Thoughts On The Art of Community Southwest

June 2, 2008 at 12:25 pm (amazing things, stupidity)

Got back from the conference yesterday afternoon. I’m not quite sure where to start in writing about it.

We had a great time. The workshops were awesome — even better than we’d expected. We learned a lot there. Most valuably, I think we got a much clearer picture of the work that lies ahead of us in starting an intentional community. It’s a truly enormous amount of work — we learned the adage that it’s like getting married, starting a small business, and taking the most challenging personal growth course of your life, all at the same time. (Actually, it’s not so much “like” that as it, you know, actually is that.) But we left feeling energized and inspired and overall in love. We bought Creating A Life Together by Diana Leafe Christian,** which is, as far as we can tell, the essential handbook for community founders. I’m a few chapters in; all four of us are going to read it. It’s a great book already. Do read it if you’re thinking about this kind of thing.

We also learned about the many options for community structure, from ecovillages to cohousing. We’re not yet sure what structure is right for us — that depends a lot on the state of the world (will cities be safe places in ten or twenty years? will we have to grow our own food?), how many members we end up with, and where we all are in our lives.

Among other insights: the phrase “accidental family” is more accurate for us than “intentional community.” We’re among the youngest seriously forming groups around, but lots of people get land and get started shortly after college (like we’d like to). We’re more insular than a lot of other groups, just because of our personal dispositions. It’s very important to have shared values and goals; fortunately, we’re very, very cohesive. It’s very important to love, trust, and understand each other; fortunately, we do. It’s very important to be able to acknowledge differences and deal with conflict; fortunately, so far, we can and do. It’s very important to clearly articulate one’s group’s mission — we’re working on it. Etc., etc. I think a lot of the challenges that some groups face will be relatively simple for us, since we’re all such close friends. We’re different in a lot of ways, but remarkably similar in others (values, priorities, aesthetic preferences). I’m sure we’ll have difficult struggles of our own; many of the interpersonal ones, however, were worked out already, or are far along in the process of being worked out.

Onto the pitfalls and challenges.

Because we were around a large group of overall New Agey people much older than ourselves, we knew from past experience that there was the risk of inappropriate sexual/emotional interactions. We were aware of this ahead of time and decided to travel as a pack or in pairs for self-protection. There were disturbing a few incidents, but we managed to make sure no one got seriously freaked out. This is my rant about all that:

You may be a very open person — that’s great. Do not assume all other people are similarly “open,” or have interest in intimately connecting with you. Not everyone is looking for profound, intimate emotional encounters with strangers. Don’t touch people without asking. If the other person(s) are obviously uncomfortable and you continue pushing them to share themselves with you, you are being a creep. You are not being kind or enlightened — you are being inappropriate. You are being inconsiderate. You are being rude.*

Whew. Also, young straight single males: please get over your pervasive assumption that all pretty girls are heterosexual and available. Seriously.

Also, there was a good deal of talk about “spirituality,” which is to be expected, but nonetheless of absolutely no interest to any of us. We came up with an excellent trick, though: mentally replace “spirituality” with “sexuality” whenever it comes up, and you end up with funny statements that actually match our values.

“Sexual fulfillment is an important issue for communities.”

“Make sure everyone’s sexual needs are met.”

Etc.

There’s more to say, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

* I want to note that there were a lot of fascinating people there, with whom we very much enjoyed talking. This applies only to a small handful of truly disrespectful people.

** I originally linked to Amazon out of habit; changed the link when Tony commented below, reminding me that one can buy books from the FIC’s community bookshelf online.

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21 Comments

  1. Jessie said,

    This is a good overview of our experience dear.

    While I knew we’d be encountering some New Agey people, I was very happy to find so many normal, balanced, down-to-earth people at the conference. Unfortunately, a few bad apples can ruin the bunch (/make us feel unsafe), but I feel like I would’ve liked to hang out with a lot of the participants. I’m glad we spent our energy protecting each other though.

    I feel like I found a path to follow this weekend. Yay!

  2. Daisy said,

    Yeah, I would’ve liked to hang out more with some of the other people too — something to keep in mind for the future.

  3. Emily said,

    It’s certainly not too late to make more contact with some of the people we did enjoy meeting, especially those from this area.

  4. Tyler said,

    I’ll be the community drunk.

  5. Tyler said,

    “Don’t touch people without asking.”

    This is why I can’t dance with women in the clubs when the music is too loud to ask. Next time, I’ll bring a cardboard sign saying “Can I touch you?”

  6. Daisy said,

    Tyler, a club is a completely different situation, with completely different norms, from strangers getting acquainted.

  7. Tyler said,

    I don’t know what your exact situation was but were the females breaking these boundaries as well as the males?

  8. Tyler said,

    True Daisy, but from your perspective should the same level of respect for each other’s bodies be carried into a club?

  9. Daisy said,

    I think you’re confusing two separate things. Firstly, there was the inappropriate behavior of some New Agey people — both men and women — to whom I directed the statement, “Don’t touch people without asking.”

    Secondly, I complained about the inappropriate behavior of some young men. On a very regular basis, young guys flirt with my girlfriend despite her extremely obvious discomfort and the fact that I’m standing right next to her glaring at them. These guys are invariably creepy and rude. (If they weren’t creepy and rude, they would notice that their interest wasn’t being in any way reciprocated.)

    As for clubs, it’s not my scene, but I’m under the impression that people usually go out to them with the intention of dancing with other people. Respecting others’ bodies in that context might mean, rather than asking to dance (if the music is really too loud for that), going away if asked, and avoiding copious groping.

  10. Tyler said,

    Maybe you should get a big tall guy friend to say to those creeps “If you don’t have anything interesting to say, please go away because she’s taken.” This would be a solution to your girlfriend’s affliction.

    I don’t usually get this heavy, but I had minor surgery yesterday and I’m all doped up on some oxycodone so pardon me if I’m getting too personal.

  11. Daisy said,

    I’d really rather that people know that my girlfriend is with me, not some random tall guy…

    Good luck with your recovery from surgery. Being on oxycodone is pretty unpleasant, in my experience.

  12. Tyler said,

    “I’d really rather that people know that my girlfriend is with me, not some random tall guy…” AHhaha, duh! I didn’t think of that one.

  13. Tyler said,

    Please excuse me Daisy. I have alot to learn in this area.

  14. Emily said,

    “I’d really rather that people know that my girlfriend is with me, not some random tall guy…”

    Yeah, Tyler, the whole point is that Daisy and her girlfriend are deserving of basic respect of boundaries unto themselves, as is everybody, in any situation. In this case specifically, despite the pervasive assumptions Daisy has noticed and notes in the post.

    I second her well-wishing concerning your recovery.

  15. Tony said,

    I’m glad y’all got some good stuff out of the conference and sorry it was at times too new-agey for you and I’m really sorry some people were rude.

    As someone who helped put on the conference I too felt that some touchy-feely stuff was too much at some points, especially for people who just met each other. The thing is some people love that stuff so its hard to please all people all the time. Ideally we’d find ways to allow people to participate at whatever level they feel comfortable and that don’t make anyone else feel uncomfortable. While that is no simple task your feedback is welcome and we’ll try to find a better balance next time.

    I also wanted to mention that if anyone is nterested in Diana Christian’s book you might consider buying it at the FIC’s online store: http://store.ic.org/catalog/product_info.php?cPath=34_45&products_id=73 and you might check out her website at http://www.dianaleafechristian.org.

    As for rude guys, unfortunately the communities scene still has many of the same issues as the wider culture where we all come from. People come to community wanting more connection in their lives but that doesn’t mean they always have the social skills to make connections in healthy ways.

    As for starting communities when you are young — go for it! We got started on Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in college and we were on the land when i was only 25.

    And if you ever want to hang out with some eco-feminist vegans come visit us in Missouri.

  16. Raines Cohen, Cohousing Coach said,

    It was great to meet you all at the conference – thanks so much for introducing yourselves.

    While I’m glad you got some good connections, information, and resources there, I’m very sorry that your predictions were fulfilled by a few of the hundreds of people there in terms of unwanted attention, ignorance of cues, and un-permissioned touching.

    Any “alternative” events can be more likely to draw people from many different communities (and people who find they can’t fit into our default society or any culture), some of which have different standards for interpersonal interaction. How far do we need to go in defining the standards of the space? Should we administer some kind of social-functioning test before we let people in the door? I can imagine the sign: “You must be this well-behaved to enter the building”.

    If simply stating your preference didn’t have the desired result, did you let the conference organizers know? I’m confident they would have taken appropriate action (including ejecting anyone interfering with other participants’ experiences from the conference, with the help of UNM student union staff and police if necessary) … some of them are experienced, trained facilitators or mediators with decades of experience managing behaviors in their communities, and have many tools at hand… I don’t know if you realized how many folks were there “looking out for you” and available to take on that energy so you could relax and more-fully participate and enjoy the event.

    Raines
    (who sincerely hopes that I’m in Jessie’s latter category [“normal, balanced, down-to-earth’], not the former)

    Cohousing Coach and FIC boardmember
    (speaking for myself, not on behalf of the organization, although your feedback has already been brought to the attention of the event organizers, who probably could use some inspiration on how to effectively set standards without policing individual interpersonal interactions, which would put quite a damper on the very-effective networking that took place there between community members, organizers, dreamers, and prospects)

    Living at Berkeley Cohousing but currently at Hummingbird Ranch, Mora, NM

  17. Daisy said,

    Hi Tony!

    Yeah, I’d imagine it’s tough to strike a balance between the desire for touchy-feeliness and discomfort with it. And again, on the whole, the conference was excellent. We couldn’t have asked for better workshops.

    And about the rude guys, yeah, that’s absolutely a larger cultural problem — it would happen in almost any group.

    My friends and I are planning on doing one or more big community-visiting trips in the next few years, so we probably will take you up on that offer if we end up in your neck of the woods. : )

  18. Daisy said,

    Hello Raines! Firstly, you’re very much in “normal, balanced, down-to-earth” category, as were all the others organizers, workshop leaders, and nearly all the other participants.

    I’m confident they would have taken appropriate action (including ejecting anyone interfering with other participants’ experiences from the conference, with the help of UNM student union staff and police if necessary) … some of them are experienced, trained facilitators or mediators with decades of experience managing behaviors in their communities, and have many tools at hand… I don’t know if you realized how many folks were there “looking out for you” and available to take on that energy so you could relax and more-fully participate and enjoy the event.

    I don’t know that we did realize just how much others were looking out for us (and the other participants), but it never got to the point that we felt the need to take that kind of action. As you mentioned, these sorts of events attract people with a wide range of behavioral norms — there’s decent a chance that no objectionable intentions were at play. The easiest, fairest thing (for everyone involved) was simply to walk away, so that’s what we did. If we had ever felt truly unsafe, we would have taken bigger action. Since we just felt uncomfortable and awkward, though, disengaging was enough. We’re from Santa Fe, of course — we’ve spent our whole lives amongst similar groups and are pretty good at maintaining our boundaries.

  19. Jessie said,

    I will second Daisy in saying that all the people involved in putting on the conference were awesome.

    The following is not to be taken as feedback to the organizers, but rather as an account of a personal experience I am processing.

    I had a traumatic experience with a dominant personality type who believed breaking down all boundaries (non-consensually) is the only way to truly connect with others. It was at a sustainability conference when I met this person and so when preparing for ACSW I warned my friends there would probably be a few people like this there.

    We would not have encountered these people if it had not been for the Opening Ceremony led by Margo. In the exercises she led we were asked to connect intimately with other participants. I really like connecting with people, so I walked around the room, when instructed stopped and looked into someone’s eyes and appreciated them. While there was a slightly awkward tension in the room, I felt pretty comfortable so I kept going and looked into another person’s eyes (an organizer’s) and this was also fine, so I kept going.

    The next woman who I stopped in front of had tears in her eyes but held eye contact with me for a good 30 seconds (as did my other ‘partners’), she also initiated holding hands with me. While this was going on I was thinking about having compassion for this woman and opening myself for connection with her. Well…. wow, after disengaging with her I had to go sit down at my table where my friends had sat down as well because they felt uncomfortable. I felt drained, started having depressive thoughts and laid my head down to sob for several minutes. I believe I had come into contact with some very unbalanced energy.

    I consented to this exercise and don’t blame anyone for the experience. I felt fine in the morning after sleeping it off and reconnecting with my comrades. But I know now not to open myself up to a stranger in a similar situation, should it come up.

  20. Diana Leafe Christian said,

    Dear Jesse, Daisy, Emily, and Tyler,

    Thank you for recommending my book. I hope you find it really useful.
    Raines told me about your blog. At the last FIC Art of Community Gathering I attended, which was in Seattle in 2005, almost the first thing the conference organizers did was have a touchy feeling exercise. Turn to the person next to you and gaze into their eyes, feel them deeply, etc. I and some of my friends left the hall, and then watched dozens of people pour our the doors into the lobby for relief from too-forced, too-soon, too-fake intimacy. I think some people are really lonely so they come to these events to feel a sense of community, and exercises like this may help them do it. And. . . may make others feel creeped out.
    Here’s what I do in my two-day workshops. First morning we stand in a circle for the opening. No mush.

    At the end of that day we stand in a circle again. I ask people to hold hands if they’re willing. (asking, not telling).By that time they’ve been in a workshop for 8 hours, seen each other say and do funny things, had lunch together.

    The next morning we stand in a circle and hold hands and sing a song. The mushiness level gradually increases.

    By the end of the second day we stand in a circle and I ask if we can put our arms around each other’s waists and shoulders. Everyone does. We sing a song. Takes 16 hours for us to do the old KumBaya-type campfire thing, and by that time everyone’s happy to do it. They’re high and happy, I’m high and happy, and the workshop was a small and temporary short-term bonding experience. But the hand-holding, arms-around-shoulders, singing thing has to be gradual, and matched to the pace of the getting-to-know-you.

    So at the last Art of Community gathering I felt sad, and embarrassed for the conference hosts. I wanted them to do it better.

    Where do you women live? Where are you starting your community? I wish you all the best of luck. And thanks, Raines, for sending me to this blog. :)

    Diana Leafe Christian

  21. Daisy said,

    Hello, Diana! Welcome to the blog. I’m very excited to see (read) you here, since I’m in the thick of your book right this moment. It’s exactly the book I was looking for. I’m trying to get through it quickly so that all my friends can read it, too.

    I think you hit the nail on the head about what made that opening ceremony experience unpleasant for some of us and outright disturbing for others. I’m all for providing opportunities for connection — but they have to be opportunities, not requirements (or tacit requirements).

    We live in Santa Fe, and, so far, have a core group of three (very young) women and one (very young) man — me, Emily, Jessie, and our friend Brenden, who joined us at the conference but hasn’t participated in this thread. (Tyler is a reader of ours.) We are all in college right now, and planning on creating a residential community in several years after we’ve finished school. We don’t know where we’ll settle yet. There are a few x-factors, including global warming and jobs.

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