notes: communes.space

These are some notes on seven short posts from http://www.communes.space/writing. This collection of writing is done by some folks who live in SF community houses, and was linked to from the Haight Street Commons Guide.

🇪🇸 Marinaleda: A 2017 commun-ish utopia

This post describes a visit to a small town in Spain that is autonomous and self-identifies as a "utopia". I don't think it is super relevant to my specific research interests, since I don't want to start a town, but there are still parallels to a community home.

One thought I had while reading this is that I don't think it's healthy to call yourself a "utopia" as if everything is perfect. There was no mention of the tradeoffs of living there, which I'm sure exist. I also didn't super enjoy this piece for other reasons including the way it glossed over details. Anyways, next one.

🎨 Design Patterns for new Coliving Spaces

Most of the rest of the posts are written by folks who live at The Embassy (which I believe is one of the HSC houses). This post described some common patterns and advice for starting a community home:

Some quotes I had notes about:

Start with a small group — 2–4 people, select a place, and then recruit the remaining residents.

I'd imagined before I'd get the whole group together first (all 10 of us or whatever) but I guess this makes sense to me. I think if I could find two (? maybe three) other people who were super down to move somewhere with me into a space and ideally stay there for a while, we could find a place with like 6-9 bedrooms (?? sort of guessing these numbers) and find other people to move in over time. They talk about renting out vacant rooms to artists in the meantime, as art workspaces, which is such a fun idea!

Expect a reshuffle in 6–12 months

This is something I would love to avoid if possible - I'm really hoping to live with close friends for a while and feel some stability around that. I wonder if reshuffling can be avoided if it's a much smaller group of close friends? But hm I should probably still anticipate more people to move out than I would expect - it's reasonable the vision doesn't end up working for some folks in practice.

🟢 How to Nurture a Living and Evolving Doocracy

I had never heard of do-ocracy before but the premise was super appealing to me! It avoids the fatigue around everyone needing to participate in making every decision by saying anyone can just go ahead and do something if (1) they inform folks about what they plan to do, (2) they leave some time for feedback before taking the action, and (3) the action being taken is fairly easily reversible.

I don't have much more to say about it other than I like the way the post talked about this system and its nuances and failure modes. I think do-ocracy is something I would want to implement in most group decision situations I end up in (e.g. at my job).

💰 Collaborative Finance at the Embassy: A Case Study

This post mostly goes over how they use an app called Cobudget, which seems pretty cool. The app lets you allocate money to individuals in a community to put towards community-funded projects. (This seems linked to the earlier mentions of having surplus money.) It was fun to read about the details of how they decide how much different folks in the community contribute and stuff.

It seems like this kind of setup would be useful beyond co-living situations. Cooperative businesses come to mind, but even like.. a group that wanted to donate to causes in a collaborative way and put some amount of their money into the pool monthly.

It's nice how this setup incentivizes having extra money - used to help fund projects, but also if there was an emergency the house could probably dip into this fund, and I'm sure that helps the financial situation feel more secure.

Experimenting with space and time

This post mostly discusses ways The Embassy thinks about private and public space.

It was neat to see them reference The Dispossessed, which is a novel I read recently that really excellently explores what an anarchist society could look like (without making it out to be a utopia). I can tell that the folks who live at The Embassy have a lot of influence from anarchism haha.

I thought this passage was fascinating

In our early days as a community, we at the Embassy SF together read Ursula le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’. Inspired by the ways that the novel describes the allotment of private space according to needs, rather than according to principles of ownership, we decided to try and be conscious of when we use possessional language. The longest standing example of this, is that we gave resident rooms names, and referred to rooms by name, rather than by ownership. For clarity, we encouraged people to say ‘the room which X person most often uses’. We took all the door locks off the doors, and encouraged people to leave their doors open during the day. Unused rooms are made available for use by others when there is no one in there, for reading, for phone calls, for hanging out, and for sleeping or taking partners (a couple of residents live in shared rooms).

I soon after read the passage in The Dispossessed that I think inspired this.

As a child, if you slept alone in a single it meant you had bothered the others in the dormitory until they wouldn't tolerate you; you had egoized. Solitude equated with disgrace. In adult terms, the principal referent for single rooms was a sexual one. Every domicile has a number of singles, and a couple that wanted to copulate used one of these free singles for a night, or a decad, or as long as they liked. [...] Aside from sexual pairing there was no reason for not sleeping in a dormitory. You could choose a small one or a large one, and if you didn't like your roommates, you could move to another dormitory. [...] privacy was not functional. It was excess, waste. The economy of Anarres would not support the building, maintenance, heating, lighting of individual houses and apartments.

This sort of makes sense to me, but also I was thinking about how much I value having my own room. When starting university, I wrote several paragraphs arguing for one of the few single rooms in my residence (and got one). I generally feel weird about letting friends stay in my room when I'm out of town, though I'm trying to get better about this because it really does seem useful to provide that space for people.

I was thinking about how when one of my housemates wasn't around because of covid, we used her room as a sunroom and did yoga in there, and that was really nice. I also heard of a situation where someone used the room of their housemate (who was also gone for months due to covid) as an office, despite that housemate specifically asking for no one to go in there -- but this office space also dramatically improved the quality of life of the person using it.

I think what feels important to me about having a room that is my own is the ability to control it. To leave and return and have it laid out exactly as I left it. There's a stability to having my own space, and a comfort in that stability. Then I started thinking about traditional relationship models and ownership ("my" partner) and the desire for stability. Lots of thoughts and feelings there.

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They also talk about having different areas of the house have different privacy conventions at different times. It reminds me of a spa near where I grew up that has social, whisper, and quiet zones - and you can move to whichever part of the spa fits the mood you're in then. This seems like it'd be awkward in a house if a bunch of people are quietly sitting and then it naturally evolves into conversation -- by needing to move spaces, you're making it harder to let conversation naturally start. But it could still be nice to have certain spaces/times for quiet things. Guidelines for what people want different spaces to feel like seem reasonable to just figure out with experiments over time :)

💮 Fractal Communalism

This post was pretty abstract, but there were a few high-level ideas in it that I found interesting:

The first is that community homes are ways to experiment with deviating from society's defaults. If there are different incentive structures, behavioral norms, economic systems, or whatever that you think would fit your values better and wish to see more of in society at large, you can try them out in a community home and see how they could work in practice. The writer mentions the term "prefigurative politics" which is defined as "modes of organization and social relationships that strive to reflect the future society being sought by the group".

The second point I took away from this post is that distributed communities are like a fractal in that people support each other within a community, but also communities support each other. And both the connections between people and between communities can take many different forms.

💞 Transitioning your Team to Collaborative Governance

I loved this post! It explores how to move away from centralized power in a group (where one or a few people have most of the context and make most of the decisions) to collaborative governance where power is more distributed.

Here are some quotes I enjoyed:

When you seek for a project to be collaboratively governed, there is an initial contradiction. Those who start the project inherently have more information and usually more power

all the key information was in my head. The purpose of instigating the project had been to create a collaborative community — but I didn’t know how to get that key information out. I would hold meetings to disseminate information; partially in an attempt to demonstrate my earnestness, I would share absolutely everything I could think of, but the result looked more like shell-shock than engagement. I was railroading people with information they didn’t know what to do with.

the question of distributing power or “installing self-governance” is not only relevant for initiatives seeking to transition, but also for healthy self-governing teams where power needs to be re-distributed on a regular basis (which, in a healthy self-governing team, is pretty much all the time).

Distributing power is not about “handing it off” to other individuals. It is about creating an environment where answers can emerge from the group. It is about everyone having the invitation and agency to contribute to the answer (and then empowering a team to execute).

The post then goes on to describe some concrete steps towards collaborative governance - starting with transparency, enough that people can participate and ask questions, building enough context amongst members that they can give informed consent to taking on responsibility, with power eventually being distributed as responsibility is distributed.

When thinking about situations in the past where I felt like I had a fair bit more power and context, I think one issue that arose is that people didn't seem to want to do the learning work to gain context. Part of this is that it's hard to communicate information in easily digestible ways, and part of this is that people always have limited bandwidth for doing things. So I think something important to think about here is how to be transparent and what strategies are most effective for providing people with enough information to participate more easily (and this can vary from person to person).

Though also... would everyone want power and responsibility? Do people want to take on more leadership work within a community? When I'm taking on organizational roles, is it because others don't know how or because they actively don't want to be doing them? I keep returning to an idea I first read early on - that only a few very driven people will start the community home (having more power at first), and others will become interested to contribute to the home once there's more structure in place. So maybe others wouldn't want the power/responsibility involved in creating a community home, but they would be willing to take on more equal responsibility once the work and required context are more clearly defined.