State of the Network Address 2016

Point A has been busily working since it’s inception in July 2014 to cultivate a network of ambitious engaged egalitarian income sharing urban communes in the cities of the East Coast (just like it says in our tagline). In that time we’ve expanded from an idea being talked about by three people to an actual project operating in four cities with communes launched and launching. We’ve picked up hundreds of friends, allies, and curious onlookers (in person, via the newsletter, and via Facebook). We’ve started to meet people who have already heard of us by the time we get to them. Obviously, this is an idea worth spreading.

We’d like to take this moment, much like our President, to report on the state of the network.

 

Point A DC

Point A DC was the first branch of the project to get started and for the last two years we’ve been slowly and steadily building the foundation for a brand new commune. At this point, we have five people ready to make the leap of faith and become the founding members of the commune. With help from the University of DC Community Development Law Clinic we’ve set up a legal framework for organizing the commune. Our property search has yielded a few promising possibilities that we have been doggedly pursuing. With the help of The Keep we have hosted a long string of meetings, discussions, and visits by other communards who have shared their wisdom and experience with us (if we must make mistakes, after all, we’d rather they be novel and interesting mistakes). We have our first retreat coming up next weekend to bring together the founding group, other potential members, and a few allies to push this thing into existence.

We continue to seek new members and new allies. Shoot us an email or plan on coming by one of our meetings, evening discussions, or book club meetings (see calendar for schedule).

Point A NYC (or PANYNY)

Point A NYC continues to slowly build momentum towards creating an income sharing community within the 5 boroughs. Over the past couple of years we have done numerous meetings at collective houses as well as mini-communities conferences and public presentations on topics related to community living. Ganas Community on Staten Island has been the host of several of these talks and continues to support the Point A project by hosting out of town activists who regularly come visit.

Point A NYC continues to work with Smiling Hogs Head Ranch (SHHR), an urban gardening project in Long Island City (which is in Queens). We have worked together on SHHR’s visioning exercise which was held at the Flux Factor in Queens as well as introducing people to the project.

Point A NYC is working using an ACT model: Agitation, Creation, and Teaching. We are supporting anti-gentrification efforts in the city, as well as making sure our own efforts to build community do not exacerbate this problem. In creation mode we are helping new residential community projects get started, specifically we have worked with Catalyst Community and the Fae also on Staten Island. Our teaching profile includes the many workshops we offer from Community in Crisis to Transparency Tools.

Quercus Community (Point A Richmond VA)

Quercus community has been in action since October 2015. We continue to organize educational and cultural events, host Food Not Bombs RVA, participate in ASWAN, a homeless-led coalition group, make improvements to our post-punk house using mostly palette wood and other salvaged materials, and more. We aspire to demonstrate less energy consumptive systems and appliances in an urban setting, such as our bicycle powered wash machine and associated laundry to landscape greywater system (pictured below) and heating the house solely with wood from palettes. Some future projects we’d like to work on include finishing our attic with palette wood for greater DIY/maker space, movement room, and a free store; building a 55-gallon drum biodigester to turn excess compost generated from Food Not Bombs into methane to cook with; and building a bike-powered cell-phone charging station for laptops and cellphones. Upcoming events include a Transparency Tools workshop (Jan. 20th), a Non-Violent Commuication work group (every Thursday), and a house show/benefit dinner Jan. 27th. Find us on Facebook for most up-to-date info.

Emmett and Dustin pose by their newly completed bicycle powered wash machine

Emmett and Dustin pose by their newly completed bicycle powered wash machine

Darles cooking for Food Not Bombs

Darles cooking for Food Not Bombs

Baltimore Free Farm (Point A Baltimore MD)

Baltimore Free Farm has been working hard to renovate the house we purchased (as Horizontal Housing) back in May, that’s how we’ve been spending most of our time these last few months! We are moving right along, we hope to be finished in February. Besides working on the house, we’ve been expanding our food rescue efforts. As you may know, we have been hosting Food Not Bombs in our space, and have now expanded the project from one day per week to three days per week! We hosted a number of events this fall including an acorn flour making workshop, and film screenings on gentrification and honeybees. We are excited for the upcoming growing season as we delve more and more into permaculture and medicinal herbs!

Upcoming events:
Volunteer work parties on the Horizontal Housing project, experience or not, we’d love your help! Various days and times, call 443-453-6780 if interested.
Baltimore Free Farm’s 5th Annual Fancy Dinner is on January 29th from 5-9pm. Yummy food and libations, live music, and raffle and auction prizes! Tickets available at our website www.baltimorefreefarm.org

Drywall gets hung in Middle House

Drywall gets hung in Middle House

Kenny and crew cooking for Food Not Bombs

Kenny and crew cooking for Food Not Bombs

The Throw Away Society

The DC Chapter of Point A is moving rapidly towards the birth of the first commune. As we approach the moment of our launch we’re hammering out the foundational mechanics for our group. And arguably the most foundational, most essential policies are for membership and expulsion: how people are included and excluded. Thinking about expulsion is not a fun topic and many democratic and collective groups don’t really think about it. Some (like Kommune Niederkaufungen in Germany, apparently) seem to get on just fine for years. For other groups, not having thought much about expulsion eventually causes a conflict to blow up into an explosive crisis and, with an unfortunate frequency, destroy the group.

A community is a web of relationships, and a healthy community reinforces and weaves those relationships thicker and tighter. The complexity and strength of this web is the source of the value and power behind a vibrant community: it brings meaning to our lives, it enriches us socially, and it gives us access to support and assistance when we need it. It can include our closest allies, collaborators, audience, and friends. But it’s the very importance of our community that makes it that much more painful when an assault or serious breach of trust occurs within it. The bigger we are, as it were, the harder we fall.

When a member of our community hurts us or breaks our trust, it is common and reasonable to want them to leave and never come back. Maybe we fear that they’ll hurt us again, or maybe seeing them reminds us of the pain they’ve caused us, or maybe we feel like they’ve broken their side of the social compact and so don’t deserve membership any more. However, in a deep and vibrant community, and especially one with any history, ostracizing a member is messy because inevitably important relationships exist between other members and the perpetrator of the offense, relationships which are not destroyed by the offense. If the aftermath of a serious offense is not handled with sensitivity and care to all sides, it is all too easy for the community to divide into camps and begin to attack itself. If the perpetrator is ostracized and their remaining relationships are not honored, then damage can cascade through the web that is the community. That damage can cause other members to lose their faith in the community’s ability or desire to care for them and frequently results in an exodus of people from all sides of a conflict.

Additionally, although ostracism is sometimes appropriate, it often has the same problem as the throw away society that it resembles: it assumes that there’s an “away” where you can throw people where they won’t do harm (much like we assume there’s an “away” where we can throw trash where it won’t do harm). That’s not always true and if we don’t deal with the root cause of the offense and the perpetrator has not taken on the project of self-reflection and change we want them to then we might just be passing our problem on down the line to the next community they end up in. Similarly, this “throw away justice” assumes that the person who has committed the offense is no longer of value. They are trash and not worth saving.

napolean in exile

In light of all this serious thought about the process of expulsion is of obvious value. Especially knowing that often when an offense occurs emotions run high, people are in pain, and quick and skillful action is necessary to prevent harm from spiraling out of control. It can be difficult or even impossible to conceive of, design, and execute such a response if it has not been discussed by the community in advance. When we design such a process, then, there are a few deep questions we need to consider. If we choose to not just get rid of people whenever they harm someone, how do we respond to offenses in a way that takes care of the whole community and leaves us stronger and better people on the other side? When and why is the work to do that beyond our ability and how can we tell? If it is beyond our ability… what do we do then?

Merely a Trellis

The desirability and use of consensus decision making is widespread these days on the radical left and is nearly universally used at the newer communes (one of two brilliant techniques Acorn stole shamelessly from the Quakers). For people concerned with consent, freedom, autonomy, and agency, consensus decision making is a likely optimal.

However, on its face consensus is a totally ridiculous way to make decisions. Think about trying to decide what movie to watch with a group of friends or, gosh, think of the US congress doing anything and the idea that nothing can be decided unless everyone agrees sounds like madness, a recipe for disaster. And yet, the experience of the communes I know who use it (and that’s communes up to 80 members large) is that it works brilliantly and smoothly. Major decisions are regularly discussed and made quickly and painlessly. Surprisingly complex operations (combining housing, food, accounting, businesses, grounds, childcare, etc etc) are run and managed with only a couple hours of meeting a week. And that is where we begin to see the answer to our riddle. As my friends at Las Indias noted, consensus is clearly the best decision making system available and yet it is important to also think of it as the decision making system of last resort.

 

Like the finger pointing at the moon, the consensus process itself is not our aim. Our aim is to cultivate a community of empowered, empathetic, free people who are working with the collective good in mind and who are always looking for the clever solutions that work best for everyone, consulting with each other as necessary to accomplish this. The consensus process is merely a Trellis that pushes us to grow, as members of the community, into the shapes that are our true aim. It pushes us this way by cutting off all other options for making the things that are important to us happen. In a consensus run group, if we want to have our way in the world we need to develop empathy for others, deep listening skills, trust in each other, and a dedication to finding the creative solution that works for everybody. There is no other way.

The commune is a particularly fertile ground for this work because by collectivizing our work and our lives, making the consensus process work becomes essential to our happiness and our ability to get things done. And of course, even if our goal is to cultivate a community that can act and make most decisions without the need for everyone to sit down together there will likely always be reasons to meet: novel situations we need to consider deeply, big commitments that we need to be very sure of, and the building of relationships and our sense as a group. In fact, the decisions that are nearly impossible in a consensus process are precisely the decisions that cost nothing if they are not made, the ones people can walk away from: what to name the group, what color to paint the room, what movie to watch tonight.

In this light, maybe the US congress would work better if it used consensus after all. There’s a garden that could use cultivation and trellising.

Two Year Anniversary

We’re coming up now on the two year mark. It was Dec 28th, 2013, when we convened a motley crew of 20 people from our East Coast network at The Keep here in DC for the inaugural meeting of Point A. At the time we thought it’d be hard to find people interested in doing something as crazy and intense as trying to start a fully income sharing urban commune with an ambitious program of community support and radical transformative social change. Boy were we wrong. Two years later we’re operating in four cities on the East Coast, are being asked to operate in two more, and might have accidentally helped inspire a commune on the West Coast (oops!). With so many things happening and on the verge of happening it seemed like a good time to start putting out a newsletter.

Back in January I moved up to DC from Acorn Community in Virginia to be an on the ground organizer for the DC Point A commune. I’m a living example of the communes’ ability to easily support members in their unpaid activism: Acorn has given me a year of economic support in which to organize the DC commune so I can throw my all into the project without worrying about supporting myself at the same time. As I come to the end of that year it looks like we’re on track to have a new commune spun up for me to slide smoothly into. Over the last year a lot has happened. I’ve organized or spoken at events here in DC, over in Baltimore at the Baltimore Free Farm, all the way up in NYC, and even, enchantingly, in Madrid and Gijón. We’ve doubled the size of the core group in DC, gotten the word out to scores of people, gotten the UDC Community Development Law Clinic to help us figure out how to incorporate, lined up financing, and found and started negotiations on a few likely properties. Most importantly the core group has been meeting regularly, building relationships with each other, and figuring out what sort of culture and community we are interested in cultivating at the commune.

Although there are many obvious differences between urban and rural communes (as well a many similarities) there’s one big difference I wasn’t expecting when we started this project. At the beginning, when Paxus and I put together our dream list of initial recruits we included people from all over the East Coast assuming that we’d get together, pick a place to start, and all move there. What we were told in that first meeting was exactly the opposite: people wanted to build communal communities in the cities they called home. At the rural communes our members come from all over the place, often traveling a significant distance to visit or move in. Locals are a rarity at the rural communes (although not unheard of). Interest in the Point A communes, in constrast, comes largely from current residents of the cities. An easy majority of the DC group, for instance, grew up in the DC area and nearly all of them are both already living here and plan to make DC their forever home regardless of whether or not they are members of the commune. This gives a very different flavor to the form of the community and work that we will be doing.

We Are Not Selling a Product

A few days ago several people sent me this article about co-living in New York City. Co-living came to national attention a year and a half ago when co-living groups in the San Francisco bay area, like the Embassy and Campus networks and Open Door Development, got a flurry of press attention (here, there, and elsewhere).

I spent some time trying to reach out to the folks mentioned in the story and am still unclear about whether the stories described a genuinely new thing (communal living updated for the networked age) or simply an old thing (group houses) with good branding and fancy websites made by people whose success in life depends on their ability to cast what they’re doing as innovative and disruptive. The label encompassed diverse assortment of houses, networks, and projects that sometimes shared little in common aside from a demographic and not all of whom were aware that they were being labeled as “co-living” spaces.

It was an interesting development of ambiguous meaning that I’ve continued to keep an eye on and occasionally try to research further. At best they could harbor some innovative ideas on how to adapt collective cooperative living to the modern networked age, its technology, its economy, and its culture. At worst, it was group houses for the techie crowd and its aspiring capitalists. Harmless enough.

The recent story in the New York Times highlights a different model, though, and raises different worries.

The article describes several attempts, mostly in New York, to commodify the group living experience, in one case by a single landlord but in others by corporations. The whole thing strikes me as a quixotic recuperative attempt by capitalism.

Much has been written about the ways that capitalism and consumerism, sometimes accidentally and sometimes intentionally, leads to isolation, alienation, the destruction of community, and the impoverishment of meaning. Because of this we have been, for some time but especially recently, in the midst of a realization of the value of what has been lost and a mass attempt to recapture it. The longing for community, authenticity, and meaning has spawned, in whole or in part, the back to the land movement, the local food movement, intentional communities of all stripes, foodies generally, the tiny house movement. Sometimes this quest for meaning and connection has led to radical departures from and alternatives to capitalism. Sometimes it has led down a path of quick recuperation with capital once again creating spectacles and commodities that promise community, connection, and meaning.

The problem, of course, is that capitalism is structurally incapable of fulfilling these very human needs. Community is the result of a web of relationships and arises where people have some common context or experience choose to enter into relationship with each other as equals. Hierarchies and inequalities make free and authentic relating nearly impossible. It is a deeply and essentially democratic process and simply cannot be enforced from above or outside and thus cannot be packaged and sold. Meaning, similarly, is something that can only be generated by a person through experiences that are important to them. Objects themselves have no inherent meaning or authenticity. Those qualities are imparted by the relationships that they take part in. You can no more buy meaning than you can buy love.

co_living cartoonThe New York City Co-Living projects profiled in the article are trying to take something essentially internal and induce it from outside. They promise that through them you can buy satisfying friendships and meaningful experiences. But they can only awkwardly ape the results that cooperative communities achieve spontaneously. Their communities are doomed to be hollow simulacra with all the appearance of a cooperative community of peers but none of the guts that actually make it work. Should a genuine community arise it will be a happy accident and would exist in an awkward tension with the profit driven owners who were not responsible for it but will try always to charge for it (a commonplace strategy of the networked age).

Although in a way I am happy for him, the story of the chef who moved into a Pure House property and describes how satisfying it is that people ask him how his day was when he gets home makes me sad. He has to pay $2400 or more per month to get friends to live with. And even those friends, so dearly bought, do not stay.

The whole idea presented in this article reminds me of a management handbook I once read. It began by explaining how study after study and anecdote after anecdote showed that morale was better, productivity was higher, absenteeism was rarer, and creativity and effort flowed in abundance when workers on a project felt like equal partners, felt like they had real agency and freedom, basically when they felt empowered. It then went on to suggest ways to trick your employees into thinking they were equal empowered partners without actually changing any of the fundamental power dynamics in the corporation.

income sharing venn diagramThe idea of a cooperative community of equals is an incomprehensible absurdity to capitalism because it exists outside of the profit-seeking and individualist paradigm. There is no way to understand it within those paradigms. To attempt to privatize, systematize, and commodify such a thing is to destroy it.

They are doomed.