a14 – Living and working in intentional communities

By Valerie Oaks

When I was a 24-year old queer feminist looking for somewhere to land in this life, a crashed car and random memory were my unexpected allies. My road trip ended in a crushed engine, my traveling companions went back home to Canada but I remembered a place that had caught my interest a year or so back. I ended up moving to a 100-person commune / ecovillage in Virginia. This was my introduction to the world of intentional communities (ICs).

ICs are groups of people who have chosen to live together and share some level of resources. In my community Twin Oaks, we are on one far end of the spectrum—we radically share most aspects of our lives. I live in a house with 22 long-term people, no-one has their own car, and we all work in our communally-owned businesses, making nationally-distributed organic tofu and hammocks. Stereo-typed cliches? Yes! But that is really how the community has earned it’s income for several decades.

In general, being part of a worker-owned co-op is great, because YOU have control over how things are done. You can set economically-just pay rates, choose more ecologically-sustainable materials and create an all-gender-friendly workplace environment. No-one else is making those choices for you.

In ICs, that level of choice can be extended to all other areas of life. People can eat organic food the collective grew under healthy conditions for both the earth and the people doing the work, child-care can be shared equitably, and everyone can have quality housing provided. Using cooperation in the face of a polarized world in which different demographics are pitted against each other is a powerful political tool.

There are ICs all over the world, of all different styles, but there are several general categories: (and a group can fall into more than one of these categories)

Income-Sharing: groups that hold their income, land, and other resources in common. The group takes bottom-line responsibility for meeting the needs of its’ members and members generally work full-time in the community. Income-sharing ICs are rare, as mainstream society provides strong cultural training to be economically individualistic.

Ecovillages: groups that hold ecological sustainability higher than other priorities. They may be off-grid, or live in houses made using natural-building techniques, or be car-free. Often they are rural but they can also be near or in urban areas.

Co-Housing: a sort of “alt-suburban” version of IC living. People have individual incomes but live in clustered, lower-impact dwellings that are designed to facilitate a high amount of social interaction and collaborative activities among neighbours. Often there are some group meals each week.

Spiritual Communities: most commonly these are eastern-religion ashram-style, or Judeo-Christian of a variety of types which can be more traditional like the Bruderhof, or radical social justice activists like the Catholic Workers, or their own creation like the Twelve Tribes. In some cases, these can be more hierarchical than other ICs.

Life-Sharing: communities whose primary focus is integrating people with development disabilities with chromosomally-typical people. They may focus on healthy, body-mind-spirit-integrated living for all members. Camphill and L’Arche communities are the best-known.

Garden-Variety IC: many many ICs, perhaps the majority, are composed of a group of people who choose to live together on shared land or in a house, and have developed a set of agreements or policies about how they will live together. This can be a household of 4 people, a dozen people who own several adjacent houses, 60 people who have houses on a big plot of land or any one of literally hundreds of similar arrangements. The methods that people use to organize themselves are endlessly diverse.

Also a quick word about “Co-Living”: while this new trend of groups of often-millenials sharing housing and work space may work for some people, it is far from the classic IC model. Co-Living spaces are often owned by outside interests and operate on a strong for-profit model, in the guise of “contemporary urban community”.

Want to find out more? Check out these umbrella organizations or look up the communities mentioned above by name.

Federation of Egalitarian Communities: a network of communities that value non-violence, cooperation, income-sharing, and egalitarianism. thefec.org