Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Lots to Learn!

It turns out that building a community, especially from scratch, is harder work than many of us imagined. There are myriad pieces to think about, discuss, plan for. Finding people who are interested in joining the initial effort, drafting values and goals to make sure everyone is aligned on the fundamentals of what the community will be, finding the land, finding money to purchase the land, planning the outline of the buildings and gardens, endless (yes, truly endless) discussions about interior spaces, finding a builder and/or developer, securing financing, finding enough additional people that it becomes financially possible to proceed…

The exciting news is, we at Cohousing ABQ are so, so close! We have land, we have 20 households who have financially bought in, we have a developer and builder, and we have a social construct on how to make decisions together. We have been through conflicts, and come out stronger on the other side. Our dream of a beautiful little community next to the Rio Grande River in Albuquerque, NM is becoming reality. 

However, there is one big elephant in our zoom room. And that is that in spite of our stated commitment to diversity, we are coming up short for our vision in this area. While we represent a range of ages, cultural and religious backgrounds, and have varying developmental (or cognitive) and physical abilities, we have much less economic diversity, gender diversity, and racial diversity than we had envisioned. We are now entirely white and have only a few LBGTQ members–and, to state the obvious, with our costs having risen 30% during the pandemic and sources of outside funding for low-income housing unavailable, and many of our existing residents struggling to fit the unit prices into our budgets, we won’t be in a position to offer units at less than the cost to build them–and our costs are expensive compared to other housing in Albuquerque. 

As we have contemplated what to do, it has become clear that we are just at the beginning of our journey in understanding how to achieve our desire for a truly welcoming community. When we asked former members who are BIPOC to review our updated messaging about welcoming diversity, we found some woeful gaps in our own understanding and perspective. These members were willing to help us work through those gaps. We see that in order to do this well, we would have needed to bake in a strategy and education for ourselves around diversity, equity, and inclusion much earlier in the process. And our conversations with our former members make it clear that it would potentially be harmful to create a strategy around this quickly, without taking the time necessary to truly understand how to build this culture as a community. 

We have done well on age diversity, with lots of children, something some cohousing communities struggle with. One reason for this, I think, is that our founding family has children. No one wants to be the first and possibly only family with children and having children from the beginning makes it safer and more comfortable for other families to contemplate.

Similarly, it might be a leap of faith to be the first person of color or the sole representative of a minority. It could be exhausting if the community has not done work up front to make sure that it is truly welcoming and will not put the burden on members of marginalized groups to educate other community members. It has been pointed out to me multiple times, and I am starting to get it, that white liberal groups can feel more toxic and exhausting than an overtly racist setting. Implicit bias also surfaces for people who are neurodiverse, disabled, or LBGTQ+.  

It is true that lack of diversity, particularly racial or economic diversity, in cohousing is a widespread concern—not just in the U.S. but in Canada and Europe too. People in intentional communities tend to be educated and have a good bit of privilege. In fact, 95 percent of cohousing members are white and 66 percent hold a graduate degree, according to a 2011 study conducted by Angela Sanguinetti, a researcher at the University of California, Davis. The reasons for this are complex. 

So where does our community go from here? 

We know there is not a fast or easy one-stop method to creating a community that is inclusive of diversity, and we know the process must be sensitively navigated. What is also belatedly becoming clear is that there is already a considerable body of knowledge available to draw on. 

I’d like to share a personal example here to illustrate how we learn from people who have been doing the work for many years. 

In the summer of 2020, I decided to go on a 6-day river rafting trip. A friend recommended a company in Utah and to my delight I discovered that they were offering their first ever LBGTQ+ trip. (Shout out to Holiday River Expeditions!). The trip was co-sponsored by The Venture Out Project, which leads wilderness trips for the queer and transgender community. I am a cis-gendered lesbian, and while I have had trans acquaintances, been an ally for trans coworkers, and have paid attention to trans issues, it was eye-opening to experience expert facilitation in how to navigate gender issues and be a better ally. I learned, for example, how much smoother it is to include pronouns as part of a round of introductions, and how to more skillfully navigate incidences of misgendering, whether it is my own mistake or someone else’s that happens in my presence. (We also had a number of BIPOC folks on that trip and discussed the lack of opportunities for safe and comfortable wilderness experiences for the BIPOC community, which resulted in Holiday River adding a BIPOC affinity trip to their offerings). It was a transformative trip for many of us (one of us even got a tattoo to commemorate). Being in a safe and supported social environment is a special experience that cannot be taken for granted for members of marginalized communities. 

My point being, that while I actually have no experience with being trans, I can learn from others how to help create and hold a safer space. Different marginalized groups have different experiences, so it can and does feel like a lot to take on. However, there are specific learnings, strategies, and existing experts who can serve as guides.

So while we are late to the game, we remain committed and recognize that laying the proper groundwork in our community will require seeking out these voices to help us do the work. For example:

  • Crystal Byrd Farmer is a diversity consultant who was interviewed on the Inside Community Podcast. She is also offering upcoming workshops with the Cohousing Institute which we are encouraging all community members to attend, and will discuss our takeaways at community meetings. 
  • The Token: Common Sense Ideas for Increasing Diversity in Your Organization by Crystal Bird Farmer is a pithy, funny and to-the-point introduction to issues, which we will discuss in future community salons.   
  • We will participate in being the first audience for a workshop on neurodiversity with Meghan Bonde of Team Neurodivergent, which she will present at the 2024 National Cohousing Conference being held in Denver August 1-4, 2024.
  • Several members already attended a training on Transgender Cultural Fluency presented by Adrien Lawyer with the Transgender Resource Center of NM.

An immediate action we will take is to give priority for our few remaining units to families (inclusive of nontraditional families) with children, and also to people from historically under-represented groups (QTBIPOC). 

We will continue the work of how to make our cohousing community more inclusive, and how we can be allies in the diverse communities of Albuquerque. If you feel moved to offer support or resources, please reach out!

“Many well-intentioned HR managers have welcomed marginalized people with the vision of a diverse organization, but they don’t actually want diversity. They want the appearance of diversity while everyone conforms to white middle-class culture…When I talk about doing The Work, I mean the process of examining your internal beliefs about your world and the marginalized people you encounter.” Crystal Byrd Farmer 

Category: Diversity

Tags: Launch Community Member Spotlight

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