People & Place

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.

My Experience is an Asset and a Liability

My Experience is an Asset and a Liability

I didn’t set out to become an expert on intentional community. I don’t think of myself as an expert, and am uncomfortable with the idea of experts (both from a Diversity Equity Inclusion perspective, and, imposter syndrome anyone?) But I do like being useful. I want to be a resource. I’ve always wanted there to be more intentional communities and to support existing intentional communities because I think they have the potential to change the world.

Relatively speaking, I have a lot of experience with intentional community. 20+ years in 5 groups. 130+ visited. A couple past attempts to help start new communities. And basically my whole adult life being an organizer and movement builder, including working for the Foundation for Intentional Community and the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. I’ve lived it. I’ve studied it. I’ve organized it. My parents were part of it. I raised a kid in it. 

I’m not trying to give you my resume, or brag. Really. I did all of this because I believe in it. I’m passionate about it. It’s what I wanted for myself, and for the world. I’ve always felt a responsibility as a global citizen to try and help make the world a better place, and intentional community has been my vehicle of choice.

As I start to look for people to start a community, I’m concerned the experience and knowledge I have could create an imbalance in a forming group, especially as a 40 yr old, white, able-bodied, male bodied/socialized/privileged person. 

All that knowledge and experience could be a tremendous asset. I have a pretty good sense, theoretically and anecdotally, of what it takes to start an intentional community. I can give lots of examples of how different communities do things, the struggles they’ve faced, and what’s worked well. I know the common pitfalls and all the details that need to be figured out. I know where to look for resources and information. I’ve done a lot of work to glean principles, guidelines, and approaches. I’m a pragmatist. I’ve always tried to figure out what works for different groups so that I can share it with people who can make use of it. 

After this long I also have a very good idea about what I would like for myself. And there’s no way for me to completely separate what I want for myself and what I think works well in general. There are also things I think are important because of my belief in the dire need to address climate change, white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism. And I’ve spent a lot of time articulating these ideas and have a lot of information I can throw behind it.

But, I’m worried.

In articulating what I want in community, I tried to be clear about what is important to me. There’s also a bunch of stuff I didn’t address, either at all or in detail, because that’s stuff I feel more flexible around. I’ve always thought of good-natured flexibility as one of the most important skills for living in community. 

But I’m worried I’m fooling myself. That I’m more rigid than I realize. That I won’t find the right people because I don’t realize how I’m making it impossible for anyone else to work with me unless they agree with me. 

I’m worried that I will inadvertently shut people down or stifle their expression with too much “perspective” and “information.”

I know that no matter how hard I try, I will still act like a big white dude sometimes. And that even when I’m doing my best people may still experience me that way. This shit is hard to deal with. Dealing with shit is part of building community, but I’m worried about each thing that makes an already almost impossible project even harder.

I’m also afraid that I’m just a hopelessly, chronically dissatisfied person, that nothing will ever be good enough, and I will spend my life looking for something that doesn’t exist.

I’ve always felt like an outsider looking in on what the cool kids are doing, or assume that people are off doing something fun and awesome without me because I don’t fit in. Am I just a hopelessly awkward person who doesn’t know how to relate to people. I’m afraid I will always feel alone.

And I probably will. Wounds heal but the damage still happened and you’ll always have the scars. This is clearly part of why I’ve sought intentional community. But if I’m looking for a community to solve my problems I think my fears could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

I know that we all have our own set of fears, some based in reality, some things we can do something about, and some not. I’ve been watching a bunch of talks on Imposter Syndrome recently, and the best piece of advice I’ve gotten is, talk about it. 

Many of us have a conflict avoidance streak. We don’t want to talk about things that might bring up challenging emotions and get us into a disagreement that might create an irreparable rift. Long-term communities often evolve to some degree around things that happened that the community wasn’t able to fully process. As time passes, things compound. Like in any long term relationship, there becomes this body of stuff that no one really wants to talk about. Intimacy decreases, you get in a rut, and less becomes possible. 

We have to talk about the hard things. We have to be able to say things we don’t want to admit and things that will be hard for each other to hear. We need to come with enough faith and good-will to build the trust necessary to build the intimacy and care that will be the foundation for dealing with all the challenges and conflicts that will inevitably arise. At least, I think this is what we need. It’s what I want, and I don’t think I’m alone.

My worries are not going to just go away. And there’s a basis to some of them, and a danger of others becoming self-reinforcing. It’s helpful to remind myself that I’m not alone in this. We need each other to help us see what’s true and how to deal with it, and that has to start with being brave and vulnerable and talking about it. 

I believe this is one of the many gifts of community. One of the ways we can give to ourselves and each other so that we have more to give to the world.

Creating a New Intentional Community

Creating a New Intentional Community

I’m looking for my people, and I’m looking for my place. 

This is meant to be a conversation starter, or a contribution to a conversation. I want to find a group of people to create a compelling context for a community to come together in friendship, mutual support, and collective action. 

Helping start an intentional community is a life-long dream of mine. Now is a good time for me to pursue this, and I believe this is an opportune time in the world. I’m also open to finding a community to join. 

This is my ideal. I don’t know if it’s attainable, or if I or anyone else could actually live up to it. But it’s my North Star. It’s what I want to work towards with others.

The Problem and the Opportunity

I believe human society has the capacity to support the wellbeing of all people, without compromising the integrity of the ecosystems of which they are a part, recognizing that the wellbeing of one depends on the wellbeing of all. 

Most of human society undermines this. Humanity’s collective actions pose an existential danger to itself and other forms of life, and are causing unnecessary death, destruction, and suffering on a global scale. I believe the situation is urgent. We need to be treating it as a crisis and take appropriate action.

I think it is unlikely that human society will meet the targets scientists say are necessary to mitigate major climate disruption. The disruption we’re already seeing is going to intensify and the mass extinction event humans are causing will expand. This will cause large scale systems to become less and less tenable. People will increasingly need to come together for mutual aid. Reliance on regional and local systems will increase. 

The ability of these systems to respond effectively for the mutual benefit of all people and the ecosystems they live in will depend on whether their governance and culture can be cooperative, address political, economic, and social inequity and injustice, and reverse ecological destruction. 

We have an opportunity, and are running out of time, to come together for our own benefit to generate excess capacity we can leverage for the benefit of others. We can transform culture and systems so that they benefit all people and reverse course on the mass extinction event we are causing. 

I believe community is where this can happen. Community is where we can transform ourselves, our relationship to people and place, our relationship to humanity, and our relationship to nature, so that we make different choices, individually and collectively, that can make a difference. Community is both big enough and small enough to have a broad spectrum impact, from people’s individual lives to global society. 

What I want in community

I want a group of people I feel like I belong with. A group of people with whom I feel comfortable to be vulnerable, to share my dreams and my challenges, who I feel seen and held by, and who feel that way with me.

I want the intimacy that comes with living closely with others and involving my life with theirs. I want the sense of meaning I get from caring for others, contributing to my community, and being part of something that I believe is good for the world. 

I want to be part of a group of people who enjoy each other’s company and like to have fun and be creative together. I want to be part of a group of people who care for themselves and each other.

I want to be part of a group of people who recognize we’re all traumatized to some degree, cultivate compassion, support healing, and work to not let it run us.

I want to be part of a group of people who feel a sense of urgency and responsibility about the state of the world and feel compelled to do what we can to reduce unnecessary suffering, death, and destruction. 

I want to be part of a group of people intentionally developing their community culture, making space for art, music, beauty, self-awareness, celebration, initiation, and grief. 

I want to be part of a group of people who are facilitating coordinated action, amongst themselves and with others, with agile and adaptive strategies that are based on positive relationships. 

What I want this to look like

I want to live closely with people on commonly held land with substantial shared facilities (including workshops for fabrication and maintenance, space for art/music/dance/movement/meditation, gathering spaces, etc.), a variety of residential options, and a high degree of collective economics. I want this community to be working towards self-sufficiency and resilience, internally and locally.

I want this community to have a shared understanding of collective purpose that helps guide our governance, decision-making, choices, and actions. I want this community to be practiced in institutional self-evaluation and the ability to change itself as the needs of the community and the world evolve.

I want the group to be diverse along lines of race, class, gender, age, and ability. I want this community to support birth and death, care for children, elders, and those who need it, and foster intergenerational relationships. I want this community to encourage and make space for people to be who they are and feel free to express themselves.

I want to be part of a community working against white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism and other forms of violence and oppression, in how they manifest in ourselves, our community, and the world.

I want this community to have an intimate relationship with the natural world around us, and to have nature be fully represented in our decision-making. I want a shared relationship to land and place that transcends and subverts exploitive and harmful concepts of property and ownership. 

I want this community to have relationships with other communities and organizations and participate in coordinated action to expand networks and affect local politics and socio-cultural activity. 

I want to live in an area that leans progressive, where climate change is recognized and equality and justice are held as values by local government, and there are local efforts towards addressing underlying causes of inequality and injustice.

Pieces of how we might get there

Starting with a core group 5 – 8 will be robust and agile. The size of the group that will be on land will depend on a number of factors, but to manifest this, I imagine anywhere from 25 – 150 people somehow organized into small affinity groups to help maintain social cohesion. I think it’s important to cultivate an extended community, including flexible membership options, maintaining relationships with ex-members, and being well integrated into the local community. 

Conventional approaches to ownership and property must shift in order for us to come into a healthy relationship with people and place. We have to use conventional legal and financial structures to exist and have a meaningful impact. Some kind of collectively controlled legal entity has to own at least one piece of land. That entity should be accountable in some way to the larger community. Housing co-ops, CLTs, 501c3’s, real estate cooperatives, and benefit corporations are entities that might support this. 

We’ve got a lot of baggage around money, reinforced by conventional financial structures. A high degree of expense sharing, or partial or full income sharing, has various benefits, as well as distinct challenges. It can allow for a level of care, mutual social and economic support, and solidarity that is harder to achieve with individualized finances. Because of the emotional charge around money, it can also trigger more emotion and conflict, which needs to be responded to with care and intentionality. The financial system of the community should help lower the cost of living, allow for a reasonable degree of autonomy, support community activity, create excess for the benefit of the larger community, and be transparent and accessible.

Integrating community businesses or partnering with collective businesses, in addition to individual income sources, can support a sense of shared purpose, distribute the responsibility to produce needed income, and be more efficient.

We have to like each other enough to spend the amount of time together and go through the stress it will take to make something like this happen. We need to develop our relationships as the foundation for the agreements we make with each other. We need to be able to say hard things to each other and trust that it’s coming from a place of goodwill.

We need to be intentional in how we communicate with each other, in the culture we’re creating, how we address and resolve conflict, how we govern ourselves, how we consume and waste, and in learning and unlearning what we need in order to make the kinds of changes we want to make.

I think we need a clear and adaptable shared purpose to give us motivation and focus. If we’re going for deep transformation, I think it needs to be broad spectrum: Being an experiment and demonstration, local integration, engagement, and service, healthy interpersonal relationships, and personal responsibility and growth.

As climate disruption and economic decline accelerate I believe our strategies will have to evolve. We need to think deeply and critically about what to do given the state of the world and possible scenarios over the next 5 to 50 years and beyond, making agile and adaptive plans for the short, medium, and long term.

Please be in touch if this resonates or feels compelling to you!

I am a They

I am a They

I us They/Them pronouns. 

I am male bodied, male socialized, carry male privilege, and am heterosexual. I tend to present as male, and I assume that people mostly experience me as male. But I don’t experience myself as male, and I don’t want to identify or be identified as male, though I understand I will be to some extent. I want to feel more comfortable in my self-expression and in how people relate to me. Changing my pronouns feels like a minor signifier. I don’t love any pronouns, gendered or not, but they feels the best to me. And even if it’s not a big deal in itself for me, it points to something deeper. It’s a place to start. 

It’s been a struggle to feel like taking a non-male identity was appropriate given my socialization and my privilege, and that people’s experience of me as male is part of what confers privilege. I also default to a male presentation because it’s what’s safe and easy. But it’s not who I am. I don’t want to be lumped in as “one of the guys.” I don’t want to be “bro” or “brother” anymore, even though most people who call me that mean it with the sweetest of intentions. There are plenty of good bros out there. That’s just not who I am. 

I also get that sometimes I act like one of the guys, and sometimes this is problematic. Just because I don’t identify as male doesn’t mean my male privilege goes away. I will make mistakes, but I am committed to the ongoing work of recognizing and addressing the impacts of my behavior. I want to be held accountable if I’m being an asshole.

I’m not sure how to label my gender identity. Gender queer doesn’t feel specific enough.  Agender or gender neutral resonates, but sounds more consistent than how I feel. Gender fluid is closer. It seems to imply more variation in how I present than has been true (though maybe that will change), but it is more how I experience myself.

For me, gender is a performance, it’s not who I am. I am just me and I experience and express myself differently at different times. The idea that there are certain qualities that are “masculine” and others that are “feminine”, and this is how male bodied or female bodied are, just doesn’t make sense to me. But I get that others do experience it this way. They identify with their gender, whether it’s cis, queer, or trans. The pronouns they use and how they present themselves very much reflect how they experience themselves and they feel comfortable and familiar in their self-expression. I don’t get that. This is a huge place of discomfort for me. 

My experience is that I have a lot of different qualities that feel more or less predominant at different times or in different situations, and they’re all me and not me, and how I want to express myself is just how I feel in that moment. Sometimes I enjoy being big and tough and burley. Sometimes I feel soft and small. I loved being a nurturing caregiver to my child while also prodding her to be more driven and take risks. I’m ambitious and want to change the world, and I’d also make a great housewife. None of this occurs to me as masculine or feminine, just different facets of who I am.    

I’ve never felt like one of the guys, even the conscientious, non-misogynistic ones. There’s a comfort they seem to feel in how they act with each other that feels alien to me, and when I try to play along I just end up feeling out of place and inauthentic. I’ve felt more comfortable with the more emotionally open and communicative socialization of women, but I often still have the same experience. I usually enjoy being in queer spaces, though I sometimes bristle at what feels like an emphasis on being trendy/hip/cool instead of people just getting to be okay for who they are, including straight people. I’ve also felt like a fake in queer spaces for being heterosexual, but that’s something I think I should try to get over. I think putting myself in queer spaces more would be good for me. 

I’ve felt a lot of confusion and isolation in my life from not feeling like I fit in with typical gender performances, but not wanting to conform, and feeling unsure about how to express myself. I was teased and ostracized as a kid and desperately wanted to fit in, but then said fuck it when I became a teenager, and gradually did present much more fluid and hippie. But there have been a couple points in my life where I made a choice to make my appearance less distracting in order to make the work I was doing easier. I thought conforming would make me more effective, which may have been true. I recognize the confusion and isolation as part of the cost I’ve paid for conforming. I think the alienation I feel with people may alleviate if I stop trying to seem normal.

Conforming has also meant that I don’t have to put the time and money into assembling a wardrobe I feel more aligned with. It’s really hard to find interesting, gender-bending clothes, let alone interesting women’s clothes, for someone of my size, and being much chubbier than when I was 20. Even a lot of progressive or counter culture circles that claim to be queer friendly still trend towards they’re own cultural version of binary gender stereotypes. Mostly when I try I just feel discouraged and have negative body image stuff come up. I want to be seen and known for who I am regardless of how I present, especially when how I feel and how I want to present is so fluid. 

Sticking with a more familiar and habitual gender presentation that matches my body type is also safer. When I think about presenting in a less masculine way I feel fear of physical violence. As a large, male presenting person, physical and sexual violence is not really something I have to worry about, which is a hard privilege to give up. 

Most of my life I’ve had the good fortune of being part of groups of people and having lots of people in my life who I feel seen and known and loved by for who I am, which has been a blessing, and has made it easier to stick with what feels safe. But maybe it’s time for me to make a conscious choice to express myself in a way that feels more authentic and face the discomfort and fear.

When it comes to gender performance I’m not sure I know what authentic means. It all feels authentic and none of it feels authentic because of how fluid it feels. I don’t have the same consistent associations between internal experience and external presentation that most people seem to have. But I love performing. I loved getting to play the MC in Cabaret, and being the lead singer for Thriftshop and Sexy And I Know It in the Twin Oaks dance band. I love DJing as a performer creating an experience. And some of the work I’ve done facilitating events and workshops satisfies something similar. I’ve always loved being on stage, though I’ve always felt uncomfortable with improv. I’m uncomfortable being the center of attention unless I feel sure about what I’m doing and that it feels like a meaningful gift to the audience. I like to have a role, a character that I can embody that helps the audience explore another facet of themselves and life. I like the playfulness and creativity of performing, of getting to express different facets of myself. I like, for a little while, to feel sure about who I am and how to express myself.  

Maybe facing all this stuff and being more fluidly myself is a gift I can give both to myself and to the world. I don’t know what that will look like, but I’m going to start with the pronouns and see where the exploration leads me.