First published October 26, 2014
My family and I are on a quest to find ingredients for creating NLRBE*-like intentional communities in the United States. To that end, my family and I took a two-week trip to Missouri in early September. That’s what this post is all about.
*“NLRBE” stands for Natural Law/Resource-Based Economy. You can read all about what that means here. Note, some use the term “Hybrid RBE” rather than “NLRBE-like,” when talking about such communities. But we’re basically all talking about the same idea. That is, we’re referring to intentional communities that can help us model and live NLRBE (AKA, RBE) values. We’re interested in living in such communities both for personal reasons, and to encourage a transition to a world-wide NLRBE.
But why did we travel to Missouri?
For decades, Missouri has offered both incredibly inexpensive land and a lack of building codes. At least this has been the case in rural parts of the state. This has attracted an unusually large number of intriguing intentional communities and nonprofits.
On this trip, we visited five of these. Specifically, we visited two secular, egalitarian, 501(d) communities, Sandhill Farm and East Wind; the nonprofit, Open Source Ecology ; the eco-village and nonprofit, Dancing Rabbit; and the homestead-focused, land trust community, Red Earth Farms.
In this post I will describe our experiences at each of these places.
However, what I cover comes purely from the perspective of wanting to discover how to build the most NLRBE-like intentional community possible. In other words, this post is by no means an attempt at a thorough description of each place. And, it may not always even be completely accurate. Although I did my best to get and provide correct information, I’m well aware that I may not always have succeeded in this effort. So, please, if you find anything that you believe is inaccurate in what follows, feel free to comment to that effect in the comments section, following the post.
By way of background, this trip marked the beginning of our second year of visiting intentional communities, on our quest. Our first year, we visited Twin Oaks and Acorn, two egalitarian communities in Virginia. We also visited a local, Sacramento, CA intentional community, Southside Park Cohousing. I didn’t blog about any of these communities. However, I did blog about the talk I gave on forming egalitarian communities, while at Twin Oaks for the Twin Oaks Communities Conference. Unfortunately, beyond the conference, we only had time for tours of Twin Oaks and Acorn. So, we are thinking of trying to visit those communities again next year, hopefully for longer than we did last year. If we do that, I’ll be sure to blog about our experiences. As for our experience at Southside Park Cohousing, the concerns I had were similar to concerns I express below, about trade-based communities generally.
Below is a list the rest of this post’s contents. You can link down to whichever section interests you. However, I highly recommend reading all the way through. That way you can be sure to catch earlier points that relate to later ones. The remaining contents are:
- First stop – Sandhill Farm
- Second stop – Dancing Rabbit
- Third stop – Open Source Ecology
- Fourth stop – Red Earth Farms
- Fifth stop – East Wind
- Conclusion and What’s Next
First stop – Sandhill Farm, for an approximately 2 hour tour
Sandhill Farm is a 501(d) egalitarian community of six people.
Thank you so much Mika, for the fabulous tour!
This visit confirmed my interest in seeing NLRBE-like intentional communities be on the larger end. I’m thinking more like at least 60 to 100 people, rather than the six living at Sandhill.
I was blown away by how much six people were trying to manage on the community’s property. While they did have the help of periodic interns, this was mostly around harvest time. I was especially amazed hearing that a couple of these six people had outside jobs too. From commercial sorghum growing, harvesting, processing, and selling, to managing massive additional crops for member consumption, to cooking and cleaning, to managing community resources, my jaw was agape trying to imagine how it all got done. And I wasn’t at all surprised to see that, in fact, some things appeared not to get done. For example, I noticed a fair amount of deferred maintenance, in the form of such things as peeling paint.
I agree with others that a whole-world-sized NLRBE, which the model ultimately aspires to, is not yet realistic.
But, I would love to see NLRBE-like intentional communities be as large as manageable. I’m attracted to the resource-use efficiencies and increased standard of living that can come from greater economies of scale, more opportunities for divided labor, and larger use-and-access property systems.
However, I also hope such communities maintain a group size manageable enough for consensus-based decision-making.
Speaking of consensus, I was impressed to find out that Sandhill runs entirely on consensus.
But why might we want to strive for consensus-based decision-making in NLRBE-like intentional communities?
There are so many reasons, which go beyond the scope of this post. But for now, I will say that the NLRBE model envisions only implementing policies that it can execute with full support. It does not generally envision invoking the use of force.
Yet, when decisions are made using a majority-rule system, up to 49.99% of people may not be happy. In other words, they may be effectively “forced” into accepting the outcome. By contrast, with consensus, proposals can be and usually are altered so that they meet everyone’s needs. Hence, policies either ultimately garner full support, or are not adopted.
But would intentional communities need to be smaller than 60 to 100 people, in order to use consensus successfully? I don’t think so.
True, some have argued that the only reason consensus works with Sandhill is because it is so small.
However, a member of the US-based, egalitarian community Acorn, GPaul, recently debunked this theory. He discovered that egalitarian communities as large as 80 adults (and 60 children) have successfully used consensus. He made this discovery on his recent tour of European egalitarian communities. You can hear all about his tour, by listening to his 2.25 hour talk on his trip. This talk also describes how European egalitarian communities compare with some of the most stable US ones. I highly recommend it. You can find it by clicking here.
So, I am all for integrating as much consensus as possible in NLRBE-like egalitarian communities. And I am hopeful that this can be done. It helps knowing that egalitarian communities have integrated consensus successfully, and that some of these communities have been quite large indeed.
In any event, back to Sandhill.
I was impressed to find out that Sandhill has a completely “unitary,” rather than a “dual” economy. GPaul explained this in the talk cited above.
A “unitary” economy is one in which all purchases come out of the common pot.
This is in contrast with the “dual” economy, which is more typical in US-based egalitarian communities. A “dual” economy is one in which most expenditures come from the common pool of money. However there is also a stipend given to each person for “luxury” expenditures. Such stipends are often tracked and managed on behalf of each member, by the community. That said, they are still considered each member’s personal property. In a dual economy bear is sometimes also limited permission given to members to earn and spend money without pooling it. For example, this is often allowed when members are off community property for an extended period of time.
But I prefer the idea of striving for unitary economies in NLRBE-like intentional communities.
The NLRBE model envisions meeting the needs of all, in the most resource efficient, environmentally sustainable, low-labor, generally freeing, and abundance-creating way possible. I believe that the more we pool our purchases and buy in bulk, and the less we divert our life energy into tracking, monitoring, restricting, and enforcing unnecessary limits around each person’s consumption, the closer we can come to realizing this vision.
But, again, many have apparently argued that the only reason Sandhill can make a unitary economy work is because it is so small.
However, GPaul’s European visit debunked this myth as well. It showed him that even the largest of the egalitarian communities in Europe successfully integrated a unitary economy.
And more than one European egalitarian community even went so far as to have basically an “open pot of cash.” Any member could freely take from this pot. Indeed, in one of these communities, members were not even asked to make a note of how much they had taken or what it was for.
In another community using the “open pot of cash” method, members were asked to jot down how much they had taken and what it was for. They were also asked to announce ahead of time prior to purchasing anything that cost more than €150. This was reportedly not for the purpose of seeking permission, however. Rather, it was to give the group an opportunity to say things like, “Hey, when you buy one, could you get one for me too?” or “Oh, did you know that they are cheaper at this other place?” or “Might you reconsider the timing? I’m worried about how tight the community’s finances are right now, and wondering if you’d be willing to hold off on this purchase?”
Thankfully, and perhaps surprisingly to some, this approach had not resulted in chronic deficits. Monthly meetings were held to review expenditures and income. And, seemingly magically, over the next month or two, any over-spending rectified itself. This reportedly happened through people and independently and voluntarily choosing to either tighten their belts, increase their efforts to earn group income, or both.
So, I was very excited to hear about the potential for even large egalitarian communities integrating unitary economies. And I would love to see NLRBE-like intentional communities do the same, given how low-labor and generally freeing unitary economies can be.
Speaking of labor, I was also delighted to discover that Sandhill has no labor quota.
By contrast, most of the member communities of the US-based Federation of Egalitarian Communities require able members to put in a certain number of hours each. And many also require members to track and report their hours, to ensure compliance.
Although the number of hours assigned varies, depending upon ability and family responsibilities, is remarkably low, and includes domestic work as well, the labor quota strategy still arguably involves motivation by fear. If you don’t fulfill your quota, your survival may be at risk. That is, the possibility exists that you may ultimately not get to belong to your community anymore. At least that’s a conceivable fear.
This is the primary way our monetary-market system motivates contribution. But it’s one which the NLRBE model eschews. It relies instead exclusively on volunteerism.
There is vast research to support the benefits when we meet needs by default, rather than on an if-then basis. In other words, the results are preferable, in a number of different ways, when we allow intrinsic influences to motivate contributions. By intrinsic motivations, I’m referencing motivations to meet such needs as purpose, contribution, mastery, and meaning. By contrast, evidence shows that the intrusion of extrinsic motivators yields numerous undesirable results. By at extrinsic motivators I’m referring to various forms of reward and punishment, carrot and stick, used to motivate action. You can read about some of the research in this post, and more of it under the “third negative” part of a later post.
Another benefit of leaving labor quotas out of NLRBE-like intentional communities, is a likely reduction in legal complications. That is, it should reduce the risk of having a government agency or court decide that a community’s members are “employees” of that community. This is not an implausible outcome. It has happened before, as I explained in last year’s talk handout (see below). While, in at least one case, a community has desired this outcome, usually this is not the case. That is because having members considered employees subjects the community to any number of employment and labor law mandates. To read all about this concern, and more details about the ways the predicament might be avoided, I recommend this handout. It’s from my talk about how to form an egalitarian community, given at last year’s Twin Oaks Communities Conference.
So, given all the foregoing, I was so excited to hear that Sandhill succeeded without a labor quota. And I would love to see the same in NLRBE-like intentional communities.
However, again, the assumption has been that Sandhill has succeeded with no labor quota only because it is so small.
But, also again, GPaul discovered on his European tour that egalitarian communities as large as 80 adults have succeeded without labor quotas. There is so much to say about how exactly they do this, but I will leave that to GPaul’s talk.
Second stop – Dancing Rabbit, for a full week long stay
Dancing Rabbit consists of five different legal entities, related in one way or another to the principle visible component: a “community” or “eco-village.” That principle visible component is a sustainability-focused, natural-building-focused, trade-based community, made up of both individuals and smaller groups, none of which are currently egalitarian 501(d) communities.
First let me just say thank you, to all of Dancing Rabbit! We are so grateful that you hosted us, as part of the September 2014 visitors program.
- Thank you especially to Alline and Kurt, the innkeepers of the stunning Milkweed Mercantile, where we stayed. Thank you for the gift of sheltering within in the priceless piece of art that is your inn, for your thoughtful attention to our needs, and for sharing your personal experiences and insights.
- I am also deeply grateful to our visitor liaisons, Tereza and Hassan, for your care, presence, and guidance.
- My thanks goes also to all the many other groups and individuals, who hosted us for meals in their personal kitchens, gave us tours, played games with us, and answered our endless questions. You and your hospitality swept us off our feet!
- And finally, I wanted to offer thanks to the other visitors in our session. What a delight it was to get to know you all! We look forward to continuing connection with you over time.
Now, it’s on to the question I asked myself at every community we visited:
What aspects of this community would I want to integrate into an NLRBE-like intentional community, and which not?
There are indeed aspects of Dancing Rabbit that I would recommend integrating into any NLRBE-like intentional community.
For example, the breathtaking emphasis on nonviolent interpersonal communication. This included the use of the Restorative Circles process, for resolving interpersonal conflict. We were so impressed with a communication workshop offered to visitors. And we felt deeply moved seeing a group meeting, towards the end of our stay. We found the communication within both deeply met our needs for hope and inspiration.
I also recommend the integration of an NLRBE-like mission. There is nothing like a compelling mission to attract people who can meet a community’s needs for intellectual vitality and energy. And, of course, I am particularly interested in the mission of environmental sustainability. This mission is shared by both Dancing Rabbit and the NLRBE model. I also recommend NLRBE-like intentional communities integrate other NLRBE values into their mission.
But there were also aspects of Dancing Rabbit that I would not recommend integrating into an NLRBE-like intentional community.
For example, I would not recommend integrating a trade-based structure. Likewise, I would not recommend integrating what I believe are the related risks of both inequality and less than maximal environmental sustainability.
Let’s start with a discussion about the importance of equality, why I described Dancing Rabbit as utilizing a “trade-based structure,” and why I fear such a structure poses a risk of inequality, in contrast with other economic structures.
The NLRBE model fully embodies the principle of equality. For a discussion of the evidence-based reasons to want full equality, both to maximize public health, and to lay the groundwork for environmentally sustainable actions, please see this blog post.
Egalitarian communities also fully embody the principle of equality. They do this in ways described in the section on Sandhill, above. They also do it in ways covered in the section on Dancing Rabbit as well.
By contrast, trade-based structures, such as that of Dancing Rabbit, contain within them the potential for inequality. Likewise they contain within them the potential for all the unwanted side effects that can come with inequality, per the research described in the post linked above.
But, why do I say Dancing Rabbit has a “trade-based structure”?
Dancing Rabbit members are generally on their own financially and trade to get their needs met. The community does not require the pooling of income, common ownership, or the equal support of all members. This is in contrast with egalitarian communities. In these communities income is shared, most resources are commonly owned, and all members are supported equally.
I also describe Dancing Rabbit as “trade-based” because it is not a part of any sort of legal entity that exempts members from the tax consequences of free and equal sharing between members, the way 501(d) egalitarian community structures do. You can read more about these tax consequences in my handout from last year’s talk at the Twin Oaks Communities Conference.
To flesh out what I mean by “trade-based” a little more, the community has within it things like a trade-based “grocery store,” inn, restaurant, and set of cooperatives, used by members to meet most needs.
Despite the name, cooperatives are trade-based, in that you have to have something to trade in order to participate. Take the automobile cooperative, for example. People are individually charged for miles driven. And such cooperatives exist at Dancing Rabbit to facilitate access to everything from land usage, to energy usage, to kitchen usage, to shower usage, and even to toilet usage.
By contrast, in an egalitarian community, the community allows all members to freely use such resources. No one’s usage of food, or vehicles, or energy, or kitchen space, or showers, or toilets, or anything is individually tracked, billed, or blocked for “lack of funds.” (Except that, in some egalitarian communities, separate luxury stipends are tracked – which I don’t actually recommend; see the Sandhill section above, for more details).
So, while Dancing Rabbit has created separate legal entities designed to facilitate a certain kind of “sharing” of resources, each person must still pay his or her own way. And while costs are low, each person is on their own to make a living. And this is difficult to do in the middle of nowhere in Missouri.
This means inequality is a real possibility, and an actuality at Dancing Rabbit.
Examples of this inequality showed up at Dancing Rabbit in various ways. Some people hauled their own maneuver to composting areas, while at least one person had automatic composting toilets. Some people hauled their own water, while others had indoor plumbing. Some people relied only on foraged herbs and whatever out-of-pocket healthcare they could afford, while others had full health care insurance coverage. Some worked from dawn to dusk building their own homes by hand, while others had homes built for them, or purchased them prebuilt from someone else. Some relied exclusively on simple, shared, outdoor kitchens, while others had fairly well-equipped, personal, indoor kitchens. Some reportedly had work-at-home desk jobs, or lived off of inheritance or trust funds, while others did their best to survive off of small personal gardens, challenging individual or small group livestock management, and/or odd jobs for community members or for Dancing Rabbit’s nonprofit. And we were told that income ranged from about $5,000 per year to about $40,000 per year.
One person did point out to me that in some cases what seemed like inequality was in fact lifestyle choice – as in the case of one person who reportedly preferred to build their own home by hand, even though they had the money to do otherwise. But I do not believe that all of the inequalities we observed were desired by all involved. And, although it is at least theoretically possible that this could at times happen to be the case in any given snapshot moment at Dancing Rabbit, my concern is that the trade-based structure at Dancing Rabbit does not prevent the possibility of unwanted inequalities.
That said, I do appreciate how Dancing Rabbit has lowered the bar for entry into the community. It has done this by eliminating buy-in fees, and instead instituting low-cost lease fees for the land. However, already built homes on that land are bought, sold, and rented though. And, in any event, the set-up at Dancing Rabbit still permits unwanted inequality, along with its disruptive side effects.
In addition to the potential for inequality, another reason I would not recommend integrating Dancing Rabbit’s trade-based structure, into any NLRBE-like intentional community, relates to the goal of environmental sustainability.
This goal of environmental sustainability is, again, one which both Dancing Rabbit and the NLRBE model share.
The NLRBE model envisions achieving sustainability, in part, by pooling most resources. The idea is to pool both material and intellectual resources, to co-create and share the most resource-efficient infrastructure possible.
In addition, the NLRBE model strives for sustainability by making available what is needed and wanted primarily through a freely accessible, “use and access” property system. Imagine a public library system, but for virtually everything.
Such steps can dramatically reduce the amount of natural and processed resources needed for a universally high standard of living.
To be fair, Dancing Rabbit also implements a use and access property system of a sort. It does this with its vehicle cooperative, energy cooperative, etc.. It also discourages individual ownership with its “sustainability guidelines.”
However, the cooperatives are more analogous to rental equipment outlets than public libraries, in that money is still required to participate.
I’m concerned that such trade-based use and access property systems have more limited potential. That is, I’m concerned that the sharing is weighed down, with individual tracking, billing, and exclusion and inequality risks. In this way, I fear such systems significantly limit the potential for maximizing sharing, and hence maximizing environmental sustainability. At least, I believe that is the case compared with what both NLRBE and egalitarian community use and access property systems can achieve.
As GPaul explained so well in his talk, sharing, as much as possible, is the most resource efficient method of interacting.
And what better way to maximize sharing than to make it freely accessible to all?
This is just what egalitarian communities are uniquely built to do.
As GPaul explained, unfettered, free, and equal access sharing, is the default method of economic interaction in egalitarian communities. By contrast, exclusionary, trade-based “sharing” transactions, within an egalitarian community, are generally not even permitted. You would have to go out of your way to arrange these in egalitarian communities. Indeed, you’d potentially run into some legal complications as well, if you went too far.
At least all the foregoing is true with with 501(d) egalitarian communities. This is for reasons discussed in this talk handout from last year’s Twin Oaks Communities Conference.
However, in trade-based communities, as in our capitalist system generally, limited-access, economic transactions are the default mode of operation. It’s unfettered, free, and equal-access sharing which is the unusual, difficult to achieve option. Indeed, it’s so difficult that it’s typically only found in the context of biological families and small, intimate groups of friends. And, even then, there’s a risk of triggering gift tax consequences.
In the trade-based context of the United States, only the 501(d) establishes a “protective zone” for completely unfettered, free, and equal-access group sharing.
Outside of that structure, if we want anything beyond unreliable, small circle sharing, we are generally limited to sharing between those who are willing and able to both pay for their access, and deal with the complexities. To be done safely, trade-based “sharing” usually requires cumbersome, complex, specific arrangements, often with individual contracts. Sometimes more than one legal entity is necessary. Often separate insurance for each sharing instance needs to be arranged. There are potential tax and accounting complications and consequences aplenty. Attorney Janelle Orsi’s book, The Sharing Solution, is replete with examples of what I’m talking about.
And Dancing Rabbit is as well. Although more efficient than completely one-off, one-on-one sharing arrangements, Dancing Rabbit’s numerous coop legal entities accomplish what a single egalitarian legal entity can. And they require much more complexity, time, and effort, and yield more limited potential sharing.
Another concern I have about trade-based communities, like Dancing Rabbit, is that I believe they can increase individual temptations to act in environmentally unsustainable ways. That is, people can end up so tempted, in their desperate scramble to survive, to achieve some sense of security, and/or to keep up with the Jones’.
By contrast, I see egalitarian communities as naturally avoiding this risk by ensuring equal access to needs met by all. That’s because such a policy can dramatically reduce, or even eliminate, both the very real fear of being on your own financially, and of being judged and tempted accordingly.
Here are a couple of examples of the potential for less-sustainable temptations in trade-based environments.
First, at Dancing Rabbit, it is possible for someone with relatively low building skill to save money by designing and building a home themselves, with potentially less than maximally sustainable results. The trouble is, with limited skill and resources, some of these homes have ended up with moisture and heat-retention problems. Sometimes they have required significantly more wood be burned to keep warm in winter, compared with better built homes. And sometimes they even end up rapidly deteriorating, or being abandoned entirely, at least temporarily. In all of these cases natural resources are used that need not have been.
I’m definitely intrigued by natural building experimentation. And Dancing Rabbit does enable this. However, I’m not sure one-off experimentation, in the context of limited individual resources, is as helpful as group experiments would be. At least I’m not sure if the goal is to ensure the most environmentally sustainable building possible. And perhaps that’s not the goal. But that is a goal in an NLRBE. Hence it is one I’d like us to get as close to achieving as possible, in our creation of NLRBE-like communities.
Second, many commented on the temptation at Dancing Rabbit to build single-family dwellings, and often less densely than some would like to see. Some argue this kind of building, with more and smaller buildings, and more, less well-equipped kitchens, is not the most environmentally sustainable a way to develop. At least it’s not as sustainable as building fewer, larger, dorm-like buildings, with one or two, larger, shared kitchens, the way egalitarian communities tend to do.
But why would a population so devoted to sustainability be tempted to build more single-family dwellings and kitchens, and less densely than need be?
Part of the answer may relate to the complexity of arranging one-off sharing arrangements in trade-based contexts, discussed earlier.
Another answer may relate to the presence of inequality.
Inequality research, referenced earlier, shows that higher stress and lower trust and social cohesion result in the presence of inequality. Not surprisingly, when dealing with such challenges, people find they need more space, more alone time, with their families, or with whatever other small circle of people are in true solidarity with them financially. I can’t know for certain, but I’m guessing this may at least partially explain the temptation.
As an aside, I wonder if inequality may also at least partly explain why Dancing Rabbit’s village community felt it could no longer sustain a pure, community-wide, consensus-based decision-making structure, with its over 40 members and residents.
Instead it moved to a representative, small group decision-making body, called the “Village Council.” More than one person talked about conflicts over whether or not to raise fees paid by individuals, for group infrastructure improvements. I would guess that conflicts like these might be more prevalent, in the presence of financial inequality. And I would guess they would be more difficult to resolve via consensus as well. Plus, I could also see how it might make virtually impossible the kind of 80-adult consensus-based decision-making that egalitarian communities have been able to achieve (see the Sandhill section above for details).
In any event, all of the forgoing I fear works at cross-purposes with Dancing Rabbit’s vision of maximizing environmentally sustainable living. And, in turn, I fear Dancing Rabbit’s sustainability guidelines thereby risk becoming analogous to environmental laws in our capitalist economy. That is, I fear individuals and entities, on their own financially, become tempted to violate them, in their desperation scramble to survive and experience a sense of personal security.
Moving on from Dancing Rabbit’s trade-based structure, and its relationship to inequality and environmental sustainability, I would also like to see NRLBE-like intentional communities do more than Dancing Rabbit has done to minimize unnecessary human labor.
The NLRBE model envisions lowering the need for labor as much as sustainably possible. The idea is to free people to pursue their highest callings. For some, their highest callings may involve plenty of labor. And that remains an option for people in the NLRBE model. But it’s not required for survival.
I believe egalitarian communities come closest to offering that same potential. That’s in contrast with trade-based communities, like Dancing Rabbit.
One way to lower the need for labor is via minimizing the number of legal entities contained within a community.
With egalitarian communities, one legal entity can do essentially everything that at least four of the entities Dancing Rabbit has can (and, unfortunately, I believe Dancing Rabbit likely needs even more entities, given what I gather are currently unincorporated cooperative eating groups).
As a lawyer, who does tax-related accounting as well, I can attest to the incredibly time-consuming nature of complying with all requirements. And that’s for just one entity. Not surprisingly, it sounded to me like at least one person involved in this sort of work for Dancing Rabbit struggled with just this issue. That is the person bemoaned the overwhelming amount of accounting, required in order to manage such a large number of Dancing Rabbit legal entities.
Another way to lower the need for labor is via eliminating the life energy spent on individual tracking, billing, and restricting.
All egalitarian communities can largely eliminate this effort. And they can eliminate it entirely when they implement fully unitary economies. Thankfully, they are uniquely well-suited to do from a legal and tax standpoint (see section on Sandhill above).
An additional way to lower the need for labor is by pooling interested community members into creating just one, or a few, low-labor, high-dollar-per-hour earning businesses, rather than leaving each to his or her own financially.
East Wind, provides a great example of how this can be successfully done. And it leaves their members with incredible amounts of leisure time. This time can be used for relaxation, and for pursuing self-actualizing, monetary and nonmonetary aspirations of virtually any type. You can read more about East Wind in my section on that community, farther down in this post.
Moving on from integrating low labor requirements, I would also recommend that NLRBE-like intentional communities be extremely wary and get thorough, expert, legal advice, if and when considering in any way integrating a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) entity into their plans. Dancing Rabbit contains a 501(c)(3). More specifically, the eco-village/community is essentially an educational demonstration project of the 501(c)(3). And there are specific concerns I have with this particular set up, which I hope to get into in a later blog post.
I alluded to some of my concerns about involving a 501(c)(3) in a community, in any way, in this blog post. I also discuss the issue a bit in this handout, from last year’s talk about forming egalitarian communities. But see also the discussion about this topic in Chapter 16 of Deana Leafe Christian’s book “Creating a Life Together.” I believe what’s there is particularly on point, when it comes to some of my concerns about Dancing Rabbit’s specific 501(c)(3) arrangement. (However, please beware of this book generally, as I ran across more than one claim that I found inaccurate from a legal perspective. Plus, it is also to some extent out of date,given that it was written in the 90s. Also, portions may be inapplicable in particular cases, as is the case with all non-customized materials. Hence my ever-present recommendation that communities and individual members always secure expert, current, individually-customized legal advice.)
In any event, there’s so much more to say about 501(c)(3)s, so much more I have learned since writing prior posts, and so much more I have yet to research. I hope to separately delve more into this topic of integrating 501(c)(3) entities in at least one additional blog post in the future.
But for now I will leave it there, except for a few closing remarks about Dancing Rabbit.
First, notwithstanding anything I said above, Dancing Rabbit does encourage egalitarian communities to move into their community/village. Indeed, it began with one in its midst. That is, some of Dancing Rabbit’s founders started a smaller 501(d) community, living within the larger, trade-based, Dancing Rabbit community. But it eventually disbanded. And now the building that used to house it is essentially a rental.
Interestingly, apparently the founders debated a bit about whether or not to make the entire Dancing Rabbit community egalitarian. But, in the end they opted for a trade-based community. Unfortunately, I am not clear on the details of why they made this decision.
Regardless, as someone who would like to start an egalitarian community, I’m concerned about the larger, trade-based “cultural container” in which it would be held at Dancing Rabbit. My concern is that this container integrates a fundamentally different belief regarding what we need as a foundation for achieving environmental and personal sustainability. I fear this might lead to problematic disconnects.
In addition, I’m concerned about the limited size of the plots of land available at Dancing Rabbit. My worry is that they would be insufficient to house a large enough egalitarian community to give it the best chance of sustaining itself over the long term.
Second, I have some final thoughts to share specifically with all the amazing people we met at Dancing Rabbit.
I am in awe of you all.
We may have disagreements, for example about how indispensable egalitarian economics are, in efforts to achieve and model environmental sustainability.
However, even with these, part of me wanted to drop everything and join forces with you, right then and there. And my husband felt the same way.
Your passion, your mission, your communication skills, the adventuresome spirit of the entire community, were all such dazzling things to behold. And they stood in such stark contrast to the relatively isolated, materialistic environment in which we currently dwell, as we plan our next move.
So it is incredibly bittersweet to instead be here, and not there, with you all. The only consolation is the hope I have that we can continue be friends, and discuss and learn from one another. I hope for this ongoing connection, as we each open-mindedly strive, in our own ways, towards this goal of environmental sustainability.
In any event, thank you so very much for caring about our little blue dot as much as you do. And thank you for sacrificing so much for the sake of its preservation. I look forward very much to continuing to connect with those of you with whom I have established methods for ongoing communication.
Third stop – Red Earth Farms, for a several hour tour
Red Earth Farms is a 501(c)(2) land trust, right “next door” to Dancing Rabbit, focused on leasing land to homesteads that are dedicated to sustainable living and farming.
Thank you so much Jack and Valerie, for opening your home and community to us!
We felt so inspired about so many aspects of Red Earth Farms.
And I would recommend that NLRBE-like intentional communities consider integrating one of these aspects in particular. That is, the level of detailed research that our tour guides put into everything they did. In particular, we were amazed by the level of effort put into cultivating just the right field greens to maintain grazing for their livestock in a self-sustaining, permaculture-principles-based manner, and the similar efforts they put into farm management. I would love to see NLRBE-like intentional communities members putting that level of thoughtful research into everything too.
And, of course, I also recommend integrating Red Earth Farms’ explicit intention to strive for environmentally sustainable living.
However, I would not recommend that NLRBE-like intentional communities integrate the level of physical and financial separation maintained at Red Earth Farms, due to its focus on separate “homesteads.”
Most homesteads housed no more than a few people, often single families, trying to be almost completely self-sustaining. The shear physical distance between homesteads, by itself, appeared to be a problematic obstacle. That is it resulted in fewer cooperative efforts than some wished for. Yet arguably it was necessary to provide each homestead with enough land to fully sustain itself.
That said, there was evidence that people did come together sometimes to help one another out. And there was at least one co-op for shared resources, Dancing Rabbit style. But it was also evident that daily task coordination and collaboration between homesteads was necessarily limited. For example, canning the mountains of produce grown by any given homestead appeared to primarily be done by each homestead for itself.
Environmental and social sustainability, achieved via maximum sharing and minimum required human labor, is the name of the game with the NLRBE model. Maximization of sharing, and sustainable technologies and automation, are combined to minimize the need for human labor. This leaves each person free to contribute what they are most inspired to. And it eliminates the risk of having no viable, in-the-moment choice but to throw oneself into heavy manual labor, from dawn until dusk. People are invited to choose whatever amount of such labor they would enjoy in an NLRBE, but it is not required for their survival.
Of course, many at Red Earth Farms probably wanted heavy labor to be a part of their daily lives. Indeed, in some cases, this may have been a big part of why they set up camp there in the first place. But I’m guessing not all realized just how hard it would be.
In any event, the ultimate point is that you can live in an NLRBE without engaging in that level of labor if you wish. And, hence, I’d like to see the same be the case in NLRBE-like intentional communities.
For these reasons, I don’t recommend the physically and financially separated structure of Red Earth Farms.
Likewise, I don’t recommend the lease-fee, pay-for-use system there. My reasons are akin to those given in the Dancing Rabbit section earlier.
But again, I do very much appreciate the sustainability-focused mission of Red Earth Farms. Our differences come down to varying perspectives on how to proceed toward that goal. And, as with Dancing Rabbit, I have nothing but respect for the members of Red Earth Farms, their commitment to sustainability, and their willingness to act boldly in their efforts to actualize that commitment. And I trust that we will all keep our minds and communication lines open, as we journey forward.
Fourth stop – Open Source Ecology, for an approximately two hour tour, preceded by at least six long conversations, with those who had either visited or were actively involved with the organization
Open Source Ecology is a 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to creating open-source hardware designs sufficient to start a small civilization from scratch.
Thank you so much to the founder of Open Source Ecology (OSE), Marcin Jakubowski, for making our tour possible. I am especially grateful, given how difficult the timing was for OSE, in light of certain special challenges going on for the organization at that time. And thank you so much to Danny Kirk for giving us our tour, and filling us in on so much. Thank you also to the many others, who had either visited or worked for the organization, for all your time answering our many questions. Everyone’s insights were invaluable to us.
As I mentioned in this prior blog post, OSE has long been an inspiration to me and to our family as a whole. And we’re not alone. Many NLRBE-fans, and others, became inspired after seeing this TED Talk by the founder.
And many NLRBE fans are convinced that open source software and hardware both embody NRLBE values, and could possibly help us transition to an NLRBE. I agree, for reasons discussed in this blog post.
To clarify again, however, OSE is not an intentional community. Rather, it is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, focused on its mission. At OSE people live on-site generally only to the extent they are working on, or learning from, the project.
But we visited anyway, because we are inspired by the OSE vision. And we believe that elements of it could possibly be integrated in an NLRBE-like intentional community, or some affiliated entity. There is much to say about how one would legally and effectively structure this kind of vision, with potential complications to be studiously avoided. I alluded to such complications in a previous blog post. And I hope to go into greater detail about my concerns in a future blog post.
In any event, the main element of OSE that I would want to somehow integrate, in a complete NLRBE-like intentional community package, is the emphasis on using, designing, and fabricating open-source hardware. This could help NLRBE-like communities:
- contribute towards something that may help facilitate transition to an NLRBE;
- leverage technology and automation to reduce required member labor;
- integrate environmental sustainability practices into hardware used on-site, such as the use of recycled raw materials; and
- earn whatever money is still needed to keep the community functioning, in our larger capitalist economy, though preferably only through donation-based sales.
On the last point, I would prefer to see NLRBE-like intentional communities be completely free from needing to interact with the monetary market system, and be completely self-sufficient, while also keeping labor needs low and quality of life high. But I am not convinced this is going to be possible for every NLRBE-like community.
So, for those communities who must rely upon at least some involvement with the monetary market system, I believe a focus on designing, fabricating, using, and in some instances selling open-source hardware could be a one of the most NLRBE-friendly options available.
To the extent these communities do sell such products, however, it would be my hope that they would institute a gift economy, donation-based payment approach, to the greatest extent feasible. Asking for donations, rather than demanding payment, is arguably the closest we can get to the kind of nonrestrictive, volunteerism that the NLRBE model aspires to, when interacting with the monetary market system.
It helps that not much money should be needed to lead a high material quality of life, in any event. This is because of the extremely low income requirements of egalitarian communities generally. Many attributes the remarkably low income requirements of egalitarian communities to their highly resource-efficient sharing structures. In any event, for more details on just how low income requirements are in egalitarian communities, I recommend GPaul’s talk, referenced earlier.
However, there are also aspects of how OSE operates that I would hope would be different in NLRBE-like intentional communities.
For example, I would suggest communities strive for a more inclusive, nonhierarchical, and consensus-based decision-making structure.
As one person explained to me, many open source projects have at their helm a person who is affectionately dubbed a “benevolent dictator.” In the creation of original open source software or hardware designs, input is very often solicited from far and wide. And such input is seriously considered for inclusion in designs. And apparently this is how things run at OSE as well, although it’s not always readily apparent to every person making suggestions that they are being seriously considered.
But even when they are, at the end of the day, oftentimes a single person decides what input will make the cut. To be sure, others can then take those issued designs and alter them on their own, publishing their changes. This is what open source licensing allows.
But as far as what the initial release situation looks like, often there is one person making final calls. And OSE is reportedly structured in this way.
Yet, one person I spoke with explained to me that it does not have to be, and is not always this way, in the world of open source. I don’t know a great deal about the nitty-gritty details of how open source projects are facilitated. But, for reasons discussed earlier in this blog post, I would hope for as much of a consensus-based decision-making structure as possible. That said, I would want some method for simultaneously embedding a tendency to defer to objective scientific data and high levels of knowledge and skill, as the NLRBE model also envisages.
I would also recommend that those communities working on prototyping and/or manufacturing open-source hardware designs ensure safety as much as feasible. I bring this up here because there were some people concerned about safety at OSE. I might even go so far as to recommend fully following OSHA requirements. This might even be advisable in cases where there are not technically any employees involved. A duty of reasonable care would still be implied, at least. So, following OSHA guidelines might be the most prudent course to follow. It might both best protect those contributing to the effort and best minimize risks of organizational liability.
Finally, I would recommend that environmental sustainability and permaculture principles be deeply embedded in all open source design and building projects.
Several people I spoke to were concerned about the seeming absence of these principles applied, in both OSE’s technology and on-site operations.
Part of the disappointment has apparently come from the word “ecology” in the organization’s name. Some have interpreted the presence of this word to mean that the organization was, from the beginning, all about integrating ecologically sensitive principles into its design and operations.
However, as one person explained to me, this was not the case at the start. And even now, it is only just beginning to be integrated by the founder. Rather, apparently the word “ecology” was added to the organization’s name simply to refer to the ecosystem-like interdependence of various pieces of equipment upon one another. For example, the interchangeability of OSE’s “power cube.” The power cube is a single source of energy, which can be used to power more than one device.
In any event, I was and remain deeply grateful to and impressed by OSE. Thank you again so much to everyone who helped us understand all the ins and outs of the organization. As one person explained, whatever this particular organization’s challenges may be, it has undeniably started a fire that has spread worldwide now, and will not be extinguished. OSE’s thrilling vision has started an irreversible open-source hardware trend, which will without a doubt continue to spread and grow indefinitely.
Fifth stop – East Wind, for almost four full days and nights
East Wind is a 501(d) egalitarian community of approximately 60 people at present.
Thank you East Wind! We are particularly grateful for your help Lauren. We so appreciated all your efforts in coordinating our visit, and familiarizing us with so much, including how the labor system works. And thank you also Kara Jo, for all your efforts to help us understand the legal and accounting structure at East Wind, and so much else. Finally, thank you to Ty, Rich, Sage, Bert, Deborah, Tom, Ryn, and countless others, who were willing to sit and answer our numerous questions.
To put East Wind into context, I highly recommend first reading the earlier section on the other egalitarian community we visited in Missouri, Sandhill.
Unlike Sandhill, East Wind has a dual economy, a labor quota, and a majority-rule, rather than consensus-based decision-making system. And I would not recommend integration of any of these elements. Rather, as explained earlier in this post, I would recommend integration of a unitary economy, no labor quota, and a consensus-based decision-making system. For my discussion on all that, I invite you to read my section on Sandhill, if you haven’t already.
In any event, I believe in part as a result of these differences, I found a few additional aspects of East Wind I would not recommend integrating into an NLRBE-like intentional community. And I will get to those aspects farther down.
But what was so hopeful about our visit to East Wind was that, even without having a unitary economy, a labor-quota-free economy, or a consensus-based decision-making system, and even with the presence of several imbedded challenges unique to East Wind, egalitarianism’s benefits largely shined through.
This fact left us more convinced than ever that the egalitarian, 501(d) community model is the one for NLRBE-like intentional communities in the United States.
One example of the kind of benefits of egalitarianism that shined through, despite challenges at East Wind, was the level of proactive care for one another. It was at a level I’ve never before seen in a trade-based context, except perhaps between tightknit members of a nuclear family.
This care was displayed in many ways, including:
- We were in the family wing where a mother of a 10 week old was ill during our visit. It was stunning just how many people came by to make food and otherwise care for her and her baby.
- We were also amazed by how much one-on-one attention the kids in the family wing receive generally. There is always a “primary” for each child, and a “meta,” as they call them, on-site. The primary is the person primarily engaging with a particular child, and the meta is there to help with all children who happen to be present. And virtually everyone engaged with a child was present in such a remarkably focused and joyful way. Even homeschooling only two children, I’ve never had the energy or time to give anywhere near the level of high quality, undivided attention that these kids at East Wind get. Experiencing it I thought about how much I would have loved to have raised my children in an egalitarian community, where such work was equally valued with monetary work, and hence eagerly and readily taken up.
- We also spoke to several elderly people there, who expressed their deep gratitude at how much the community cared for them. For example one woman had had a stroke while on the property, was airlifted out, and found a golf cart was all ready for her to use when she arrived back home.
In addition, the level of baseline stress people were carrying around appeared to be dramatically lower than what we saw at trade-based Dancing Rabbit. And the amount of free time available was significantly higher. And this was during a time when East Wind was under some unusual financial stress. Hence, members were therefore reportedly “much more stressed out” than normal.
As examples of evidence of lower stress:
- One member in particular talked about how grateful he was for how much time and opportunity there was at East Wind to self-actualize. He was what I might describe as a philosopher/artist/sculptor/mathematician. His room overflowed with his numerous incredible creations.
- Most members seemed to work hard, but yet also clearly felt they could afford to take the time to relax. Even though they are living in as harsh a weather environment as those at Dancing Rabbit, they seemed relatively restful.
- More members of East Wind seemed truly comfortable taking time away from survival efforts to interact with us, than at Dancing Rabbit.
To be fair, Dancing Rabbit is in an active building stage. And East Wind is not. But most stress symptoms we witnessed at Dancing Rabbit seemed more related to the communities’ trade-based, non-NLRBE-like elements, than to its stage of development.
In any event, part of the lower stress, may have come from East Wind’s relatively relaxed labor quota system. The average number of hours typically required per member is on the low end. And there is no labor budgeting done. Similarly, it appears that most any project someone wants to do will likely get approved. This seemed to leave members particularly inspired about their work, and relaxed on their off time.
But I believe the lower stress we witnessed at East Wind was primarily a result of the bigger-picture fact that members were coming together to pool their physical and intellectual resources, as is always the case in egalitarian communities.
Here are some examples of how East Wind pooled resources:
- Instead of six or seven lesser-equipped kitchens, you had one large, well-equipped, industrial kitchen. However, there were a couple of smaller ones as well. But one was in the current family building and another in the former family building. I believe these were created to accommodate the special needs of this group. In other words they enabled caregivers could more easily and frequently feed the children, and themselves when disabled by pregnancy.
- Instead of most folks either frantically trying to make their personal crops or little herds of livestock successful, their online work pay off, and/or competing over the relatively scarce odd jobs, the community was united around a very simple, low labor, high-dollar-per-hour community business, and clearly more manageable and well-managed group ranching and farming efforts than what we saw at Dancing Rabbit. East Wind’s primary business is processing and selling organic nut butters to the wholesale market. That operation, combined with the radical levels of sharing possible within egalitarian 501(d) community, is what has enabled such a low labor quota. That quota is an average of 35 hours per person per week. That number of hours includes all monetary and domestic work, including caring for one’s own children. And only the equivalent of about 5 hours per member of that 35 hours is required to keep East Wind’s business functional. This has resulted in everyone having plenty of time to spare, and low enough stress to enjoy it.
- Instead of some people scrambling to secure basic access to such things as water or shelter, all have come together to make, share, and tend to everything, as they are able. Specifically on the issue of ability and related accommodations, we saw many gratifying examples, including:
- One gentleman, who had a work quota of only 15 hours per week, to accommodate his health challenges.
- And the work quota accommodation made for families were truly breathtaking. There are many details that I do not recall now, but what I do recall is that I was surprised at the large number of hours automatically credited to each parent of a minor child, for their care of that child, and for home schooling parents it was even more. As I recall, new parents were relieved entirely for some time. And homeschooling parents were only required to work five hours per week beyond their child-specific work.
- Elders are also accommodated automatically, just for being elders. Their quota generally drops one hour per week for each year, once they hit a certain age. And it can be much less than that, if/as necessary to accommodate special needs.
That said, as noted earlier, there are aspects of East Wind that I would not recommend integrating into an NLRBE-like intentional community, beyond the dual economy and labor quota elements.
However, I have not witnessed these challenging aspects in other egalitarian communities. And I’m convinced that they are in no way the result of choosing an egalitarian structure.
I believe the core of the challenges are communication-related.
It begins with the fact that East Wind uses a majority-rule decision-making system, rather than consensus. In addition, for apparently most of its history East Wind has not had a robust infrastructure for healing inter or intra-personal conflict.
As a result of these two aspects related to communication, I believe, there are issues that fester and needs that go unaddressed.
For example, I wonder whether or not, with greater emphasis on healing communication, there would be as many people who smoke and drink in the community. It is not happening at a debilitating level. And it is apparently not interfering with East Wind financial well-being, as the community is over 40 years old and has done well financially for most of that time.
But reportedly at times in the past the drinking has been to a point where it’s difficult to communicate at all with certain members. And I wonder how many people are drinking to self-medicate away childhood trauma or on-site conflicts, which other egalitarian communities would deal with through healing interpersonal communication.
That said, lot of what we saw in the realm of drinking and smoking may be cultural as well.
As a Californian, where smoking is banned almost everywhere, it is a completely foreign experience for me to run into smoke as frequently as I did East Wind. True, there was no smoking allowed in or around the family building. But it was the norm to have to walk through a cloud of smoke in order to enter the common house through the front door.
And in my circle, drinking beer, or really drinking at all, is not much done.
But, it’s been pointed out that East Wind has a relatively blue-collar demographic, which is related statistically to at least higher-levels of smoking. After all, they argued, it is located in what some people would consider the upper edge of the south, and focused on what’s essentially factory work for its business.
Compounding the challenges, as one of the co-founders, Deborah, opined, once a culture is set within one of these communities it can be quite difficult to change. For example, she said, she’s completely confident that consensus stood no chance of being adopted by East Wind at this late date. “It would have needed to have been there from the start,” she assured me.
In any event, all of the above left me convinced that I would prefer to see NLRBE-like, egalitarian intentional communities not only use consensus-based decision-making, but also focus more generally on healing interpersonal communication. I’d also like to see them offer plenty of opportunities generally to get help with addictions and other psychological challenges. Finally, I would prefer to see even more visible, on-site opportunities for alternative ways to spend time, on such pursuits as self-actualization, self-improvement, and education.
But again, despite these challenges, I cannot emphasize enough how much the visit to East Wind confirmed my confidence in the egalitarian 501(d) structure for NLRBE-like intentional communities. Perhaps it’s a bit ironic, given the concerns I had about East Wind, but it really was our visit there that cinched this for me.
Conclusion and What’s Next
So, in sum, my biggest take away from this trip was a resurgent interest in 501(d), egalitarian intentional community structures for creating NLRBE-like intentional communities.
This is not to say the 501(d) option is without challenges. And the fact that there would be challenges is not surprising, given that any legal structure is going to be impacted in some negative way, simply by virtue of the fact that it exists within our larger, trade-based, monetary market system. I discussed the particular challenges I see with the 501(d) in this handout, from my talk at last year’s Twin Oaks Communities Conference.
Yet, when I consider the alternatives, I couldn’t feel much more certain about recommending the 501(d) structure, for aspiring NLRBE-like intentional communities.
This resurgent interest in the 501(d) option relates to another big ah-ha I experienced on this trip, that is a desire for legal and accounting simplicity. To that end, there is something so very attractive about the potential for embodying an entire NLRBE-like intentional community vision within one legal entity. Although I could imagine adding an affiliated 501(c)(3), I predict I will not give up on easily on the 501(d)-only vision, given the breathtaking ease and simplicity it offers.
Another, related take away was just how much I value unifying in a quest to reduce labor more generally.
During our visit to Dancing Rabbit and Red Earth Farms, we at times saw levels of overwhelming challenge with daily living that were almost unbearable to witness.
Yet, the NLRBE model envisions attracting all the worlds’ people by offering a sustainable, get comfortable standard of living that allows all the opportunity to scale Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Likewise, I think NLRBE-like intentional communities will attract more people if the infrastructure allows them to self-actualize at the highest level to which they are drawn, rather than be caught up in a vortex of unending manual labor just to survive.
Therefore, I recommend instituting intensive labor as an option, in NLRBE-like intentional communities, but not as a requirement for survival.
In any event, it was a great pleasure to have this opportunity to carefully think through our experiences in Missouri. I will not soon forget the many lessons I learned, as my family and I continue to march forward on this quest to find ingredients for creating NLRBE-like intentional communities.
And I hope reading about these lessons has helped those of you interested in forming or joining NLRBE-like intentional communities. Of course, please don’t take it as the last word on anything whatsoever. Please seek individual and group legal assistance on every aspect of your planning. But I do hope what I covered here at least provide some food for thought and further research.
Well, that’s it for now, except for a heads-up about what’s coming next.
My next step on this quest will bring me only a couple of hours drive from my home. In a few days from now I will be heading to Sowing Circle community and Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC), in Occidental, California. There I will attend a five-day conference on how to start an intentional community.
Sowing Circle Community and OAEC are particularly interesting. The former is an LLC-partnership-based, trade-based intentional community, leasing land to the latter, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The nonprofit was founded by community members. In addition to leasing land to the nonprofit, the community is involved with the nonprofit in that some of its members are employed by it. Therefore, I expect I will learn more than a small a bit about how to integrate a 501(c)(3) into a community’s plan. So, especially if you’re interested in any of that, stay tuned for my next blog post. I hope to get that post out by year’s end.
By Tiffany Clark, an activist attorney, public speaker, and author, working to help us transition to a more sustainable and equitable world. Tiffany lives and works in Sacramento, CA, with her husband, two sons, cat and dog. You can find out more about Tiffany, her activities, and her offerings, as well as read more of her writing, at www.tiffanyclarklaw.com.
“NLRBE-Like Intentional Community Quest – Destination Missouri” by Tiffany Clark is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.