Searching for the right neighborhood, I found a community

December 22nd, 2019 by

Before my wife and I separated (as amicably as possible; my ex- is a terrific person and I’m grateful that she put up with me for 25 years), I lived in a great neighborhood in Wakefield. 

Which, in a roundabout way, is why I’m looking forward to living at Bay State Commons, our cohousing community in progress.

My ex- and I lived in a cute, old (1925-ish) Queen Anne-style house. We had a half-lot of yard on the side, where we put in a vegetable garden with enough room left over for dogwood, redbud, river birch, pin oak and cedar trees. In summer, shade was abundant in our corner of Wakefield. In autumn, our yards were carpeted with the reds, oranges and golds of fallen leaves. In the spring, we would hear the songs of robins, mourning doves and mockingbirds, along with the occasional screech of a red-tailed hawk.

What made the neighborhood truly special was its social fabric. Every February, we helped our neighbors organize a progressive dinner—with appetizers at one house, dinner at another, desserts at yet another, and drinks at every stop along the way. Every June, our neighbors put on a collective yard sale, with folding tables and assorted “stuff,” ready to be cast away for a small price, on both sides of two adjacent streets. Every September, our neighbors threw a block party, often with a DJ and dancing in the streets. (Only once did we rent a bouncy house. They’re fun for the kids but dangerous, it turns out, for the adults: Just ask our neighbor, Maryellen, who badly sprained her ankle.)

If we needed a tool or a ladder or some extra chairs for Thanksgiving, we just asked. Running late after work? No problem, someone could pick up our daughter from school or soccer practice. Out of town during a snowstorm? Our driveway was plowed out by the time we got back. And in 2006, when my dad passed away, food appeared at our door, day after day after day.  

Since I’ve been separated, I’ve lived in one of those new-ish apartment complexes. In its own way, it’s a fine place to live. It’s ridiculously close to the T and the Fells Reservation. It’s modern (goodbye, 1925-era closets!). And it comes with “amenities,” including two fitness centers, a business center, trash pickup at my door, a clubhouse, a patio with a gas grille and a fire pit.

But it’s not … a neighborhood—not in the sense that I experienced in Wakefield. It’s harder to get to know my neighbors. There are no progressive dinners, no communal yard sales, no block parties. I suppose that I could borrow a hammer or a screwdriver if I needed one, but I suspect my asking would be unexpected. If one of my neighbors lost a parent, I’m not sure if or how I would know.

When I decided that it was time to search for someplace new to live, I considered buying a house—maybe a small Cape, with a big-enough yard to garden? But I wondered: What if? What if I bought the perfect house, but in a neighborhood without the social fabric that I had found in Wakefield? How would I even know before making an offer? And what if my new neighborhood did have a strong sense of community? Neighborhoods change. People move on. Social cohesion can be a fragile and fleeting thing.

That’s when I stumbled upon Bay State Commons. I had Googled “cohousing near me” and up popped “Bay State Commons” in the search results. I checked out the website and sent in an email. Someone named Tom emailed me back and I came to a meeting.

I found a group of people striving to do something that’s very hard to do well: make decisions by consensus. People seemed open and honest. They disagreed with each other on this or that point, but did so respectfully, without rancor. And somehow—in a minor miracle of planning, organization and focus—they stuck to their agenda, keeping the meeting to two hours, just as they had planned. 

As the months went by, I attended more meetings and social events; I moved from “prospective member” to “associate member” to “equity member;” and I came to better know Tom, as well as the other members of the group. But it didn’t take long for me to figure out that these were people who were intent on building with each other precisely what I was looking for: a real community, one bound tightly, but comfortably together by a resilient social fabric. 

I’m looking forward to breaking ground with them; to sharing a garden and the fruits of our communal labors; to the comfort derived from knowing there’s someone around to lend a hand and always being willing to lend a hand in return; to being an extra pair of eyes and ears and hands for other parents, the way that my neighbors were for me and my ex-wife when we were raising our child; to the lighter burden of shared responsibilities and the hard work of shared decision-making; and to the blessing of living in a place where, as my favorite singer and songwriter put it, “nobody crowds you but nobody goes it alone.” 

I’m grateful that I’ve found the community that I was searching for. If you’re looking for something similar, drop us a line.

When Someone Wants to Say Something No One Wants to Hear

December 16th, 2019 by

As cohousers we generally believe in the principle that everyone gets a voice. We think of ourselves as taking all views into account and welcoming differences of opinions.  But what about when we don’t? What do you do if someone has more to say after others in the community are past tired of hearing it? Is there a point at which one person’s need to be heard is less important than someone else’s need to be done listening?  

This is one of the tough places in community and I don’t believe that there is a perfect answer that works in all cases. I do believe there are things we can do to make it better, or worse, that will have significant impact on our community for years to come.  

Most communities actually have policies to address this sort of thing. When a small group determines the agenda for plenary meetings, they have the authority to not allow the member in question to bring their topic to plenary. There may be a policy that allows a community to override a block, “consensus minus one” is one of many variants. There may be a policy stating that a particular committee has the topic in their domain and if the member isn’t happy with how the committee handles it, there is no recourse.  All of these are examples of policies enacted to protect the efficiency and energy of the whole from being disrupted by the passion (or rigidity) of one.  

It is likely that these policies will be needed from time to time when the cost of continuing to engage with an unhappy member is greater than the cost of overriding them. However, it’s worth noting that silencing or overriding a member of your community always comes at a cost. Often it is a high cost, paid out for years to come, measured in resentment, loss of trust, reduced participation and less sense of safety in the community. This cost occurs even if everything is done according to policy, and it is likely to impact everyone.  Thus, it is worth a good bit of effort to avoid the situation when you can. So how does a community do that?  

  • Get really good at listening. Often the underlying problem is that the member doesn’t feel they have been heard, even if they have been given ample opportunities to speak. It’s surprising what a person can tolerate when they feel heard and fully understood. There are a number of structures that address this need. My favorite is Imago Dialogue.
    • Mirror what you hear the person saying
      • What I heard you say is . . . 
      • Did I get you?
      • Is there more?
    • Validate that what they are saying makes sense – even if you do not agree with it.
      • That makes sense to me because . . . 
    • Empathize
      • I imagine you might be feeling . . . 
      • Is that what you are feeling?
      • Are there other feelings?
  • Get curious. Try to set aside judgements and get really interested in why this topic is so important to the member and what it means to them.  Even if you never agree, if they believe that you really understand where they are coming from, it will be easier for them to understand your position.
  • Take time for one-on-one, perhaps first with a facilitator and then with two people in conflict, perhaps with support. This can take a lot of time, and it is sometimes the only way to create enough safety to really get to the heart of what is happening.  
  • Be authentic. Pay attention to why this is so important to you and share the things that matter most to you, not just the things that you think will win the argument.
  • Replace “This person is a trouble-maker!” with “This person is struggling. How can I help?”  
  • Note that sometimes the best thing for the community is to meet the needs of one member, even if it means doing something most others don’t like.  
  • Consider bringing in a process consultant to help, especially if the situation happens more than once.
  • Be prepared that sometimes all of this effort will not achieve the desired result. I believe all of it results in learning and improved relationships over time, but it doesn’t always end happily. Be ready to forgive everyone and work on healing where you can. 

How to Create an Agenda – Part 2

December 14th, 2019 by

Careful agenda-setting is an essential element in preparing for a good meeting, and often an area where a little effort can make big improvements in meetings and community relationships.

Agenda creation includes two distinct parts:

1.       Choosing the topics to be discussed.

2.       Determining how those topics will be addressed. 

I’ll address them separately, though there is often interplay between the two around the time and energy needed for the various topics. 

Part 1 – Choosing Topics

Topic selection may seem like a fairly administrative task, simply gathering input and typing it into a document. What many people don’t notice at first is that this role carries with it a great deal of power and influence in the community. Doing it fairly and well is essential for both efficient meetings and trust within a community. For this reason every community should have an agreed process for topic selection.  It should include:

  •  Who selects topics for the agenda?
    • For smaller team meetings (Finance team, for example) it might be the team lead or facilitator who chooses the topics. 
    • For plenary, or full community meetings, it is best to have a small group assigned to this task. Ideally the group includes representation from the various teams that may need to bring items to the meeting. For this reason a steering committee is sometimes chosen.  Other times a team is formed specifically for this task. 
    • Some communities have their facilitation team set the agenda. There are two reasons this is not ideal: First, both facilitation and agenda-setting are positions that hold power and it is better to diversify that power. Second, the two tasks are different and require different skill sets. It is likely that the best facilitators and the best agenda setters are not entirely the same people. 
  • Criteria for getting on the agenda, such as
    •  A topic must be ready for this kind of meeting. Is the needed information gathered? Is there conflict around the topic that would be better handled in a smaller group first?
    •  A topic must be in the domain of the plenary, ie. It must not be something that falls under the authority of a committee or smaller circle.  Generally topics that fall under another committee may be brought to a plenary meeting if meeting with the committee does not result in resolution. 
    •  A topic must fit within the intent of the meeting. For example, if a meeting is designated for only budget items, a conversation about people parking in the wrong places does not fit.
  • Criteria for selecting between possible topics when there is not time for all, which might include:
    •  Urgency
    • Time a topic has been waiting for a hearing
    • How a topic fits with other topics already slated
    • Whether a topic is part of a previous community agreement, such as an agreement to review a topic on a particular date
    •  Availability of a facilitator with the skill and willingness to facilitate the topic well
    • Availability of key players related to the topic to attend the meeting
  • Cautions
    • It is important to track topics that have been requested for attention at plenary in an “agenda bin” or similar document.
    • Do not assume that because a topic has been postponed and no one is repeating the request that the topic is no longer needed.  Always check back with the person(s) who brought the request to begin with. People tend to get upset if patience is mistaken for resolution.
    • On the other hand, do not put a topic on the agenda simply because it has been in the agenda bin for a long time. If the topic is no longer “live” in the community or has been resolved in some other way, it is not a good use of plenary time to address it, and it may rekindle bad feelings. 
    • Do not let the loudest voice determine the priority for the agenda. Use your criteria.
    • On the other hand, if a community member is persistent in requesting time on the agenda, refusing them will generally do more harm than good.  If the requester has followed reasonable steps to resolve their issue within agreed process and still feels unresolved, it may be necessary for the community to take time as a full community to work through it. Failing to resolve the issue can result in bad feelings that may persist for many years and are very costly to the community as a whole.  

Always remember that the reason for having meetings in the first place is to live in community together. Keeping a spirit of collaboration and connection is the most important factor of all.  

How to Create an Agenda – Part 1

December 13th, 2019 by

Careful agenda-setting is an essential element in preparing for a good meeting, and often an area where a little effort can make big improvements in meetings and community relationships.

Agenda creation includes two distinct parts:

1.       Choosing the topics to be discussed.

2.       Determining how those topics will be addressed. 

I’ll address them separately, though there is often interplay between the two around the time and energy needed for the various topics. 

Part 1 – Choosing Topics

Topic selection may seem like a fairly administrative task, simply gathering input and typing it into a document. What many people don’t notice at first is that this role carries with it a great deal of power and influence in the community. Doing it fairly and well is essential for both efficient meetings and trust within a community. For this reason every community should have an agreed process for topic selection.  It should include:

  •  Who selects topics for the agenda?
    • For smaller team meetings (Finance team, for example) it might be the team lead or facilitator who chooses the topics. 
    • For plenary, or full community meetings, it is best to have a small group assigned to this task. Ideally the group includes representation from the various teams that may need to bring items to the meeting. For this reason a steering committee is sometimes chosen.  Other times a team is formed specifically for this task. 
    • Some communities have their facilitation team set the agenda. There are two reasons this is not ideal: First, both facilitation and agenda-setting are positions that hold power and it is better to diversify that power. Second, the two tasks are different and require different skill sets. It is likely that the best facilitators and the best agenda setters are not entirely the same people. 
  • Criteria for getting on the agenda, such as
    •  A topic must be ready for this kind of meeting. Is the needed information gathered? Is there conflict around the topic that would be better handled in a smaller group first?
    •  A topic must be in the domain of the plenary, ie. It must not be something that falls under the authority of a committee or smaller circle.  Generally topics that fall under another committee may be brought to a plenary meeting if meeting with the committee does not result in resolution. 
    •  A topic must fit within the intent of the meeting. For example, if a meeting is designated for only budget items, a conversation about people parking in the wrong places does not fit.
  • Criteria for selecting between possible topics when there is not time for all, which might include:
    •  Urgency
    • Time a topic has been waiting for a hearing
    • How a topic fits with other topics already slated
    • Whether a topic is part of a previous community agreement, such as an agreement to review a topic on a particular date
    •  Availability of a facilitator with the skill and willingness to facilitate the topic well
    • Availability of key players related to the topic to attend the meeting
  • Cautions
    • It is important to track topics that have been requested for attention at plenary in an “agenda bin” or similar document.
    • Do not assume that because a topic has been postponed and no one is repeating the request that the topic is no longer needed.  Always check back with the person(s) who brought the request to begin with. People tend to get upset if patience is mistaken for resolution.
    • On the other hand, do not put a topic on the agenda simply because it has been in the agenda bin for a long time. If the topic is no longer “live” in the community or has been resolved in some other way, it is not a good use of plenary time to address it, and it may rekindle bad feelings. 
    • Do not let the loudest voice determine the priority for the agenda. Use your criteria.
    • On the other hand, if a community member is persistent in requesting time on the agenda, refusing them will generally do more harm than good.  If the requester has followed reasonable steps to resolve their issue within agreed process and still feels unresolved, it may be necessary for the community to take time as a full community to work through it. Failing to resolve the issue can result in bad feelings that may persist for many years and are very costly to the community as a whole.  

Always remember that the reason for having meetings in the first place is to live in community together. Keeping a spirit of collaboration and connection is the most important factor of all.  

Interview: Heartwood Cohousing

December 12th, 2019 by

Robert “Han” Bishop is a resident of Heartwood Cohousing in Bayfield Colorado. Heartwood is a rural community with a large property and many self-sustaining practices. In this interview, Han describes his experience living there, how he and his wife came to move there and something of the cycles of life they are experiencing.

https://vimeo.com/378639869?fbclid=IwAR3CCXooc_D_skL4j-TkbUjdfFbRGbyIn4luc9XDuU03Ud4yQftJnO4PuY8

WebChat #39 Karen Giming on Personal Growth

December 9th, 2019 by

Karen’s recent WebChat challenged us to see personal growth as one of the most important reasons for cohousing. She explained how cohousing, in part through conflict, provides an ideal environment for becoming better humans. In particular it is a space in which we grow the skills for collaboration which are so needed in our society today.

Growth, she said isn’t always easy or fun, but it is unavoidable as we live closely together in community. Because we care for each other, we are motivated by the needs of others to heal in ways that meet our own needs as well.

Watch the whole WebChat here.

Annual Meeting 2019

December 4th, 2019 by

It was great to see many of you at our Annual meeting on December 2, 2019. It’s lovely to come together one night a year and share with all cohousers what our association is doing to bring more and better cohousing to the US.

We’d like to say a big thank our Association Supporters. Their support is essential for the work of our organization. We thank them for their financial investment and the many, many ways they support the movement of cohousing. THANK YOU!!

  • Caddis Collaborative (with Bryan Bowan)
  • McCamant Durrett Architects (with Chuck Durrett)
  • Cohousing Solutions (with Katie McCamant)
  • Fitch Architects and Community Design (with Laura Fitch)

To give you a taste of what we covered, the evening began with a report from Alan O’Hashi about his experience of the value of cohousing and a plea for all of us to support the association. Our current board and staff were introduced, and Karin Hoskin reviewed our finances. We looked back on an incredible conference in Portland in 2019 and forward toward a whole series of events, the Simple Series that will fill 2020. We celebrated the connections we make when we come together as cohousers, and the new Community Launch and Professional Launch programs that are building more and stronger connections. We finished off with a tour of our new website and all it has to offer.

For the full report, watch the video here.

WebChat #38: Katie McCamant on Phases of Development

November 25th, 2019 by

Creating a cohousing community is, for many founders, the most complex process they will ever undertake. In her recent WebChat, Katie McCamant gives an overview of that process phase by phase.

Katie begins with gathering your group and takes us step by step through move-in day. She points out the places where professional help is needed, common challenges at each stage, and the primary role of community members throughout the process.

Watch the full webchat here.

Find out more about Katie McCamant’s consulting company and professional training program here.

How can you leave your home?

November 18th, 2019 by

When people learn I’m moving into cohousing, they often ask, “How can you leave your home? It’s so lovely and has so much character. And, you’ve made so many memories here.” 


Yes, it’s true. I love my nearly 90 year old house in Florence Park, a mid-town neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I’ve lived in it 30+ years. I grew up 2 blocks from where I now live. I sold Girl Scout cookies to every house in the neighborhood. I raised my daughter here. 


And, it no longer serves my needs. It’s too big. I’m having to spend time and money on things (like the plumbing and HVAC – not to mention a new roof that I know is coming) that I don’t want to spend my time and money on anymore. The stairs at the front and back doors and to the basement where the laundry is will someday be a barrier to my independence. 


I so often hear others say, “I’m just not ready” and I wonder what will it take for them to be ready? Will it take a fall or a stroke? Will they be better able in 10 years to sort through all their belongings and decide what to keep and what to let go?  


Having worked in the aging field most of my career, I’ve seen what happens when people don’t plan ahead, when they wait too long. Far too often I’ve seen them become a prisoner in their home. I’ve seen their quality of life deteriorate. I’ve seen them forced by a health crisis to make a quick decision to move leaving them with few options and less control. 


So I’m choosing to create my future and I’m moving to cohousing. It offers the lifestyle I want and it will meet my needs so much better than the house I now live in. 


In Heartwood Commons I’ll have a home that’s just the right size. I’ll have neighbors nearby, people who have already become my cohousing friends. We’ll share meals, learn from each other, engage in life together. They won’t take the place of my current friends and activities. It’s additive.


I’m excited about so many things: I’m excited to close my door and travel without worry. I’m excited to spend my time and my money the way I want and not dictated by the demands of an old house. I’m most excited to walk out my door and run into someone and share conversation over a cup of coffee or glass of wine. 


I’m excited to rid myself of stuff I no longer need. I’m actually looking forward to deciding what to take with me. Each item will be carefully chosen. Most everything will carry a memory with it. 


I’m taking my cue from my Grandmother who raised me and who made a similar decision to move early in her retirement while she was able, physically, mentally, and emotionally, to make this kind of a change. Thank you Momma Dixie for showing me the way.


When it comes time to leave the home I love, I plan to honor the time I have spent within its walls and the life I have lived there. I will thank it for taking care of me and my family for so many years, and for the many wonderful memories created there. I will leave a note for the new family my house will protect and I will wish them many memory making moments and much happiness in their new home. 


I will move into my new home in Heartwood Commons filled with all the memories I bring and excited anticipation for the memories I will make there.


After all, home is where my heart is.

—–

Suzy Sharp is a founding member of Heartwood Commons Cohousing in Tulsa, OK. If you share her vision of home, you may be able to join her.  Heartwood is seeking new members. More information available at https://www.heartwoodcommonstulsa.com/


The photo shows Suzy’s new community of cohousing neighbors gathered on her 90 year old front porch. 

WebChat #37: Diana on Challenging Behaviors

October 24th, 2019 by

98% of cohousers are lovely, well intentioned people we can all get along with, says Diana Leafe Christian in her recent WebChat. But what about the other 2%? What about people who are consistently difficult, who seem to lack a capacity for empathy and care only about themselves. How does community work with them and how can we protect ourselves from their difficult behavior?

Diana explains common misconceptions and offers practical strategies for coexisting in community with people who exhibit very difficult behaviors. See her WebChat here for lots of great information.