What existing communities teach us about new ones

When i first came to Twin Oaks, my plan was to learn how communities worked (or didn’t) and go back to eastern Europe and start an activist community with my lover Alyson.  Of course, it worked out nothing like that.

What i knew going in was that if you wanted to start a community you should learn from the people who are already doing it, by living in an existing community, so you dont unnecessarily recreate the wheel or other devices.  What i thought i was coming to learn about at Twin Oaks University was the decision models and how communities make money.  i figured, if i understood these two things i would have the most important aspects of community down.  As is so often the case, i was completely wrong.


Artist rendition of campus of Twin Oaks University - not

What i learned was that the Twin Oaks decision model was hopelessly broken and that the businesses earned well below the minimum wage.  And i discovered that this was not the most important stuff of community.

What is important is how you handle gossip and the type of culture you create.  Gossip?  Really?  Oh, i could fluff it up and say “interpersonal communication techniques”, but gossip is actually the most important part of this larger field.  What i discovered is that Twin Oaks had actually been thru a couple of different sets of agreements around gossip.  For the first many years of the community is was, as we say, “not okay” to gossip about anyone in the community, unless you were willing (and planned to) deliver this message to them directly yourself.

The community bylaws have directives that member of the community are supposed to be “kind and fair” and understandably, this was interpreted to mean that gossiping was outside of our agreements.  Then perhaps a decade or two into the communities life there came a crowd that objected to this restriction, claiming that this was a restriction of free speech and that members should be able to talk about anything (or anyone) that they wished to.  The young Turks prevailed and the community culture shifted.  While members are often encouraged to express their critiques or dissatisfaction with other members to them directly, it is not the cultural expectation that they will do so.

But the bigger cultural question is one of what does the community value.  Does it think parenting is important? How does it embrace kids in public spaces?  What is the work ethic?  How important are parties and holidays?  Does the community make up its own holidays (in this Twin Oaks excels actually)?  What is the spirit of cooperation like?  Do people share well (here again we excel)?  Do members strive to resolve their differences?  What is the policy/cultural norms around members in conflict needing to resolve (this Twin Oaks is a disaster in and Acorn took a totally different approach because of it)?

There is lots to say about all these things in the context of my current community and ones we might like to build, good material for pending posts.  Stay tuned  – or better yet, throw your two cents into the comment section of this blog.