic. They often take on a golden, nostalgic quality, like looking back on a paradise lost. Here’s what one member of a forming community wrote about her personal vision of community:

Like a warm embrace, a gathering of friends, laughter on sunny days, caring and offering support in times of need, like coming home. Warm, homey, spiritually rooted, peaceful, joyous, celebratory, connected, close, respectful, emotionally honest, trusting. Home!

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this vision. It’s probably what we all want. The question is — can we expect community to provide it?"

Those hidden expectations and suppressed pain then result in structural conflict

Suppressed pain and hidden expectations or assumptions about community can be a prime source of structural conflict “time bombs” that erupt weeks, months, or years later. This happens for two reasons.

First, living in community cannot erase buried emotional pain. When people find that after living in community they’re still yearning for something valuable and elusive (although they may not know what it is), they tend to feel angry and disappointed. Not knowing the source of their discomfort, they tend to blame the community, or other members, for it."

Second, hidden expectations about community differ widely from one group member to another. This comes up when we each think we’re behaving in good community fashion but someone else is aghast at how our behavior “betrays” community ideals. Someone will express frustration, even outrage, when we’ve just breached an invisible rule in that person’s own personal paradigm. “How can you say that? That’s not community!” Or, “How could you do such a thing? That’s not community!”

And the visioning process can help flush this out

The community visioning process can offer your group an excellent opportunity to flush hidden expectations to the surface and examine them rationally.

And it’s opportunity to deal with the "psychology stuff" which will be essential to sustaining the community in the long-run

“Don’t go into all this psychology stuff,” advised one experienced community friend. “It sounds like therapy talk. Community isn’t about psychology. It’s about neighbors learning a high level of functioning together so they can make decisions and get the work done.”

I disagree. Community does involve psychology stuff — which, in my opinion, is why roughly 90 percent of new communities fail. Forming a community is deeply psychological. Emotional pain and hidden expectations exert a powerful pull on people, and community founders are no exception. Put a group of people in a community visioning session, and you have dozens of different needs and expectations, known and unknown, ricocheting invisibly around the room.

Massive +10. Psychology in community.

Chapter 7: Agreements and Policies

Your Community’s Agreements and Policies

Dealing with unacceptable behaviour (you have to think about it …)

That’s what happened to the Community Alternatives Society in Vancouver. While they had agreements about financial and labor requirements, and guidelines about how they’d use and maintain their common facilities, they had no policy about people’s behavior, since they all seemed to behave reasonably well. The normal conflicts were handled by their communication processes, and their differences of opinion were addressed in consensus meetings. But after living together in relative harmony for 11 years, they discovered that a member had done something so unacceptable it forced the issue. They realized they needed rules about behavior, and more importantly, an agreement about what to do if anyone breached them. The group came up with one of the wisest and most humane community behavioral policies I’ve seen, with not only a clear description of members’ rights and responsibilities, but also a graduated series of consequences when someone violated them.

Chapter 9: the Great Land-buying Adventure

When One Person Buys the Property

At first, when the project had just a few short-term members, it was really a one-man show. But Hank didn’t make any important decisions or begin any major construction projects until other long-term members became involved. Although everyone made consensus decisions together about long-range matters, Hank carried out their decisions, mostly because he knew how, and because ultimately he was financially and legally responsible for everything. But the increasing load of responsibilities grew so heavy that he finally burned out in exhaustion. He told the group he couldn’t continue doing this work by himself. Others would have to share the load. At that point leadership shifted from Hank to the group as a whole, and everyone began serving on one or more committees — finance, construction, governance, new-member outreach, and so on — sharing more equitably the responsibilities of establishing a new community.

“A crisis like this is pretty common in new communities,” he says,“when leadership shifts from the founder (or founders) to everyone involved.”

Chapter 13: Creating Sustainable Human Settlements

Creating your Site Plan Yourselves

"“How well we succeed in manifesting our vision of a new village culture at Earthaven will be determined by the quality of the work we do as both social and permaculture designers,” observes Chuck Marsh. “Most community failures stem from inadequate design, either social or physical. Design takes time, but up-front investment in good design will more than pay for itself in the long-term health of the community and its members.”"

Really? It stems from design failure vs culture failure? And if it is cultural / ontological problems how well can they be addressed by design? One could argue, perhaps, that an cultural/ontological failure relates to a design failure around, say, who was admitted. But it seems a stretch.

Creating Privacy in the Midst of Community

Privacy isn’t generally an issue (at least in cohousing)

Yet the desire to spread out is understandable. The greatest fear of many people choosing community is that they won’t have enough privacy. However, Danish cohousing residents, who’ve been living in densely clustered townhouse-style housing units since the late 1960s, and cohousing architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett know very well that not having enough privacy is rarely a complaint of people living in this kind of community housing.“People find that once they close their door, their unit is as private as any private housing,” says Kathryn McCamant.

“It’s much easier to get solitude in the midst of community than to get community in the midst of solitude,” observes Winslow Cohousing member Tom Moench.

Designing for Conviviality

“Until your needs for privacy and autonomy are met,” says Boulder architect David Barrett, “you can’t really do community.”

Big +1 (esp for Sylvie!)

Chapter 14: Internal Community Finances (Can We Afford to Live There?)

The Risks of Community Businesses

However, creating a community-owned business (or a non-profit educational center that pays wages to its employees) is not without its own risks. Start-up businesses fail at the rate of at least 95 percent, usually because they’re undercapitalized or the founders didn’t do adequate market research ahead of time. Start-up businesses require not only business experience and entrepreneurial skill to succeed, but often take 10- and 12-hour days for at least the first six months to a year. Even if you’re a community of experienced, savvy entrepreneurs, where will you carve out the time and energy to set up a new community and a business, much less keep relationships intact with your partners and children? It’s much worse if you try to do all this on raw land you’re developing from scratch. New development either requires boatloads of money to hire professional crews, or long hard hours of your own sweat-equity labor, or both — usually over a period of several years. It’s unlikely most community founders could pull this off and start a business. Bottom line — if you’re planning a community-owned business, if at all possible, get it established and running well before moving to the land.

Housing Co-ops — Separate Ownership and Use Rights

Miccosukee Land Co-op, for example, is a 279-acre intentional community near Tallahassee, Florida, founded as a cooperative in 1973. Miccosukkee’s founders designated 100 homesites up to several acres in size, and share the rest of the property, including 90 acres of protected wetlands. One hundred shareholding families and individuals joined the community and built their homes on these homesites. Members don’t have title to individual plots of land, and since getting a mortgage in a cooperative housing structure is difficult, Miccosukkee’s members built their houses slowly over time, as cash flow permitted.

Chapter 17: Communication, Process, and Dealing with Conflict: The Heart of Healthy Community


Conflict will happen and you need a practice (an anecdote)

WHEN LARRY KAPLOWITZ and his wife Karin moved to Lost Valley in 1994, they arrived a few weeks after more than half the members had moved away for various personal reasons unrelated to the community. The remaining four members had desperately needed help for the community’s conference center business and put out the call for new people. Larry and Karin were part of ten newcomers who joined in response. The rapid turnover was difficult for everyone.

“Here, suddenly, were ten of us; enthusiastic, full of our own hopes and ideas, hurts and defenses, and relatively short on the kind of experience it takes to make community living work,” Larry recalls. “Lost Valley’s community culture, delicately woven over the previous years, couldn’t survive the onslaught. We began to sink in misunderstandings, resentment, and conflict.”

“Within a year, conflict had practically paralyzed us. In our weekly business meetings, where we make decisions by consensus, almost every new idea or initiative, if not rejected outright, was resisted or undermined. Some people had become so uncomfortable with each other that they would go out of their way to avoid crossing paths. Resentments simmered but were rarely expressed directly, except in occasional outbursts of anger. At times the tension was so thick we felt like we were choking on it.”

Eventually the people who were most at odds with each other left the community, and things improved a bit. But the experience had left people feeling hurt, discouraged, and cautious. For the next year, Lost Valley accepted no new members. People did their own thing and tried to stay out of each other’s way.

“By the summer of ’96 every one of us was frustrated, dissatisfied, and considering leaving,” Larry says. “We agreed that if we were going to survive as a community we needed major change, which meant we would have to face our difficult issues directly.”

"Serendipitously, they learned about the Naka-Ima training. A Japanese phrase meaning “here now,” Naka-Ima is an interpersonal healing method designed to help people reveal themselves honestly and connect with each other deeply. So the Lost Valley folks signed themselves up.

“By the end of the weekend training,” Larry recalls, “the obstacles we all had in the way of being clear, compassionate, and honest with each other seemed to have dissolved, leaving a room full of radiant beings. We knew that the ‘glow’ would come and go, and that our obstacles, defenses, and wounds would continue to play havoc with us. But they no longer had the same power over us. As we integrated what we’d experienced over the next few weeks and months, we became increasingly honest with each other. We began taking the time to stop and address issues, conflicts, and hurts. We began making space for each other to express our feelings.”"

The “Rock Polisher” Effect

Good process (for resolving conflict) is essential to community

This is why good process is so important to community. For life in community to be better than it was before, we’ve got to be better than we were before. In fact, we need good process skills more when we’re involved in community, since the community process tends to trigger faster-than-normal spiritual and emotional growth. The “crucible of community” tends to magnify and reflect back to us our own most destructive or alienating attitudes and behaviors. We become magnifying mirrors for each other. The more intensely we dislike these attitudes and behaviors in other community members the more likely we have them in ourselves (or used to have them), although we may be unaware of it. The more we criticize other people for them, the more likely that we’re unconsciously condemning ourselves for doing the same.

The Roots of Conflict: Emotionally-charged Needs

Having deeply-buried emotionally charged needs is not the problem. The problem is believing that at some level that community will somehow meet these needs. The secret, silent demand that community or other community members must provide what seems to be missing adds a cutting edge to conflict. This is why arguments about what on the surface seem like ideologies, priorities, or values, can be so intense. I may assume that community means valuing inclusion (because I desperately needed acceptance as a child and didn’t get it); you may assume community means freedom for each of us to do our own thing (because you desperately needed autonomy as a child and didn’t get it). So we end up having fierce fights about what “community” means."

Seven Kinds of Community Conflict We Wish We’d Left Behind

Here are how certain habitual “old paradigm,” “dominator culture” behaviors and attitudes are often expressed when transplanted to intentional community. We can begin to dismantle these behaviors in ourselves by first realizing that if we want to live more sustainably and harmoniously in community than we did in mainstream culture we’ve got to change ourselves too!

  1. Founder’s Syndrome (I). Unconsciously assigning parent and authority figure roles to founders and acting out adolescent rebellion and self-identity issues by resenting, undermining, and/or challenging the community founders’ wisdom or experience, and/or the validity or relevance of the community’s values, vision, or purpose.
  2. Founder’s Syndrome (II). Founders’ clinging to an unconscious self-image as parents or authority figures; assuming a wiser, superior, or more privileged status than other members; and resenting, undermining, or challenging any efforts to question the founders’ authority or otherwise offer the community innovation, new perspectives, or change.
  3. Visionary Abuse. When dynamic, energetic, visionary founders, burning with a spiritual, environmental, or social-justice mission, work grueling hours in primitive, cramped, uncomfortable, or health-risking conditions, and happily expect all members, interns, and apprentices to do the same. Related to eco-macho, sustainabler than thou, campground macho (“We all lived in tents for three years with no heat, electricity, or running water, and you should too”), and community macho (“Community is not for wimps: we can take it, can you?”).
  4. Violating community agreements. The resentment and erosion of community trust that occur when a few people don’t follow the community’s agreements and policies consistently, while others follow and uphold them.
  5. Letting people get away with violating community agreements. The further resentment, erosion of trust, and breakdown of community well-being that results when a member isn’t called on disregarding agreements and so continues disregarding them. By default the person becomes a kind of community aristocrat with the privilege of living outside the normal rules. Often perpetuated by interpersonal power imbalances.
  6. Interpersonal (as compared to “structural”) power imbalances. Conflict, resentment, and the breakdown of trust in community when some members have more power than others because of behaviors that others are reluctant to or afraid to deal with. These can include:
    • Intimidation power: Habitually emanating anger, suppressed rage, “panic-anger,” and burning intensity; speaking sharply or harshly, bossing people around, criticizing people frequently, and sometimes name-calling and shouting people down. The person with intimidation power wields power over other members because it’s difficult to muster the courage or energy to disagree with their opinions or ask them to change their demeanor. People may have tried many times to ask for change and have given up, or the person is now less aggressive as a result of past feedback and others are too worn down to ask for further change, or the person also offers such beneficial qualities that others resign themselves to having a mixed blessing and let it go.
    • Undermining power: “Bad-mouthing,” discrediting, and undermining another person’s behavior and/or character to other community members; assuming the worst about the targeted person’s motives and then criticizing those motives to others (“He’s just trying to rip us off,” “She’s just trying to control everyone”); not distinguishing between one’s own fears about the person and objective reality; not talking about these concerns with the targeted person or setting up a third-party mediation. The undermining person wields power over others in the community because s/he operates behind people’s backs, and others are reluctant to voice concerns about this behavior for fear they’ll be targeted next.
    • Hypersensitive power: Reacting to even mildly worded feedback or requests for change as though it were an intolerable personal attack; becoming visibly upset when others disagree with one’s views or beliefs; responding with such defensiveness and self-justification so that people give up: “You can’t tell Reginald anything.” This wields power over other community members because no one has the energy or patience to deal with this person’s high level of fear and drama. People with hypersensitive power, like those with intimidating or undermining power, maintain their power over others because they rarely receive feedback.
  7. Assuming the worst about other people’s motives. Resenting and criticizing someone not only for what they may have done, but also for the assumed “worst-case scenario” motives for their actions (He’s trying to cheat us,” “She just wants to bully everyone,” “He’s always trying to show off ”) and using these assumptions as proof of the person’s malfeasance or character flaws without (1) realizing these are assumptions, not facts, and (2) not asking the person if the assumptions are true.

Twenty-four Common Sources of Community Conflict

“Structural Conflict” Set-ups

  1. Vision and values differences. Arguments over how money should be spent, or how time and labor should be allocated, based on differing values or visions about the community. (See Chapter 4.)
  2. “Structural” power imbalances. Resentment and blame arising from real or perceived power differences in terms of how decisions are made and who makes them, or who has more influence than others in the group, either because of persuasive influence, expertise, or seniority in the community. (See “Interpersonal power imbalances,” above.)
  3. Exhausting, divisive, or unproductive meetings. Resentment and anger from too-frequent, overlong, or dragging meetings that accomplish little and go nowhere, or meetings characterized by resentment or hostility. (See Chapter 6.)
  4. Lack of crucial information. Arguments about whose fault it is that we’re suddenly stopped in our tracks, or must raise unexpected funds because we didn’t adequately research something earlier; for example, not knowing that our local zoning regulations don’t permit our planned population density or clustered housing, or not knowing composting toilets are illegal in our county.
  5. Remembering verbal agreements differently. Eruptions of resentment, blame, or hostility because some community members appear to be dishonest or trying to cheat others, because we all remember our financial or other agreements differently. We can’t just look up the agreements because we didn’t write them down. (See Chapter 7.)
  6. No communication or behavioral agreements. Misunderstandings and resentments because group members have widely divergent communication styles or behavioral norms. What are our norms for how people talk to each another, or express disagreement and strong emotion?
  7. No processes for accountability. Resentment, blame, and flying accusations because some of us didn’t do what we said we’d do, and certain projects can’t move forward because some earlier tasks are unfinished, causing us to lose money or miss important opportunities.
  8. No membership criteria or new-member screening process. Resentment and mistrust arising because new people enter who don’t share our values and vision, don’t align with our community culture, or can’t meet our financial and labor requirements. (See Chapter 18.)
  9. Being swamped with too many new members at once. Disorientation, overwhelm, depression, loss, or panic because the “container” of our shared history, values, and culture is threatened or damaged by the sudden influx of more people than we can assimilate easily. (Forming community groups and communities do better to add new members slowly.)
  10. High turnover. Disorientation, overwhelm, depression, and associated emotions because too high a percentage of members are continually coming and going for the community to establish a sense of itself. The center does not hold; there’s no “there” there.

Differences in Work and Planning Styles

  1. Processors vs. Doers. Conflict between group members who want to process emotions or clear up points of meeting procedure, and those who want to focus on facts, strategies, and “real” things, but who sometimes override other people’s feelings or ignore agreed-upon procedures.
  2. Planners vs. Doers. Tension between those who want to gather facts and data and make long-term plans before taking action, and those who want to leap in and get started.
  3. Spiritual vs. physical manifesters. Annoyance and impatience between those who want to use visualization, affirmation, or prayer as the primary means to manifest community, but may not feel comfortable with budgets, mortgages, shovels, or power tools, and those who want to use strategic plans, cash flow projections, and work parties as the primarily means to manifest community, but are leery of “invisible stuff.”
  4. Differences in information processing. Disrespecting, dismissing or devaluing people who may process information differently (visually rather than aurally, in wholes rather than step by step), or at a different pace than we do.
  5. Differences in communication style. Socioliguistic differences based on region, ethnicity, subculture, socio-economic background, gender, or whether a member has lived in communities for decades or just arrived from the mainstream.

Neighbor Issues

  1. Behavioral norms. Conflict over what’s considered acceptable behavior in community; for example, to what degree people might intervene in or restrain potentially unacceptable, unsafe, or destructive behavior of other people, their children, or their animals. Can community members request changes in parents’ child-raising style, or request that others restrain, train, or fence their animals? What are standards of acceptable behavior outside the community, where someone’s behavior might reflect on the community?
  2. Boundary issues. Tension about what community members do on their homesites, in their adjacent homes, or shared common spaces, that can be seen or heard by others, including what noises may too loud or disruptive to others during certain hours or what physical objects might be an eyesore to others. What behaviors — such as disciplining children, having loud arguments, butchering livestock, drinking, taking drugs, nudity, displays of affection, or sexual expression — are fine for some to overhear or view are fine and which are “over the line.” To what degree can fellow community members borrow each other’s personal items without asking? What degree of playful, affectionate, or sensual physical touch is welcome to some and unwelcome to others?
  3. Care and maintenance issues. Conflict about standards for taking care of and maintaining jointly owned equipment or tools, and who’s responsible.
  4. Cleanliness and order issues. Tension over standards for cleanliness in common rooms, and cleanliness of jointly used items and how they’re stored, particularly in kitchens and bathrooms, and who’s responsible.
  5. Lifestyle issues. Conflict arising from items some members may own or activities they may enjoy privately — smoking, liquor, drugs, guns, pesticides, and meat eating — which may be no big deal for some but disturbing to others. Conflict over the degree to which relationships between families, couples, or households may be the business of other members, such as parents’ discipline or lack of discipline with children, open marriages, polyfidelitous relationships, or gay or bisexual relationships. To what degree is how people treat each other in their love relationships the business of other community members?

Every one of these conflicts can be reduced or prevented by well-crafted agreements and procedures, good training in group process, or both

Every one of these conflicts can be reduced or prevented by well-crafted agreements and procedures, good training in group process, or both.

Creating Specific Conflict Resolution Agreements

A Specific Conflict Resolution Agreements from Sowing Circle

Some groups create a set of agreements about how community members will handle conflict when it comes up. Here are the agreements Sowing Circle made, excerpted from their “Conflict Resolution Policy.”

Sowing Circle Community: Conflict Resolution Policy

When confronted with conflict of any kind, the community agrees to adhere to the conflict resolution principles and steps outlined below:

  1. Problem-Solving Ground Rules. All members agree to attempt to solve problems by first dealing directly with the person or persons with whom he/she is experiencing problems. Implicit in this agreement is a commitment to honest, direct problem-solving. All members will agree to the following ground rules when involved in conflict resolution efforts:

    1. A commitment to mutual respect.
    2. A commitment to solve the problem.
    3. No put-downs.
    4. No intimidation, implied or direct.
    5. No physical contact.
    6. No interrupting.
    7. Agreement to use the conflict resolution protocol, below.
  2. Conflict Resolution Protocols. Community members in conflict will:

    • Make a good faith effort to resolve the problem between/among themselves. If this does not work, the members in conflict will:
    • Ask a mutually agreed-upon member to help mediate and solve the problem with those having the conflict. If this does not work, the members in conflict will:
    • Formally request assistance from the community in solving the problem.
    • If the community is unable to assist in resolving the conflict, and all avenues of conflict resolution have been exhausted, then the community may choose to engage in outside mediation to solve the problem.
  3. Third Party Confidentiality. We recognize the importance of the conflict resolution protocol outlined above, and agree to abide by it in principle and practice. As non-involved parties, we will encourage conflicting parties to deal directly with one another. However, we also recognize the need, at times, to discuss, seek advice, or seek comfort from others while in the midst of conflict. Such a situation requires confidentiality. As “third parties” who are approached for solace, advice, etc., we agree to provide these things in the spirit of helping to improve the situation.

    We do not wish to contribute to rumors, gossip, “bad-mouthing,” or the perpetuation of problems. If a person who is experiencing a conflict with one or more people on the property approaches a neutral “third party” it is understood that the person is responsible for keeping the health and well being of the community in mind. That is, while maintaining confidentiality, the third party should remind the conflicted person of the conflict resolution protocol, if necessary. In addition, by virtue of being privy to the conflict at hand, the third party is also responsible for monitoring the situation. If the feelings, issues, etc., are leading to greater conflict or to a weakening of the community, then the third party should take steps toward facilitating resolution, even if this means exposing the fact (not details) of the problem at hand to others in the community.

  4. Confidentiality with Regard to Internal Community Conflict. In the spirit of protecting the privacy and rights of members of the community, we are committed to maintaining confidentiality regarding individual and community issues of a sensitive nature when speaking with people outside the community.

Helping Each Other Stay Accountable to the Group

AKA integrity matters

One of the most common sources of conflict in community occurs when people don’t do what they say they’ll do. As in business, this often causes repercussions “downstream,” since some people count on others to finish certain preliminary steps before they can take the next steps. But by putting a few simple processes in place, community members can help each other stay accountable to one another in relatively painless, guilt-free ways.

A Graduated Series of Consequences

You have to have a way to deal with violation of agreements or norms

It’s especially painful for community groups when someone consistently violates agreements or behavioral norms, or refuses to make changes repeatedly requested by other community members regarding behavior or communication style. One remedy is to agree on and implement negative consequences for such offenses. In order to protect a community, it’s possible to design a graduated series of fair, compassionate consequences, from mild to increasingly serious, that treat people with respect while inducing them to make necessary changes.

You want these to be graduated the goldilocks like (not too severe, not too light)

Many communities have no consequences for such breaches, partly because most of us feel uncomfortable considering such matters, and partly because having negative consequences seems no different than the fines and jail sentences of mainstream society. It’s difficult for community members to propose or implement coercive methods of governance when what they really want is a finer, kinder, more conscious society than the one they grew up with. For the same reasons, the communities that do have consequences are often reluctant to enforce them.

Still other communities have consequences, but the consequences are too severe for the offense, so people are loathe to employ them. For example, one large income-sharing community has just one consequence for members who get too far in the “labor hole” (failing to do their share of labor) or the“money hole” (borrowing too much against future stipends) — eviction from the community. But this requires polling the members for 100 percent agreement to take this action. While many people in this community have gotten into the labor hole or money hole over the years, this consequence is rarely proposed. And when it is, usually enough friends of the member in question vote against it so he or she doesn’t have to leave. Everyone loses here. The community continues to financially carry members who contribute less and take more, and the offending member continues to get away with irresponsible behavior and has little motivation to change.

Here’s an example from Community Alternatives Society

Community Alternatives Society in Vancouver, Canada, had no real “rules” until they were forced to create agreements about behavior, and more importantly, institute a graduated series of consequences if anyone breached them. This community’s series of consequences treats members with respect, yet has “teeth.” Here’s what they do if someone seriously violates behavioral norms or repeatedly breaks community agreements:

  1. One person talks with the member in question about the problem and asks him or her to make changes.
  2. If this doesn’t work, four people meet about the problem — the first two and a trusted friend of each, again, requesting that the person make changes.
  3. If this doesn’t solve it, the person meets with the Accountability Committee to resolve the problem.
  4. If this still doesn’t solve it, the Accountability Committee creates a five-month contract with the member that outlines how he or she will make the necessary changes, and meets with the member monthly for updates. The purpose of the contract and meetings is not to punish or humiliate the member, but to encourage and support their making the changes.
  5. If even this doesn’t work, the whole community meets specifically to decide what action to take, which may include asking the person to live somewhere else for a while, and possibly also revoking his or her membership. The member can participate in this meeting, but has no blocking power.
  6. If most members want to take this action but one or more people block it, the committee meets with the member in question and the those blocking the proposal to seek resolution together.

This can include asking people to leave (as in Lost Valley)

After they took the first Naka-Ima workshop, Lost Valley members noticed two divergent trends developing in their community. Most members wanted to move in the direction of more cooperative and shared resources, but felt frustrated because other members wanted more independent lives. At that time, as a relatively small consensus-based group of ten members, it seemed that without something changing nobody would be able to get what they really wanted — especially since using consensus requires a common purpose.

“To those of us who held the cooperative vision,” Larry recalls, “it seemed necessary to break with precedent and ask the others to leave, freeing the energy to move forward. We didn’t feel we had enough of a foundation to tolerate that kind of diversity. This was the first in a series of courageous and risky choices that we believed we must take to restore our integrity as a community.”

The people did leave, and Larry reports that the community became more harmonious because of it.

Idealism and disillusionment

Community founders and newcomers often assume that they won’t need conflict resolution methods, ways to help each other stay accountable to the group, or consequences for violations agreements — since none of these issues will ever come up in their community. They assume they won’t be living in the “old paradigm,” so why have remedies for it? But a few months or a few years into the process they see that heir community does not at all resemble the harmonious and deeply connected “new paradigm” family they envisioned, and disillusionment sets in.

Usually they blame the community itself (“We’re so screwed up!”) or particular members (“If only Ollie would leave!”), rather than realizing they had unrealistic expectations to begin with, and they are having a typical (some say, inevitable) community experience.

Community life is more functional and satisfying than life in mainstream culture — but often not as functional and satisfying as we’d hoped! [emph added]

Community is like crossing a bridge between win-lose culture and the more harmonious and sustainable culture we aspire to and would like to leave to our children. Community members are traversing the bridge, passing from one realm to the other, helping generate that future as we keep learning better how to interact and communicate with each other in cooperative, win/win ways, resolve conflicts successfully, and so on.

Utilizing the processes described in this chapter isn’t evidence of our community’s failure. These processes are like training wheels; they’re small, helpful, devices to help us travel more easily from we’ve been to where we’re going — toward communities that are socially, ecologically, and spiritually sustainable.

Chapter 18 Selecting People to Join You


One bad apple can destroy a community (and even if doesn’t destroy it will eat a lot of energy)

IN THE MOUNTAINS AND HIGH DESERT valleys of southwestern Colorado, six professional women in their forties through sixties planned a small community I’ll call Pueblo Encantada. After awhile it became clear that a seventh person who’d recently joined the group, whom I’ll call Regina, couldn’t afford the $20,000 land-purchase contribution. Everyone assumed she’d no longer be involved, but Regina, deeply moved by the vision of a rural community in a beautiful setting, was convinced it was her destiny. “I know I should be there,” she said.“It’s calling to me spiritually.” So the other members, moved by the desire not to exclude anyone for financial reasons, and unwilling to go against anyone’s strong spiritual conviction, took Regina into the community, bought an 11-acre property, and placed her name on the deed with everyone else’s.

Most of the women lived and worked in town and visited the land on weekends, planning to move there as soon as they could afford it or after they retired. But a few, including Regina, lived on the land full time.

After about six months, tension arose over land use. Regina had acquired a horse, and insisted on certain requirements for pasturage and access to water, although this limited the other members’ use and enjoyment of the land. As a consensus-based group, no one could force the issue unless everyone agreed, and Regina didn’t. (And because they were new to consensus, no one realized there had been no real agreement in the first place since they’d never decided as a group to allow Regina to use that amount of land.) The conflict grew steadily worse. The other women resented Regina for behavior that seemed unfair and demanding, especially since they had literally gifted her with community membership out of their own pockets. Over the next several months feedback sessions didn’t work, threshing meetings didn’t work, outside mediation didn’t work. Finally, the others offered to split the 11 acres, with Regina retaining an acre and a half, although not the portion she wanted. She could reimburse the others in monthly installments, with no down payment. The community would continue, minus Regina, on the remaining nine and a half acres. But she refused. By now an intolerable situation, the only recourse the women had was to sue Regina to force the sale of the property and get their money out. This they did. In less than a year and a half, Pueblo Encantada had become Pueblo Nada.

If this weren’t bad enough, because Regina was on the deed as co-owner, the court disbursed to her one-seventh the proceeds of the sale, in spite of the fact that she’d paid not a dime. But this wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was that every one of the six women had felt uneasy about Regina when they’d met as a core group. Her energy, her communication style, and her near-insistence that she belonged on the land, had raised red flags for everyone. But no one had said a word, not wanting to appear unkind, or worse, “selfish.” Wanting to be generous, unwilling to heed telltale signs, and ashamed of their feelings of aversion, no one voiced her private misgivings. Being “nice” cost them their dream."

And those bad apples often are let in because people want to be "nice"

I think this is a crucial point:

If this weren’t bad enough, because Regina was on the deed as co-owner, the court disbursed to her one-seventh the proceeds of the sale, in spite of the fact that she’d paid not a dime. But this wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was that every one of the six women had felt uneasy about Regina when they’d met as a core group. Her energy, her communication style, and her near-insistence that she belonged on the land, had raised red flags for everyone. But no one had said a word, not wanting to appear unkind, or worse, “selfish.” Wanting to be generous, unwilling to heed telltale signs, and ashamed of their feelings of aversion, no one voiced her private misgivings. Being “nice” cost them their dream.

+niceness vs kindness.

Select for Emotional Maturity — the “Narrow Door”

If your community front door is difficult to enter, healthy people will strive to get in

“If your community front door is difficult to enter, healthy people will strive to get in,” says Irwin Wolfe Zucker, a psychiatric social worker and former member of Findhorn and other communities. “If it’s wide open, you’ll tend to attract unhealthy people, well-versed in resentful silences, subterfuge, manipulation, and guilt trips.” Once these people become members of the group, he warns, everyone’s energy may later be tied up in getting them out again."


Screen for emotional maturity (and here’s an example)

Your promotional materials can help you draw the kinds of people you’re seeking and deter anyone else. You can be explicit about this if you wish. One community’s brochure reads:

We’re looking for people who feel confident and good about themselves, who have achieved a degree of emotional maturity, and who can get along with others in a group situation.   We’re interested in people who don’t feel that they’ve been harmed or taken advantage of by others, or who don’t get the feedback that they’re moody, or touchy. We’re seeking people who enjoy the company of others, and are willing to ask for what they want and need.

Another reason to screen new core group members involves keeping the ones you’ve got.

Another reason to screen new core group members involves keeping the ones you’ve got.

But is it Community? [if you screen people out]

Isn’t community all about being inclusive? (Ans: No)

Many people don’t think it’s “community” unless the group is inclusive and open and anyone can join. Doesn’t community mean offering a more accepting, inclusive culture than mainstream society?

Most experienced communitarians would reply that not having criteria for new members — admissions standards, if you will — is simply an invitation for emotionally dysfunctional people to arrive. Without realizing it, they seek out communities in order to heal childhood hurts and wounds. They look to community to provide the loving family they never had. (One community founder told me that their community sign out front might as well have read: “Emotional Hospital — Welcome.”)

When I bring this up in workshops, many people shift uncomfortably in their seats — it goes against the grain to consider excluding people. I can always spot the experienced community members though; they’re the ones rolling their eyes with “you can say that again” looks. They’ve usually learned this through bitter experience; there’s no reason you should learn it the hard way too. “An intentional community is a scarce and valuable commodity in our culture,” observes communitarian Harvey Baker of Dunmire Hollow in Tennessee, “existing only because its founders have invested a lot of time and human resources. It’d be a shame to let in someone in who could destroy what has taken so many people so many years to create.”"

But what about the rock polisher effect?

But what about the rock polisher effect? Aren’t everyone’s rough edges worn smoother by contact with everyone else’s? Veteran communitarians often point out that most people naturally mature in community because of the (hopefully) constructive feedback they’ll receive and the natural tendency to learn from the (hopefully) good communication skills modeled by more experienced members. Many groups know people who were difficult to be around when they first arrived, but were so motivated to learn that they became model community members.

But the rock polisher effect appears to hinge on the willingness of the potential new member to learn and grow and change. I’ve seen forming communities — even those with otherwise fine process skills — break apart in conflict and sometimes lawsuits because even just one member didn’t have enough self-esteem to function well in a group. The person’s “stuff came up” — as everyone’s does in community — but theirs was too destructive for the group to absorb. When a person is wounded and having a difficult time, he or she can certainly benefit from living in community, and, ideally, can heal and grow because of the support and feedback offered there. But a certain level of woundedness — without “high willingness” — appears to be too deep for many new communities to handle. I believe one deeply wounded person can affect a group far more than ten healthy people — potentially derailing the community’s agenda and draining its energy.

In summary: rock polishing relies on ability to learn and grow (aka be coachable). This is why this is a foundational requirement.

Dealing Well with Saying "No"

You need to say no to some people and it is better to do that early

Whether a group has homes or lots for sale on the open market, or owns its property and can thus choose its members, is it worth it to ask someone to leave, given how badly they may feel? Consider this: someone who is not accepted for membership in a group or community feels disappointed, gets over it, and moves on. But someone who is accepted as a community member, moves to the community and lives there for awhile, and is later asked to leave, may be deeply scarred. It is far easier on everyone concerned to take this painful step at the beginning.

I’d much rather see a new community get established, sink roots, and grow strong and healthy for a few years before taking in a wounded person who might be disruptive but could benefit from community, than see them try this when they’re first starting out and risk everything in the process. You’re propagating from seeds here. You need all the protection you can get.

This can be so difficult that people don’t deal with it at all, especially if they were raised to believe that it’s not “nice” to say “No.” Like Pueblo Encantada members, people can feel ashamed of their feelings that something’s “not right,” and judge themselves for being “judgmental” or worse, for being “discriminating.”

“Judgmental” means to criticize someone as unworthy, whereas what you’re doing is assessing whether this person resonates with your visions and values, is aligned with your behavioral norms, and can meet your financial and labor requirements. And to “discriminate” means to recognize the differences between various choices; to differentiate, to discern. And discern you must, since you could be living near and sharing property with this person for the rest of your life"

How Can You Tell? (who to say no to)

Since most of us are wounded to some degree and are in various stages of recovery, how can we tell in advance who might be wounded severely enough to drain and exhaust the group? Most people with serious emotional difficulties don’t give off signals like Regina and Cal, but seem just like anyone else at first.

Screening new members

Great examples on joining processes.

Communities organize their membership screening process in various ways.

At Earthaven, for example, people learn about the community’s vision, values, membership requirements, and other information through its website and information packet (which includes magazine article reprints and a video). Interested people can take a tour, attend the community’s Council meetings, and arrange weekend visits.

The first stage of membership is to become a “supporting member,” which is an opportunity for the person and the community to get to know each other in a relaxed way without too much being asked of anyone. A supporting member can visit anytime, can live in the community if accommodations are available, can attend Council meetings but not participate in discussions, and receives the community’s newsletter and emailed copies of Council minutes. Supporting members pay a small monthly membership fee and sign an agreement saying that they understand the community’s vision and values.

When people decide to join the community they become “provisional members” for at least six months first (although it can be longer), which allows them and the community to get to know each other far better, with a fair amount of commitment on either side. Provisional members can participate in community meetings (although they cannot block proposals) and they’re encouraged to live in the community. They pay the community’s $4,000 joining fee and sign a contract agreeing to pay a site lease fee at the time of full membership. They are required to attend at least two committee meetings a month, work 48 hours per quarter on community tasks, and get to know as many community members as possible.

Supporting members apply for provisional membership by filling out a questionnaire about themselves and their community aspirations (which is shared with the whole group), as well as telling aspects of their life story at a whole group meeting convened for this purpose. If no one objects in to the person’s provisional membership status in the three-week period following the storytelling evening, he or she becomes a provisional member. (If the community doesn’t ultimately accept the person as a full member, the fee is returned. But if the person decides not to join the community, the community keeps one-third the fee as a deterrent to anyone’s joining too casually.)

In six months, if the person has met the labor and other requirements, he or she can apply for full membership. Community members are polled for their comments and whether they support the person’s becoming a full member. The questions include: “Have you been able to get to know this person? If not, why not?” and “How do you think this person could best contribute to the community?” and “Do have any concerns about this person as a member? If so, have you met with the person to discuss them?” If a member does have a concern, he or she must meet with the provisional member to attempt to resolve the concern. If issues cannot be resolved, or if the community as a whole has concerns about the provisional member, the person may be asked to continue in that membership status for awhile, and apply for full membership again later. If no one has any objections, the person is proposed for full membership at a Council meeting for consensual agreement. Then everyone celebrates.

Meadowdance has a similar process with successive levels of membership, but with more checkpoints; at the first-month, fourth month, seventh month, and 13th month, when the person becomes a full member. At each membership stage the person can participate in meetings, but cannot block a proposal. Meadowdance’s process must necessarily be more regulated than joining a village like Earthaven, since Meadowdance members join a household, share a kitchen, and work for the community businesses.

Most of the “successful ten percent” have similar multi-step membership processes.

Another story of it going wrong which points to value of long engagement periods

This is what two founders, whom I’ll call Celeste and Brad, asked after their upper Midwest community, which I’ll call Faraway Lake, broke up in conflict and heartbreak.

Celeste and Brad are two of the most likable, capable, and spiritually grounded people I know, so when they began planning a new community I was sure it would be a success. They wrote a beautiful description of their vision for Faraway Lake and attracted five other cofounders, each of whom seemed equally grounded and capable. The group met for months at each other’s homes to make plans.

After looking at over 50 properties the group found an ideal site by a lake, with everything they’d been looking for. While they had enough money for a down payment, they didn’t have enough to buy the land outright, so began a search for a mortgage. In the meantime they rented a cabin near their intended property and camped in the yard or slept dormitory-style in the attic. In order to make a living in their rural setting they started a small, cooperatively owned manufacturing business, for which Brad and Celeste and two others invested savings and borrowed start-up funds from friends. They rented and renovated a nearby factory space and set to work. Over the next few months the group toiled long hours at the new business, but still managed to take time out to enjoy stories around the campfire, go hiking and sailing, and meditate by the lake at sunrise.

Unfortunately their new business had a series of unexpected setbacks. The financial uncertainty, along with the fact that they lived in crowded conditions, strained their good will, and soon they began bickering. This didn’t alarm Brad or Celeste, who’d lived in community before and were old hands at group process. But in one member, whom I’ll call David, rage was growing. In sharing circles or feedback sessions, he seemed to be listening and understanding, but was secretly becoming even more angry, resentful, and entrenched in his position. He took a particular dislike to Celeste, who had asked him to change certain attitudes and behaviors toward people outside the community with whom they were doing business. As conflict escalated over the next few months and Celeste, Brad, and others attempted to give David feedback, the more he singled out Celeste as the cause of the problem. As their conflict grew worse, it got framed as a power struggle between the two of them. Celeste wanted David to become more conscious of and alter certain behaviors; he wanted her to stop trying to “dominate everyone.” As experienced communitarians, Brad and Celeste believed that since they all lived under one roof and were financially interdependent, David’s or any other member’s behavior was everyone’s business, but for David, it was an outrageous invasion of privacy. The group split into factions. Distrust and tension mounted.

Just when it seemed as though things could-n’t get any worse, the business failed, still deeply in debt. Exhausted and demoralized, the group felt it had no choice but to call it quits. Everyone moved away. After fourteen months Faraway Lake was no more. David, who’d put no money into the cooperatively owned business, refused to make payments towards reimbursing its loan. Living on their own again, dejected, and feeling strangely ashamed of the failure of their community dream, Brad and Celeste worked for the next three years to replace their savings.

“How could we have known how David would react to living in community?” Celeste later asked. “No one could have guessed by meeting him. During the months of planning he was one of the most engaging and delightful people you’d ever hope to meet. How could we have known?”"

Questions, References, “Long Engagements”

Long engagements are a good idea

I’m a firm believer in “long engagements:” extended guest visits or provisional memberships of six months to a year or more, so the group and the prospective member can continue to get to know each other. Most long-lived communities have discovered that this length of time is important. Sometimes it takes a year to find out what someone is really like, or more importantly, what they’re like under stress, and whether it seems they’ll be able to live happily with your community agreements.