Notes on a whole book!
Here are some notes from Creating A Life Together - Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities. I've been reading this book as a way to dive deeper into the question of "what does it take to build an intentional community home?" It's much more targeted towards building a large rural environmentalist community than the smaller urban home I'm more interested in, but there have been many great takeaways regardless.
There were two quotes I appreciated from the intro:
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.
This is the sense I've gotten from loosely reading and talking about this stuff, and it's exactly why I've been wanting to read more about what a project like this would involve!
this information is not only for people forming new communities — whether or not you already own your land. It can also be valuable for those of you thinking about joining community one day — since you, too, will need to know what works. And it’s also for those of you already living in community, since you can only benefit from knowing what others have done in similar circumstances
It became quickly clear that this book was focused on rural communities, so I took a moment and thought to myself - would I want to live in a rural community? I think I'm mostly looking to do something smaller and tight knit, and be close to a bigger city of people to connect with outside of the immediate living community space. But I've visited some more rural communities (e.g. Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, in Marin) and I could see myself potentially wanting to join one someday!
They give a timeline of it often taking 5 years from having the idea to having the place bought and built and stuff, but the thing I want to do will likely involve way fewer people and less construction and stuff. I'm not sure how much some of the advice in this book will apply to me, but it's good food for thought. I'd also like to learn more about how long it generally takes to set up an urban community home -- could be worth reaching out to some housing founders.
Chapter one just went through various reasons why most envisioned communities living spaces never end up existing. One of the big ones was zoning laws. This seems especially relevant if you want to buy a plot of land where hundreds of people live in a different density than that land would usually be used for, but I'm still wondering how much zoning laws would be an issue for buying community housing property in a city?
Also if the community home ends up doubling as a business (e.g. one of the Haight Street Commons homes is also a bed and breakfast!) then I imagine the building would need different zoning. An easy out of this is to make a software company and claim you're "fully remote", though also it would be nice if the house I live in is not mostly tech people :p Anyways I'm not sure if I'd even want a community that lives and also works together, but it's a fun option to consider. (Cooperatively owned company! :D)
When I first read about making an LLC to buy property as a community, I felt sort of averse to it, but it seems super common. This book strongly recommends it, and I'm seeing how it's useful not just for managing money but for holding some of the risk -- LLCs make it so that if the house (company) goes into debt, none of the individuals are liable.
This book, like most things I've read so far, also talks about decision-making and consensus. After reading about do-ocracy, I've been feeling more skeptical when I see an argument strongly advocating for consensus (though practically I know both can be useful) but I found this passage interesting:
What often passes for consensus in many groups is merely “pseudo-consensus” — which exhausts people, drains their energy and good will, generates a great deal of resentment all by itself, and causes people to despise the process they call “consensus."
While I've read a lot about groups not liking consensus, I'm definitely curious if I'm missing useful details on how to do consensus, and if those tips help make it less of a slog.
It feels sort of related to ideas around scrum/agile at work, and how lots of companies do it in ways that feel tedious and unhelpful to employees. But sometimes a good training (that teaches you how to use the tools in ways that are most useful to a group's needs) can help a lot. There's a whole chapter in this book about consensus, which I'll share notes on a bit later :)
In a snippet describing the story of a co-housing setup, they say "after move-in we retreated to our individual homes to recuperate". I feel like this raises an interesting point around avoiding burnout in creating the space, specifically to avoid setting up a bitter start to living together. Setting up private spaces where you have permission to rest and not worry about social interrupts seems good for rest to avoid burnout (makes me think of that post about designing private and public spaces in a home from communes.space)
This chapter is pretty short and just goes over some skills the author suggests a community founder to have (e.g. entrepreneurial skills, patience, tenacity, ability to acknowledge and inspire others).
While reading this chapter I had a mostly unrelated thought which is that if I eventually decide to buy land for this, and considering that the buying-land process takes a long time, maybe the initial group who's doing the work to buy property could move into a month-to-month place in the city/area and live together while they look for the bigger space.
there was a bunch of misc high level advice in chapter 3 but here are some things I particularly wanted to mention:
This was an early piece of advice in the chapter and it seems really useful! I'd like to do more talking directly to people who have made communities similar to the one I'd like to be in one day (or slightly different!) and learn from their experiences. It would be fun to share notes from those chats here, too! It would be great to visit communities (like the ones in SF) once covid stuff is less of a concern, but for now calling people seems like a great start - if you know anyone that might be fun for me to chat with, lmk!
I appreciated this note:
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
This is such a classic problem at companies, where the founders want everyone to be able to contribute their thoughts and feel like equals, but they also want to have veto power over anything :p The author references some future chapters that discuss ways to have more spread out ownership, to avoid this issue, or to be much more clear about what things the owner does or doesn't have executive control over.
The author talks about keeping a decision log of every major decision that's been made. This is useful for when new people join and wonder why things are the way they are, and is also useful to avoid situations where you change the same thing back and forth several times over several years (each time forgetting why you didn't like making the switch last time). I wish more companies did this :p
A quote from the book:
people often don’t do what they say they will, with negative consequences for the group. You’ll need relatively painless, guilt-free ways to help you stay accountable to each other, such as task reviews, task wall charts, buddy systems, and other means. Sowing Circle founders agreed that one person would call each person to ask if he or she had completed their tasks. It was set up as an official tracking system, not a criticism, so no one would feel singled out.
This is an interesting system! I think that motivation and contributing continuously to group projects is a really difficult and nuanced topic, so I'm glad they're touching on it here.
Chapters 4 and 5 are about creating a "vision" for your community and documenting it. The idea is to be really clear as a group about what you want the community to be like.
“By describing what we want to have happen,” says Adam Wolpert, “it’s like an insurance policy for the future, for what we don’t want to have happen.
The author talks about "vision", "mission", "purpose", "values", "interests", "goals" -- which tbh I think are too many words to describe the same sort of thing. But I do agree with her that being clear about what your community plans to be, and what it plans to prioritize, is important for mitigating future conflict.
The example vision statements in the book were very ecovillage/rural/spiritual, so I went to the website of The Embassy (an SF community home discussed in communes.space) to see what they wrote, which feels much more relevant to the kind of thing I'd wanna do!
The Embassy San Francisco is a home and family built around purpose, intention, and exploration. We are 14 residents exploring co-creation, commoning, fluid use of space, and new ways of being in solidarity with one another. This is not a company nor an institution, but instead is a home and an intentional community.
One of the ways that we wish to use our surplus spatial commons is to build community with people who might not otherwise choose to live this way for a variety of reasons.
This kind of thing isn't just useful for agreeing (in writing!) within a community about what the community is about, but is also really useful for attracting new members who share that vision.
sidenote: throughout this whole book, I keep connecting these ideas to things tech startups do... which is a really weird feeling, but I guess makes some sense because they're both organizing a group of people towards something? But I hold some skepticism because, for example, I've seen how "company values" often aren't valued by company leadership the way employees had hoped. Hopefully it makes a difference that the power structures of a small community home are generally quite different than in a conventional startup.
Chapter 5 talks a bit about the process of coming up with a vision, and lists several exercises for a community to brainstorm and explore what they care about.
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 [...] misguided sense of wanting to take care of everyone or be ‘all things to all people'
I appreciated this quote because I think I often get anxious about trying to help everyone feel included and happy, in a way that can end up not meeting anyone's needs :p
Another quote related to this:
It is important to avoid the expectation that every initial member of the group should continue with the group, since for some that could mean either suppressing their own vision or attempting to force a vision on others that the others do not truly share.
The chapter talks a lot about how people can come to a community expecting it to be something in particular, and assuming that others think of community in the same way. What resources will be shared? How much autonomy will folks have? How much time do people expect to be spending together? How much work do folks expect others to put into the community? It's good to get any assumptions voiced early, so that everyone can get more on the same page.
Another way this can come up when listing values. The author says, "a group can agree on a common value, but not agree on the lengths to which each person would go to express that value". The example she gives is more related to a rural ecovillage type of place:
Let’s say everyone in your group assumes you’re all on the same page about what you mean by “ecological living.” But some of you want the community to grow most of its own organic food and everyone eat vegetarian, and others want each household to make its own decisions about this, and offer a choice of omnivore or vegetarian food at common meals
It seems important to not just talk about "values" but about specific examples of behaviours that express those values (something I think many tech companies could benefit from), and what you're willing and not willing to do to express that value.
One of the vision-building exercises goes like this:
If you suspect that some people do or don’t want something but don’t want to say so publicly, you can use this exercise. On a sheet of easel pad paper, write a horizontal line numbered from one to nine. Give everyone a blank slip of paper and ask them to write the number that corresponds to their level of support for the principle, activity, or situation you’ve been talking about. [...] Collect the slips of paper and make check marks at every number the people have written. You may have one mark at 9, three marks at 3, and three at 2, for example. Now you’ll have an immediate and visual way to see how the group as a whole really feels about the subject.
This got me thinking about the pros and cons of using anonymity -- I don't think one can ever assume that everyone will be comfortable expressing how they feel (and so having anonymous ways of expressing opinions seems useful), but I also think it's important to work towards creating a space where people feel comfortable bringing up their thoughts/disagreements, since it seems easier to work through them when there can be a back and forth conversation. I like how this particular exercise doesn't anonymize the conversation, but mostly just helps people get a sense of if they're not alone in their opinions, before they choose if they'll speak up.
I was especially curious to read this chapter because the author was really hyping up consensus in previous chapters, and in my previous reading I'd read about the glories of do-ocracy and how annoying consensus is.
The introduction of the chapter talks about power, and different ways people can have power in decision making. Some of these I'd been thinking about but hadn't put as clear words to, so this was cool to read! Here are some quotes:
She also talked about "plain and simple" power vs "authoritative" power
When people have authoritarian power, they enforce or perpetuate their power by punishing or ignoring those who disagree with them. This distinction helped me see that the authoritarian use of power is something most of us want to avoid, yet “power” — our ability to influence each other — is not only not negative, but something which, if we encourage it equally in our group, can benefit all of us
This helped me reframe my fear of power a bit. Different people might have different kinds of power (e.g. people look to them for leadership, or their role is more influential) and this isn't something that can be totally gotten rid of. The goal would be to help everyone have power, and also to make sure power isn't being abused. Though that goal also seems pretty hard :p
The author brings up power because she believes that decision making is the main point of power in a community, and it's important to have good decision making systems if you want to reduce power imbalances.
Earlier in the book the author made some claims that most people don't know how consensus works and that's why people don't like consensus, so I was curious to learn more here.
The gist is: insteof voting yes or no, you either give consent to a proposal (which means you're willing to support it even if it's not perfect), stand aside from it (which means you don't support it but don't want to stop the rest of the group), or block it (which means you're actively stopping the proposal from being adopted).
Before the vote, people can disagree with the initial proposal and help reshape it to something that works better for the community together. Through raising concerns and addressing them, the idea is that in the end you have a much better proposal.
People objecting to a proposal voice their concerns openly from the beginning, and the group attempts to modify and refine the proposal to meet these concerns. If, after much discussion, there isn’t much support for the modified proposal, the facilitator doesn’t call for a decision, but lays aside the proposal for a future meeting, or calls for a committee to suggest new solutions at a later meeting.
The most surprising thing I learned is that "people who understand consensus well will only block a proposal three or four times in their lifetime". A well-known consensus teacher is quoted in this section to have never blocked once in 50 years of consensus practice!
If this is a standard that encourages people to go along with things they actually hate, then that seems no good. But I think it's also important to remember that consensus also allows people to disagree and reshape a proposal, and this seems generally much better for a community than blocking things (which totally shuts something down). I also think it's good for a community to be enough on the same page that they're not regularly completely opposed to each other's suggestions in ways that can't be worked out. So I guess this makes sense!
You can probably reach this "barely block" state by avoiding using consensus except for important decisions, so that there's enough investment in the decision to spend time to come to something everyone can feel okay with. What kinds of topics are good for consensus? Maybe use consensus to decide which topics you don't need consensus for? (meta decision making! :p)
There was a section about what a team needs for consensus to work well. This list included: willingness to share power, willingness to let go of personal attachments in the best interests of the group, trusting each other, the right topics, equal access to power. A lot of these seem important but also really hard to have! Like, I don't think "equal access to power" ever truly exists and that's important to acknowledge that. I'd like to learn more about how to help the things in this list actually happen.
Another item in the list was "skilled facilitation". I think it would be cool if I took a consensus facilitation course some time, since it seems to involve a lot of useful skills for decision making and also group management in general. The leader of a meeting will always have some power and bias, and I'm curious how trainings try to mitigate that. How do you help reduce power and reduce potential for abuse of power of the agenda planners and facilitators?
One way to reduce the power of a facilitator is to not let them contribute their own opinion in the meeting. But then that means that someone in the community doesn't have a vote! Which feels weird for something like consensus. So maybe you hire someone?
With a sunset clause, the group agrees on a proposal for a certain period of time [...] at which time the decision is automatically discontinued and the situation reverts to what it was before. The decision can be continued (or continued and modified) only by a consensus of the whole. A sunset clause is a way for people who aren’t fully supportive of a proposal to allow the whole group to try it for a while without requiring the agreement of the whole group to rescind or modify it later if it doesn’t work out. [...] for sunset clauses to work well, the group must have a well-functioning agenda list and tracking mechanism for decisions so that the item will be brought up again later.
This feels like a great strategy for when someone is pretty sure something won't work out, but is open to trying it and seeing if those problems really do come up. It allows for experimentation and iteration, which I'm a big fan of :)
Consensus generates an entirely different dynamic among meeting participants than majority-rule voting. With the latter, competing factions usually try to win converts to their position by criticizing the other position and creating an “us versus them” atmosphere. But consensus creates an incentive for supporters of a proposal to seek out those who disagree with them and really try to understand their objections — and to reform the proposal to incorporate the other members’ concerns
If your reason is mostly to create a community and live with whomever resonates with its vision, you may want to use a faster decision-making method than consensus (such as super-majority voting), in these circumstances, regardless of the current members you may lose. If your reason is to create a community with your current group of friends, you may want a more inclusive method like consensus that builds support and connection, regardless of the great land deals you might have to pass up. [This was from a discussion about the tradeoffs of consensus taking longer, and how some decisions like buying land being both important and time sensitive]
Another pseudoconsensus notion is the belief that people need to stay in the room until they make a decision, no matter how long it takes (even if that means until four in the morning, as many ’60s-era political activists well recall.) If people believe they must keep talking about something for hours and hours until they all agree, their meeting is not well-facilitated and/or their agenda wasn’t well planned. A good facilitator keeps to the agenda’s planned schedule and suggests unconcluded items be tabled for future meetings and/or sends items to committee.
Some groups flounder in frustration and burnout because they believe everyone in the group must be involved in every decision, no matter how small. Not true. The whole group is usually needed for deciding major policy issues; smaller issues can often be decided by committees, operating with general guidelines from or oversight by the whole group
Consensus is often about giving permission to go ahead, even if you are concerned about the outcome. You give permission in order to have experiences to learn from.
This chapter emphasizes that even if you think everyone involved is kind and well-meaning and on the same page, it's important to think about and write down big decisions and policies to avoid conflict from people misremembering things later. Language is still imperfect - it's possible people will still think different things were decided, even if the decision was written down - but it definitely helps to have it written as a start.
The author says it's especially important to write down what would happen if things go wrong (e.g. there's not enough money to pay rent, someone needs to get kicked from the community, the community gets disbanded). These things can involve a lot of money and a lot of feelings, and it's useful to figure out what you might do before it actually happens.
This chapter talks about why you need a legal entity, and how to get the help of a lawyer.
Legal entities are useful to protect community members from lawsuits (or having their assets taken if the community goes bankrupt), for formalizing how members have ownership of the land, and a handful of other things. "Not to mention that without choosing a particular entity you might end up paying exorbitant, unnecessary taxes."
The author advises that a group come up with a best approximation of what kind of legal entity they want and how it will work, and then pay a lawyer to fill in the gaps (since they're quite expensive). LLCs (which are most common) are in particular quite flexible and can be set up in a variety of ways depending on what a group wants. I'm reminded of a friend who wanted to set up a coop company agreement and was trying to figure out if it would be cheaper to write their own documents and have a lawyer look it over, or just give a lawyer some instructions and have them write the documents themselves. Kinda depends on how likely you are to mess it up and make the lawyer totally rewrite it xP
I was thinking I didn't really want to get that involved in this legal stuff and could delegate it to someone else, but this passage encouraged me to reconsider:
Whichever legal entity (or entities) you end up choosing, I recommend that all community members — not just those experienced in business and finance — be as informed as possible about these matters. Community-wide knowledge and understanding helps the group function more intelligently and, more importantly, helps equalize power relationships within the community. It can prevent the common dilemma of power being concentrated in the business/finance intelligentsia, with all the attendant resentment and potential conflict that this can engender.
This chapter was hella focused around ecovillages and buying rural land, and zoning issues that affect ecovillages specifically.
Zoning issues might be relevant for urban homes, but they didn't really get into that. I might do some research into this and ask some city coop houses about any zoning issue problems they've had. One solution to zoning issues that they recommended was to just break the rules but be a small enough community that no-one notices or cares :p
The chapter involved several stories of groups buying land, and every story had lots of major changes in their financing plans throughout their process, especially near the time when they went to actually buy the land. Buying land is generally quite expensive and it's expected some people might back out, so I'm mentally preparing myself for this happening if I ever go to buy land with a group.
This chapter seems to be mainly about rural properties, so I skipped it.
This chapter seems to be mainly about rural properties, so I skipped it.
Maybe I won't end up needing loans, if I join up with enough rich tech folks, but also I don't want to live with only rich tech folks, so this seems useful to look into.
They emphasize that loans from friends and family, or from the group selling the property (owner financing), are generally better than bank loans because they're more flexible in how consistently the loan is paid back. Essentially: banks don't care about you, they just want more money.
It won’t matter if you've paid 90 or 95 percent of the loan before missing a few payments. Banks (and some owner-financers) will still repossess your property; in fact, it’s more lucrative for banks to repossess your property when it’s almost paid off.
They also talk about how banks might be hard to get loans from. They might discount a group's combined borrowing power because they don't want to deal with multiple borrowers. Another random thing that can make it harder is that the Federal National Mortgage Association apparently doesn't accept consensus as a reasonable decision making process... so groups requesting mortgages from banks would need to be careful not to put consensus in their bylaws lol.
Lastly, there was discussion about refinancing a loan from one place to another - e.g. get a loan from a bank quickly, and later pay off that loan with money from friends/family (and then pay back friends/family over time). Refinancing is a lot harder if the loan has penalties for paying it off early, since it makes it more expensive to move the loan elsewhere.
This chapter seems to be mainly about ecovillages, so I skipped it.
I thought this chapter would be more about "how to make a community where people aren't all rich" but instead it was mostly "how to make sure people have any money at all when you live in the middle of nowhere and there are barely any jobs".
If I ever decide to make a community home where we also have a business together, I'll try to remember the author's advice that the people you live with might not be the people you want to work with.
This chapter discussed several options for legal entities and took me soooo long to read. I think the main takeaways are:
It seems like there's a tradeoff between giving members equity in the house (providing them with money to live elsewhere if they leave) and keeping rent money in the community to keep rent more affordable. This was discussed a bit in this chapter, since different legal entities have different flexibility around letting a group do either of those options.
There was a group that paid back some of a member's rent when they left, and only starting with what they paid in the fourth year, so that members would have to live there a while to be eligible.
I feel like there's gotta be a solution that keeps rent affordable but also allows members to have some money if they leave, but I haven't found a great one yet.
This chapter seems to be mainly relevant to rural communities that also run businesses, so I skipped it.
I really appreciated how this chapter discussed different kinds of conflict that can show up in a community home, as well as strategies to reduce and manage it.
The author reiterated that it's important to be specific about what members want from a community (the values it prioritizes, "what community is") since people can end up with conflicting assumptions, which is a common source of conflict.
There's this great list of 24 sources of conflict - some of note include:
I thought it was interesting that when discussing power imbalances, the author listed hypersensitivity as a kind of power, i.e. becoming easily upset when disagreed with. "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".
Then the author talks about feedback as a way to communicate about problems before they become big sources of conflict, and provides some tips on giving feedback in constructive ways (I won't get too much into that here). There was some discussion about pros and cons of giving feedback in public, which I thought was interesting -- if you tell someone they don't do their dishes in a public setting, others can jump in to defend them, but there's also the possibility of it feeling like a bunch of people ganging up on someone.
She also talks about how useful it can be to have people communicate about what's going on in their life. One way to do this is have people share how things are going at the start of every meeting, e.g. "my aunt is sick and I'll be busy taking care of her". This helps people have reasonable expectations of each other in their contributions to the community.
Then they talk about how a community needs to hold people accountable to the work they sign up for and to the values and guidelines of the community. From experience, I know it can be really hard for people to commit to things and then actually do all of them. I think this problem is exacerbated when people are encouraged to commit to more than they can take on (by the community, or their own other incentives). I've been thinking about this a lot after leading projects at work, heh.
The author says that a "desire not to let others down usually becomes an internalized motivator for more responsible behavior", but that if someone still can't do what they commit to, then the community can move through a graduated series of consequences. A small group can meet about the issue (including a trusted friend of the person being held accountable), then a committee can create a several-month contract with the member to plan how they'll make the necessary changes, and then if that doesn't work the community can vote to ask the person to leave.
The author says "The purpose of the contract and meetings is not to punish or humiliate the member, but to encourage and support their making the changes", but I feel like it's just so easy for this type of thing to feel punishing or humiliating. A coworker of mine said Performance Improvement Plans at companies rarely improve performance and mostly push people out of the company. I'm trying to remember that a community home has much different power structures than a workplace (usually) and hopefully that makes a difference?
Lastly, the author mentions that many communities assume they'll never have problems like these, but these issues are actually very common and it's okay if they happen (and it doesn't mean the community is "screwed up"). But this also means that communities should be prepared with process to manage conflict and accountability issues when they come up.
This chapter discusses how to find new members who are a good match for a community's specific goals and values and interests.
The author warns about making membership criteria that you (or current members) wouldn't be able to pass. It seems good to know what you're looking for, but also to be realistic.
The author also talks about having multiple stages of bringing a member into a community -- first spending a weekend, then living there on provisional terms before being a permanent member. This seems useful, and I've seen things like this in SF community home postings, like this:
We offer new housemates a 2-3 month trial lease. A housemate becomes a core member of Sunbeam if, at the end of the trial lease, both the existing core members and the new housemate are excited to continue the arrangement long-term.
I do worry about it being a bad experience to be not fully accepted yet while living somewhere, but maybe there are ways to mitigate things like a fear of upsetting the people who'll be determining if you can stay.
The author talks a lot about how emotional maturity and financial stability are important for incoming members, which I think is completely reasonable, especially for a community that is starting up and less stable.
But then she goes on to discuss some really strange proxies for assessing someone's emotional and financial state, like being a single mom on welfare, or having flat affect.
I'm pretty sure there are ways to directly look for criteria like:
The author seemed skeptical of people who have experienced heavy conflict and who feel like they've been wronged. She quoted a community's ad: "we're interested in people who don't feel that they've been harmed or taken advantage of by others". I really didn't like the angle this chapter took around these things, and it was a pretty unfortunate way to end the book.
I did like two other points she made:
It can be useful to ask people for references (from landlords, coworkers, friends, partners, exes). It's possible they give specific contacts that will say nice things, but the author points out that sometimes it's easy to tell if someone is doing this by the people that they choose. (e.g. they only provide contacts in a category they have a wide selection of like "friend", instead of "employer")
The earlier a community tells someone no, the less that person is negatively impacted. If they're rejected as they're applying then that's a small inconvenience, but if they're brought into the community and are rejected after living there for several years then that can be very painful. So sometimes it's good to reject people early.