Monday, December 21, 2009

Some Thoughts on Intentional Community

Now that it's Solstice---the shortest day of the year and the first day of winter---we are approaching a restful sojourn of spending Christmas week with Keith's sister and her family in Norcross, Georgia. Thus our search for intentional community (IC) is temporarily on hold in terms of actual visits. We plan to use some of our time in Georgia as an opportunity to research communities that we'd like to visit,  emailing them inquiry/introduction letters in advance of our arrival to Florida, Louisiana and Texas.

So far, we've visited thirteen communities: several cohousing communities, a few eco-villages, an ashram, two income-sharing communities, and several others that use some sort of land trust, church or corporate structure to provide the legal underpinnings to their existence. (Please see the list of visited communities--with live links---on the right column of our blog's home page.)

Each IC has its own character and form of governance, reflecting its core values and principles that guide decisions and the essence of the culture within that community. We've found that most rely on, if not embrace, consensus decision making, an inclusive democratic process based on collaboration. One forming community we visited felt that consensus can be painstaking and too time-consuming, so they are currently adopting sociocracy, a form of governance we admittedly know little about but is said to eliminate some of the tedium of consensus while retaining the positive dynamics of the group process. Still others have a structure in which members become shareholders over time in a corporation or land trust, gaining voting power as they remain in the community for an extended period.

How the decision-making process is structured can have a major impact on the level of connectivity and interdependence that is fostered among community members. We have witnessed some of the disparities that exist when a handful of established members hold the majority of the power while newer members are left without a voice. Some communities seem less able to retain long-term members for reasons we suspect are related to unequal distribution of power. Subterranean rumblings of discontent can develop without an open forum for expression, easily undermining a community's cohesiveness. We've caught wind of such a tendency in more than one IC where there appears to be resistance to change, barriers to the implementation of new ideas, and the lack of safe, open and authentic communication. Hopefully, these communities can overcome this lack of cohesiveness and emerge stronger from that process of growth.

So far, we have visited two income-sharing communities---Acorn and Twin Oaks. These two IC's are members of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC), an organization in which (currently only six) member communities agree to adopt income-sharing and equal distribution of power and decision-making, among other required practices. Income-sharing is attractive in that one simply takes part in the life of the community, working a required number of hours per week in exchange for a modest monthly stipend (usually about $70) and the freedom of having no rent, utilities or other bills to pay. Some egalitarian communities allow their members to earn a limited amount of money outside of the community, but the general idea is that a level playing field allows everyone to be economic equals. Some might call it communism. The FEC calls it egalitarianism and equal distribution of wealth that takes into consideration the good of the whole.

Back in the 1970s, many ICs were formed in reaction to the growing consumerism of the American mainstream in which every family owned their little half-acre of manicured land with a two-car garage, lawnmower, and all of the other trappings of middle-class life. Early communes like The Farm in Tennessee, Black Bear Ranch in California and The Renaissance Community in Massachusetts offered an alternative to this lifestyle, and thousands of people flocked to these islands of communal living as the country underwent a massive cultural shift that was instigated by the Beats during the 1950s and exploded during the 1960s.

Now, the IC movement has matured, so to speak, and thousands of people in numerous countries around the world live in intentional community. For many, cohousing is the model that's most comfortable and economically sustainable, with each family unit owning their own home and taking part in the life of the wider community as they see fit. Some cohousing communities now being planned and built are using permaculture, green building, solar energy and other technologies in order to be a green as possible, and some cohousing groups are seeking ways to adopt aspects of ecovillage design to their plans.

In terms of physical layout and structure, IC's can be greatly different from one another. Whereas our search has so far centered on relatively rural communities, IC's exist in urban and suburban areas as well. Cohousing is one form of intentional community that is quickly infiltrating American suburbs and urban areas. While cohousing design can mimic suburbia in certain ways, the interdependence that can be fostered within these communities drives home the fact that there are many ways to live in community, eschewing the mainstream tunnel vision that can keep us separated, lonely and dreaming of something better.

In rural IC's, physical structure can vary widely. Some rural IC's prefer to be very spread out, with small clusters of homes separated by large areas of forest or open land. Others keep housing areas close together in order to give the community the feeling of a pedestrian village. At The Farm, the community is considerably spread out, so members seem to drive their cars around the community---especially in the winter---but we are told that there is a fleet of twenty golf carts that is quite active in summer, and we assume that many members use bicycles as well. At Twin Oaks, the community is quite walkable, but even still there is a squadron of communal bicycles that appear to receive heavy use by many residents.

When it comes to different age groups, we have found that the age distribution within IC's ebbs and flows, as might be expected. For children who grow up on IC's, it can often be a natural tendency to return to the nest and rejoin the community as an adult after going to college and seeing the wider world. In fact, some of these IC progeny find life in mainstream culture too shockingly splintered and driven by consumerism, and they eventually return to intentional community with a sigh of relief. Some IC's are hungry for families with young children as their populations age and people move away, whereas we encountered one community that has a preponderance of people in their 20s and 30s but lacks a core group of older members. Age distribution within IC's is different wherever we go, and some IC's are better than others at attracting and retaining a diverse range of members.

Speaking of diversity, we must readily admit that all of the IC's that we have visited so far are predominantly populated by white people, and the lack of people of color does indeed give us pause. This subject has come up in conversation during several of our visits, and some IC residents with whom we spoke bemoaned this lack of diversity but were uncertain how to remedy the situation. We have also discussed the diversity of sexual orientation at several communities, and our research has revealed that there are a number of GLBTQ communities scattered around the country. The diversity issue---whether it be in relation to race or sexual orientation---is food for thought, and an issue that we will continue to explore.

At this point in our journey, there is no absolute certainty that we will---or won't---live in an IC again. The only certainty is that we intend to visit as many IC's as we reasonably can, exploring which communities can most benefit from what we have to offer them, and where we can live a symbiotically fulfilling and satisfying life with like-minded people. We are taking into consideration so many factors: climate, governing structure, people, community economic structure, local economic conditions, etc.

So, following a "Christmas vacation", so to speak, we will resume our active community search and continue to blog about our experiences and findings, as well as about all of the wonderful new friends and acquaintances that we make along our merry way.

---Mary and Keith


  1. Mary, mary...this is wonderful! Thanks for sharing with all of us...I am skim reading because of Christmas reactions, but love that you will be on the road again tomorrow! here is a link to journey to forever if you have never run across Keith's story.

    the link I put up is for pesticide yuck, but the story is there too...hope you enjoy.

  2. Thanks to both of you for posting this!
    i have read it now several times... each time getting more from it.
    i hope you will keep sharing both your experiences and thoughts with us as you travel.
    i'll be waiting to see what you are up to next.
    ---linda :)

  3. Sounds like you've had a fun time in your search, and you are starting to see through the veneer to some of the real issues.

    You might be interested in reading some of the material on our website - for example the section on consensus through "one no vote" - our group has been going strong for over 41 years now - look at

  4. It's too bad you are not coming out to California, we have an IC that actually has people of color in it. Not one but two. I live in the original Morehouse in Oakland. You can check out our lifestyle in my blog where I explore some of the issues living communally,

  5. Hi,
    Thank-you for sharing your experiences. My fiance and I are looking for intentional communities with a culturally diverse population as well. This is how I came across your blog. Any information would be life-changing. I've visited and worked at a few organic farm communities in Southern California so far and have had absolutely wonderful experiences. But in looking for a place that I could consider settling and raising a family, cultural diversity is of the utmost importance. I also blog about my travels and search on