Friday, March 24, 2017

Resilient Today

Today I want to focus on resilience. In particular, I want to share what the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) is doing to help all of us be more resilient in these uncertain times. But first I'm going to tell a story.

When I moved to northeast Missouri with three friends and started Sandhill Farm in 1974, we were a group of 20-somethings with no experience in farming or rural living. When we announced to neighbors that we were committed to growing food organically, they were amused. As far as they were concerned we may as well have been from Mars.

Forty years later, the neighbors aren't laughing. Sandhill Farm is still there and still farming organically. If anything, the topsoil depth and natural fertility of our small farm has gradually increased over the years of our stewardship. While we hold about 75 acres of cleared land all together, we've steadfastly refused to till more than 15-20 acres—the patches that are flat enough. The rest is too steep and has been planted to grass, which keeps the dirt where it is instead of washing downstream in rainstorms, gradually increasing the size of the Mississippi Delta.

Traditionally, farmers in our part of America's breadbasket would go through a three-year rotation of corn, soybeans, wheat, and red clover. This cuts down on the need for artificial fertilizers, manages weeds better, and makes it harder for insects to establish dangerous populations to assault specific crops. But that cycle didn't produce enough income to handle the debt load incurred by purchasing land and large equipment. In consequence, crop rotations today have collapsed to two years: corn followed by soybeans, and then back to corn. Over time, following that program leads to a drop in fertility and the need for ever-increasing inputs (fertilizer, herbicides, and insecticides) to maintain yields. It's a vicious cycle, which invariably leads to a marked decreased in resilience.

By farming organically and relying on traditional crop rotations, our bill for soil amendments has been much lower than our neighbors, and isn't spiraling up as fast (while the price for anhydrous ammonia goes up like gasoline, when you put manure on your fields you're just paying shit). Also, we rely on open-pollinated seed, which we save from year to year. Our neighbors depend on high-yielding hybrids that are not only expensive but must be purchased new every year.

By farming only on a modest scale, we don't need expensive equipment. Our first tractor—an Allis Chalmers WC, built in 1939—was purchased at auction for one bid above scrap: $210. And it still runs today. We also have our own combine. It's a pull-type Allis Chalmers All-crop, built in 1952. We bartered 7.5 hours of labor for it when the owner decided it was taking up too much valuable space in his machine shed.

While our crop yields were significantly lower than our neighbors, the disparity in net income was softened by our being able to command premium prices for organic food. (In 1974 you'd never see an organic or natural food section in a grocery store; today it's hard to find a modern grocery without one.) 

Not stopping there we took advantage of our access to labor (both in terms of able-bodied adult members and the interns we'd attract during the growing season) to figure out ways to sell value-added products instead of raw goods. Thus, instead of marketing soybeans, we'd turn our soybeans into tempeh and sold that. While we grew horseradish root, we only sold prepared horseradish. With that strategy we needed fewer acres to produce the same income. By buying less land we've enjoyed a lower debt load. In fact, Sandhill has no debt. And none of our neighbors think we're from Mars.

• • •
I told you the story of Sandhill's adventures in resiliency because I think it parallels the work being done by the Fellowship for Intentional Community. Over the course of 30 years FIC has had two main missions. The narrow one has been to be the most up-to-date and comprehensive clearinghouse of information about intentional communities, focusing mainly on the US and Canada. Its second, broader mission has been to promote cooperative culture in a world drunk on competition.

Just as Sandhill was ahead of its time in blowing the horn for organic farming and resilient agriculture, FIC has been ahead of the curve in identifying and promoting the lessons of intentional communities as models of social sustainability. For both entities, what came across as exotic and other worldly in their early years has proven to be prescient and apt as the rest of the world has caught up with the near-desperate need to get off the acquisitive hamster wheel of materialism.

Where Are We (and What Are We Doing in This Handcart)?
The emerging threat today is climate change and the global disruption of "normal" life. The melting of polar ice caps threatens coastal inundation. Places that used to have predictable rainfall now experience years of drought followed by massive flooding. Fruit trees are blooming in February instead of May, and there is unprecedented worry about adequate access to safe water.

Terrorist attacks have come in waves of numbing frequency—from a berserker truck driver on a rampage in the German Christmas market, to a solo fanatic driving down pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge in London; from the renowned hijackers of 9/11 who took down the World Trade Centers, to suicide bombers who are sheathed in explosives for the express purpose of detonating themselves in crowds—extremists are exhorting followers to perpetrate brutal acts of violence, without regard to human life, including their own. It is the triumph of nihilism.
On the political front, in the US there is almost a complete breakdown of civil discourse. There is no longer conversation and thoughtful dialog; there is only polemics and near-constant vilification of "other." Though there is only one Earth, if you listen to the nightly news you'd never know there was any awareness of our being on it together, with only a single future that we must share. All you hear today is breast beating for partisan agendas, and no willingness to recognize that others may hold pieces of the truth, just as well as we.
• • •
Over the decades that FIC has been on the scene (since 1987), there has been a progression of "in" terms: from organic to sustainable to local to today's sweetheart: resilient. While the wrapping is new, the core message is not. We still need to figure out how to get along with each other. For all the reasons touched on in the preceding paragraphs that need has never been more urgent than it is today.

Intentional communities are important—but not because it is the lifestyle wave of the future. In Israel there was a time when as much as four percent of the population lived on kibbutzim; it would shock me if the percentage of the US population living in some form of self-identified intentional community ever got within sniffing distance of one percent. Today, for example, there about 100,000 in the US who are living in community. That number would have to expand by more than 30 times to reach one percent.

The importance of intentional communities is the pioneering work that they're undertaking in the crucible of group living. They are doing the heavy lifting to figure out what it takes to live cooperatively; how to share resources equitably; how to solve problems such that everyone's interests have been taken into account without settling for the winners and loser dynamics of majority rule. There has to be a better way, and intentional communities are in the forefront of the experiments that will light the path.

It boils down to figuring out a different way to be in the world; to harnessing the synergy of groups in order to create a better life for all, instead of competing as individual households and nations for limited resources. This is not about homogenization and one size fits all; it's about creating and maintaining quality while at the same time respecting and honoring differences and learning to live graciously while putting resource consumption on a diet.

If this resonates with you, read on.

FIC in Action Today
As someone who worked in the eye of the hurricane for 28 years (I stepped down from a leadership role with FIC at the end of 2015) I can tell you that the Fellowship never lacked for creative ideas about how to use funds. There have always been initiatives to better get the word out; experiments to conduct, evaluate, and chronicle; and collaborations to attempt. We don't just talk about hope. We test it.

For information about FIC's latest effort click here. They are trying to raise $8000 in order to fund four initiatives aimed at exploring the intersection of community and climate change: two books, a national speaking tour, and the latest issue of Communities magazine (released earlier this month). While they have raised more than half of their target (over $4800) there is only one week left until the perks being offering as incentives will be withdrawn. 

Now is the time to act! I'm asking readers and subscribers to consider donating (remember, it's tax deductible), and to ask your friends and acquaintances to do the same.
 
As a special incentive, for every $100 you donate to this campaign (for which you'll also get the satisfaction of having your oar in the water, pulling for a good cause) I will make a matching offer of 30 minutes of my time that can be used for any of the following:
—consulting about intentional communities 
—advising about cooperative group dynamics
—editing proposals or reports

This offer is good only through the end of the month (it expires at midnight March 31) and is in addition to any perks you claim from the FIC site. So long as you make your pledge or donation before April 1, you'll have one year to redeem the offer of my services.
 

Together, we are making a difference.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Reverse Discrimination

This weekend I've been conducting a facilitation training in Bellingham WA—Weekend V of VIII—and the teaching theme was Power and Leadership (each of the eight weekends we focus on a major aspect of what facilitators need to understand and keep in mind when trying to run dynamic and productive meetings).

While exploring the dynamics of privilege, Ma'ikwe (my teaching partner) explained that when people lose their privilege it feels like discrimination. Her essential point was that loss feels like loss, even when it's bringing everyone to even. As I sat with that it occurred to me that it might make a difference if your new position was the result of reverse discrimination… or maybe not.

In groups that work on becoming aware of how privilege skews the distribution of power, it's not unusual to consider adopting practices (at least for a time) where the group purposefully disfavors those segments who have benefited from unearned privilege and a slanted playing field. 

As an example, let's unpack the landmark University of California v. Bakke case in 1978, where the US Supreme Court looked at the affirmative action policy of the UC-Davis medical school to favor non-white applicants for the express purpose of correcting pernicious societal discrimination against non-whites. While the court ultimately struck down the UC-Davis policy for going too far, it provided the basis for supporting affirmative action programs in general, which subsequently became a legal precedent, and the underpinning of affirmative action programs today.

Two things are in play here: 

a) Recognition that there have been longstanding forms of discrimination in the society that are not what we want—I'm talking about race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, whether or not you have children—those kinds of things.

b) In the interest of hastening the process of closing the gap between what exists and where we want be with respect to those kinds of discrimination, it is acceptable, at least for a time, to adopt policies that intentionally discriminate against those segments of society that previously enjoyed the benefits of privilege.

The first point was addressed in Civil Rights legislation. It was the second point that the Bakke case pivoted around, and the focus of this essay is to explore whether there is any significant difference between how it feels to undergo a power drop because of a) alone (the loss of privilege), or because of a) and b) combined (loss of privilege plus reverse discrimination). While it's an interesting question in its own right, I am not looking at whether reverse discrimination is a good practice; I am only exploring its impact on those whose power is reduced by it.

My credentials in this regard are various. First I have been working as a consultant to cooperative groups for three decades, and understand that culture profoundly. In addition, I'm someone who has gobs of personal privilege—white, male, older, well-educated, articulate, heterosexual, Protestant—who has chosen to immerse myself in the subculture of intentional community, which is hyper-vigilant about discrimination, to the point where I am often suspect when I enter groups for the first time (How much is this dude aware of his privilege; has he done his work around it?).

Frankly, as someone who has been trying to do his personal work in relation to discrimination, it's an advantage for me to be in a milieu in which I'm more likely to be watched closely—because it so easy for people who benefit from privilege to be blind to its application. In short, I've learned to mistrust relying solely on my own perceptions and good intentions. I figure I'm more or less like other folks: a work in progress. Some things I catch; some things slide by (oops!).

Taking my credentials one step further, I have been subjected to reverse discrimination. Not often, to be sure (no need to cry on my behalf) but I've tasted it. I'm thinking in particular, of gender discrimination in the arcane world of income-sharing secular intentional communities. In that rarefied setting, where I lived for 40 years, the same action that men would be criticized for (labeled overly aggressive) were likely to be celebrated if done by women (labeled constructively assertive). It's a double standard and there have been times when I chafed at being subjected to it.

Apropos this consideration, I viewed the way I was treated as unfair and that pushed a deep button in me. Fortunately it didn't end there, but I passed through that awareness, and it was painful. By degrees I took into account the analysis that led to the choice of reverse discrimination. While I was undecided about whether or not it was an effective strategy (to accelerate the creation of the just and fair culture that the men and women I lived with agreed we wanted), getting to that more sophisticated understanding allowed me to move through my pain. Today I don't recall how long it took me to work through all that—like unpacking Russian dolls—but I recall experiencing outrage along the way. I recall that I didn't enjoy being discriminated against. 

But then who does? And I guess that was part of the point, giving me a visceral taste of what some experience as a steady diet. 

Maybe a person of privilege can get the same taste by simply losing their advantage—going straight to the level playing field. But maybe not. In any event, it took me longer to tease apart the layers of feeling when I was on the receiving end of reverse discrimination, and I've ultimately come to view that experience as both more complicated and more profound.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Group Works: Follow the Energy

This past week I visited Tree Bressen, an old friend and peer in cooperative group dynamics. I was doing a series of workshops at Lost Valley Educational Center in Dexter OR, and she and Dianne Brause (yet another old friend) came out from Eugene for the afternoon.

Seeing Tree reminded me that a few years back I had started a blog series reviewing the Group Works process cards that Tree helped develop, and that reminder inspired today's essay. 

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

1. Intention 2. Context 3. Relationship 4. Flow 5. Creativity 6. Perspective 7. Modeling 8. Inquiry & Synthesis 9. Faith

In the Flow segment there are 15 cards. The fifth pattern in this category is labeled Follow the Energy. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card:


What does the group really want in this moment? Let your observation of cues and "vibes" guide your response and steering of topics and process. Paying attention to where the life is, you help it flower. 

By coincidence, the final workshop that I did at Lost Valley was about facilitation. At the outset I solicited from participants where they wanted me to focus my comments, and two of the half dozen requests were: a) flow and b) balancing content and energy. It turns out that addressing b) is often the answer to a).

You can buy books on meeting facilitation—books that are meant to cover the topic comprehensively—that focus almost exclusively on managing content (what is being said, how does it relate to the topic on the table, how does it align with what others have said, what would be an insightful summary of everyone's input, where should we focus the conversation). But that's not good enough, or at least it isn't in the groups I work with (mainly intentional communities), where the expectation is that meetings will not only address issues; they will enhance relationships into the bargain. 

Riding Two Horses
In order to accomplish that, facilitators need to be able to work with energy. They need to be able to read it, sense trends, and have familiarity with choices that can acknowledge, shape, elicit, stimulate, defuse, hold, balance, enhance, and celebrate energy. And "choices" include far more than words: it's also tone, volume, pace, body language, sequencing, and whether to stand or sit.

Unfortunately, being conversant with energy is almost completely unrelated to the skills needed to manage content. They are different languages, with separate vocabularies and syntax. A facilitator may be good with one, both, or neither. I like to refer to this skill as riding two horses: the Content horse and the Energy horse. If you have a facilitator who is only facile on one horse, it can be effective to pair that person with someone who has complementary skills: getting the group's needs met with a team instead of an individual. 

While relying on two riders instead of one may be an elegant way to simultaneously train up a greenhorn while still protecting the group's need for a quality meeting, please be advised that team facilitating requires that both riders be deft at passing the reins without either horse spitting the bit. There should always be one horse in the lead and it's awkward for the group if it's not clear who that is.

For many groups, the person labeled "facilitator" is actually just riding the Content horse, with the "vibes watcher" atop the Energy horse. This can be fine so long as both riders know who's covering what and there's no confusion about how the hand-offs work. The biggest reservation I have about this deployment is that most vibes watcher that I've observed are passive, only stepping in when there's serious tension in the room—when the facilitator has lost control of the flow, or is in danger of it.

I prefer to teach facilitators how to handle both mounts (so that a single person is regularly reading the room for both Content and Energy), making micro-adjustments as the meeting unfolds. Small changes effected in a timely way can prevent the need for major changes later. If the Content rider is not alert to Energy, they can inadvertently make choices in service to problem solving that exacerbate Energy challenges. 

What do I mean? Let's unpack an example. If the facilitator is only looking at Content they may fall into a pattern of over-reliance on a particular format, say open discussion. On the one hand, there is steady progress made on the issue (good), but it may come at the cost of increasing frustration for those who are slower to know what they think, or who find it uncomfortable shouldering their way onto the on-ramp for a turn to speak (not good). Enjoying the enthusiasm of those who are jumping into the conversation, the facilitator may miss that one-third of the participants have not spoken at all and are either zoning out or getting bummed. Unattended, this disaffection can lead to rebellion, poorly supported decisions, or even a rift in the group (I thought everyone's voice was welcome here, not just the opinions of the loud and the rude). Ouch! A savvy and active vibes watcher might catch that drift and suggest a switch from open discussion to a go round before things get out of hand, or even before it's identified as "a problem."


Casting a Wide Net
In the example above I showed how attention to Energy could lead to a format choice that could significantly impact flow and inclusivity. But following the energy is much more than being sensitive to tension or reactivity. It also encompasses such mundane things as atmosphere (is the room too warm; is there enough fresh air); stamina (for how long has the group been sitting; do they need to move—either in the form of a break or via a format that gets folks off their butts); and mood (while fulminating distress is relatively easy to read, how about boredom and flat affect; sarcasm —deniable irritation; or frequent side conversations—scattered attention).

All of these fall under the umbrella of Energy and can be ameliorated by the ministrations of a skilled facilitator.

Drilling DownIn addition to giving advance warning or evidence of energetic discord (Luke, there's a disturbance in the Force) energetic cues can also suggest positive directions. Take for instance the dynamic when you're asking for responses to a proposal and a number of hands shoot up. Using a stack, you begin letting people speak in the order in which they raised their hand. Partway through (let's suppose there were six people in the stack) you notice an energetic surge in the room following the third speaker's statement. If you blindly continue the stack, there's a strong chance that that person's contribution will not connect easily with the previous speaker (even if they're on topic). 

Alternately, by paying attention to where the life is (invoking the admonition in the text that accompanies this card) you might suspend the stack to ask for responses to what was just said, and only return to the original stack after the surge has run its course. This is often a much better way to work issues, but it calls on the facilitator to be able to read the Energy (both its emergence and its demise) and to juggle threads.

Balancing ActLast, I want to remind folks that the Energy horse and Content horse can both pull heavy loads and neither should be seen as subservient to the other. Although I've mainly been looking at the importance of working with the Energy horse in this essay, they need to pull together. To be clear, there are moments—even whole meetings—where only one horse is spotlighted, but you want to have a saddle on both.

For those who experience group meetings as a tug-of-war between Process People and Product People, I want to offer a different view. The best meetings, where the flow is laminar instead of turbulent, are when the horses are pulling in the same direction.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Involuntary Loss of Member Rights

Regrettably, there are times when a group member behaves badly. Even worse, there are times when a person's behavior is sufficiently problematic and persistent that it calls into question the viability of that person's membership. Those are not happy moments, and not at all what people had in mind when they joined, but it can happen.

Painting in broad strokes, unacceptable behavior falls into two categories: a) an egregious outburst that calls for immediate consequences; and b) persistent irritating and disrespectful behavior that erodes trust over time. Examples of the former (which, fortunately, is very rare) might be firing a gun in the common house or setting a neighbor's shed on fire. Often this kind of behavior is illegal in addition to being dangerous, which means the group has recourse to calling in the civil authorities.

In today's essay, however, I want to focus on the second kind, where a single incident might be awkward but you'd definitely give the person a second chance (or even many chances) and a key element is the fact that the behavior continues after it has been pointed out. 

In general, groups will go through a sequence of escalating steps in the hope that it can successfully resolve the issue at the least expensive level, and you only take the next step if all the previous ones have failed.

Suppose Robin has done something that Kim has a reaction to and considers unacceptable (such as gossiping viciously about another member, or getting loud and demanding when  advocating for their viewpoints in plenaries, with no apparent regard for the opinions or sensibilities of others). In this dynamic the sequence of options available to Robin might be something like this:

1.  Try to work through your reaction unilaterally (sometimes distress is more about the observer than it is about the doer, and the bulk of working through it can be accomplished internally by the person in reaction).

2.  Speak directly with Kim about it.

3.  Ask a third party to join Robin and Kim in discussing it.

4.  Ask the Conflict Resolution Team (or its equivalent, if you have such a subgroup identified to support people struggling to work through interpersonal tensions) for assistance, either to think through what to try, or to figure out the best way to configure a conversation, including who might be a mutually acceptable facilitator.

5. Invoke the help of the entire group in a last train effort to get movement on the issue.

While there could easily be variations on this sequence—and it would be a worthy topic to explore what those options might be—today I want to focus on what might happen when Robin has gone through this entire sequence and there's still no joy. Now what?

Essentially, I'm focusing on the work a group needs to put in place to be ready to engage relative to the possibility of imposing sanctions: an involuntary loss of member rights. Most groups don't put anything in place until and unless they have a dynamic which suggests they may need to invoke it. Oops! It is much harder to craft a good set of agreements when you have a candidate in mind for their application, yet it's nearly impossible to get a group jazzed for discussing it ahead of need. Yuck!

On the one hand, a group may be fortunate enough that this kind of limit is never tested (whew). On the other, you're taking a risk. If you wait until you need it, the development of policy is likely to come across as a witch hunt (created expressly to justify the desire to get rid of someone). Believe me, it's an uncomfortable place to be.

It's my view that the group needs to have three conversations:

I. Defining Unacceptable Behavior
What specific behaviors are unacceptable to the point that if they are not corrected it could be considered grounds for imposing sanctions. 

II. Defining Due Process
What constitutes due process in conjunction with an involuntary loss of member rights? This will include:

—A formal examination of the claim that Kim has engaged in unacceptable behaviors (refer to the outcome of the previous step).


—A formal notification to Kim that the community has determined that they have behaved unacceptably in specific ways that are enumerated in the communication, along with what specific behavior changes will bring them back into alignment, and what period of time the person will be given to effect those changes.


—A second formal meeting at the end of the time period to assess whether Kim has successfully altered their behavior or not. If Kim has made the changes no sanctions will be imposed but they may be placed on probation (for a defined period) to see if the acceptably altered behavior continues or degrades to something inappropriate again.


—If the community determines that the there has been insufficient change, the community may then decide to impose sanctions from the list developed in the step below.
 

III. Defining the Menu of Sanctions
What is the options the community may choose from if it is determined that Kim has gone through the whole process (see the previous step) and their behavior continues to be unacceptable. Note that I am not talking about abrogating Kim’s civil rights if any apply; I am talking about the withdrawal or delimiting of Kim's social rights as a community member. 

Note further that you are not obliged to impose sanctions even when you are allowed to; the group must discern what sanctions, if any, are appropriate on a case-by-case basis.

A final note: I caution groups to make sure they are not acting in haste, and to pause long enough to look in the mirror (to what extent can the awkwardness with Kim be the result of bad behavior by others as well?) before reaching for sanctions. Consequences should be a grave step, taken only when everything else has failed. 

In short, make sure it isn't a witch hunt.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Peeing on Petunias

After 30 years before the mast (supplying navigational assistance to intentional communities struggling against interpersonal headwinds en route to the safe harbors of equanimity and harmonious living) I’ve encountered a wide range of challenging dynamics. The situations that are most compelling are those with the highest stakes—where the group is wrestling with issues that obviously have a wider social application.

For example, I once labored with an urban group trying to sort out cultural preferences in a neighborhood that included both Korean and Puerto Rican immigrants, yet their target recruitment profile was well-educated Greens. Living in a melting pot is one thing. Living in a melting down pot is something else. This community was hip deep in tough issues of race, income, safety, religious preference, and ethnic identity. The work had obvious application in the mainstream—not just for the well-being of the community in which the conversation arose—and I was excited to bring what I knew about diversity and communication to the front lines of social change.
 

Sometimes the conversations got heated and I was trying to thread the needle around whether emotional engagement itself (never mind what was actually being said) was seen as preferential treatment for one subculture over another. Ai-yi-yi!

I work with patterns. Over the course of many years (and many meetings) I've learned that it rarely makes much difference whether it’s a cohousing community or a student co-op. For that matter, it doesn’t make much difference whether it’s an ashram or a Unitarian Universalist Church. I’ve worked with them all, and people are people. When they aggregate into groups—my particular area of focus—people tend to behave in predictable ways and have similar blind spots.



As it happened, the very next weekend after I worked with the urban group referenced above, I was in another city working with a community that was wrestling with tension that arose in connection with Person A's cat urinating on Person B's flower bed.

In a flash of insight, it occurred to me that if I observed the second group with the sound turned off, that the facial expressions and body language came across as identical to what I’d encountered the week before. In short, I noticed that the affect was scale independent! People were filling their lives with drama to capacity, cleverly drawing on whatever fuel was at hand to reach the desired level of intensity. Fascinating.



While there was a part of me that struggled to take the cat issue seriously (after working with racial tension the week before, I was itching to ask the second group if they really wanted to invest so much energy in a triviality) but I took a deep breath and refocused. The issue, after all, was not the over-fertilized flower bed; it was learning how to work through interpersonal tensions—which is a serious world peace issue every bit as worthy of attention as ethnic diversity.


Still, it’s instructive every now and then to take a step back and assess whether you really mean to imbue the issue at hand with as much of your precious life force as you are. As Richard Carlson admonishes in his 1997 classic: don’t sweat the small stuff (and it’s all small stuff). It's embarrassing to look back over the span of my life and reflect on all the times I've gotten my knickers in a twist over small stuff. (What was I thinking?)

Today there is perhaps nothing more potent to help me access what Buddhists refer to as an equanimous presence than remembering to ask: 

Are we peeing on petunias here?

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Excising Advocacy from Problem Solving

Last Saturday I did something I've done many times before: taught an Introduction to Consensus workshop.

This time though, I prepared by spending a couple hours the night before contemplating how I might approach this familiar topic in a fresh way. My efforts yielded two innovations.

First, it occurred to me to start out by asking participants what it would take for them to be ready to create cooperative culture, given that they'd been raised and deeply conditioned in competitive culture.

This was meant as a pump-priming exercise in that it's been my observation that a lot of intentional communities struggle with that transition. In fact, it's my sense that most start-ups commit to forming communities without discussing this transition at all. They just agree that community living is a good idea and they're ready to give it a go without questioning whether there's any personal work they need to undertake before they're "cooperation ready"—by which I mean able to respond to the normal challenges of group living and collective decision-making with cooperative behaviors.

While it may seem obvious to readers that that will be needed (and surely this assessment will have been made by thoughtful community pioneers), that is not what I've found. In particular, at certain key moments, such as when another group member expresses a strongly held divergent viewpoint about a matter you care about a lot, a cooperative response is among the least likely things to happen.

Instead of something along the lines of "Wow, I wonder how you got there. I have a really different idea about that and maybe you've thought of something I haven't. Tell me more" a much more likely occurrence is "What the hell are you thinking?!" or maybe "Are you kidding me? That would be a disaster!"

When the stakes are high and you have a clear opinion about your preference, it is far more probable that you'll respond to divergent views by preparing for battle. That's the way we were raised and it's what we know to do. To be sure, this may come out in a variety of ways other than outright attack—for example, expressing sarcasm, playing the victim, faction building behind the scenes (while expressing false support in the moment), or spreading hyperbolic rumors about the bad things that will happen if the other view prevails. All those options are divisive and come out of an us/them perspective that is fundamentally contrary to cooperative culture.

So my opening question was not academic; it was germane. Consensus does not thrive in competitive culture, and groups are not likely to enjoy the results if members simply bring their conditioned competitive behaviors into the attempt.

As a consensus trainer, I try to get that point made in the first five minutes.

Second, I devoted half an hour to brainstorming a list of the major issues I see groups struggle with when using consensus. Whenever I'm conducting a workshop I'm concerned with whether I'm addressing the audience's major questions. By offering a menu of the questions that most frequently arise I figured I might be better able to hit the sweet spot. Instead of guessing what they'd ask for, or trusting that they'd know how to articulate their needs if I gave them an open-ended invitation, it occurred to me that I might be able to productively short-cut the process by suggesting subtopics.

I came up with a dozen (in no particular order):

1. Culture Shift 
Community living is an explicit attempt to create and sustain a vibrant cooperative culture. Accomplishing that requires a certain amount of unlearning competitive conditioning and I believe it's crucial that groups get introduced to this reality as soon as possible. Better a bucket of cold water up front than bringing them into awareness only after they've bought a house.

2. Working Constructively with Emotions
You can find entire books and workshops that purport to offer a complete overview of consensus yet don't address this aspect of group dynamics at all. As far as I'm concerned those approaches are incomplete. Groups that do not discuss how they want to engage with on-topic emotional responses are sowing the wind. For what they invariably harvest is the chaos of emotional distress, with no tools or agreements in place with which to engage it productively. Not only is this foolish, but it's needlessly risky.

3. Welcoming Non-rational Input
The default style of secular meetings in US culture is rational discourse—to the point where other ways of knowing or processing information are expected to be translated into rational thought as a necessary first step to be eligible for being worked with, or even acknowledged. While common, I question the wisdom of that approach. It's at least worth discussing the potential of widening the welcome mat to allow participants to offer insights and responses in the language in which they arose. Thus, groups could look at the pros and cons of explicitly developing the capacity to work emotionally, intuitively, kinesthetically, and spiritually—as well as rationally. That would be different, eh?

4. Working with Conflict
This is the most volatile and dangerous aspect of emotional engagement, where feelings are most prone to being packaged with aggression. If a group fails to discuss how to handle conflict there will be nothing in place at times of need, and the group will be at the mercy of how individuals express and respond to distress. As most of us have had any number of bad experiences with that catch-as-catch-can approach, groups tend to be very nervous about engaging with emerging conflict and tend to default to a strategy of avoidance and containment. If encysting doesn't work, they just hope to survive it, like a bad storm. I think we can do better, which includes valuing conflict as a potential source of both information and energy.

5. Plenary Worthy 
One of the ways that groups inadvertently make poor use of whole group meeting time—a precious commodity—is by regularly allowing the group to work at a level of detail that is not worthy of the whole's attention. Instead of handing it off to a manager of committee when that point is reached, they continue to labor. The main reason that happens is because the group has never defined where the boundary of plenary worthy lies. In the fog of uncertainty the group soldiers on, simultaneously extending meetings (by drifting into territory they should have left alone) and undercutting the work of committees. Yuck.

6. Separating Advocacy from Problem Solving
As a long-time observer of how cooperative groups address issues, I've discovered that there's great potential for streamlining if issues are worked in two distinct phases instead of commingling both into one muddy free-for-all: a) first determining what a good response needs to take into account; and then b) figuring out what response best balances the factors identified in the first step. Further, as a firm believer in offering a seat at the table for on-topic passionate expression (what's the fun of hiding your light under a bushel?) I think it works best if time on the soap box is limited to part a). In the follow-up, problem solving phase you need a different energy—less circus and more collaboration.

7. Seeing the Glass Half Full
Although every now and then you encounter moments where the ideas and energy are all running in one direction—either all joy or all dross—that's rare. Most of the time you have a mix. In those moments you have a choice: should you focus on what's working or what isn't? While that question may seem trivial (after all, both are true; both are equally valid), it isn't. The norm in Western culture—where the individual is king—is to focus on differences and discord well ahead of common ground. In consequence, the presence of commonality can often go undetected for an embarrassing length of time. Why? Because you tend to find what you're looking for. This is important because durable agreements are built on a foundation of common ground. Yet consistently missing the boat results in needless delays. Ugh.

8. Dynamics of Blocking
For groups making the transition from voting to consensus, blocking can be a terrifying concept to embrace. (You mean just one person can stop the entire group from moving forward? A: Yes. Yikes!) The worry is that the group may have jumped out of the frying pan (an out of control majority) in exchange for the dubious advantages of greater exposure to the fire (tyranny of the minority). What's the bargain in that? It's important to carefully walk new-to-consensus groups through what constitutes legitimate grounds for a block, by what process a block will be validated, and the primacy of crafting the right energetic container for coping with a block. (And don't forget to keep breathing!)

9. Facilitator Authority
While most consensus groups accept without question that meetings will run better if facilitated, that doesn't necessarily mean they've digested what it is a good facilitator does, and how that's distinguished from the more familiar role of chairperson. For one thing, they ain't the same thing, and the role needs to be defined. For another, facilitators need express permission from the group to effectively handle phenomena like repetition, speaking off topic, sarcasm, and emotional outbursts. Without that authority, the facilitator role tends to devolve into little more than deciding who will talk next.

10. Commitment to Training 
It's not reasonable to expect new members to arrive on campus with a working knowledge of consensus. While you'll probably get a handful of community veterans to join, that will be the exception not the rule. Most will be starting from scratch or have partial experience that may be more problematic than beneficial. Thus, you're going to need to train new members (just as you may need to train facilitator). It is not a one-and-done proposition; it's an ongoing commitment. Hint: while it may be tempting, it's penny wise and pound foolish to expect new members to pick up the nuances of consensus by osmosis (watching others). If you want everyone singing from the same hymnal, it's less expensive in the long haul to give everyone voice lessons.

11. Triumph of Curiosity over Combat
The key moment in cooperative culture is what happens when people encounter serious disagreement about non-trivial issues. Do they lean in and express curiosity ("Whoa, I'd like to hear how you got there. Maybe you're seeing something I missed") or do they gird their loins and prepare for a fight, to defend their turf? Cooperative culture is not about being wimpy, but neither is it about limiting dissent. In fact, the higher the stakes the more important it is that the net is cast wide.

12. How Power is Associated with Roles
One of the more important measures of a cooperative group's maturity is its ability to openly and sensitively discuss how power is distributed in the group and what can/should be done about the ways in which it's uneven. Because power is the ability to influence what others say and do, you cannot give it to those with less, but there are things the group can do to encourage its members to develop their capacity for leadership and to grow to become more powerful. Is the group being sufficiently mindful about power distribution when authorizing people to fill key roles? Is it thinking strategically when committing resources to train members to be better able to fill needed roles?

Friday, February 24, 2017

Community as Economic Engine


It’s endlessly fascinating to see what kaleidoscopic patterns can be generated by shining light on a single facet of intentional communities, and then slowly rotating the focus from one group to the next. As this issue of Communities drills down on cooperative economics, I want to look at what emerges when the lens is trained on how communities organize financially.
 

Intentional communities sort broadly into two kinds: those where members share income (roughly 10-12 percent of the North American field today), and those where they don’t (the vast majority).

In the case of the former, the community takes primary responsibility for the economic welfare of its members. In consequence, the community rolls up its sleeves and develops community-owned businesses, and takes advantage of collective purchasing power to leverage economies of scale to make ends meet. In addition to the day-to-day, this kind of community also provides for member vacations, health care, and retirement. It’s cradle to grave coverage. Members put everything they earn (though not necessarily everything they own) into the pot. In return, the group picks up the tab for all expenses—within whatever boundaries the community sets.

For non-income-sharing communities, however, the collective tends to leave the economics of member households untouched. This is a huge difference.

As someone who lived in an income-sharing community for fours decades (1974-2014) and was a delegate to the Federation of Egalitarian Communities for two (1980-2001), I have deep familiarity with how the collective can partner with individual members to address economic imperatives. In addition, as FIC administrator for 28 years and as a group process consultant for three decades I have visited and worked with more 100 non-income-sharing communities and thus have first-hand knowledge of the economic realities in that milieu as well.

Both because most intentional communities don’t share income and because the potential there is less explored, the primary focus of this examination will be the economic relationship between the collective and the individual in non-income-sharing groups. I’m going to first describe what’s extant, and then attempt to make the case for shifting it to something else.

The Community Lens
For the community, it’s much simpler if its financial focus is narrowly defined: the group will manage the collective assets and liabilities (such as property taxes, infrastructure, and common facilities) and member household will manage themselves. Not only does this protect individual privacy (getting the right balance between group and individual can be tricky) but it’s less work. Members may do a fair bit of expense sharing and collective purchasing, but the group’s interest in member finances tends to be limited to whether the checks for HOA dues clear and members don’t default on their mortgages.
To be sure, if a member gets into financial trouble, the group may rally around them—either collectively or as neighbors—but it isn’t obliged to.

The Individual Household Lens
For the member this hands-off policy cuts two ways. On the one hand it means that information about their financial reality (beyond whether they qualify for a loan if one is needed to buy or build their unit) and their household budget is entirely their business, just as in the mainstream culture.

On the other hand it typically means foregoing one of the principal advantages of shared living: the active assistance from others in figuring things out.

On the expense side, there is considerable room for sharing expenses in non-income-sharing communities, and a good bit of this happens. Perhaps the community has an internal food-buying club or has a link with a nearby CSA (community supported agriculture). Maybe the community owns a single pickup truck or wood splitter that is shared among all members. The group may build a swimming pool, a workshop, or an exercise facility—all of which are likely to be larger and better equipped than what members would build on their own. 

But what about the income side? This part of the equation is largely unexplored.

My good friend, Terry O’Keefe, and I have been trying to bring a lantern into this cavernous, dark room. We think non-income-sharing communities are mostly missing an important opportunity to partner with their members, bringing community assets to bear. Our point is not that communities must do this, but that it is a possibility that is largely missed. Often communities are located in places where jobs are poor (which is the obverse of the cheap land coin). If prospective members had help solving their economic challenges it could make a substantial difference in community accessibility.

When Terry and I conducted a workshop bearing the same title as this article to a packed room at the 2015 national cohousing conference (in Durham NC), these questions bubbled up in the audience: 

1.  When does it make more sense for the community to own a business, and when does it make more sense for individual members to own it?

We suggest looking closely at two sub-questions:

a) What structure gives you the best chance of manifesting the management energy needed? Keep in mind that possessing a great commercial concept is not the same as possessing great management skills, and neither is the same as business savvy (though there is definitely overlap). Thus, people with sound business ideas often need help (whether they know it or not) with:
—Developing a viable business plan
—Securing start-up money
—Finding a qualified manager or management team
—Creating a marketing plan
—Identifying personnel needs (how many and with what skills)

b) To what extent are you open to fellow community members as a potential labor force? This question excites us a lot because of the potential for entrepreneurs (the ones who cook up business ideas) to partner with their non-entrepreneurial neighbors (who are looking to supplement their income but are reluctant to start a business). These two segments coexist in almost all groups and are often at odds with each other, because of the strong tendency for entrepreneurs to be risk tolerant while non-entrepreneurs are risk averse. Here they can make common cause.

2.  What advantages might communities businesses have in the marketplace?

—In communities of size there typically exists an amazing pool of skilled, motivated people available on site to help you with most aspects of business development. It’s an untapped gold mine.
—Building (or at least enhancing) community can be an explicit byproduct of doing the work. Given that your people value the community (and the connections) this significantly boosts job satisfaction and morale (which translates directly to better attention to detail, fewer mistakes, less absenteeism, more pride in the work, less turnover).
—If the business is owned by the community (and members are the workers) there will tend to be enhanced motivation and satisfaction from that fact alone. (There are any number of jobs I would gracefully do for my community that I would never do for wages.)
—Healthy communities tend to have superior skills at communicating and working constructively with conflict. This can make all the difference in terms of job satisfaction and can be readily parlayed into superior customer service.
—Communities tend to be more collaborative (and less hierarchic). To the extent that this obtains, problem solving becomes an all-skate activity (not just something management tackles). In addition to enhancing morale, it leads to more creative ideas and better problem solving.
—Community-based businesses can often be more fluid about part-time work, flex hours, day care on the job, costuming, and working at home.
—You’ll tend to get more people who will volunteer, because of the values you represent and how it helps the community.
—There will also an opportunity advantage among customers who value cooperation. Potential customers within your service area who value community will preferentially give you their business. While there will be limits to how much they will be willing to pay a premium for your product or service, they will at least prefer you when price and quality are comparable.
—Your labor pool itself may give you an advantage. For example, my long-time community (Sandhill Farm) produces sorghum syrup. While our neighbors could grow sorghum just as easily as we, they didn’t have the labor to do the work and couldn’t afford to hire it. Thus there was virtually no local competition for our product and we get the business from all who prefer to buy locally (which is a growing market share). Not stopping there we pressed this advantage by inviting friends to join us for the labor-intensive three-week harvest each fall. Our numbers temporarily swell to three times their normal size and it’s a madhouse harvest festival (a form of temporary community that we know how to manage). We’re no more efficient working this way, but all the incoming labor is volunteered—guest campesinos are compensated with wonderful food and camaraderie.
—To some extent people can substitute for capital and property. If people are a major resource, think about how to leverage that. Let me give another Sandhill example for how we applied this principle. Just like most of our northeast Missouri neighbors, we grew soybeans. If we sold them as a raw product (as our neighbors do) we wouldn’t have any advantage. However, we added value to our soybeans by making them into tempeh, and selling that instead. While it wasn’t a get rich scheme (we made about $10/hour on tempeh), there were several advantages to this approach:
• We could make tempeh year round and work when we wanted (when you’re dealing with raw agricultural products you must work when the weather is right, not when it fits your schedule).
• We set the price for local, organic tempeh. When you’re selling raw products, you mostly have to sell for what buyers will pay.
• We were selling a product that aligned well with our value for healthy living. Soy-based protein is easier on the land than meat-based protein and there’s no cholesterol.
• We could produce the same income from one acre of soybeans converted into tempeh that our neighbors could generate from selling 25 acres of raw soybeans. That allowed us make the income we needed farming far less land, which meant our operation needed far less capitalization.
—Often communities develop expertise in an area to meet their own needs, and that knowledge can have commercial application in ways that home-scale experiences may not.
For example, Twin Oaks (Louisa VA) was a well-established community of about 90 adults that grew a significant fraction of its own food in extensive community gardens. When neighboring Acorn (Mineral VA) acquired Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (an heirloom garden seed business) in 1999, it was an easy adjustment for Twin Oaks to become a major seed grower for Acorn, thereby boosting income for both communities.

—Communities frequently control land or have commonly held buildings that are underutilized. (Have you ever noticed how often the lights are out at the common house?)

3.  How tricky is it to navigate the dynamic where members are both peer/peer and employer/employee?

The hardest part is likely to occur when the employer gives the employee critical feedback about their performance as an employee—and these two are at the same time neighbors. This can be dicey, and a lot will depend on how well the culture of the community supports the expression of critical feedback and clean communication. If the community struggles to work through tensions among members then this does not bode well. Going the other way, where roles are clear and skills are sharp, it’s just another of life’s unexpected pleasures.

4.  How can we encourage non-income-sharing communities to develop their potential as an economic engine?

We suggest groups think about this in two ways: 

a) What can communities do to foster and support business development among entrepreneurial members? [See the replies to Questions 1a and 2 above.] By seeing the collective skills of community members as a pool, it’s quite likely that there is expertise within the pool that can cover most of the needs for business expertise—especially at the advising or consulting level (as opposed to the regular job level)—without going outside the group. Canvass the group and put that skill to work! Not only will you be strengthening the economics of the community, you’ll be strengthening relationships into the bargain.

Beyond that, the community may be a huge help with capitalization, perhaps through borrowing against capital reserves or by organizing a loan pool funded by members with deep pockets.

b) What can groups do to help new businesses create jobs for non-entrepreneurial members? We touched on this above, and think the community’s role in this may be crucial. Often small business owners are content to remain a one-person or single household operation. The owner may not be strong in social skills or is otherwise leery of the dynamics of hiring and firing neighbors. Thus, remaining a ma-and-pa outfit eliminates potential personnel headaches, and owners may not be that ambitious about growing the business. 

However, the savvy community will know that a majority of its members are non-entrepreneurial, some fraction of which may well be eager for local work that has a good values match. By getting involved at an early stage, the community can be in a position to offer the carrot of helping to identify business assistance in exchange for job creation—including the offer to troubleshoot personnel concerns, on an as-needed basis. There can be a lot of good in this. The principle is simple: the more people you have eagerly hunting in the clover field, the more you’re going to turn up specimens with four leaves.

To be clear, access to the community’s “Chamber of Commerce” would be strictly voluntary; no one would be required to use this group, or to heed its advice.

5.  To what extent is a focus on business development just buying into the (failed) paradigm that growth solves everything, and to what extent is it sensible to use traditional business tools to support alternative economies?

While I think there’s a lot that can be done to dial down demand (and live happily on less), it nonetheless makes sense to be smart about analyzing prospects for new business ideas with time tested traditional queries. For example:
—What's the market for your product or service?
—What's the competition?
—What do you do better than anyone else?
—What are you passionate about doing?
—Can you profitably produce or deliver your product or service at a price people are willing to pay?
—How is your business an expression of who you want to be in the world?
—How will you manifest the start-up capital you need to make a go of this business?
—How will you service debt and not go belly up?

6.  How do you handle the tension between the non-entrepreneur (who tends to be risk averse) and the entrepreneur (who tends to be risk tolerant)?

Let’s be real. This tension exists already, whether you have community businesses or not. Isn’t it a better strategy to learn to deal constructively with the full breadth of attitudes among your membership than to attempt to eliminate or shy away from opportunities for those differences to manifest?

[Terry and I will be reprising this workshop at the next national cohousing conference in Nashville TN, May 19-21, 2017]

• • •

Can communities afford to not explore their economic potential? I don’t think so. 

I’m not looking for Trump’s jawboning to bring back the manufacturing jobs that were lost to outsourcing. I’m not looking for governments to bail us out at all. I’m looking at what we can do for ourselves, working together in values-aligned cooperative groups—the same kind of entities that impressed Margaret Mead so much for their potential to effect world change.  

Sidebar #1: Redefining Terms

Security
Ordinarily this term conjures up thoughts of bank balances and insurance policies. In community, however, or in close-knit neighborhoods, we can shift that to relationships—the people who will be there for you in time of need.
There are some nuances here, such as maintaining an intergenerational mix (so that the percentage of members needing help doesn’t get too high) or joining a community after you can no longer contribute (knocking out of balance a healthy sense of give and take), but these challenges can be solved with sufficient forethought.
Quality of Life
We mostly think in terms of amassing material goods or money (which can buy material goods). However, if we can shift from ownership of goods to access to goods, this is very liberating on one’s budget. In community, you learn quickly that everyone doesn’t need to own a lawnmower, a washing machine, or a table saw.
Yes, sharing comes with challenges—the tragedy of the commons, and mutuality of need come to mind—yet think of all the dollars you don’t have to earn if you share items that you only need occasionally.
This can be translated into working fewer hours, or changing to a job you enjoy more but pays less.
Sustainable Economics
In the mainstream culture we rely on GNP (gross national product) as the principal indicator of economic health. That’s a measure of throughput, with no distinction between $1 million spent on building wind turbines or $1 million spent on cleaning up an oil spill (or $1 million in legal fees to defend the company that caused the oil spill)—they are considered equivalent events in terms of GNP.
But what if we valued conservation of resources instead? Rather than measuring how many trees were sold for lumber, we’d focus on how many trees are still standing that could be cut into lumber. Since we live in a world of finite resources, maybe it would make better sense to focus on what we have available (rather than how fast we’re exchanging it). We could peg our sense of health to how many inches of topsoil we had at the end of the year, rather than on the dollar value of the potatoes we grew in that topsoil last year.
Economist Herman Daly laid out a blueprint for this different approach in his seminal work, Steady-State Economics (1977). We could focus on a system of exchanging goods and services that can be continued indefinitely into the future with no one getting hurt. We could emphasize helping people find work they love and are good at.
We could redefine “work” as something that purposefully blurs the traditional distinctions between work and play—because you enjoy both.
To make a shift of this kind requires the fish to sense the water they’re swimming in and to decide to try something else. It’s questioning fundamental assumptions about what kind of activity or condition best measures the health of an economy—by which I mean a system’s capacity to support people getting what they need and want for a decent life.
It’s hard, and perhaps a bit scary, but it can be done.

Sidebar #2: Challenges Peculiar to Community-based Businesses
As promotional as I am about community businesses, there are pitfalls that it behooves groups to become familiar with up front:
1. You will need to devote time and resources to training people in communication and cooperative problem solving. While people will be attracted to what you intend and what you have created, that does not mean they will already possess the skills to plug in well. In fact, they most likely won’t (or will have those skills only partially mastered).
Because intentional communities purposefully effect culture change, any business embedded in an intentional community will be operating in a different culture. In recognition of that tautology you would be wise to anticipate the need to build capacity as a precondition to reaping the benefits. (While you might reasonably project a flywheel effect that will help carry you along with its positive momentum once you have things well under way, there will be a lot of effort in the beginning getting things pointed in the right direction.)
2. It is a complication to embrace the concept that relationship building is part of your work. Yes, it comes with the advantages enumerated in the main article, yet it won’t all be cake and balloons. There will be times when you’re ready to focus on a task and some of your fellow workers will insist on working through interpersonal tensions instead. In mainstream workplaces, there are typically strict limitations on what, how, and when you can expect tensions to be addressed (if at all); in a community-based business you’re going to have to budget time to do this work way beyond the industry average (and it won’t come in predictable doses; it’ll be episodic, irregular, and occasionally intense).
3. Collaborative decision-making can take considerably longer than typical management styles in the corporate world. While you can make an excellent case for why collaborative styles will produce better decisions in general, there needs to be a fairly sophisticated understanding of how to delegate effectively and under what conditions it makes sense to use a more streamlined decision-making process (for example, to respond effectively to time-sensitive conditions and information). Doing this in a sloppy way is highly expensive (in terms of hurt feelings, a sense among workers of betrayal or hypocrisy, and frustration among management). It’s serious work developing an effective decision-making style for collaborative groups, and you can get creamed if you don’t anticipate this.
4. It can be tough navigating the dynamic where two members are in a manager/employee role in the community business, while at the same time relating as peers in community meetings. There are different expectations in those roles and it can get confusing if people have trouble changing hats when shifting from business conversations to community conversations.

Sidebar #3: Profile of Members Seeking Part-Time Employment
Among members of non-income-sharing communities looking for employment, here are the preferences I have been able to distill from direct observation and discussion:
—Options for part-time work
—Flexible hours
—May need help with childcare, or openness to having young kids at the work site
—Strong match between work values and personal values (no prostitution)
—Low/no commuting
—Casual dress permitted (minimal wardrobe expenses)
—Social skills highly valued
—Limited desire/willingness to manage
—Wages need to be decent, but not exorbitant

Sidebar #4: Defining Living Wage
How much income is needed to live decently? Answers vary widely, based on individual circumstances. Essentially, we’re talking about covering basics (food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and health), plus some for education, travel, entertainment, and savings. Someone living in the city will have a different bottom line than for someone living in a rural county without a stoplight (as I did for 40 years). Someone living in an income-sharing group house will have a very different budget than someone living in a single family home.
The amount of money you equate with a living wage will be directly tied to the decisions you make about the amount of independence you seek and the degree you feel you need to own things (rather than share them), and these choices will tend to have a significantly greater impact on your money needs than the local real estate market.
Getting the Life You Want on Less Money
Probably the biggest two items on your expense list where you have immediate potential for drastically reducing your living costs are in housing and transportation, with food a distant third. The more you share, the less money you need to have the standard of living you seek. It’s that simple (though, to be sure, the practice of sharing is not always simple—which is why there’s a social dimension to sustainability).
Another factor is the extent to which you equate your worth with your wage (or your bank account). The mainstream culture has gone to considerable lengths to condition people to make this link, and it can take serious effort to unlearn it. (The good news is that it’s possible.)
Making Work Work for You
The way through this issue is to expand the list of things you value when assessing what you get from your work. While money is a factor, you can also value:
—Relationships (both with colleagues and with clients)
—Education (what you learn while delivering the job, either professionally or about yourself)
—Opportunity to serve
—Working conditions (pleasure derived from the environment in which you work)
—Access to resources (use of company tools and expertise for personal purposes)
—Contacts (which may lead to more rewarding jobs in the future)
—Ancillary social benefits (the opportunity to visit friends and relatives living near or en route to where you’re delivering work—this is a big one for me, because I travel a lot as a process consultant)
The point is that it’s good to have a complex equation when assessing the value you get from work, as it gives you the greatest leverage for practicing the permaculture principle of “stacking functions.” That is, your life will tend to work better if you can get work to satisfy multiple functions (rather than just generating the money with which to afford the myriad things you really want to do).
The Problems of Separating Love & Money
While mostly people are looking for more money from their work than they’re getting now, there can also be a challenge from the other direction: where people insist on not getting paid (or paid decently) for work they love. The idea here is that the other side of the people-not-having-work-they-love coin is people not wanting to mess up what they love by associating money with it.
It works like this. Having taken deeply into their heart the shibboleth that money is the root of all evil they don’t want to contaminate activities they love with the taint of commercialism.  This can play out in a couple of versions.
One is the artist (and everyone who practices something they love can be styled an “artist”—regardless of the value others place on that person’s work) who chooses to not sell what they produce (or accept commissions to create it), for fear that market preferences will influence (either subtly or grossly) their artistic choices and they prefer a non-economic purity in their practice.
Another is that some people working in the social change field will prefer to volunteer or accept low wages in exchange for credibility or even power. The dynamic is that there tends to be a deep suspicion about the motives of people who ask for high wages (note that “high” in this context can simply mean a living wage), and some would prefer to demonstrate their depth of conviction by accepting little or no compensation, hoping (perhaps subconsciously) to trade their poverty for influence.
While there are all kinds of flaws in this logic (what does it say about a model of a sustainable world if it depends on the people working to create it not being sustainably compensated for their efforts?), this “pride of poverty” phenomenon is a powerful dynamic undercutting the effectiveness of much social change work today. (For an excellent and poignant story about this, read pages 37-40 of Passion as Big as a Planet by Ma’ikwe Ludwig.)

Sidebar #5: Laird’s Economic Journey
In the interest of completeness and transparency, I want to share my personal odyssey in relationship with money. While everyone’s path is unique, and my experience cannot be a blueprint for anyone else, I think personal stories ground the issues and can occasionally provide inspiration.
Background
I grew up in the Republican suburbs of Chicago, and have an extreme amount of privilege in the mainstream culture. My father was financially successful and I was raised to be so myself. There isn’t a shadow of a doubt about whether I could make lots of money if I set my sights on that goal.
I did not grow up rich, but comfortably middle class. The most important thing I got out of my upbringing was a strong sense of self-confidence. As I understand it today, this is the result of: a) my privilege; b) feeling secure in my parents’ love; and c) my never having experienced any serious deprivation growing up (my basic needs were always met). So the first piece to understand is that I had serious advantages.
While my father had plenty of money, and seemed to enjoy making it, it was also clear that he wasn’t happy. In fact, I came to understand by the time I went to college that he was profoundly lonely. It was a wake-up call of serious proportions to see my father—who was clearly a success as measured by societal standards—not happy. He was, I understand now, living well beyond the "Apex of Fulfillment," and I wanted no part of that experience. So my second piece was that I understood early on the limitations of what money can buy.
I went to college during the years 1967-71: the height of Vietman protests. It was a period of unprecedented unrest on campus and I was smack in the middle of it. I burst out my conservative cocoon and started questioning damn near everything. I loved the intensity of the inquiry and what I now see with hindsight were my first tastes of community—dormitory living with peers. These were exciting times, and it was in that context that the next piece emerged: I was drawn to social change work (and I knew that I was going to be a builder-upper rather than a tearer-downer: I had seen both roles showcased in those years of protest, and it was quickly apparent to me that I enjoyed putting together solutions more than I relished ripping the scales from others’ eyes).
Coming out of college, I knew I was supposed to get a job (in the same way that I knew that I was supposed to go to college after high school). Already oriented toward wanting to make a difference, it seemed a good idea to explore public service, and for two years I worked for the US Department of Transportation in Washington, DC as a junior bureaucrat. As it turned out, it was the only regular 9-5, M-F job I ever had. I worked for the then-magnificent salary of $7,000/year, and saved money. (The two main components of this were shared housing and not owning a vehicle; it’s incredible how far you can stretch a paycheck when you get control of housing and transportation, and don’t eat out every night.)
While it didn’t take me long to grok that this would not be my most productive environment (too much bullshit, not enough action), it was a valuable experience. It was, for example, highly instructive to experience being the lowest paid person in my division (of 12 professionals and seven secretaries), and yet I was the only one not complaining of a shortage of disposable income. People in that office spent to the limit of their income (or beyond). Sure, they had nicer houses and nicer clothes, yet they didn’t seem happier. This reinforced my inclination to not enter the consumer rat race. What was the point?
I also realized that I had lost that excitement and stimulation of college days. Maybe I’d made a mistake. Instead of focusing first on career possibilities and rebuilding a network of relationships in whatever job came along, maybe I should have done it the other way around: focus first on the people and let the job follow. In February 1973 I was in a public library and happened across the current issue of Psychology Today. It included an excerpt from a new book by Kat Kinkade, A Walden Two Experiment. It described the first five years of Twin Oaks Community, and it changed my life. “Community” was the label I was searching for to describe what was precious to me about my college experience. So now I had another important piece: people first; money second.
By August I had “retired” from public service and began serious conversations with friends from college days about starting our own community, to recreate that special environment. By the following spring, we had founded Sandhill Farm: four people willing to try to make that happen.
Because Twin Oaks was the inspiration and because I’d already done a fair amount of work to reject materialism, we set up Sandhill as an income-sharing community, where all earnings would be pooled. The community still operates that way today.
The four of us were able to buy the land and expand the housing to meet our needs with cash (about $20,000). A significant fraction of that was saved from my two years in DC. I was 24 years old and had just bought land (with others) in northeast Missouri. I had no job (or even an inkling of how we were going to make the finances work), but we also had no debt.
The Community Years
From this point on, I began seriously working on developing a viable economic model that was quite different from any I had known before. Here are the components of what I was able to accomplish:
—Drastically reduced my need for money to supply basic needs, by living in a homesteading community that shared income.
—Worked consciously to expand the pool of things that give me high satisfaction (essentially this entailed cultivating curiosity).
—Insisted that the highest possible fraction of what I do was things I loved doing.
—Defined work broadly (valuing both domestic and income-producing activities as “work”).
—Blurred the line between work and play.
—Worked only when I wanted to (though I wanted to a lot).
—Brought my full passion into everything I did.
—Defined success as loving the process, not the number of projects completed.
To the extent I’ve succeeded at this, I don’t track how much I work, and work doesn’t tire me. (clients feel this from me—even if they don’t know where it comes from—and it positively affects their experience with me, making it all the more likely they’ll want to work with me again. It’s a tremendous positive feedback loop.)
By having lots of things that attract me, I have a wide variety of work. Because I also have considerable control of my time, this affords me an important degree of flexibility. Whenever I get tired of one thing (or seem to have lost my creative edge), I simply lay it down and do something completely different. By this practice I am able to maintain an unusually high degree of enthusiasm for what I do, and rarely get run down.
Pricing Myself
I do a lot of things that make money. Yet money doesn’t drive me. By having a low need for cash (by American standards) it gives me considerable leverage in the marketplace. As a process consultant (my most remunerative activity), I know that my services are valuable (I price myself as worth $1500/day, plus expenses). Whenever prospective clients ask what I charge, I give them that figure, and in the same breath tell them that I don’t want money to get in the way of the work and that I’ll agree to do the job (assuming I’m interested in it) for what they can afford. That is, I tell them that I’ll say “yes” to whatever amount of money they put on the table, without quibbling. The only requirement is that they have a conversation (without me present) about what they can afford. What I don’t do is offer discounts up front. I insist they have the conversation about what the work is worth. And then I trust their answer.
In consequence, I get paid all over the map. Sometimes I work for a pittance, or even pro bono. In the end though, taken as a whole, I get paid plenty and I am able to ignore the paycheck when doing the work.
One last piece. I’ve derived considerable satisfaction from making jobs up (rather than out-competing those already in the field). That is, on multiple occasions I’ve cooked up an idea for a job that hasn’t existed previously—something that really excited me. I’ve talked people into supporting me as a volunteer long enough to demonstrate that job’s worth, and then gotten the job funded. After a while, my interests invariably evolve, I find someone to replace me, and I create a new job. I’ve done this half a dozen times.
After firmly establishing myself in the field of intentional communities as a process consultant, I am poised to leave that to others and focus instead on bringing the lessons and tools of cooperative dynamics into the wider culture—among neighborhood associations, schools, churches, and the workplace, where the commitment to community and cooperation is softer, yet the numbers yearning for something better are exponentially higher.