Why Do Intentional Communities Matter?

Friday, June 24, 2016: 10:45 AM-12:15 PM
201 Moses (Moses Hall)
Sky Blue, Fellowship for Intentional Community, Louisa, VA
Betsy Morris, Cohousing California, Berkeley, CA
Intentional communities have been working to address major social issues since the early nineteenth century, and since 1987 the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) has been their primary resource and proponent in the US. A variety of models for intentional community exist, including housing co-operatives, ecovillages, and cohousing. New experiments in shared living pop up all the time, seeking to create alternatives to mainstream lifestyles that are increasingly recognized as problematic on multiple levels.

Twin Oaks Community is one of the flagships of the intentional communities movement, and has been an active social and economic experiment since 1967. The community usually has about 90 adults and 15 children, sharing finances, running businesses, managing a small scale farm, sharing housing, a fleet of vehicles, and covering all other basic needs, including health and dental, collectively. No money is exchanged internally; all work is valued equally and is organized through a labor system. By contributing 42 hours per week members have full access to the resources and governance of the community.

Egalitarianism is one of Twin Oaks’ core values. In this context, egalitarianism can be defined as equal access to resources and decision-making, but the most practical expression of this value is income sharing. Income sharing allows for the creation of an internal economy that allows members to essentially be paid (through labor credits) to do work that otherwise wouldn't be compensated.

Income-sharing leads to intensive resource sharing, which in turn means the community needs less income to enjoy a roughly middle-class lifestyle. On average members only work about 15 hours per week in the communities businesses. The rest of their 42 hours goes towards cooking, cleaning, child care, gardening, the dairy, community governance and management, activities that people have do on top of a 40 hour work week and don't get paid for.

It's something of an accident that Twin Oaks is also a very environmentally friendly community, consuming and wasting a third or less (and sometimes a lot less) than the same number of average Americans. Environmentalism is written into the bylaws, and it is very important to many members, but the real reason Twin Oaks is “eco” is simply because of the intensive level of resource sharing.

The other important benefit to intensive sharing is intimacy. The more economically intertwined a community is, the more people have to deal with each other, the closer they become. It takes interpersonal skill and maturity, as well as robust organizational structures that can weather major conflicts. Trust, responsibility, accountability, and communication are skills one learns quickly in community (sometimes the hard way).

Twin Oaks is an important model, but what defines an intentional community? First, let’s ask, what defines community? Do strip malls called things like Springfield Community Center count? What about online communities? Is a city a community, or is it a collection of communities? Here’s one possible definition:

A community is a network of social and economic relationships and the places where those relationships interact.

Living in proximity, as in a suburban neighborhood, does not a community make. There’s no economic exchange and little social engagement. Condominium developments come closer, where it’s common to have public facilities, usually in the context of a Homeowners Association (HOA). Community is often used to as a label by and for people in a city or locale that are struggling together against some form of inequality or oppression. In these cases there usually is a strong network of social relationships, and often quite a bit of non-monetized economic exchange (e.g. sharing childcare duties so people can go to meetings or demonstrations.) Community is tangible; community is cohesive; community brings people together in ways that allow them to do things they couldn’t have done in isolation. Within this context, here is a definition for intentional community:

An intentional community has a shared purpose and set of values; the people who live in it are economically entwined to some degree; membership is defined and there is a process for becoming a member.

It’s important that a group articulate their purpose and values, but this doesn’t need to be a formal Vision/Mission statement. It could be entirely oral, but it needs to be present and understood in the discourse and culture of the community. 

Similarly, the economic exchange could be minimal, like a shared washer and dryer, or commonly used kitchenware. Generally, intentional communities are typified by shared ownership of property. Usually there are common facilities, with the maintenance and upkeep paid for and managed by the members.

The membership aspect is perhaps the key distinction for intentional communities. As opposed to a suburban neighborhood where you just buy a house and move in, intentional communities have a process by which they decide who gets to move in, or at least who becomes a member and what it means to be a member (i.e. rights and responsibilities). Condominiums with HOAs approach this. Cohousing communities have more developed versions of HOAs, although they may not have control over who moves in.

People want more community. When people are more socially satisfied they seek consumption and entertainment less. This has both an ecological and a financial benefit. It’s cheaper and wastes less resources. Intentional community has the potential to be a model for elevating poverty and homelessness. It also has the potential to model how people can increase the control they have over the circumstances of their daily lives. This intersection of social, economic, and ecological concerns is key, especially for younger generations.

Intentional communities, especially radical versions like Twin Oaks are not going to work for everyone. It’s not a comprehensive blueprint for restructuring society. But they provide a model for how people can collectively ensure that their needs will be met in a way that is sustainable, equitable, and satisfying. Intentional communities aren’t the answer, but they are a piece of the answer.