Laird's Blog

To Be Young and 34

On Tuesday my son, Ceilee, turned 34.

I recall being told back in the '70s, by the older brother of a college friend, that the ancient Greeks considered the prime of life to be 34 (which just happened to be that guy's age at the time). Who knows, maybe it's true. In any event, I hope it's an auspicious year for my son.

Thinking back to when I was 34, a special memory from that year (besides being iconic for George Orwell fans) was my going on a major summer adventure, principally to visit a college friend, Peg Kehrer, (different than the one above) and her partner, Paul Otte, in Juneau AK.

My odyssey began with a short train trip from La Plata MO to Kansas City, where I spent the night with Everette Wright, a good friend of Sandhill's. In the morning, Everette dropped me off at the driveaway place where I'd arranged to take a Datsun Maxima (1984 was the last year before everything became Nissan) from Kansas City to the suburbs of Seattle.

En route, I stopped by a monument in central Kansas that claimed to be the geographic center of the continental US (which means that if all the land comprising the 48 states were of equal density you could balance the whole of it on the top of the monument and it wouldn't tip in any direction). Kind of an odd thing to erect a monument to, but I can get into geeky math stuff on occasion.

The next day, in the sparsely populated Sandhills of western Nebraska I witnessed a mile-long fully loaded coal train chugging south… only to encounter another fully loaded coal train headed north two hours later. (Do these people talk to each other?)

I stopped by Devil's Tower National Monument (Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind made a big impression on me in 1977), Mount Rushmore, and Yellowstone National Park (where I loved all the geysers and brine shrimp). After a weekend visiting Nancy Shrader (the sister of my partner and Sandhill co-founder, Annie) and her family in Missoula MT, I pressed west across Idaho (where I paused in picturesque Coeur D'Alene long enough to enjoy a serving of apple pie with chocolate ice cream—something I'd always wanted to do after reading about Clancy Sigal doing it in his 1962 road trip cum political memoir Going Away).

In the final leg I drove across the Palouse, visited the Grand Coulee Dam (think Woody Guthrie: Your power is turning our darkness to dawn, so roll on Columbia, roll on)—which I learned is still shedding heat from all the concrete pouring in the '30s and '40s—and sampled aplet (apple/walnut) and cotlet (apricot/walnut) confections in Wenatchee.

After turning in my wheels in the home of this year's defending Super Bowl champions, I spent the night on a park bench in downtown Seattle, and caught the morning sailing of the Princess Marguerite to Victoria BC. After a day of gawking at all the boutiques in that tourist town (where I scored a terrific deal on a used 105 mm Pentax telephoto lens), I caught a bus the next day that took me all the way up the east side of Vancouver Island and deposited me at Port Hardy, just in time to catch the once-a-week BC ferry headed for Juneau, via Prince Rupert, Wrangell, Ketchikan, and Petersburg. The best part was witnessing humpback whales skyhopping at dawn in Frederick Sound. Wow.

I had a lovely visit with Peg & Paul in Juneau, the only state capital inaccessible by car. Highlights included:

o  Hiking up Mount Roberts, just above Juneau. From the summit you can look west over the archipelago of a temperate rain forest. Turning 180-degrees in place you see an alpine desert, replete with marmots that will steal your lunch if you turn your back.

o  Noodling around the Mendenhall Glacier north of town. It was incredible witnessing color shifts in the blue and purple range when peering into deep crevasses.

o  Witnesses a salmon die-off at the end of their spawning run (the bald eagles were so thick that it was impossible to conceive of them as an endangered species).

o  Enjoying the gustatory pleasure of beer-battered halibut, which allowed me to grok why Alaskans consider that gargantuan bottom feeder a superior delicacy to salmon.

o  Exploring the ruins of the Treadwell mine on nearby Douglas Island—once the largest hard rock gold mine in the world, from which over 3 million ounces were extracted during 1881-1922. I managed to come away with a souvenir valve handle (suitably rusted) that we welded onto the air control of our blacksmithing forge back home at Sandhill.

o  A side trip to Tenakee Springs (on Chichagof Island, about 60 ferry miles west of Juneau), where there is only one street, four-feet wide, and no cars. In the center of town is a natural, sulfurous hot springs that alternates between men's and women's in two-hour intervals around the clock.

o  A solo ocean canoe trip between Hoonah and Tenakee Springs (in and around Chichagof). I did about 50 miles in two days. The sobering part was waking up the second day and finding the canoe right-side up and full of water. After two decades of lake and river canoeing in northern Minnesota and interior Canada, I had neglected to take into account the tide. In freshwater canoeing, the waterline stays put overnight; in salt water it doesn't. Having gone to sleep at low tide, I was damn lucky that high tide was only enough to flip my canoe over and not float it away. Whew.

When it was time to head home I advertised in the paper for a ride to the Midwest and caught gold. A person answered that he was driving his pickup straight through to within 10 miles of my sister's place in the suburbs of Chicago, and would be happy with a co-driver who would spring for half the gas. Hot damn! We rendezvoused on the ferry to Prince Rupert and off we went. Stopping only for gas, food, and bathroom breaks we covered 3000 miles in 60 hours. While one drove, the other slept. Though the pickup was equipped with off-road suspension (read bumpy), at a certain point you get tired enough that you can sleep in any conditions.

After a much-needed night of sleep in a bed that wasn't moving, I took the train home. My enduring image of that first day back was getting reacquainted with my three-year-old son. We went for a walk around the farm together and I still have the photo of him buck naked, trying to smell the big face of an eastern drooping sunflower head, growing on the edge of the north garden.

All in all, it was a fine highlight to a perfect year.

Money in Community

With today's entry I'm plowing new ground: for the first time, I'm posting an essay written by a guest author. In this case, Beth Raps, who lives in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia where she operates her business, Raising Clarity: to cultivate abundance in noble causes, people, and organizations.

I first met Beth last October in the context of FIC's search for a new Development Director, which she has been helping us think about more clearly.

As both of us have an abiding interest in sustainable economics, we've been in dialog about right relationship to money, and this essay is the fruit of that conversation. I hope you enjoy it half as much as Beth and I did crafting it.
• • •I think about money a lot. As a fundraising consultant with groups and a money coach with individuals, I help people have more of it, in order to help myself have more of it.

Here's how I got there: I started with the intention of wanting more money flowing in my life. Then I researched until I found a spiritual way to accomplish that. In Creating Affluence, Deepak Chopra wrote:

Helping others make money and helping other people to fulfill their desires is a sure way to ensure you'll make money for yourself as well as more easily fulfill your dreams.

Like most, I had trouble accepting this at first. I was conditioned to believe that there are many obstacles to financial abundance. Scarcity and hoarding were part of my upbringing. It took me a long time to be at peace with even investigating this dubious legacy.

When I scratched below the surface of scarcity and hoarding, I found fear. As such, it is something we detest about money (and capitalism), and one of the reasons we create and join communities that are conscious attempts to move away from the competitiveness of capitalism and toward a more cooperative culture. In community, we intentionally interpose a protective, caring layer between the capitalist economy and isolated individuals.

In my search for something that would work better, I discovered that the Universe will pretty much support any belief. Thus, I sought one that would work for me. Along the way I learned the power of working inwardly (on my own conditioning about money) and at the same time working outwardly (with others' beliefs). Gradually, this purposeful shift got embodied in my experience—to the point where it gets easier and feels more natural all the time. This brought me to where I am today: experiencing money as flow.

But fear is present even then. It can be scary both when the outflow exceeds the inflow (which is not sustainable over time) and when the inflow exceeds the outflow (from whence the phrase "embarrassment of riches").

Money is never sitting still—it is always affirming some value. Too often, we let fear become that value. Then we run away from our fear into ideology, community, or self-chosen poverty. None of these choices lead to taking charge of the money we have, or making decisions with money that affirm our values. The rest of this post explores a few ways to begin doing that.
• • •Taking charge of money and shifting what value we give it does not depend on the amount we have. What matters is how we take charge of the money we have.

Each community has core values. These values are affirmed or negated by the group's choices, including choices about money. While money is not strictly necessary (communities could emphasize self-sufficiency and barter), as a practical matter communities use money because it facilitates fair exchange and provides access to goods and services beyond our ability to manifest or manufacture ourselves.

I invite all of us to become more conscious about the values we're expressing with how we use our money. What are we doing with it? How does it come in? How does it go out? What values would we like it to affirm?

Drilling down, I invite groups to look closely at their answers to these baseline questions:

•  What do you pay for?

•  What don't you pay for?

•  How much do you pay for what?

      •  Explore distinctions you make using money. Are these consciously chosen? Acknowledged by the community? Culturally imposed? Are there ways around those that are culturally imposed—for example, valuing lawyering more than trash collection or early childhood education—that the community can challenge and ultimately shift?

•  What do you receive money for and what do you trade for or give away?

      •  Look to see if what you give away has value you don't mean to be so free about.

•  What do you give (donate), to whom, where, and why (the amount is less important than the intention)?

•  What do you invest, how, where, and with what intention?

      •  Do you have an endowment?

      •  What special funds have you created, and for what purposes?

Notice that these questions all pertain even if money is taken out of the equation and you're trading cheese for shoes, or investing in the community's future by cultivating a wood lot.
• • •I tell clients that if they show me their annual budget (income and expenses) I can tell them what their mission or purpose is.

We have the chance to use money responsibly and in alignment with our spiritual, moral, ethical, and energetic compasses. Our challenge is to make those choices consciously.

I believe, ultimately, that none of our resources belong to us or come from us (which is why I like to view money as flow rather than as an amount). Jane Jacobs, in The Nature of Economies, correctly sources nature as the origin of all resources, and I recommend her book as a perfect place for communities to start seriously exploring these questions. Jacobs offers a beautiful thought experiment through the vehicle of a dinner party among intelligent, kindly friends who disagree on the real-world implications of the choices they make. The book is both poetic and engaging, and I commend it as an entrée to nourishing conversations about money. 

Bon appétit!

Saying No

It's one thing to respond negatively when offered illegal drugs. But just saying "no" isn't so simple when setting limits for what you'll tolerate.

In cooperative culture, establishing boundaries can be tricky. While this has a personal version (where a friend asks a favor) and a group version (where a member asks for group support or permission), I'm going to focus on the latter as the case that's more interesting (read complicated).

In the community that I helped start and lived in for 39 years (Sandhill Farm) we worked hard to say "yes" to any member request—while at the same time cultivated a norm that members use discernment in what they asked for relative to community resources. In consequence, we rarely fielded special requests and we rarely said "no." While this worked fairly well, it's hard for most people to turn down requests from people they care about (don't you love me?), and people are not uniformly shy about asking for what they want—notice I said "want"; not "need."

When people don't ask, the effective answer is always "no." Still, people hesitate to ask for what they want for any number of reasons:

o  Because they're unsure of their standing in the group (do they have enough social capital?).

o  Because they don't think they deserve it.

o  Because they don't want to be perceived as needy or selfish.

o  Because they may want to "save up" for a larger request later.

o  Because they don't want to place their fellow group members in the awkward position of anguishing over whether to say "no." 

Sometimes non-asking leads to people feeling as if they're earning psychic credit that can carry over and be applied to future requests (you should say "yes" because of all the past times I didn't asked for anything). As this accounting happens entirely inside the person's head and is invisible to others, it can lead to some spectacularly awkward dynamics.

What about folks who work hard to understand and internalize the group's standard of living and make few requests? Are they being punished for this relative to members who make few adjustments in what they ask for and wind up getting more of their requests granted simply because they have a thicker skin and can pump out requests guilt-free?

This begs the question, what is your group trying to equalize when evaluating requests?
—Percentage of requests granted per member
—Amount of group resources devoted to personal pleasure
—Degree of privation (all should suffer equally)

It doesn't take rocket science to see where applying different screens may lead to different results—all while presumably paying homage to the blind deity of Fairness. Has your group discussed this? Most haven't. They just bump along in the dark and hope for the best.

When you sift through this, I believe the safest harbor to steer toward has the following four features:

Step 1. Asking members to screen all requests for what they think the group should reasonably support regardless of who makes the request. Note: this standard implies an answer to how much group resources should be held in reserve for contingencies—which is a delicate issue in and of itself.

Step 2. Encouraging members to bring forward all requests that meet the above test (flattening cultural differences about stoicism or deferred gratification, and extinguishing phantom social credits for non-requests).

Step 3. Discussing and determining what the group is trying to equalize when treating member requests "fairly."

Step 4. Developing a culture in which there's minimal judgment about giving or receiving a negative response, so long as it's aligned with your answer to Step 3.

Done well, I think this strategy gives groups a decent chance of being in the know whenever they decide its best to say "no."

Defining Aggression

In cooperative culture, being aggressive is pretty much a universal clear no-no. Unfortunately, it's not necessarily clear where demonstrative behavior crosses the line into aggressive behavior, and this ambiguity can be tough to navigate with sure footing.

Here's a representative dictionary definition of aggression:
hostile attitude or behavior: threatening behavior or actions

The challenge with adjectives such as "hostile" and "threatening" is interpreting intent. It is not at all unusual for someone to receive words or actions differently than they were intended, and nowhere is that more likely than when it comes to negativity.

Let's suppose you are part of a cooperative group that has explicitly said it wants to embrace diversity (supporting each member to be their authentic self) and has established that aggressive behavior is unacceptable.

Let's further suppose that you have two people in your group named Kim and Jesse, and that Kim is a passionate ball of energy with lots of ideas and spontaneity, while Jesse tends to be reserved, thoughtful, and soft-spoken. While both are valued members of the group their styles and personalities are quite different. Suppose Kim speaks frequently in meetings, and Jesse not so much.

It doesn't take a great imagination to see how Kim's normal form of engagement may swamp Jesse's boat. When Kim gets energized, it will be tempting for Jesse to observe, "If I acted that way it would mean I was very upset; if that's true for Kim I'm under attack."

At its worst, Jesse may project upset onto Kim that simply isn't there. But even if Jesse is aware of that trap and refrains from projecting, the playing field is left unsafe for Jesse because it's unnatural and awkward to have to raise one's voice and barge into a fast-paced dialog to be heard. What's comforting and exciting for Kim may be aggressive and chaotic for Jesse.

Given that the group has promised to be non-aggressive, you can appreciate that Jesse may feel betrayed when it allows Kim to set the tone of meetings. Going the other, if meetings typically proceed only at the more deliberate pace that Jesse favors, Kim may feel betrayed by the promise to support members being their authentic selves. Uh oh.

The range of preferences I've described above can arise from a number of differences (while it's not hard to find counterexamples to the stereotypical tendencies I'm describing below, the tendencies still have validity):

o  Family of origin: Northern European stock tends to produce Jesses; Southern European stock tends to produce Kims.

o  Class: Blue collar culture tends to manifest Kims; white collar tends to manifest Jesses.

o  Gender: Men tend to be Kim-like; women tend to be Jesse-like.

Added to this multicultural stew is the likelihood that some members of the group may not be in touch with their feelings—aggressive or otherwise—and thus may deny, when asked, if their statements or actions are aggressive when they actually are. It can be a real train wreck.

What Can You Do?
Here are some ideas about what might help your group navigate this challenging dynamic—without jettisoning agreements about aggression:

1. Normalize the expression of feelings 
Aggression tends to be linked with upset or distress, and many groups struggle with how to work with upset constructively when it enters the room. While it's admittedly a challenge to develop group capacity to work with feelings, I think it's essential that we do. Not dealing with emotions doesn't work well at all (leading to denial, suppression, distortion, and volcanic eruptions when they can no longer be contained).

The hope is that by welcoming the expression of anger, hurt, and fear, these primal human responses can be uncoupled from aggression, and not so scary.

2. Get in habit of asking if people are upset if you perceive them to be
This will work best if it's an explicit group norm—not to put someone in the penalty box, but to better understand what's going on and help them move through it. Emotional distress is both a source of information and energy. Learn how to tap into it—not banish it to the dog house.

3. Offer a range of formats for engaging on topics 
Once you digest that what works well for Jesse is not the same as what works well for Kim, it's only a small additional step to intentionally offering variety in the ways that the group engages on topics. The goal here is to accommodate the range you have in family of origin, class, and gender among the membership such that everyone gets something they're comfortable with some of the time. That should work much better than some segments of the group constantly feeling stifled or unsafe.

Group Works: Transparency

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 Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The tenth and final pattern in this segment is labeled Transparency. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 
Be open about what's real: feelings, experiences, how decisions get made, finances, and more. Transparency arises from a belief that the free flow of information and taking action in direct and honest ways best serves group needs. Handled well, openness nurtures trust, collaboration, and authentic community.

The basic principle here is straight forward: let all stakeholders know what's going on. Think of it as a corollary of the Golden Rule: share information with others as you would have them share information with you.

Still, there are nuances.

A.  Transparency in Integrating New Members
How thoroughly do you integrate new members, especially about how the group functions?

How easily are new folks brought up to speed about how decisions are made, how proposals get generated, what factors were considered when this topic was previously addressed? 

When the group's process is mysterious (or opaque), it delays integration and reinforces the power gradient between old-timers and newbies—which is likely the opposite of what you say you're trying to do.

B.  Project Transparency
If the group is not diligent about establishing expectations for reporting (to whom, how, with what frequency, and with what level of detail), it can lead to group members not knowing what's going on if they don't happen to be on the project team. While this may not be a problem per se (that is, the project may be proceeding well), it tends to erode a sense of ownership in the project, which can bite you in the butt if difficulties emerge with the project and non-team members had no inkling that this was coming..

C.  Transparency and Bad News
While sharing information is a valuable principle, it turns out that some information is more valuable than others. In particular, it's more important that bad news be shared widely and promptly than good. Let me explain. 

Suppose you have a project that depends on garnering $10,000 in donations to proceed. If you don't learn until two months after the fact that your fundraising campaign actually netted $12,000, nobody's nose is likely to get bent out of joint. On the other hand, if it turns out that your major campaign only generated $2,000 and you didn't hear about it until two months later, there is likely to be a number of unhappy campers—both about the shortfall (jeopardizing the viability of the project) and about the time lag in learning about it. It's pretty hard to solve problems you don't know exist.

There is an understandable tendency to delay the dissemination of bad news (in the hopes that some counterbalancing good news may soften the blow), but this is very risky. When the group eventually finds out about the bad news (and it will), your problem is likely to be compounded: a) the original problem; plus b) the erosion of trust. Not good.

D.  Transparency and Minutia  
Going the other way, sharing information can be taken too far. How much detail is needed; at what point is the volume of reporting obfuscating (where the wheat is lost amidst the chaff; where the signal is drowned in the noise)? 

While the most common way that groups struggle with transparency is not sharing information enough, there can also be trouble if that info is not displayed clearly or the essence is buried amidst mind-numbing minutia. Thus, it's not enough to have regular reports; those reports need to be cogently crafted to make the main points clear.

E.  Honesty as a Weapon  
Finally, it's important to understand that stories can be told in multiple ways, and that sometimes sharing information can be more damaging than trust-building; more embarrassing than illuminating. 

For example, let's go back to the fundraising example I introduced in point C above—the version where the campaign falls short of its goal and creates a shortfall in the budget. Let's further suppose that the group's website was malfunctioning for three crucial days toward the end of their Kickstarter campaign and would-be donors were unable to contribute online. 

In reporting the disappointing news, the essential information is that the fundraising campaign missed its target. It might be interesting—though tangential—to add that the website malfunction probably hurt the campaign and that efforts are underway to ensure that such a thing doesn't happen again. However, sometimes you see reports that go further and actually blame the poor results of the campaign on the website crew (even though it was unlikely that the Kickstarter yield would have been five times higher if the website had been functioning perfectly).

By throwing the website crew under the bus, the fundraising team might be hoping to deflect blame from themselves for what happened, but at a dubious cost. Calling out the web team will almost certainly strain relations between them, to the point where it will be hard for those teams to partner again and have it go well.

Better, I think, is that groups hold themselves to a standard of transparency that's a balance of disclosure and discretion. Tell people what they need to know, yet try to be sensitive to how sharing information can damage relationships, instead of enhance them.

Acceptable Risk

In any typical group (let's say with a dozen or more members) it's nearly a lead pipe cinch that you'll have a spectrum of attitudes toward taking chances. That is, you will have some members who are risk tolerant and others who are risk averse. The challenge is recognizing this (without name calling) and figuring out a way that both sides can play nice together.

This is hard because the folks at each end of the spectrum tend to view those at the other end as their worst nightmare. If you're risk tolerant, the risk averse keep gumming up the works with hand wringing and doomsday predictions. If you're risk averse, then the risk tolerant are always inviting you into propositions that feel unsafe. It can be exhausting,

If you accept, in concept, that all risks are not appropriate to take, yet neither is it wise to take no risks, how do you navigate this dynamic? How does a group determine acceptable risk?

Here are key questions:

1. Do all parties feel heard?
This is foundational, and can often be trickier than it appears. In essence, it's making sure that each player—especially those on the other end of the risk spectrum—report being satisfied that their input has been accurately heard. Note that this is more than being able to parrot back the words—it's also understanding what the words means to the speaker.

It's common to stumble here when the listener thinks they've heard the speaker, but has neglected to affirm that with the speaker. Even when the listener is correct (about having fully heard the speaker), things don't proceed smoothly when the speaker has no confidence that they've heard.

Worse, if this is a familiar dynamic (say where a risk tolerant listener is hearing the same old song from a risk averse speaker), there's a marked tendency to close one's ears after the first few bars—because it sounds so familiar—prematurely closing off the possibility of taking in nuances that are different this time. Hint: eye rolling does not help here.

2. Does the proposal address the concerns that have been raised; does it recognize the opportunities?
There is a much greater chance of successfully bridging the two ends of the risk spectrum if the proposal does a fair job of specifically addressing reservations surfaced by the risk averse. Obviously that means those reservations need to have been solicited and accurately taken in.

Going the other way, if the risk averse insist on placing a governor on operations proposed by the risk tolerant, does that suck all the air out of the balloon? Are there too many restrictions or so much red tape that there's no flavor left in the broth? If addressing concerns is tantamount to shackling or emasculating the initiative, it can be the same as a death sentence.

People need some room to experiment and test new ideas, just as much as they need to feel that risks are within bounds. In short, there needs to be something for everyone.

3. Does everything have to go well in order to succeed, or is there room for some setbacks without sinking the ship?
If there are several components to the proposal, does it require that each one be successful for the entire proposal to succeed, or is there wiggle room such that a few may fall short and there's enough resilience that the main objective can still be met?

Suppose there are six components to the proposal, and that you can reasonably project a low, average, and high outcome for each one. If the only pathway to overall success requires that you achieve high outcomes for all six components, then success is wildly improbable. One the other, if you can succeed by achieving only average outcomes for all six components, then you might reasonably argue that low outcomes in some areas may be compensated for by high outcomes elsewhere.

4. Do you have the personnel to execute and manage the initiative?
Even if the group buys the general concept, there may be questions about whether your group possesses the skill necessary to execute and manage the project. Or, even if you have the internal capacity, the key people may not have sufficient interest or availability to devote to the project. If so, do you have financial wherewithal to hire this work out?

Caution: If there are a number of key roles being assigned to people inexperienced with what the project requires, have you budgeted for fool's tax—taking into account the likelihood that first-timers will make more mistakes and take longer to complete tasks than veterans?

5. Is there an adequate commitment to transparency? 
Sometimes groups make the mistake of limiting (or not making explicit the expectations for) access to information about the project—especially bad news, like cost overruns—for fear that it may mire the group into grueling conversations about whether to scuttle the project, or that the time it will take the project team to explain how best to interpret the news is better spent on doing the project, rather than defending it. There is considerable danger though in delaying the release of this information. It's rolling the dice. 

If some corresponding good news does not surface before this bad news comes to light, you will then have two problems instead of one: a) examining whether or not to continue the project given the impact of the bad news; and b) dealing with the erosion of trust that will surely follow from the discovery of the cover-up.

In almost all cases, it's a better policy to see that the whole group is regularly informed of developments, especially if the news is bad. In fact, standards for frequency and what detail will be covered in reports should automatically be addressed at the point that the project is approved. This is in everyone's best interest.

6. How much does success depend on successfully navigating virgin territory?
There is inherently more risk in a project that has no parallel in the group's history, or occurs on a  scale that dwarfs what has gone before. It's harder to know that you've done enough research; it's hard to know how sound your estimates are; it's hard to assess whether you possess adequate internal skill to carry it off.

I'm not saying this adds up to never attempting things you haven't done before; rather, I'm saying that the unknown increases risks and that this needs to be taken into account.

7. How do potential gains stack up against potential losses?
If you've done something approximating the above it should be possible to place all the risks in one column and all the potential benefits in another. How does it look?

Unfortunately, I can't promise that this will be a magic moment. That is, the risk tolerant may look at this chart and see a green light, while the risk averse may be seeing red. Even when everyone agrees on what the data is, that doesn't guarantee that the data will be interpreted similarly. Some, for example, simply require a greater contingency fund in order breathe normally.

At the least though, you'll be discussing this as the sum of measurable parts, instead of on the basis of prove-that-you-love-me-and-just-say-yes gut checks. Hopefully, a (well-researched) chart will provide you with opportunities to test claims for favorable outcomes of discrete components (such as fundraising) before you're irrevocably committed to the whole megillah. • • •To be sure, navigating risk is tricky, but it can be done. In fact, it has to be done, and done in such a way that everyone feels their input has been incorporated in a balanced response. It helps me to remember that when people disagree with me in a cooperative setting that we get the opportunity to produce hybrid vigor (rather than vigorous rancor). It also helps me remember that we all want success for the group, and that were all on the same team—even if some people wear glasses that have more rose-tinted lenses than others.

Riding the Energy Rollercoaster

This past Wednesday I was able to buy six gallons of regular gasoline for less than $10. I was gobsmacked.

For years now I've mostly been hoping to see prices at the pump begin with the number two instead of three, but for some reason there must be a glut right now. On top of that, Missouri and Oklahoma lead the nation in low gas prices. While I get it that Oklahoma is an oil producing state, why Missouri—especially northeast MO, which is the corner of the state that's most removed from OK oil wells? It's a mystery.

To be sure, I don't drive much these days (the last time I bought gas was Thanksgiving) so this precipitous decline caught me completely off guard. While the pumps in Kirksville MO (my destination Wed evening) were offering regular at $1.92/gallon, I was able to further press my advantage by doing some food shopping at the local HyVee, which offers gas discounts based on what you buy. My grocery purchases that evening resulted in a further discount of 32 cents per gallon, bringing my actual price per gallon down to $1.60. It was like winning the lottery.

While happy about my good fortune, I have mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, I love benefiting from a bargain, and I'm pleased that drops in the price of crude oil are being passed along to consumers (rather than resulting in windfall profits for gas refineries).

On the other, it's crazy that gas is this cheap. I figure lower prices now presage higher costs tomorrow, resulting in amplified peaks and valleys—all of which make it harder to budget and give us false hope about oil reserves relative to energy consumption.

I believe we desperately need to be on a diet—especially in the energy profligate US—and it's hard to make headway when we experience these enticing troughs of cheap gas, encouraging us to put our collective heads back into the sand (and I don't mean tar sand). We need to learn to drive less, ride share more, and buy cars that get better mileage. Cheap gas undercuts the momentum to support these lifestyle changes.

Transportation costs have a profound impact on markets. When gas prices are low, it's easier for distant manufacturers to compete locally (giving an advantage to both bigness and wage differential). When gas costs are higher—which is surely our future—then there's an advantage to locally produced goods (which are shipped shorter distances) and you can pay better wages without losing market share. So higher gas prices tend to help locally owned businesses that produce goods, as well as companies whose services must be delivered live as opposed to digitally or virtually.

In addition, stronger local businesses are directly linked to greater resilience when buffeted by the vagaries of economic booms and busts, because neighbors are the bread and butter market for local businesses and that personal link is broken (or at least compromised) when corporate headquarters are several states distant and are managed by faceless executives for whom you are consumers, not people.

So bring on the higher gas prices! At the least we might go as high as Europe, where prices average 2.3 times what we pay in the US—not because crude oil is any more expensive there, but because they tax it that much more to encourage conservation of a dwindling resource. To be sure, I get it why it's politically expedient to suppress taxes and that politicians tend to be notoriously short-sighted (seeing no further than the next election), but how prudent can it be accelerating into a brick wall?

Feminism in Community

I was recently in a discussion at home where about eight of us were shining our collective light on the topic of feminism. While there was ready agreement that Dancing Rabbit aspired to be a feminist community, it wasn't so easy defining what that meant, and even some resistance to making the attempt.

Actually some parts were easy. We want the community to be a place where:
a)  Objectifying, sexist humor is discouraged.
b)  Opportunities for members are not limited by gender or sexual orientation.
c)  It's encouraged to call out sexist statements or behaviors when you encountered them.

Less solidly—though probably strongly supported, at least as a near-term strategy—it's a place where:
d)  We're willing to selectively practice reverse discrimination in a thoughtful (as opposed to knee-jerk) attempt to level the playing field for the discrimination that women typically encounter relative to men in the mainstream (such as glass ceilings, or unequal pay for equal work).

Thinking more broadly, to me it means a place where:
e)  We purposefully create and nurture cooperative (relational) culture, in contrast with competitive (adversarial) culture. 
f)  The ultimate aim is gender blind engagement.

When it comes down to what we've actually created and support, it gets complicated. While I think there would be wide acceptance with the general notion that we do not intend a commitment to feminism to translate into pro-women attitudes (as in women being favored over men as policy), in reality we tolerate—even celebrate— a degree of assertiveness in women that would be labeled aggressive and intimidating if done by a man. This is an example of support for d) above, and is, in my observation, so pervasive in community culture (not just DR culture) that women tend to fill a majority of leadership positions (because they're given more latitude to do their jobs).

Mind you, I'm not saying good or bad; I'm just calling it the way I see it.

My sense is that in the mainstream culture girls tend to be conditioned to be more relational and boys conditioned to be more problem solvers. Yes, I'm shamelessly stereotyping and it's easy to think of counterexamples, but this difference is significant. In the mainstream culture, problem solving tends to be more revered (and paid better) than relationship building. In cooperative culture though, both qualities are deemed valuable, and what women bring to the table tends to be every bit as honored—so long as it's functional. That is, if a person can prove themselves to be reasonably competent then communitarians don't care what their gender is, and communities are more likely to be gender blind when making manager assignments.

(When I think back over my 27 years as a process consultant, and all the challenging folks I've wrestled with in group settings, I don't see a pattern of one gender being more difficult than another. That is, women, men and queers are equally likely to be jerks and no one gender monopolizes assholery.)

Where It Gets Hard
One of the (mostly) hidden aspects of this consideration is whether the people comprising feminist-identified groups are willing to do the personal work needed to understand their own conditioning, which tends to operate below the level of consciousness. That is, the fact that you don't think of yourself as gender discriminating has only a casual relationship to whether you are. This is going to be especially true of men—the segment of mainstream society that is the beneficiary of most gender discrimination. The haves are far more likely to be oblivious to their advantages than the have-nots. 

Thus, women (as well as those who identify as LGBTQ) tend to be significantly more sensitive to gender discrimination than men, and it can be delicate work sorting out what's happening when the group seems to respond much more enthusiastically to something said by a man than to a similar suggestion made earlier by a woman.

•  How much is this unconscious gender discrimination?
•  How much are women projecting gender discrimination when there's resistance to their ideas (perhaps because at the point that the woman spoke the group was not ready to come to agreement; perhaps because the two statements were similar, yet different in crucial ways)?•  How much of this is the group simply coming to agreement at its own pace and the fact that a man spoke last isn't significant (the last speaker is going to have a gender, but that doesn't mean that's significant)?

This is very murky territory, where the observations of any party can be discounted as biased. All can have a piece of the truth; some can be off base.

I think the most hopeful thing to strive for is an atmosphere where you can hit the pause button and frankly discuss the dynamics—where everyone gets a chance to weigh in. If it's dangerous to bring this out in the open, it'll be damn hard to get to the deeper levels of gender dynamics—making it that much harder to establish a solid foundation for feminist culture, however you define it.

Mildred Gordon Crosses the Bar at 92

Sunset and evening star,
         And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
         When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
         Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
         Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
         And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
         When I embark;

For though from out our borne of Time and Place
         The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
         When I have crossed the bar.

                 —Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1889
Mildred Gordon died peacefully in her sleep this morning, surrounded by family and friends at Ganas, the community she helped found on Staten Island in 1979.

I knew Mildred for about 30 years. We first met in the mid-'80s when she and others from Ganas came down to Twin Oaks to participate in a Federation of Egalitarian Communities assembly, to explore what other income-sharing communities were doing and the extent to which it made sense to make common cause.

While it would have been enough that we were friends for 30 years and both founders of income-sharing communities, I'm taking this time to eulogize Mildred because she was also a teacher and mentor to me in the field of group dynamics, and she counseled me through some poignant, difficult times. I recall three in particular:

a) When Elke and I broke up in 1989, she wound up moving at Ganas with our two-year-old daughter, Jo. Mildred, and others at Ganas, worked hard to help Elke see that there was no good thing to be gained by vilifying me and wrapping herself in victim's raiment. Thus, in a period of months, Elke was able to move through her grieving the loss of our intimate partnership and start to rebuild her life based on the positive things in her life—the things she had control over. In addition to making it far easier to be friends (instead of estranged lovers), this helped enormously for me to continue being an active father for my daughter—which has been precious to me—and for Elke and I to co-parent without ever using our daughter as a football. That was huge.

b) It happened that I was visiting Ganas when my father died unexpectedly of a heart attack in November, 1989. While plans were settling for the family to gather in South Carolina for the funeral, Mildred spent a lot of time with me one-on-one getting me to explore my feelings and whatever came up. It was the first time I had ever lost someone that close to me and I had no idea about grieving. Luckily, Mildred did. 

She knew I needed to talk, and the initial sorting I did with her (along with the reflective time I had taking Amtrak's Silver Meteor from New York City to Yemassee SC) enabled me to be clear enough to request a special, two-hour conversation with my mother and siblings, where we started to unpack the volatile and conflicted feelings we had toward Dad, taking advantage of the vulnerability and spaciousness unique to loss. 

This was, to be sure, something we'd never done before as a family, and it was a watershed experience for me in terms of how I related to family members from then on. Looking back, it's doubtful that I would have had it together to have made the request without all the work Mildred did with me in the first 36 hours after learning of my father's death.

c) I was visiting Ganas at some point in the mid-90s, when I had an important facilitation gig lined up, working with a sister community where I knew I'd be called upon to labor with a friend about founder dynamics. My challenge was how to get the issue authentically out in the open without it coming across as an ambush.

One magical evening I was visiting Mildred up in her room and we decided to role play the dynamic, where Mildred was me and I was my friend. For about an hour we had this freewheeling conversation where I got into being my friend and voicing how I expected her to respond.

This experience turned out to be terrifically insightful. Based on that preparation, when it came time to actually do the work I was able to establish to my friend's satisfaction that I understood and could empathize with what they were going through. I was able to demonstrate viscerally that they were not alone, and this proved to be pivotal in maintaining a constructive and pliable tenor to the examination.

It turned out that this experience was foundational for me as a professional facilitator and group consultant, and I've carried it with me the last 20 years whenever I'm in a situation where someone feels backed into a corner.
• • •My relationship with Mildred was not that of peers. She was always the teacher and I was the student (who was sometimes enthralled by the lessons and sometimes repulsed); she was the facilitator and I was the respondent. While she enjoyed probing what was going on with me, she did not encourage that kind of examination in the other direction. While I chafed at this imbalance for quite a while, I finally came to accept that learning from Mildred was a gift and it was unwise of me (not to mention churlish) to push away the invitation just because the exchange did not flow both ways.

For many years Ganas went by the name Foundation for Feedback Learning, which was their educational nonprofit and very much the center of their social experiment. Mildred was keen on investigating the ways that people shoot themselves in the foot by limiting or distorting the intake of critical information about how they are perceived. (The idea here is not necessarily that others are seeing you accurately, but that it's never in your interest to not know how your statements and behavior are landing with others. In fact, it's highly beneficial to discover at the earliest opportunity any discrepancies between what you intended and how you are received.)

It turns out that most of us engage in all manner of shenanigans to avoid or insulate ourselves from receiving feedback, even when it's directly against our best interests to resist it. 

In the process of doing this work, Mildred was among the most adept practitioners I ever encountered at working a dynamic both emotionally and rationally, which approach had a profound influence on how I developed as a professional facilitator. After witnessing Mildred at the top of her game, I wouldn't settle for group work that didn't simultaneously engage content and energy, and I'm not confident I would have come to that understanding without Mildred's guidance.

Another reason I appreciated Mildred and my time at Ganas was the intensity of the engagement (it certainly wasn't for the coffee, which was every bit as weak as the conversations were strong). I've never encountered another group that devoted so much attention to group dynamics (and I thought I was a junkie). 

Ganas in the '90s—which was the decade when Jo was splitting time between there and Sandhill, and I was visiting regularly—held planning sessions every morning six days a week, and then had freewheeling after dinner conversations most days as well. On your birthday you could decide what personal growth topic you wanted to work on all day. In fact, they were into the process tank so spectacularly that I use Ganas as the poster child for one end of the spectrum on how-much-do you-want-to-be-in-each-others'-lives-by-virtue-of-being-a-member-of-this-community. (On the other end are communities that hold potlucks once a month.)

While most people who visited Ganas or heard about their strong commitment to group process found the attention they gave interpersonal dynamics appalling, I loved it.

The last time I saw Mildred was in October, 2012. I visited Ganas for three days and spent an hour sitting with her each afternoon letting the conversation go wherever it wanted. Though I'd been cautioned ahead of time that Mildred was starting to lose her cognitive abilities, I couldn't discern any loss of focus or relevance to her comments. They say that long-term memory is the last to go and I suppose I benefited from the vast majority of our common history falling comfortably into the long-term column. Or maybe she was just having a good week. 

In any event it was a touching and connecting final visit.

One of Mildred's foibles was the feeling that she was going to die young, which she was mildly obsessed about. I believe many of her immediate family had died young and she expected a similar fate. Well Mildred, having lived to be 92 it's hard to say you got cheated—and all those who knew you are the richer for your longer stay.

Culture Change Versus Lifestyle Change

In the last month I received this inquiry from a follower of this blog:

What is the minimal critical mass of emotional/interpersonal intelligence necessary for a group to actually manifest the spirit and process [needed for community to succeed]? My ten-year experience in cohousing resulted in a diagnosis of PTSD and a real cynicism (not yet misanthropy) regarding our species current capacity to pull this off. 

That's a good question. In essence, what is our maturity and our capacity to grow in the ways needed for community to succeed?

I think the key lever in this equation is not so much maturity (degree of sophistication in communication skills, and depth of familiarity and facility with group dynamics and different systems of governance) as openness to self-examination and change (ability to be curious when faced with divergent viewpoints, commitment to looking for blind spots when challenged, and willingness to try something different when people or circumstances shift). If you are accomplished at the latter, you can derive the former.

So let's focus on change, which can be both exhilarating and unsettling.

It is common for those of us active in the field of intentional community to be discussing change. As in change from the mainstream; change in the way we communicate, change in what we eat, change in how we raise children; change in how we build homes; change in how we respond to distress; change in how we run meetings; change in how we make decisions; change in how we define leadership; change in how we relate to material wealth; change in how we view mental health; change, even, in how we relate to change.

We speak both about lifestyle change and about culture change—sometimes interchangeably—but they aren't the same thing. In this essay I want to focus on the difference between them, and why the heavy lifting is done under the banner of culture change.

People make lifestyle changes all the time. Some are relatively minor (such as giving up wearing blue jeans, neckties, or pantyhose; or when my father switched from smoking cigarettes to cigars in 1964 when the Surgeon General announced that cigarettes were detrimental to one's health). Some are a bit more serious (switching from a sports car to a Volvo, opting for safety and mileage over acceleration and flash). Some are downright major league (moving from the city to the country; or changing one's diet from fast food to vegan).

Culture change, however, occurs on a deeper level. It requires thinking about what you would ordinarily do without thinking at all—challenging baseline assumptions. We have all been steeped in cultural conditioning that creates a context for how we experience the world and how we tend to respond to it. It is the water we swim in. Culture change requires stepping back from that conditioning and consciously choosing to shift something: like leaving the water and starting to breathe air. It's not just breaking habits; it's breaking molds.

Thus, culture change is much more difficult to achieve than lifestyle change, which is important when considering what it takes to be successful at creating vibrant intentional communities. Here's why:

1. Many intentional communities are attempts to purposefully create a quality of connection among members that is ordinarily not available in mainstream neighborhoods. (I'm not saying it couldn't be; I'm saying it isn't.)

2. Intentional communities are founded on the idea that we can all have a good quality life at a lower cost per person if we share assets.

3. In order to achieve 1 & 2 above, you need to live more closely with fellow members (both physically and psychically) and that requires either: a) surrendering to a leader (or leaders) who will tell you how to behave; or b) creating a more cooperative atmosphere in which to manage jointly owned assets and to successfully navigate the tensions that will naturally result from people with different styles and personalities needing to work things out together.

4. When you digest that the vast majority of us have been raised in competitive culture that is both hierarchic and adversarial, you understand that it takes a sea change to shift to cooperative culture. For one thing you have to start valuing relationships more than truth (or who's right). This is a big change.

One of the things that makes living in intentional community hard is that some people come to it ready to effect culture change, while others are only open to lifestyle adjustments. As a result, there's considerable variance in the degree of elasticity among the membership. Some are prepared for far more stretching than others, and there's more than a little poignancy to the tensions that can result from culture changers who are pleading to get everyone on board with a commitment to that degree of shift, being resisted (and resented) by lifestyle changers who feel they're being bullied into conversations and considerations they never signed up for.

Caution: In laying this out, I do not want to be understood to be favoring culture changers over lifestyle changers. Both have their place. While culture changers may be better equipped to make seminal shifts in what it means to be a human being in this world, both culture changers and lifestyle changers can create successful communities—by which I mean communities where everyone is happy with what they've created and they've developed functional ways to make collective decisions.

That said, I am trying to make the case that people trying to establish successful intentional communities are going to be far more likely to succeed if their membership is strongly slanted one way or the other: all culture changers or all lifestyle changers—because strong advocates for one side don't tend to play well with their counterparts championing the other.

Bedlam 2014

Continuing a holiday tradition I started in 2011, I'm devoting my final post of the year to a summary of where I laid my weary head each night.

I refer to this as "bedlam" because: a) I'm on the road a lot and have a chaotic and confusing distribution of sleeping arrangements; b) some think that my travel schedule is prima facie evidence of mental illness; and c) I have a congenital weakness for word play.

So here's the summary of where I was when the lights went out each night:

o  I spent 226 nights in my own bed, a whopping 62% of the time, up sharply from 185 last year. Even taking into account that I missed a week of travel in December due to my strained lower back, it appears I'm trending toward being more of a home body in my dotage.

o  I slept with my wife 235 nights, or 64% of the time—which was nearly double the total from the prior year, and was one of the main motivations for our moving into the same house a year ago. It nice to know that strategy was successful. (Of course, I wasn't in exile pending divorce for any of 2014, so that helped, too.)

o  I was guested by clients 13 times for a total of 48 nights, which was down slightly from the year before.

o  I stayed with family a meager 17 nights—less than half of 2013. The main difference was seeing my kids markedly less. There was only a single visit to each in '14 (Ceilee and my grandkids are in Los Angeles; Jo is in Las Vegas) where there had been three each the year before. I'll be trying to manifest more work out West in the coming year.

o  I had 47 overnights with friends, which is about normal.

o  I traveled to attend FIC meetings and events enough to claim 20 nights.

o  I managed to stay in a motel overnight a mere four times, which pleases me (at this point in my career as a consultant and community networker I know folks almost everywhere, obviating the need to pay for a bed).

o  I slept on a train 17 times.

o  While mostly I was in a bed with a real mattress, 17 times I slept on couches, and 13 times on air mattresses (kinda like camping in someone's living room).

o  All together I spent the night in 38 different locations away from Rutledge, encompassing 18 states and one province, plus all four time zones—all of which is about average.

No sooner have Ma'ikwe and I gotten used to living together—all of 2014, no less—but we'll be branching out into new territory as road warriors in 2015. Ma'ikwe will not be doing as much facilitation teaching with me as she experiments with giving sustainability talks on university campuses. Last year I only spent 21 nights at home while Ma'ikwe was elsewhere; next year that may double. 

We like to tell people that there's nothing like simple country living—and believe me, the way Ma'ikwe and I do it is nothing like simple country living. 


--> -->A couple weeks ago I was discussing family traditions with Ma'ikwe one evening. While I was thinking mostly about spiked egg nog and plum pudding, she recalled family rituals at Fourth of July waterskiing parties, where the featured libation was a thirst quenching concoction of rum, limeade, and beer called a Boomerang. From what I could tell it went down easy, yet had a nasty habit of coming back on you.

Sitting in bed recuperating from back strain these long winter nights, I started reflecting on how "boomerang" could be a serviceable theme for reflecting on trends in community living…

In the last 25 years something different has been happening in the demographics of intentional community. For the first time in history there are significant numbers of people over 50 years old trying community living for the first time. What has historically been predominantly the domain and twentysomethings and thirtysomethings—sticking your toes in community waters—has widened considerably. Now everyone’s doing it.

It used be that the way to get older folks in community was to recruit younger folks and age them for a few decades. Today though, some people are raising families in traditional settings, retiring from regular jobs, and thentrying community.

What’s going on? I think there are a number of things.

Boomerang Hippies
Interest in intentional communities has ebbed and flowed over the entire history of the US. While we are currently riding a long wave that started around 1990 (and featured a secondary uptick in 2005-07), the prior boom to the current one was 1965-75: the Hippies Era. In fact, many of the inspirational and best-known US communities today started in that decade—notably Alpha Farm, Ananda, Camphill Kimberton, East Wind, The Farm, Heathcote, Lama Foundation, Love Family, Madison Community Cooperative, Magic, Miccosukee Land Co-op, Occidental Arts & Ecology, Prag House, Rowe Camp, Sandhill Farm, Shannon Farm, Twin Oaks, and We’Moon Land. Born in that decade of hope and chaos, they survived the lull of 1975-1990 to become mother trees for many of the seedlings that sprouted in the next warm spell and are flourishing today.

The reason I’m highlighting this era is that the people experimenting with cooperative living then were mainly Baby Boomers when they were four or five decades younger. I think one explanation for the greater interest in community among gray hairs today is that there are a number of latent Hippies who didn’t scratch that itch back when Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead were performing live at Fillmore West.

This is a large age cohort, many of whom believe they were young adults at a special time in history. Have you ever listened to commercials for Oldies radio stations? (Go ahead and embarrass your kids, turn up the volume!)

Young men moved to Canada to avoid conscription into an unpopular war; people were questioning whether father really did know best; feminism and anti-racism were on the front burner (the crock pot cooking from which eventually led to Democrats choosing between a black man and a white woman for their Presidential candidate in 2008—something that was very hard to imagine in 1972, when a thoughtful George McGovern was getting crushed by Tricky Dick’s reelection juggernaut).

There was widespread experimentation with sexual mores and recreational drugs, and suburbia was assailed as a cultural wasteland. Those were exciting times and some of us didn’t get it out of our systems merely by following Timothy Leary’s advice to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Many who came of age in 1965-75 went on to lead relatively normal lives, but we didn’t necessarily forget those days of foment and what if…

Golden Girls & Silver (Haired) Boys
It’s pretty clear today that the nuclear family is simply not able to provide a decent quality of life for seniors unless they’re very well off. Kids are expected to leave home and not necessarily return to care for aging parents. In this bleak environment, seniors are increasingly thinking about options for aging in place, where there’s familiarity, dignity, neighbors who know you, and meaningful ways to contribute.

For the most part, this translates to some form of group living. Remember Golden Girls, the critically acclaimed comedy series that aired 1985-92? The premise was four older women figuring out how to make their latter years more vital, more fun, more affordable, and less isolating by living together—instead of alone or in a senior ghetto. They were a little ahead of their time, but not by much. While there are plenty of examples of people today (not just older folks) living together in informal enclaves of unrelated adults, the logical next step is intentional community, with full-spectrum demographics.

In many ways, intergenerational communities harken back to traditional extended families— the very thing we left behind when going nuclear. If you think of intentional communities as families of friends, there you are. To be sure, in recreating neighborhoods with benefits, participants are emphatically not yearning for the stultifying hierarchy and limited opportunities of yesteryear (think education, career, and partners picked out by Aunt Gertrude and Uncle Otto). They’re looking for connection, support, and context.

Information Age
It’s probably not a coincidence that the current wave of interest in community living grew simultaneously with easy access to the Internet and the explosion of inexpensive options in electronic communications. It’s now much easier to find out what’s out there and to learn from the experiences of others, greatly enhancing the chances of avoiding others' mistakes, or locating high-quality help when you don’t.

While community living is still the road less traveled, there’s at least a beaten path these days, as well as GPS and Google maps to help you navigate the road to Shangri-La.

Cohousing as the Missing Link
It happens that 1990 is also the time when cohousing established a foothold in the US. This is significant both because cohousing is the form of intentional community that looks most like traditional housing options (with somewhat denser, smaller houses), which makes it more accessible to people who are ready for something different but aren’t ready to jump off a cliff (which is what moving into community can look like to the immediate family left behind). 

Though cohousing is a growing segment of the Communities Movement, it’s less than 10% of the total. Nonetheless, that concept is drawing a majority of the community virgins who are north of 50. Without the concomitant rise of cohousing it would be hard to project the growth we’re seeing today in Boomers joining communities.

If a Boomer Rang, Would You Answer?
While mostly I see the expansion of seniors seeking community as a solid plus, it is not without its challenges. If a Baby Boomer applies for membership at your community how would you reply?

Overwhelmingly, communities are looking for members who offer the prospect of giving in proportion to what they receive. If a senior waits until this give and take is clearly out of balance, this will not be attractive. To be sure, there are plenty of valued contributions that a senior can make that don’t require a strong back, a strong checkbook, or outstanding lung capacity. Think accounting, legal, planning, organizing, research, correspondence, management, childcare, cooking, marketing, etc.

While community members do an outstanding job of being there for each other in time of need, it’s not very appealing if the prospective member presents as someone needy right off the bat. 

If it’s early in the group’s life (say less than 20 years old) and it was started mostly by younger adults, then there won’t be many older folks in residence yet and seniors will be welcome as a way to help normalize the age distribution. (It was true for me joining 17-year-old Dancing Rabbit last year. In a group of 50+ adults, I was one of a small handful of people over 60 and the welcome mat was out.) However, that’s not usually how it works. Mostly people want to join groups in which peers are already present. If you’re an older person attracted to a group in which seniors are already well represented, there may be nervousness in your would-be home about becoming too top heavy (it won’t work to have 70% of the population in wheelchairs).
There’s delicacy about how much communities can stretch to support those in need, and the first priority is to be there for established members, not for the ones yet to come. For that matter there’s a limit to what groups can do for each other even if no seniors join, since very few communities promise nursing home services, and aging is inevitable. Taken altogether, communities need to exercise considerable discernment about the limits of support, or else risk swamping the boat for everyone—which is an unpleasant kind of boomerang where good intentions come back to knock you in the drink. 

And nobody wants that.

The Spirits of Christmas Past

For all practical purposes, I spent my entire childhood in a single home in the western suburbs of Chicago. My family moved into that house a month before I turned four and I have only the sketchiest of memories from before then.

While my recollections associated with that house are rich and varied, today it seems appropriate to narrow my attention to Christmas there, about which I have memories that are rich and varied enough.

The house was a two-story split-level. All the upstairs was given over to bedrooms and bathrooms. Downstairs, the primary living area was a square ring of kitchen, dining room, living room, and hall. Three steps below that was a secondary ring comprised of less public spaces: laundry room, half bath, furnace room, den, and playroom.

The "official" start of the Christmas season at our house was when my mother unpacked the Twelve Days of Christmas ornaments and installed them on the paneling above the living room fireplace. These were colored paper constructions of a partridge, turtle dove, French hen, calling bird, golden rings, goose on a nest, swan, milking maid, dancing lady, leaping lord, piper, and drummer. My mother had handcrafted these yuletide decorations following patterns she found in Ladies Home Journal (or its socioeconomic equivalent—you know Martha Stewart would have been all over this but it was before her time). 

Next, Mom pressed into service the myriad glittering and multicolored Christmas cards we received, turning them into a seasonal frieze taped along the front facing of the valence lighting in the living room. Eventually, of course—somewhere in the vicinity of solstice—we'd buy a tree (always a long-needled Scotch pine), installing it in the corner of the living (right beneath the twelfth drummer).

Gradually, presents would start accumulating under the tree. One of the cherished games among us children was hiding and searching for a small paper mache brown owl (about an inch or so tall) that had been rescued from the packaging for a long-forgotten gift to become a favorite homemade tree ornament that was damn hard to find amidst the many lights and shiny objects on the tree.

My favorite time of all though was Christmas Eve, when the bulk of the presents made their way to the tree. The ritual that evolved at my house involved sequestering the den as Santa's Workshop, such that by eight or nine pm you had to have an appointment to go in there. The 3'x5' table had been cleared of mundane household detritus and given over to scissors; tubes of wrapping paper; boxes of ribbons, bows, and name tags; and Scotch tape in unlimited rolls.

My unflappable mother would be nursing a highball of watered scotch (carefully consumed at a leisurely rate: high enough to maintain holiday cheer yet low enough to avoid dropping any balls when it came to choreographing the dawn raid on the present horde, followed by holiday feasting), and we'd negotiate den times through her, acting in the capacity of the Workshop's majordomo.

In my teen years I liked to take one of the last shifts (circa 2 am), where I relished gathering up my stash of goodies and entering the inner sanctum of the Workshop. There I got to select the wrapping paper for each gift (curling my own ribbons), and trying to concoct word play and obscure references for the name tags. For that night only, wrap music meant Burl Ives.

Christmas morning was always a blur of flying paper and excited voices. While it was mostly a free-for-all when all us kids were under 10, it became more civilized as we grew older and were able to understand the nuance of deferred gratification—where it was OK to open presents one at a time and we could all appreciate the giving, even when it was neither from us nor to us.

I remember Christmas breakfast featuring homemade coffee cake laden with a cinnamon and brown sugar topping—the perfect foil to strong coffee with half and half. The dinner menu would vary over the years. While turkey was a popular choice, it might as well be ham with pineapple rings and hot mustard sauce (Coleman's mixed with a dab of water and honey), or roast beef with Aunt Hennie's red currant jelly. 

I think my favorite Christmas dessert is plum pudding with rum sauce and hard sauce (Hennie, take another bow). This traditional English recipe features: a) a steamed pudding with lots of fruit; b) a sweet roux laced with rum and/or bourbon, poured warm over the pudding; and c) butter with all the powdered sugar mixed into it that your wrist and forearm can stand, served cold. When consuming this delectable you can virtually feel your fillings dissolve in the sugar.

This year Ma'ikwe will cook a ham, and there's just enough time to get the ingredients for plum pudding. While it may not be possible to go home again in all ways, we can nonetheless embrace rituals that invoke memories that bridge the rose-colored days of our youth to loved ones today. 

Merry Christmas to all.

Seven Year Pitch

I started this blog seven years ago (Dec 13, 2007 was my opening entry), ostensibly to help drive traffic to the Fellowship for Intentional Community website.

While I reckon it's accomplished some of that, it's also become a platform for my observations and insights about cooperative group dynamics (distilled from my 27-year career as a process consultant), and a journal about my life in community, as a rural homesteader, and as a husband trying to be a good partner for my dynamic wife. Basically I write about what comes along that catches my attention. About every three days, something does.

Anniversaries and long winter nights (not to mention bad backs) are especially conducive to reflection, and it occurred to me, as I looked back over my career as a contributor to the blogosphere, that my earliest inkling that this might happen coalesced in an FIC committee meeting more than nine years ago, as I listened to my more technologically savvy brethren blue sky about the upcoming communication potentials bubbling up in the brave new world of social media, where the future was rushing in at warp speed to overtake the present.

While I'm by no stretch of the imagination a computer maven, I was able to connect the dots between: a) my being the public face of FIC; and b) social media being forecast as the infobahn of tomorrow. That was the moment when I first sensed a blog coming down the track with my name on it. While that engine took more than two years to actually pull into the station and pick me up, I've been steadily shoveling coal into my blog boiler ever since—to the point where whistling up contributions has become a routine part of my 72-hour circadian rhythm.

One of the most frustrating aspects of what I do in the world—as a writer, as a speaker, as a teacher, and as a consultant—is not getting enough data about how my efforts have landed. Have I offered a valuable insight? Have I altered anyone's life for the better? Have I stimulated a constructive conversation? Have I opened blocked passages? Have I been able to succor someone who felt isolated and misunderstood? Have I helped a group get unstuck and turn a corner? Have I inspired people to realize a bit more of their potential?

Most of the time, I don't know.

But something happened last week that made me smile. I got clear proof that—for at least one person on one occasion—my efforts made a difference. It was the best Christmas present I could get.

Essentially it's a story about customer service, and why it's important that the stream of electrons be connected at both ends to real people. Though not a complicated, as a feel-good story it's just right for the holidays.

As FIC's main administrator, I author quite a few communications written on behalf of the Fellowship to its various constituencies. A typical example of these went out about a month ago to all communities listed in our online Communities Directory. Although it's constant work to keep the information up-to-date, comprehensive, and well organized, listings are free to communities and there is no charge for users to access it. In recognition of this value, we asked groups to consider making a donation—we suggested $20 for every year that they'd been listed—to help cover costs.

The message went out under my signature to 3400 groups, and two days later I got this response from Sue Morris—someone I'd never met—who received my solicitation as a member of Neruda, a forming community in Marshfield VT:

John and I feel, as a founding community, that $20/year is way too much to ask. In our case that would amount to $140. While we are happy to make a donation, we're not sure if you would be content with some smaller amount, say $25 total. How does that sit with you?

I replied:

It’s important to us that all donations are a good fit for both parties, and thus, we don’t want you to contribute any more than you feel is appropriate. While we feel in integrity asking listed groups to consider supporting us at $20/year, we appreciate that the listing may mean more to some than others and will be happy to accept the $25 you’re comfortable with.

While I was fine with this exchange and thought that would be the end of it, last week Sue sent me this follow up:

We now have community-wide agreement to send $25 this year. Should I send a check to your address?

This made my day! Not because it was that much money, but because it was: a) thoughtfully done; b) engaged their whole group; and c) was relational. Sue and John were taken aback by the request, but instead of just hitting the delete button, they reached out to me to discuss their reaction, inviting a personal conversation. Then, based on my reply, they decided to widen the conversation. After the community duly met and discussed it, they let me know the outcome. Thus, I found out in December that my one-paragraph reply in November had landed well, at least in this instance. Not only did we get $25, but, more importantly, we got better connected. Hooray!

This is the very best kind of fundraising, where both parties feel good at the end of the conversation, and the request has resulted in stronger ties. As FIC's Development Coordinator I work hard to see that solicitations are respectful of prospective donors' interests and capacities—even when I get turned down—so it was satisfying to hear that I was able to achieve that with Sue & John.
If every group responded like Neruda, FIC would have all the resources we needed—because our connections with our constituency would be rock solid and we'd be able to harness that to pull together with incredible effectiveness.

The sequence in this story is instructive:
1. I started out with a generic appeal that was sent out en masse.
2. One of the recipients responded with a question, which I answered promptly, personally, and courteously.
3. The individuals brought the issue to their group, which determined its response through a deliberate process.
4. The individuals communicated to me the group's response.
5. Now I'm exploring my reflective response to this sequence, which will be posted en masse.

Think of it as a social media sandwich, where the most nourishing parts were layers 2-4—featuring direct conversations that stimulated Neruda/FIC relations better than a grow light—wrapped in messages that were broadcast to audiences worldwide, where it's uncertain if any seed will fall on fertile ground.

I've been pitching community and cooperative culture for seven years now, and it's satisfying to realize that unlike Tom Ewall in the 1955 romantic comedy, The Seven Year Itch, I've lost none of my original enthusiasm for being wedded to the cause.

Stop Spinning Your (Roulette) Wheels When Making Personnel Decisions

Overwhelmingly, intentional communities can think up governance structures faster than they can staff them. It's a problem. 

In my experience, communities generally do a fair job of puzzling out a decent way to set up committees (or teams) to oversee the major aspects of living together—for example, outdoor maintenance, common house management, common meals, budget and finance, celebrations, conflicts resolution, etc.

To be sure, there's a fair amount of variety and personal flair in how each group puts it together, and there's wonderful creativity in the names bestowed on some the committees. (For example, at newly built Durham Central Park, a cohousing group in North Carolina, their participation committee is called Workin' IT—or WIT, as in what they need about them when trying to figure out a good way to get everyone slotted into community tasks.) In the spirit of being WITty, I want to shine the spotlight today on the challenge of filling committee slots in intentional communities, which are filled on a volunteer basis (though in some groups there's a clear expectation that everyone serve somewhere).

In my experience (I've worked with perhaps 100 groups in my 27 years as a process consultant) it's essentially universal that communities have more committee slots than people who are actively and competently filling them. There are, I believe, a number of factors that contribute to this phenomenon. Here are five:

o  The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak
Often people sign up for committees with good intentions, but piling more food on an over-full plate does not necessarily mean you can eat it all. Perhaps people are agreeing to serve on a committee simply to be agreeable, and have no intention of actually doing the work. In any event, it's relatively common for communities to report that some non-trivial fraction of the people who have accepted committee assignments are there in name only.

o  Unaddressed tension arising from uneven participation
Sometimes what starts out well doesn't continue that way. Good intentions often devolve into some members being perceived as not carrying their weight (so-called Slackers), while others (perhaps) are doing more than is asked of them yet complaining of their workload and expect special rights by virtue of their contributions (so-called Martyrs). While it's fairly common that imbalances will occur and that these will lead to tensions, the real question is whether the group has developed a way to talk about the tensions and work through them (Every so often—perhaps every couple years—it's a good idea to set aside time explicitly to tackle this head on. Think of it like going to the dentist to get your teeth cleaned. See the spring 2008 issue of Communities magazine for an article of mine devoted to the Martyrs & Slackers dynamic and how to address it.)

o  Timidity in responding to interpersonal tensions 
This goes well beyond Martyrs & Slackers stuff, to include garden variety interpersonal tensions, style clashes, and personalities that don't mix well, resulting in: a) individuals who attempt to serve on committees together and rue the results; or b) in those so who have gotten off to such a poor start with another member that they don't even care to try to serve with that person on the same committee. 

The larger issue is whether the group offers sufficiently skillful support for members struggling to resolve interpersonal tensions, and whether the members have the courage and humility to ask for help.

o  Weak delegation of authority
If committees are only set up to do grunt work for the plenary, and are given no authority to act without plenary approval, serving on committees is often viewed as scut work, and not very rewarding. The good news is that this can be turned around by creating mandates that give committees clear guidance about the kinds of things they can handle on their own, and when they need to consult. Committees operating on a short leash tend to feel stifled; empowered committees tend to be much happier.

o  Lack of accountability
It tends to be awkward for communities to hold their members accountable for behaving in line with agreements and following through on commitments. While I get it that this can be uncomfortable, it doesn't get less so because it's ignored. And I'm not talking about draconian punishments; I'm just talking about a baseline expectation that it you're perceived to be coloring outside the lines, someone has a right to ask you about it and it's your responsibility to show up for a good faith attempt to sort it out.
• • •While it might well be worthwhile addressing some of the causes named above, what can you do meanwhile to cope with the fact that slots aren't being filled well? I have five ideas about that:

1. Stop taking volunteers from the plenary floor
Sadly, most communities largely fill committee slots by announcing openings in plenary and gratefully accepting the first people to raise their hand. You can do better than that. While I have no problem with testing the waters for general interest in plenary; please don't make the assignments based simply on who volunteers first. That's committee roulette. 

While I understand the saying "beggers can't be choosers," I believe creating some intentionality and esprit de corps can make a difference. How? Read on.

2. Create mandates for committees (and managerships) that spell out expectations
If you want to be more careful about selecting the right people for assignments, first you have to have a common understanding of what the job entails—so people know what they're assessing candidates for. That means a thorough job description.

While it will take some effort to put all this in place on the front end, once you have it, it will only occasionally need tweaking.

3. Create a list of qualities wanted from people serving in positions of responsibility
Answers here will vary according to the job (because, or course, what's wanted varies by job). For example, you probably want attention to detail as a desirable quality for an accounting position, while sociability may not enter the equation. For someone serving on Conflict Resolution you probably want to rate discretion high, yet not care a fig about their familiarity with spread sheets. You get the idea.

Note: If you're talking about committees, it can be useful distinguishing between qualities that you want some members of the committee have, and qualities you want all members of the committee to possess.

4. Self-assessment
Once the group signs off on 2. and 3. above, ask members to self-assess for suitability on the basis of three questions relative to the job:

a) Do you have the skills needed for this assignment?
Essentially, do you have the qualities the community has decided it wants for this job? Mind you, there's no guarantee that others in the community will agree with your self-assessment, but at least it provides a somewhat objective basis for that conversation (rather than it simply being a beauty contest).

There's also an additional nuance here: is the community committed to providing opportunities to learn skills it depends on? If so, it may make good sense to select people as apprentices to pair with more experienced folks so that there's a larger pool of competency to draw from in the future. If you always select your most experienced person, there's no growth.

Taking this point about opportunities one step further, do you want to set term limits for how long people can serve in a position? Sometimes people can get pretty comfortable in a certain slot and nobody else gets a chance. Is that OK? Continuity and experience are one thing; entrenchment and fiefdoms are another.

b) Do you have the availability needed for this assignment?
The most obvious meaning is are there enough hours left on your dance card after subtracting for employment, commuting, unwinding (recharging the battery), family time, other community duties, spiritual practice, etc, to actually do the work. However, it's more subtle than that. It's not just do you have the time; do you have the psychic bandwidth to engage in this work with grace and good energy? Remember, we're expressly not encouraging martyrdom.

Further, some jobs are difficult to budget for. Where accounting responsibilities tend to be highly predictable and uniform in terms of the time it takes to do the work each month, duties on the Conflict Resolution Team are notoriously unpredictable: one month nothing and the next 20 hours. Do you have the kind of flexibility needed for this job?

c) How motivated are you to do this work?
This is about whether you want the job. Would it be fun, or growthful in ways that attract you? Maybe it makes a difference who you'll be working with—if so, be sure to put that out. It might be a good idea to ask candidates what factors, or changes in the job, would make it more attractive. Maybe there are simple ways to alter how the job is configured to enhance motivation.

Once you've done all this, now you're in a much better position to make committee selections (with the added bonus that people serving on committees are much more likely to enjoy serving).

5. Periodically evaluate performance
Now that you're clicking on all cylinders, don't forget to close the information loop. By building into each job the expectation that there be a periodic performance evaluation, you get to check to see if mandates need adjusting, managers are doing their job, and committees are playing nice with one another.

One last thing: it's a good idea to conduct exit interviews when people step down from assignments. Ask questions like:
—How good was the experience for them?
—Did they get the cooperation they needed to do a good job?
—Were their contributions appreciated?
—Did they get support from the community when they asked for it?
—Did they wish they'd done anything differently?
—Does the mandate need tightening, or revisions made to the list of qualities wanted for people doing this job?
• • •We're talking about intentional communities, right? Then doesn't it make sense to be intentional about filling positions of responsibility?

Groups Works: Shared Airtime

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 Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The ninth pattern in this segment is labeled Shared Airtime. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 
Everyone deserves to be heard, and everyone has a piece of the truth. Find ways to invite sharing from all, not just the loudest, most senior, or most articulate. Actively draw out the wisdom of quieter or hesitant participants.

Overwhelmingly, intentional communities aspire to develop cooperative culture (in contrast with the competitive culture of the mainstream). In pursuit of that, consensus is the most common form of decision-making among communities.
There are two main roots of consensus: Native American culture (witness the Iroquois Confederation) and the Religious Society of Friends, aka Quakers, who have relied on it to reach congregational decisions their entire history. Of the two, the Quaker tradition has had the stronger influence on the way consensus is practiced among cooperative groups today (a tip of the cap here to the trail blazing work done in the '70s by anti-nuclear activists—think Clamshell Alliance and Movement for a New Society—to adapt consensus to secular settings).

Quaker practice (which goes back three centuries and change) happens in a spiritual context, and there is a phrase associated with the Quaker approach which can be traced all the way back to George Fox, the original articulator of Quaker beliefs (circa 1650): "There is that of God in everyone." While George was probably thinking about there being no excuse for wickedness and corruption because God acts as a witness within us all, this phrase has been passed down through the years and is more commonly interpreted today to support pacifism (to kill another is to kill a piece of God) and environmental consciousness (in the sense that God dwells in all living things).

In the case of intentional communities, most rely on a secular adaptation of consensus, where there is no assumption of spiritual alignment among the membership, nor is there an attempt to find the way forward by discerning divine guidance. Instead, many have translated "that of God in everyone" to "everyone has a piece of the truth."

It's important to understand that this does not necessarily mean that everyone has a unique piece of the truth, such that everyone's piece needs to be assiduously solicited and identified before the best response can be formulated. Rather, it means that it's a healthy baseline assumption that everyone has something relevant to contribute to the consideration—though they may not necessarily be adept at articulating what that is, and their contribution may have already been covered by others.
With this in mind, I think it's worthwhile to create a way (or ways) for all participants to contribute what they have on the topic with minimal impedance. This accomplishes two things: a) doing the best you can to see that all potentially useful input has been gathered; and b) enhancing the likelihood of solid buy-in with the outcome—because people who feel heard are much more likely to hear; people who feel stretched toward, are more likely to stretch toward others.

Many groups stumble here because they make the naive assumption that open discussion is an equally accessible format for all participants, just because it's intended to be. The fact is, some people are quicker thinkers than others, some are quicker at composing what they want to say, some are more comfortable speaking in front of a large group. 
Some of this can be addressed by varying formats (Hint: If you're in the habit of gathering input the same way every time, you're susceptible to inadvertently creating dead spots, where contributions from some segments of your group are systematically under-represented because the format doesn't have a clear on-ramp for their input.)
What do I mean? Instead of open conversation, where people simply speak as they are ready and called upon, consider:
o  RoundsWhere you go around the circle with everyone being given a chance to speak in turn, and no one speaks twice until everyone who cares to has spoken once.
o  Small Group Work
Having the full group break into smaller circles of 3-5 people where those who find speaking in front of larger numbers daunting can practice what they want everyone to know in a less intimidating setting.
o  Individual Writing
Some people are better able to express themselves in writing than orally. You can cater to that by occasionally giving everyone time (five minutes?) to jot down the points they want to make before speaking begins.
o  Spectrum Instead of using words, you can ask people to position themselves along a line that indicates where they stand (literally) between two extremes positions (say those who think affordability trumps everything at one end of the line, and those who think environmental impact is supreme at the other, with those who prefer some balancing of the two somewhere in the middle). This is a way that important meaning can be conveyed without using words at all (though it's often helpful to have people explain why they chose their position).
Finally, let's focus on what it means to "draw out the wisdom" of:
—The Inarticulate 
If this is a question of stage fright, changing formats may make a difference (see the options above). It might also help if the facilitator can be their ally: "Take a moment to organize your thoughts and try again, We'll wait for you."

Further, the facilitator may be able to help by offering an educated guess at the speaker's meaning. Even if the facilitator gets it wrong, it will eliminate a possible misunderstanding and demonstrate to the person struggling that there's help in the room.

—The Obscure
Sometimes people have an unusual way of organizing thoughts (perhaps English is not their native tongue). In cases like this translation is often needed. The facilitator (or anyone else inspired) can attempt to paraphrase what has been said such that: a) the speaker agrees that it conveys their point(s); and b) the meaning is now accessible to the rest of the group. Voila—the curtain has been raised and meaning revealed.
—The Overwhelmed
If it's nerves, a different format may help. Another option is taking a break and having the facilitator sit down (or go for a walk) with the tongue-tied for the purpose of helping them gather their thoughts. If it's a pattern, the facilitator may even anticipate this dynamic and spend time ahead of the meeting with persons prone to having their boat get swamped, providing them with a prompt about what to prepare for.
—The Marginalized
When people feel marginalized, they don't experience others caring about their input. Worse, if this is a pattern, they typically go into meetings expecting to not be cared about. The antidote is explicitly working to contradict that. This means making sure that their input is solicited (in a way that's accessible to that person), not moving on until that person reports that they've been heard correctly, and then making sure that their input has been duly considered in developing the group response. (Note: I'm not promising that they'll be agreed with.)

If all of this sounds remedial, that's because it is. It takes effort to repair damage. 
—The Upset If someone is experiencing non-trivial distress, it's important (even essential) that this be attended to before attempting to connect with, or process that person's input about what needs to be taken into account or how to proceed. The idea here is that upset functions as virtual earwax that distorts what the person hears, and your first order of business is unclogging the ears. Ignoring it simply doesn't work.

The bad news is that most groups are not adept at working authentically and non-judgmentally with distress. The good news is that it can be learned.

A Bridge Too Far

I've taken the title of this essay from a World War II book by Cornelius Ryan, which chronicles the story of a failed attempt by Allied Forces in the fall of 1944 to break through the German lines at Arnhem and cross the Rhein River. It is a high stakes example of overreaching in pursuit of a noble cause (in this case, ending the war as quickly as possible).

While taking chances occurs in all cultures, I'm narrowing the focus of today's essay to how this unfolds in a cooperative context.

One of the many facets of leadership [see Cooperative Leadership from A to Z] is aspirational—the ability to pull the group forward into the unknown, especially when the group is unlikely to go there on its own. What makes this a compelling topic is that this can work wonderfully and it can be a disaster... or some of both.

People can stretch—often more than they think they can—but only so far. Where is the limit, and how do you know you're close to it?

Suppose the issue is whether to build a new community center because you intend to grow and the old one is at capacity. The questions are many:

o  How large a group are you aiming to accommodate in the new facility? Partly this is a question of rate of growth (to what extent are you willing to rely on past trends to continue)? Partly this is a question of the life expectancy of the new building.

o  To what extent do you want the new facility to be an enhancement or upgrade from current facilities? Buildings are a long-term highly visible statement of values. Other things being equal, you want to be proud of that statement.

o  How much financial burden are current members willing to accept? If population does not surge forward, or otherwise falls short of projections, that means existing members will have to shoulder more of the debt load. There's a limit to what people can bear and still grin.

o  Undertaking a large project means that money and labor are not available for other projects. Is this facility the group's most pressing need? Is it acceptable that most other projects are on hold?

o  To what extent should you try to fund the building through savings, to what extent through donations, and to what extent through loans? Waiting to accumulate sufficient savings tends to equate with delays; borrowing tends to be easier to secure than donations, but you have to handle debt load. Donations are nice (manna from heaven), yet most groups do not have a robust fundraising program and starting from scratch takes time.

Having witnessed a number of cooperative groups go through the wringer in pursuit of securing and maintaining buy-in for a major building initiative, here's a list of things that leaders might keep in mind:

1. Tracking the Energy
In general, you can expect a certain amount of nervousness associated with any proposal to undertake a large project. For the risk averse this will be knee-jerk scary and you'll need to work through this, not bulldoze over it. That means making sure that you are able to demonstrate to the naysayers' satisfaction that you have heard their reservations and are being responsive in ways that feel respectful to them. Caution: this not about the leaders being in integrity; it's about the leaders being able to successfully build and maintain a bridge to the risk averse.

While this guidance obtains for any group working with consensus, regardless of the issue, the stakes are much higher here and therefore the penalty for getting this wrong is much greater.

2. Knitting Support at Tortoise Pace
There are times to go fast and times to go slow. It is crucial, for example, when you're developing group approval for the initial plan that you go no faster than your slowest thinkers. (Don't mishear me: slow thinkers are not inferior thinkers; they just need more time to process data and know their own minds. If they're pushed to make a decision too fast they tend to dig in their heels and bad things happen, such as gridlock.)

Later, once approval has been secured, you can pick up the tempo during implementation.

3. Admitting Uncertainty 
If you paint too rosy a picture, your credible is out the window as soon as the first surprises emerge. (Of course, if you emphasize is too much on the down beat, you're raining on your own parade.) It's important to disclose the variables and not pretend confidence when it isn't justified. There's reason for the adage "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." By overplaying your hand you train people to discount your projections.

4. Limiting Unknowns to Manageable Proportions
Take careful note of how many critical aspects of the plan require success when you're operating in terra incognita. It's axiomatically riskier counting on success in unknown territory than relying on delivering a modest increase in what you've already proven you can accomplish.

5. Assessing Internal Capacity to Do the Work
Do you have the horses? That is, can you fill all crucial slots with personnel who have the skill, motivation, and availability for the tasks? Hiring outside often increases costs and can result in a crew that isn't well aligned with mission. This can be particularly tricky if the project manager is hired outside the family. On the other hand, it avoids the awkwardness of people who are otherwise in a member-member peer relationship having to navigate the schizophrenia of also being in an employer-employee relationship.

6. Embracing Contingencies
If success depends on everything working well, you're probably stretched too far. Nothing goes perfectly. If your plan has so little wiggle room that any setback means unacceptable delays or cost overruns, then you're in deep doo-doo.

7. Establishing Pause Points
Good plans will identify checkpoints along the way, such that you can either hit the pause button, or—if the signs are bad enough—you can hit the abort button. This means establishing targets for funding secured, personnel hired, materiél acquired, construction accomplished within seasonal (having the exterior enclosed before freeze-up), etc.

People tend to breathe easier if there is a bolt hole established in the event that targets aren't met.

8. Establishing and Meeting Reporting Standards
Transparency can go a long way toward helping people exhale. Good reporting is partly a question of frequency; partly it's depth of coverage. Are you making clear what indicators are important in your report; are you bringing the right information forward? Hint #1: It's more crucial to be forthcoming with bad news than good news. Hint #2: Keep your reports short and to the point, inviting people to ask questions if they want greater detail.

Sometimes project managers try to hide bad news in the hopes that problems will be resolved before the next report. This is a dangerous game—kinda like juggling lit dynamite sticks. Occasionally that works, but more often it blows up in your face and now you have two problems: the one you started with and the loss of trust.

9. Developing a Broad Base of Active Support
This one is a spin-off to 5) above. The more members of the group who are actively involved in the project, the easier it will be to achieve and maintain buy-in—because it feels more like their project than one being done for them, or worse, to them.

This may take some creativity on the part of leaders to manifest, yet you are at grave risk of being isolated and falling into us/them dynamics if only a small number of community members are getting their hands dirty and their sleeves rolled up in service to the project.

The key throughout is making sure that the bridge between the project and the membership is never too far.

When Does a Private Issue Become a Group Issue?

When people create intentional community they are purposefully choosing a culture that is shifted more toward the "we" end of the spectrum and away from the "I" end. People living in community are, by design, opting for a social reality in which their lives will be more interwoven with those of fellow members and less autonomous. In consequence, there will be a number of decisions that you may be used to making solely as an individual (or as a household) that you are now obliged to work out with fellow community members—because your choices may impact others, and you've agreed that you're in this together.

Let me walk you through this.

Suppose you want to cut down a tree in front your house that's getting so high that it's shading the solar panels on your roof. Let's further suppose that: a) the tree is growing in lawn that is within the space immediately around your house that is defined by the community's covenants as yours to control (often referred to in community lingo as "limited private element") and b) there is an explicit community agreement that if you propose to do anything that impacts your neighbors that you're expected to consult with them first and make a good faith effort to find a course of action that's mutually agreeable.

In the mainstream world, so long as the tree is on your property, you'd have the right to cut it down whenever you wanted. Your only risk would be accidentally felling the tree onto your neighbor's roof, car, or (heaven forbid) their children who wanted to get close enough to witness your Paul Bunyan moment.

In community this is much more complicated.

o  First of all, you'd be less likely to own your own chain saw, because community is all about shared living and how many chain saws does a community need anyway? If you're proposing to use the community's chain saw, you be smart to reserve it ahead of time because someone else may want it at the same time you do. What's more, you probably can't count on the chain being sharp, or there being enough fuel on hand, so that means setting aside time to see that those things have been taken care of ahead of need.

o  While few people think it's a good idea to run a chain saw in the dark (visibility being directly related to safety) there's an issue around noise. If your fire up a chain saw at first light, most people will not thank you for substituting Stihl-ness for stillness—waking up to the roar of a chain saw is highly unpleasant and it's prudent to accept guidance from the neighbors about appropriate hours for running noisy machines, and then giving everyone a heads up about the exact time you expect to be doing the work, so that they can get their children, pets, and cars safely away from the action.

o  There is also a nuance around parameters a) and b) above. From a) it follows that it's wholly your call whether the tree should come down. Despite that, however, you could run afoul of b). Suppose, for example, that the tree provides welcome afternoon shade for the neighbor immediately to your east. Under those circumstances it's possible that what you're doing to reduce energy costs for your house (by increasing solar gain) will increase costs for your neighbors (because their air conditioning will have to work harder to maintain comfortable temperatures in summer).

Worse, you may not even know that your neighbor benefits from the shade of that tree, and that you are at risk for stepping on a landmine you didn't know existed if you blithely ignore the basic principle that undergirds b): measure (your neighbors) twice, cut once.

Note in this hypothetical example that you have a good reason for cutting down the tree—one that's directly in line with a core community value of being energy conscious. But that doesn't mean you have the only valid perspective on the issue. Remember the part about being in this together? The fact that you couldn't think of any reason that the neighbors might object to your taking down the tree, doesn't necessarily mean there isn't one.
• • •Now I want to take this a step further. For some class of decisions, the whole group needs a chance to have their oar in the water. For another class of decisions, the individual still gets to decide unilaterally, yet they are expected to create an opportunity to hear and work through people's reactions.

All Skate Decisions
The kind of decisions that may shift from unilateral in the mainstream to being made by the plenary (or its designate) in community are things like:

o  Anything relating to group covenants or interpretations on common values, all of which can be understood as voluntary limitations on what an individual can do. For example, at both Sandhill Farm and Dancing Rabbit there are agreements that members will rely wholly on vehicles owned collectively by the community: no private cars.

o  Who is an authorized spokesperson for representing the community when talking with the press.

o  Who is authorized to sign contracts on behalf of the community.

o  Who are check signers on the community account.

o  What color you paint the outside of your house. (Not all communities try to control the outside aesthetic, but some do.)

o  How shared assets are maintained and accessed.

In these kinds of things, the group supplants the individual as primary decision maker. To be sure, the individual still has a say in what happens, but each voice counts the same. The operant shibboleth here is: you're in good hands with all skate. (Either that, or you're in the wrong group.)

Personal Decisions that Impact the Group
That said, there is a second class of decisions where the community may want/need a collective venue to process a choice made by an individual, where there's no intention of asserting a community right to make the decision. Examples of that include:

—Where there's been a break up of an intimate relationship, and both people are trying to continue to live in the community. While no one is suggesting that the community should have a say about who you partner with, changes in intimacy can have a profound impact on group dynamics and it can help enormously if there's a way to unpack those feelings (other than by gossiping in the parking lot). Non-principals can be in anguish about to how to reach out to one party in the break-up without it being construed as taking sides.

—Where there's tension about the range of different ways that parents set limits for their children. Though it's highly unlikely that the community will attempt to tell parents how to raise their children, it can be very awkward threading the needle when trying to set limits as a non-parent supervising two children who are being raised in very different ways.

—Where there's tension about the range of different ways that parents educate their children. Again, schooling decisions generally remain with the parents, yet children who are homeschooled (or children going to public school for that matter) may not be thriving, with the result that difficult behaviors show up in the community arena. How do you talk about frustrations associated with obstreperous behavior in the group context, in part because the parent has made choices about their child's education out of ideological reasons that are not working well for the child?

—Where there's persistent negativity and low trust between two or more longstanding members. While you can't make people get along, there's a point where the swamp gas of festering enmity poisons the atmosphere in group settings.

—Where there's a clash of personalities and styles that surfaces in the group context. What's loud, obnoxious, and bullying to one person may be exuberance and passionate expression to another. Given that you're unlikely to outlaw certain personalities, you need a way to discuss how you're going to translate your core commitment to diversity into a culture that is home for all.

—Where there's been a major trauma in a member's life (severe accident, prolonged illness, suicide of a loved one). It's not unusual for people who suffer major setbacks to grieve and recover privately. Yet that doesn't mean that others in the group are unaffected by events.

[As a case in point, more than 10 years ago my community, Sandhill Farm, went through a gut-wrenching time when a visitor lost most of the fingers on her right hand when she accidentally got a glove caught in the roller mill we use to crush sorghum cane during our fall harvest. While there's no question that the woman was the person most profoundly affected by the accident, the community still needed to emotionally cope what happened and we made time that evening for people to simply share from their hearts. It was not about assigning blame; it was about staying connected and offering succor to one another in response to tragedy.]

The point of this class of decisions is to acknowledge the need for a way to get information out on the table (ahead of the rumor mill) and to process feelings that get stirred up among non-principals, such as sorrow, joy, anger, and confusion. This is not meant as an opportunity to judge others; it's a chance to tend to relationships that are strained as a result of the stress radiating out beyond the immediate players. This is not about problem solving; it's about nurturing connections, which are the backbone of community.

This is all the more important because it rarely happens in the mainstream (which means that people come into the community experience with little sense of why this might be needed or how to set this up to be constructive), yet it can be enormously beneficial for the community as it strives to maintain cohesion and suppleness through trying times.
• • •In conclusion, private matters become group matters when decisions impact the group in non-trivial ways. This will happen more often in community living than in the mainstream because community culture is shifted more toward "we" and intertwined living naturally creates more opportunities for the group to be affected by individual actions.

In addition, there is an important distinction between: a) things that the plenary controls instead of the individual (the first class above); and b) things for which the individual still gets to decide unilaterally, but about which the group needs a chance to explore the emotional swirls that surface as a result of being collaterally impacted by those choices (the second class above).

To navigate this territory well, groups need to be able to distinguish between the two classes, and have in mind how to handle each conversation with sensitivity and compassion. I'm not saying that's easy, but it can be done and is well worth the effort to learn how to do it.

Gift Horse Dynamics

Recently I was working with a community where, one evening, a group was sitting around at Happy Hour in the common house enjoying each others' company. At one point the conversation drifted into the advent of winter and chilly outdoor temperatures, which led one reveler to suggest, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a fireplace where folks could cozy up to in bad weather?"

As that was met with general approbation, one listener was so bathed in the warm glow of inspiration and conviviality, that she promptly went home and purchased an electric fireplace—that she intended to donate to the community to enhance the winter ambiance in the common house. Acting from a spirit (or perhaps spirits, in this case) of generosity and good intention, she was blindsided when her email announcement was met with consternation and push back. What happened?

There's actually quite a lot at play in this dynamic, making it well worth the time to unpack.

1. The donor was fully aware of the community's tight budget and the potential awkwardness of suggesting that the community buy a fireplace. There were probably other things in line ahead of it as priority improvements, and she thought she was saving the group all kinds of process by making it a gift. She had the money, and by proceeding this way she'd get to enjoy the warmth of the fireplace that much sooner and not add pressure to the budget, which was a known concern for those living closer to the edge of their means. She was not expecting to get a heated discussion; just a heated room.

2. Because the fireplace would live in common space, the donor misstepped by bypassing the team that oversees furnishing the common house. Even though it was a gift, it would take up space in a room that didn't have a lot to give, and the point of having that committee was that it was their role to oversee how the space was used. I can't recall if I've ever heard of a team that enjoyed being surprised by unilateral initiatives taken by outsiders in their sphere of influence—however divinely inspired.

3. Because the group has a core commitment to being conscientious about ecological impact, the donor might have anticipated the possibility of objections to operating an appliance that spins the electric meter faster. While the annual cost of such a device—even if used quite a bit—would probably in the range of $50-80 at today's electric rates, there are two concerns: 

a) Any increase in common expenses is borne more or less equally by all members, not just those who are comfortably off, and it never lands well to have a financial burden laid upon you about which you had no say. Even if it's only $2 a year.

b) Beyond dollars, what message does it send to visitors? If the group is trying to be a model of energy efficiency, it may well raise eyebrows that it has a prominently displayed appliance that converts high quality energy (line electricity) into low quality energy (radiant heat). People tend to be more impressed by what you do than what you say, and you didn't need to consult Nostradamus to predict that there would be some soul searching on this one.

To be fair, there is a real issue here: how to balance: i) creature comfort on cold evenings in a way that encourages social interactions; with ii) the desire to contain costs and be a model of wise energy use. I'm not saying how this conversation should go; only that it should happen, and before the fireplace is purchased.

4. There is also the matter of how the appliance will be cleaned, maintained, and repaired. All of those mundane matters invariably add up to an additional cost of a "free" gift, unless the donor agrees to underwrite them as well.

5. While I didn't sense that what I'm about say next was a factor in the instance above, sometimes donors expect to accrue social capital by virtue of their largesse, which amounts to, "Since I donated x, I expect to have a greater say in y." Not that it's generally stated that baldly, but that's how it comes across—and when it does, it's a guaranteed shit storm.

6. In the story above, the donor meant well, and it will be a poor outcome if the lesson she "learns" is to make no generous offers in the future. The trick is how to allow room for reactions and problem solving, while at the same time honoring the good intentions of the would-be donor.

Part of what's imbedded in this is the disparity of assets and income among residents. If the group finds it awkward sharing information about personal finances (at least with a broad brush stroke) then it's hard to hold the benefactor accountable for not taking it into account. It's a good thing that those with more financial ease in their life are willing and able to share some of their good fortune with others—so long as it doesn't come with hidden strings. There are times when free gifts are just too expensive.

Thus, it behooves groups to get savvy about members bearing gifts to the community. When you open the door in the morning and there's a gift horse sitting on your front stoop, I suggest taking a good look in the horse's mouth (despite traditional admonitions to the contrary) before accepting it into the herd:
A. How will cleaning, maintenance, and repair be handled? (Hint: it's not free.) Is the community expected to pick up the tab for upkeep? Is that agreeable?
B. Is it on loan, or a gift that the community can do with it as it pleases? If a loan, what say does the community have in its placement and use; how much advance warning does the community want before it can be recalled by the owner?

C. Are their strings attached (does it need to be available in common space until the donor dies; does the donor expect something in return; are there restrictions on its use)? If so, are the conditions acceptable?

D. Are we being diligent about whether to accept this offer in the same way we would if the community were buying it? If not, why not? 

When presented with a gift horse, remember it's permissible to respond to "neigh" with "nay."

Coming Back

In my previous blog (Laid Back), I reported on my lingering back pain triggered by an intemperate bout of improper lifting the first weekend in October.

Yesterday, at the encouragement of my doctor and my wife, I had a CT scan done of my abdomen—mainly to check for the possibility of more serous complications, including kidney stones or worse, cancer. Happily, I have neither. Whew! This was definitely a case of no news being good news.

Other than a simple benign cyst (1 cm in diameter) on my right kidney (which is apparently common as people grow older—something I am wholly prone to), all I have is back pain. While that's complicated and debilitating enough, it's a relief to know that's "all" I'm trying to recover from.

The main problem is getting ahead of a vicious negative bio-feedback loop. In response to the original strain I've been involuntarily holding myself rigid to protect myself from re-injuring, or even tweaking, the muscles in my lower back (just above the hips and coccyx). After a couple of weeks of that I started experiencing secondary pain as my defensive muscles got tired of being on duty all the time, to the point where the secondary pain was equal to or greater than the original pain.

While my body has not yet recovered from the original trauma (read no sit-ups) and it's too early to start physical therapy to rebuild strength and resiliency, I'm going through cycles of secondary pain as all the muscles in and around my abdomen have been taking turns filing complaints with my central nervous system.

The only position I can be in with no pain at all is flat on my back, but staying in bed all day drives me nuts, and I don't want my muscles to completely atrophy. So each day I get up and try moving around a little (with my engine set at "all ahead slow")—going to the bathroom, getting a bite to eat, refilling my water jug, recharging my laptop, etc. (I am getting a lot reading done.)

When I walk more than 100 feet, however, the intercostal muscles at the lower end on my rib cage start to spasm, even when I have 10 mg of cyclobenzaprine on board, a prescription muscle relaxant. Thus, even with careful, minimal movement and no lifting I invariably clench the very muscles that I'm trying to calm. So I have a ways to go yet.

The good news is that after canceling my planned trip to New England (that was supposed to start today), I have no trips planned until Jan 13, which gives me six glorious weeks in which to come back all the way. And there's no better place to have this occur than at home, where Ma'ikwe can play Florence Nightengale and I can learn to type propped up at a 15-degree angle.

While I've never been very patient with being a patient, apparently that's the lesson I'm working on right now.