Busting Myths about Community Living

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People living in intentional communities come from various backgrounds.
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“Finding Community” by Diana Leafe Christian highlights appealing living alternatives for like-minded people who seek to create a family-oriented and ecologically sustainable lifestyle.

Finding Community(New Society, 2007) by Diana Leafe Christian presents a thorough overview of ecovillages and intentional communities and offers solid advice on how to research thoroughly, visit thoughtfully, evaluate intelligently and join gracefully. Intentional communities or ecovillages are an appealing choice for like-minded people who seek to create a family-oriented and ecologically sustainable lifestyle — a lifestyle they are unlikely to find anywhere else. This section tackles common questions and misconceptions about cohousing and community living.

I don’t want to live out in the boonies.

You don’t have to. A total of 1,520 communities listed themselves in the Online Directory of the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) in 2006. (directory.ic.org) Of the nearly 1,000 communities which noted whether they were urban or rural, four out of ten said they were urban, suburban, or located in small towns. Six out of ten said they were rural. In this sample, anyway, at least 40 percent of the communities listing themselves online were not located way out in the country.

I don’t want to live with a bunch of hippies.

Few community members today consider themselves hippies. Some might identify themselves as non-mainstream or countercultural, others might identify themselves as relatively mainstream people who have an interest in community and sustainability. Many, such as members of cohousing communities, are essentially middle-class to upper-middle class people who live relatively normal lives — though more progressive, cooperative, and ecologically sustainable than most. Most communitarians are hard-working and responsible, not folks who fit the image of ’60s-era hippie stereotypes. What do most communitarians have in common? They tend to be health-conscious, environmentally aware, and politically and culturally progressive — the “cultural creatives” whom authors Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson describe in their book Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World (Three Rivers Press, 2001).

I don’t want to live a “poverty consciousness” lifestyle with limited resources.

You’ll find many different standards of living in ecovillages and intentional communities. Some embrace voluntary simplicity; others have full access to the comforts of contemporary life. Nearly all communities use the benefits of common ownership to allow people access to facilities and equipment they don’t need to own privately — for example, hot tubs, saunas, pools, exercise rooms, yoga rooms, power tools, washers and dryers, pickup trucks, tractors, and so on. Newly formed communities often start off with limited resources and thus their members tend to live simply. As the community gets more established over time, it tends to create a stable economic base and its members gradually enjoy a physically more comfortable life — according to their own standards.

I don’t want to live with countercultural types who are trying to avoid responsibility.

Many people choose to live in community because it offers an alternative way of life from that of the wider society, yet most community members still raise families, maintain and repair their land and buildings, work for a living, pay income and property taxes, etc. At the same time, communitarians usually perceive their lifestyle as more caring and satisfying than that of mainstream culture, and because of this — and the increased free time which results from pooling resources and specialized skills — many community members feel they can engage more effectively with the wider society.

I don’t want to have to join a religion or take up some spiritual practice I don’t believe in.

You choose what kind of community you join, and you can choose from plenty of secular communities, or those which are spiritually eclectic and don’t have a common spiritual practice.  In the FIC’s Online Directory listings, of those which noted whether they had a shared spiritual path, 45 percent said they did, indicating that slightly more than half the intentional communities that listed themselves do not have a common spiritual practice.

I don’t want to live in a hierarchical system or follow a charismatic leader.

Very few communities are hierarchical, and again, which one you join is your choice. The most common form of community governance is democratic, with decisions made by consensus or some form of voting. Of the 1,228 communities which checked the “governance” section of the FIC’s Online Directory in 2006, nearly two-thirds used a democratic form of governance, including consensus decision-making or majority rule voting. About one-sixth used a hierarchical model, including a community leader or group of elders, and about one-twelfth (used some other form of governance which they didn’t specify.

I don’t want to have to think like everyone else. What if it turns out to be a cult?

Is community living like living with the Borg on Star Trek? Do massive part-human, part machine cyborgs suddenly appear in front of you and announce in a monotone chorus of electronic voices: “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”? As every Trekkie knows, after the half-human/half machine Borg suddenly materialize and deliver their chilling announcement, they beam you off to their starship where you are biomechanically morphed into a cyborg yourself — destined to an immortal, never-escape existence as one more cell in the Borg’s “hive mind.” Fortunately, this won’t happen. Unlike with the Borg on Star Trek, people who join communities don’t get assimilated, and in most groups community members don’t all think alike. Members of any given community do hold many more values and beliefs in common than a comparable group of typical neighbors, since the community is organized around a common vision or purpose.

However, disagreements about what they want or how to spend their funds are a common occurrence in most communities, just as in the wider society. Community members certainly don’t all live in a “hive mind,” but can have widely diverging opinions. Just ask any process and communications consultants called in to help resolve disputes! The concern about intentional communities being potentially dangerous “cults” is one of the most common and significant misconceptions held by people unfamiliar with the subject, so we’ll examine it in more detail. I agree with the view of the US-based Fellowship of Intentional Community (FIC), publishers of Communities magazine. In a Fall 1995 issue on “cults,” guest editor Tim Miller, a professor of religion at the University of Kansas, noted that when people call a community a “cult,” they’re really saying that they don’t like or understand the group’s beliefs and practices. Tim Miller and the FIC encourage people not to call intentional communities “cults,” which tends to slur all communities, but to just say “I don’t like them,” “I don’t understand them,” or “I strongly disagree with their methods,” if that’s the case. If you believe the group is lying, manipulative, and emotionally abusive, or that it is patriarchal and demeans women, the request is that you not refer to them as a “cult,” but, rather, call them a “lying, manipulative, emotionally abusive group” or a “patriarchal group that demeans women.” This is more straightforward, more truthful, and it doesn’t slur the communities movement in general. And if you fear that a group is harming its members, please don’t call them a “cult” — call the police.

So, to summarize, unlike with the Borg, you don’t get “assimilated” when you join a community. You have total control over which community you might join, and you can and should get abundant information about a community before you even consider joining it. In any case, if a community seems too high-demand or controlling for your taste when you read their literature or their website, you’ll know not to visit them. And if a community seems kind of strange when you’re already visiting, you don’t have to stay.

I’m afraid I won’t have enough privacy or autonomy.

In a well-planned community whose members value sustainability, people’s needs for privacy are built into the site plan and building design. To do otherwise would likely drive many people to leave the community — which of course wouldn’t make it sustainable! So most likely a community has planned, physically and socially, for its members’ needs for privacy.

Once in Fort Collins, Colorado, I observed a meeting of the then-forming Grayrock Commons Cohousing community. Chuck Durrett and Katie McCamant, the architects who brought cohousing to North America, were leading a session on the community’s overall site plan. Chuck was up at the front of the room with preliminary sketches of roads and clustered townhouse duplexes and triplexes. One couple had drawn their house across an internal road, at some distance from the other houses, because, the people said, they wanted to ensure their privacy. Chuck was describing to the group how the physical design of a site totally affects the social aspects of community life — one of the original principles of cohousing design. “Please don’t let the front porches of some housing units face into the backyards of other housing units because you’re seeking privacy,” he cautioned. “And please don’t separate out some units from the others. It won’t really create a sense of privacy but it will reduce the sense of community you’ll feel with the rest of the group.” Katie, who was in the back of the room next to me, leaned over and said that in all the cohousing communities they knew, they’d never once heard a complaint about the lack of privacy. But they sure had heard plenty of concerns about the lack of community!

Cohousing architects build privacy into their site plans and densely clustered buildings in several ways: by facing the fronts of the houses towards a common green, with all backyards facing into fields or woods, often with backyard fences; by placing the more public rooms like the kitchen and entry hall on the front of the units, not far from the pedestrian pathway, and placing the “private” areas such as living rooms and bedrooms on the back side of the units, closer to the backyard; by staggering the placement of each unit in a duplex or triplex so people don’t enter their homes all along the same fiat plane; by putting plenty of sound-proofing between shared walls; and by arranging exterior windows so people can’t see into the windows of adjacent buildings. Non-cohousing communities, usually those founded in the 1990s or later, often utilize similar processes for preserving privacy. However, this is not true at some alternative culture communities founded in the 1960s through 1980s. For example, some rural income sharing communities like Twin Oaks Community in Virginia and East Wind Community in Missouri don’t value privacy much when it comes to unisex shower- or toilet-using, and you’ll often find group shower facilities and two-seater outhouses. Communities built in those days didn’t value sound privacy much either, or perhaps didn’t know at the time how to build sound-deadening walls between living units. (However, more residences built in more recent years at Twin Oaks have taken significant care in sound-proofing between rooms.) And at Twin Oaks, most small group residences have bathrooms with an open-door policy. “It’s quite common for different members to be brushing their teeth, using the toilet, or bathing at the same time, and people will just walk into the bathroom regardless,” says longtime resident Valerie Renwick-Porter. “Sometimes we joke about ‘bathroom parties’ or ‘tooth-brushing parties’ if there are four or five people in there at once.”

But please realize that it’s you who will choose those ecovillages and communities you might want to visit, and those you might consider joining. You can certainly assess them for their practices, and consider only those that match your values. Of course there’s also social privacy, and one has much less of this in community than in mainstream culture, since in communities everyone pretty much knows everyone else’s business, very much like in a small town. But unlike a town, people have come together quite intentionally and with shared values and a common purpose. So, depending of course on the size of the community, the closeness or distance of the relationships, and the level of harmony, people’s interest in one another tends to be based more in concern and compassion than in mere curiosity or as fodder for gossip.

I don’t want to have to share incomes or give all my money to the community.

You don’t have to! Approximately 90 percent of intentional communities’ members have independent finances. As long as people pay what the community requires in annual dues and fees, they are free to work at any job they choose and spend or invest their income any way they like. The pervasive idea that in all communities people work at a community business for a stipend or that one’s outside salary goes into a common treasury with everyone else’s comes from the ’60s-era communes, fictional tales of community, and media accounts of some of the largest and most well-known income- sharing communities in North America such as Twin Oaks in Virginia, and (until they switched to independent incomes in 1984), The Farm in Tennessee. Roughly ten percent of the communities which listed themselves in the FIC’s online communities directory (in 2006) noted they were income-sharing. Many people also have the idea that you must donate all your assets to a community — and if you leave, you won’t get any of it back! This is only the case in some Christian communities. But again, it’s you who are in charge of which communities you’ll visit and consider, and so if donating all your assets doesn’t appeal to you, you have ample opportunity to avoid it.

What if we all can’t get along? I don’t want to live with a bunch of bad-tempered grumps.

There are many times when people in community don’t get along. Confiicts can simmer, erupt, and ultimately get resolved to most people’s satisfaction, leaving the whole group a bit wiser and more mature for having gone through it. Or confiicts can fester for years, spreading resentment or hostility between individuals or groups of individuals, leaving the community weakened and vulnerable to larger, more intense confiicts later on, just as a compromised immune system can result in having a lower-than-normal energy level and being vulnerable to opportunistic disease organisms. Or confiicts can explode and rip the whole community apart, with various members leaving, or even the whole community disbanding, sometimes leaving broken hearts and crippling lawsuits in the wake.

This is where your discernment is needed as you visit communities. You’ll want to assess communities for signs of health or imbalance, and get to know your top choices for a community home in a long, slow process of checking them out thoroughly, which I call “long engagements”. But let’s say the community you join is relatively healthy, yet you keep running into conflicts and difficulties with other people — and they with you. Welcome to the club! This is also what community is like, at least at first. There’s no place like community to meet yourself. That is, you’ll learn what does and doesn’t work well in terms of your own interpersonal communication skills. And you’ll most likely get better at getting along with even the “difficult” people, and grow enormously as a person.

Do I have to go nude?

No (unless you join a specifically clothing optional community, in which case, after all, it’s optional). The more counter-cultural or “alternative” the community, the more likely some people will be nude sometimes, particularly if they have a sauna, sweat lodge, hot tub, or swimming hole. But it’s very unlikely that a group would require members to be nude. If you’re wondering about this when you visit a community, ask them about their norms and expectations around nudity.

Do I have to go to a lot of meetings?

Probably, if it’s a small community. And if it’s small or large, you will want to attend meetings if you want to influence the decisions that will affect your life there. In many communities you may have options to not attend meetings, with the understanding that you’ll have to abide by the decisions the group makes in your absence. Many cohousing communities report that large numbers of their members don’t attend meetings, or don’t attend often. This can be looked at as “freedom” for individual cohousers, or a factor that can demoralize the group. Also, some rural communities in which each family or household owns their own property with a deed, and in which there’s relatively little community life beyond shared road maintenance and maybe a shared community building, tend to have fewer meetings than in more closely knit communities. In any case, the work of community self-governance can be exhilarating, tedious, and/or rewarding — and it’s usually time consuming.

What if I yearn to live in community but my partner doesn’t?

Then please don’t join one! In my experience watching couples struggle through this, moving to community even though one partner doesn’t really want to tends to make the unwilling person so miserable, and thus both people so miserable, that the couple leaves the community. Or they break up. If you can hardly bear living in mainstream culture and yearn for a simpler, or more ecologically sustainable, or more socially connected life, and your partner likes things just as they are, or finds the idea of community vaguely distasteful or repellant — you’ve got a huge issue in your relationship now. Staying where you are and being miserable won’t solve it. Moving to community won’t solve it.

I respectfully suggest deep, soul-searching communication between the two of you, and perhaps counseling, to resolve the issue. This may lead to your creating a mutually acceptable life in a way that will work for both of you — in community or not. Or it may lead to breaking up, so each of you can move on to the life path you most want. But please, don’t think moving to community without doing this work will resolve anything. It won’t!

Are intentional communities mostly middleclass white people? Are people of color welcome? Are there any communities comprised of people of color?

Most communities have a lot of white, middleclass, college-educated people. People from the owner class or working class are generally not found in community at the rates they exist in the wider culture, and one finds very few people of color from many socioeconomic backgrounds (though nearly all communities are open to people of color). Of course the demographic mix will vary from community to community depending on its structure, location, costs, and culture.

Some cohousing communities, especially in college towns, tend to have some members of Asian descent, or members born in Asian or Middle Eastern countries. Communities in highly urban areas, or progressive Christian communities focusing on social-justice activism, tend to be multi-racial, including Koinonia in Georgia, Ganas in Staten Island, New York, Los Angeles Eco-Village, Jesus People USA and Sophia communities in Chicago, Enright Ridge Ecovillage in Cincinnati, and Order of Christian Workers in Tyler, Texas, to name a few examples.

One couple I know, the man African-American, the woman Hispanic, told me they wouldn’t join a mostly white community, but want to start their own people-of-color community, which would include only those white people who had first seriously worked on transforming their own unconscious racism. I’ve also met people who are in the process of forming African-American intentional communities; however, I don’t know of any African-American or Hispanic intentional communities which are up and running already.

Are gays and lesbians welcome in community?

On the FIC’s Online Directory very few communities, mostly Christian, indicated that they were specially not open to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people as members. That said, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals should expect as wide a range of tolerance, acceptance, and enthusiasm for their presence at communities as they do in the wider culture. A few communities are focused on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered culture for those specially seeking such an environment.

Can “hermits” — people who need a lot of alone time — live in community?

Yes, depending on the community. In cohousing communities, and larger communities, there are usually so many different kinds of people that it’s natural that some will be shyer, quieter, and/or participate less often than others. However, in most communities, everyone is expected to contribute to the ongoing work of community life, so shy or reclusive people will need to come out sometimes to participate in workdays and other projects.

And although most cohousing communities prefer that everyone attends meetings and helps out in committees and work days, one does not literally have to as there are usually no enforceable consequences if one doesn’t. In smaller communities, though, it may not be acceptable to be reclusive, as everyone is expected to participate in meetings and work activities. Now that we’ve laid to rest some common misconceptions, what is it like to actually live in one of these places? In the next chapter we’ll take a look at a cohousing-style ecovillage on the outskirts of a progressive college town, as one example of community life.

Could my marriage or love relationship be threatened when my partner comes into daily contact with all those other attractive community members?

Don’t laugh; lots of people have this concern. The answer is yes. And no. It does happen that someone in a love relationship can become romantically attracted to someone else when they live in community, with all the attendant upset this can cause, but it’s difficult to say whether this happens more frequently or less frequently in community than in mainstream culture, where, after all, many partners also find themselves drawn to others.

We can make two generalizations, though. First, community, which serves as kind of “magnifying mirror” for one’s personal issues, tends to make strong relationships stronger, and shaky ones shake apart faster. Strong relationships get stronger because each person in the partnership can meet many of their social and recreational needs (to hang out with friends who love touch football, to hang out with friends who love chamber music) with a wide variety of others. This takes pressure off the relationship: each partner isn’t expected to meet all of their partner’s social and recreational needs. Also, if the couple is having conflict, plenty of community trained empathetic listeners and peer-counselors are nearby, not to mention the conflict resolution processes the community may offer members in need.

Conflicted relationships tend to become more stressed, however. This is because living in close, frequent contact with so many different personalities tends to bring one’s unresolved emotional issues and projections up to the surface, and intensify them. More than one communitarian has referred to community as a “crucible” or a “boiling cauldron.” This is not bad, just intense. Shaky relationships often can’t take the heat and break up sooner than they would have had the couple not moved to community. Another factor is that since people in community are less dependent on their partners for their social needs, they might feel more confident breaking up. They’re less afraid of being lonely if they do. Second, if a couple breaks up, neither necessarily has to leave the community. Impartial, kindly community mates can often help both partners heal more quickly, and come to a place of acceptance.

More from Finding Community:

Excerpted with permission from Finding Communityby Diana Leafe Christian. Published by New Society Books, © 2007.