If Only There Was A Twin Oaks On The West Coast

If Only There Was A Twin Oaks On The West Coast

If I had a dime for every time someone said, “if only there was a Twin Oaks on the west coast…” well, I’d maybe only have ten bucks, but it’s been frequent enough that if it existed I’m sure it would be popular. For reference, I was a member at Twin Oaks for 14 years, and have been in its orbit for 22. Check out the photos.

There are lots of great intentional communities on the west coast. So, what does Twin Oaks have that communities on the west coast don’t? 

Twin Oaks is a 100 person, rural, income-sharing community. I’m not aware of any communities on the west coast that have those characteristics. But so what? Why does that matter?

Having no buy-in, and community businesses that provide most of the community’s income, Twin Oaks is one of the few non-religious communities that you can theoretically join with nothing but the clothes on your back and not need to find a job. This combined with a high degree of resource sharing means that the amount of money the community needs per person is relatively low, around $7500 per person per year. Labor quota at Twin Oaks is 42 hrs/wk, but the average member only has to spend about 15 – 20 hrs/wk working in the community businesses. The rest of your quota goes towards things you’d normally have to do on top of a 40 hr work week but don’t get paid for.

This has a number of benefits.

In many other communities you have to do anywhere from 5 to 20 hours a week for the community (there’s often an inverse relationship between how much you have to pay to live in a community and how many hours you have to do) on top of needing to figure out how to provide for yourself financially. This is especially challenging in rural areas.

The pervasive money-stress and vulnerability that exists in mainstream capitalism is mitigated by the collective responsibility the community takes for its financial needs. 

It also means more time for, among other things, care work. Childcare, eldercare, and caring for sick, injured, or struggling members all count towards your labor quota. Sick hours can be taken as needed. There’s about 4 weeks of free labor credits built in (basically paid vacation), with the ability to work extra and bank more. There are also hours budgeted for organizing community holidays, local relations, and movement support. 

Taking collective responsibility for the needs of its members makes it possible for Twin Oaks to be one of the most integrated intergenerational communities I’ve ever seen. Many babies have been born there, and many elders and others have passed away. People spend a lot more time socializing with non-age peers. Kids get to have lots of adults of different ages in their lives. No one has yet been born there and died there, but it could easily happen. Twin Oaks is an intergenerational community not only in the demographics of its members, but also in that it was designed to have a stable population and outlive its founders, which it has done.

The economics of the community also support a high degree of self-sufficiency. At its peak the community produces about 60% of its own food through gardens, herbs, orchards, chickens, and cows. It has a communal woodshop, auto/bike/machine shop, maintenance barn, a fleet of shared vehicles, and does the vast majority of its own building and maintenance. It maintains public offices and an internal computer network, including a large media library. There are also amenities like a music room, a pond and sauna, book library, and various multi-purpose spaces that can be signed out by anyone. It maintains 7 residence buildings, a large clothing library, a robust food system with a dining hall and small kitchens, and provides for all health, mental health, and dental needs.

There is no money exchanged internally. Working quota gives you equal access to the resource-sharing systems of the community, which everyone helps manage, and is paid for by the businesses the community runs. 

There are certainly trade offs with income-sharing. You give up a degree of autonomy and control, which can be very emotionally challenging for people. If you need to be able to do whatever you want with your stuff whenever you want, it’s not a good model. Collective finances can be complicated. But trying to have an economically involved community based on individualized finances can also be complicated. Treating the whole community as a collective operation can also allow for some degree of specialization, potentially freeing you up from things you might not like doing, like accounting or auto maintenance or cooking, and you get to do a bunch of those things if you do like them. But no one is stuck doing the same thing for 40 hours a week if they don’t want to. And you get the satisfaction of having the majority of your time going towards activities where you see immediate, direct benefit, both for yourself and others. 

Another thing that Twin Oaks has going for it is it’s size. Typically around 80 – 90 adults and 15 – 17 kids, with anywhere from 10 – 20 guests and visitors (pandemics notwithstanding), it’s large enough to maintain a robust social-culture. Support and activity groups are easy to organize, and it’s not hard to get people to show up for parties and gatherings. It can certainly be too insular at times, but it also allows for a level of cohesion that’s hard to maintain in communities where people are more dispersed, particularly because of the need to work outside jobs. 

There are also things about Twin Oaks that would be hard for a lot of people. All residences are shared. You get your own room, but personal space is minimized. But it doesn’t have to be this way. That’s just the choice Twin Oaks made. Things are fairly dirty, cluttered, and broken, but again, that’s a choice. Twin Oaks has also made choices around its businesses that have led to the community being relatively poor. The community could decide to put a little more time into income production, and make some different operational choices, and have more money without losing much of its flexibility around labor.

There’s also plenty of petty drama, gossip, and interpersonal conflict. To some extent this is just people being people and it happens in any organization. It’s exacerbated by being so intertwined as a community. You have 80 or 90 adults sharing a checkbook, working together, and living in shared residences. It’s like being married. There’s just more fodder for shit to happen. But there are also things that could be done to reduce it. Again, it’s a choice.

Another major challenge that Twin Oaks is not alone in facing is what the worker co-op movement has referred to as ownership culture. It’s very easy for people to relate to the institution of Twin Oaks as being separate from them, and feel disempowered, disengaged, and/or entitled. I think the combination of size and centralization make it harder to foster a culture of responsibility, commitment, and intimacy. Having the critical mass of people is nice, but better use of small affinity groups might help.

But in the end, it works. It’s one of the few working examples of how an anti-capitalist society could work. Iit has huge benefits and it would be great if there were more communities like it all over. And after 54 years Twin Oaks has probably found most of the pitfalls of this kind of system, which means there’s a lot to learn from.


15 Replies to “If Only There Was A Twin Oaks On The West Coast”

  1. Nice summary. I often read stuff online written about Twin Oaks by people who (pardon my French) don’t actually know shit about Twin Oaks. Sky has put in the time and energy and understands TO with all its ups and downs as much or more than anyone out there writing about the community.

  2. I lived at TO beginning January of 1970 thru October, 1971, with a 6-month hiatus from January through May of 1971 (to live and work at Green Valley School in Orange City, FL). I was known as “Little Dickie Stutsman”, or LDS for most of that time. I was TO’s first openly gay member. I started out living in Harmony’s furnace room and so had a private room and a pet cat and my small portable Royal typewriter. I well remember founders Blues, Deneise, Rudy, Kat and her mate Walt and her daughter Josie/Susan, Tamar (always the Labor Credit Manager) and her bo Luke, Steve, Marnie, Josh, Fox, young (hot) Karl, Sara, Bruce, Gabe, Ron, Geri, Piper, and a dozen others. There were 18 members when I joined and about 30 when I left. We purchased and ran that country store around the bend. I was (with Rudy) one of the died-in-the-wool Skinnerian behaviorists, having quit grad school at UF while studying “the experimental analysis of behavior” in order to join. But I was also a big fan of A. S. Neil’s idea and his book Summerhill for how to educate and raise kids. I founded the failed TOPIC – Twin Oaks Programming Equipment Company. I was appointed one of the planners during my latter days, promoting a platform of raising our allowance from 25 cents to 75 cents per week and converting single rooms into double rooms for those wanting more privacy. My roommate Ron and I hitchhiked to Cambridge and met with B. F. Skinner and continued on to a 60-head diary farm in Massachusetts whose owner wanted to convert it to a Walden Two commune and where we worked as farm hands for two weeks before returning to TO. A lot of water has run under my bridge since then!

    1. Such an interesting perspective on that moment in TO history. I lived there for two years, from March 2017-February 2019 and it was so different. $100/month, ~85 members, and much more individuality around raising kids. Great to hear about that time though! A couple of those names are familiar too

  3. I should add that I am now retired and live on the West Coast in west Los Angeles. Moderators, please feel free to insert paragraph separations in my previous comment. (I’m so used to Facebook comments not allowing multiple paragraphs.)

  4. Thanks for this article. I feel it does a good job balancing the complex pros and cons of this community which is a bit alien to most folks. It did feel like it was missing a link where people could go if they really wanted to start a Twin Oaks like community on the west coast. If this is your desire perhaps you should go to the next West Coast Communities Conference. https://www.facebook.com/westcoastcommunitiesconference
    If you find this description of Twin Oaks interesting you might also like this one https://www.facebook.com/westcoastcommunitiesconference

    1. As far as I know there are no plans for another west coast communities conference. Someone could always try and pick up the torch though.

  5. Me and my partner and 2 kids were visitors in Nov. 1995. I was there when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. We were members of Ketura, an income-sharing community in southern Israel. We so admired TO; in comparison our own community was/is mainstream > suburbia. We raised our 3 kids at Ketura and I don’t regret it, but when our (nuclear) nest emptied, I decided that I’d become too critical of and cynical about Ketura to remain there happily, so in June I moved to a town north of Ketura; my partner remains at Ketura, and we’re LAT.

    Unlike TO, Ketura continues to consume and pollute, with just a handful of members pushing for earth-respecting practices. To me being income-sharing means zilch if the community doesn’t make the earth a priority. And that’s what I admire about TO: It has remained non-violent in all ways, which in my book is even more important than being income-sharing. No punchline here; no special feelings about why there’s no TO on the West Coast, or indeed anywhere else. Just the observation that it’s important to me to live my values, and I feel it’s easier to do that in the default world than it was in Ketura. Just my 2 cents. Peace out.

  6. I feel like the a fairly similar community to Twin Oaks on the west coast is/was Breitenbush. About 80 people, remote/rural, communal child care, shared businesses, worker-owned, about 45-52 years old. Lived at both for about 2 years each and had very different experiences at them, with pros and cons at both. Now of course, Breitenbush has burned down and is rebuilding with much more focus on profit than community. It was magical for a moment though 🙂

  7. I prefer to think of Twin Oaks as being pro-egalitarian or pro-cooperative culture; rather than anti-capitalist.

  8. One thing that was very precious to me about my time at Twin Oaks was the incredibly deep friendships I developed there. When you live, work, love, play and grieve with the same people, the depth of relationships is stunning. I will always appreciate that. It was also an amazing place to raise a child, especially as a single mom.

  9. I appreciate this articulation of the community and though I was only there for a summer I feel like it captures it very well. As someone who wants to start community the place I always get stuck is I know where I want to go and I don’t know how to get there. What’s the critical mass of people you need to begin a project like this? How much money? Can you manage it in a suburban environment? If I had a more concrete sense of the steps it would take to create a community like twin oaks, I would love to take them. 💗

    1. Thanks Albert. I’m going to send you an email. I’d be interested in chatting.

  10. Some thoughts…(I wish this were a live discussion!)

    If you transported Twin Oaks, and assumed all of its businesses remained intact (yes, we’d even magic the tofu business and upgrade), would it still be Twin Oaks? Would Twin Oaks, by any other name, still smell as sweet (i.e. poorly composted okara in August, lol)? Does the physical environment, political climate, member make-up, moment in time, framework, or some other magical factor, matter most?

    Mid-west based East Wind is another successful, large-scale,FEC community, effectively founded with the same frame-work. So, why not on the West Coast?

    Maybe the answer would not so much be in the location, but in the why attempts to start FEC communities of such caliber have failed, regardless of location. There might be factors that have nothing to do with blueprint involved, and if that’s the case, is there a way to circumvent these and devise a strategy more along the lines of a franchise? Or a virus?

    I don’t know the Starbucks origin story, but, perhaps, once upon a time, it was a beloved mom and pop shop. Today’s Starbucks probably bare little semblance to the original, yet, they have been wildly successful and, importantly, replicable. Starbucks infrastructure supports the business, regardless of the talent, or lack thereof, of its staff. Somehow, it works well enough. Could communities work under similar conditions?

    If not, perhaps communities require special spices and seasoning, ’cause white bread focaccia is all the rage. If so, then a community needs to attracts these from the start, and retain them long enough to attract new their replacements. I mean, by the time I became a Member, practically all of the people I had befriended as a Visitor had already left, but my positive experiences with them partially facilitated my return.

    I actually think a rapid way to grow additional FEC communities would be to evaluate the reasons people leave Twin Oaks and address fundamental issues to launch a”Twin Oaks 2.0″ AT Twin Oaks. This would naturally be Member driven, through intention likely catalyzed under extreme pressure, such as the threat of total collapse. The “why” is that Twin Oaks is arguably the long-standing epicenter (or was) of Community in the US, and maybe, the world, and Twin Oaks already has a following. It’s a seeder community, offering a model of what is possible. It just maybe be overdue for an upgrade.

    Sorta related, but, it would be interesting to map the Jungian personality type demographics at any given time at Twin Oaks. What were the trends by decade? What did the community need, personality wise, to make Pier 1 hammock pushes work, inspiring holidays and creative endeavors possible, or high drama memorable?

    Cloud, T.O. Member from 2008-2015, INTP (Analyzer!), Capricorn (Jerk!), Holiday Manager Extraordinaire.

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