In a time of cascading crises, many paths can lead us to the exploration of ecovillages. My personal curiosity regarding the lore of the ecovillage started when I began working on decentralized currencies in 2016 and, by proxy, found myself wondering about the praxis of decentralized governance. The rabbit-holes there are many, and run deep. A few of them led me to long-standing contemporary intentional communities – including Tamera, Damanhur, Auroville, and the LA Ecovillage (LAEV).
The fantasy of exiting society to turn a desert into a verdant food forest alongside a like-minded commune grows more rational every day, but ultimately presents a complex, many-step process. It’s natural to want to run a comparative analysis to feel grounded when stepping toward such a dramatic alternative. This is why I’m so grateful for the wisdom of Lois Arkin, the woman who started the LAEV and the CRSP Institute for Urban Ecovillages.
Lois, now 85, is an elder who like many of us felt that call, and now has over 40 years of hard-won lessons to share from having persistently followed it. In the text below she reflects on some of her most challenging experiences and offers them as confessions, or reflections on some of the human aspects of coordinating community in our failing age of independence. I asked her permission to share these confessions. You can check out a summary of what LAEV is like, and highlights from my visit here.
(Introduction by Saraswathi Subbaraman)
Confessions of an Ecovillage Founder: Lessons Learned from the LA Ecovillage
A case study in structural conflict* in community
By Lois Arkin, CRSP Institute for Urban Ecovillages at Los Angeles Eco-Village. Originally written in 7/25/07 for a workshop. Updated January 2015, and October 2017
Problem: No Long-Term Commitment from Founding Group.
There was no long term commitment from a founding group, but I charged ahead anyway. Several early volunteers became co-founders and contributed enormously. But ultimately it was quite lonely as they moved on to other interests, though I never would have admitted that in the early years. I was too busy and engaged to know that I was also lonely.
Although I am the only member of the founding group still in residence, most of our now 40 resident members and visitors provide pro-active leadership of the community in more than a dozen committees, and meet weekly as a plenary to make decisions. I think most founders share the dream that someday their communities will function independently, that, should they leave or die, it will live happily ever after without them. Mission accomplished, and it feels great not to be needed.
Problem: Lack of a Common Definition, Vision, History, LAEV Culture.
There was a disconnect between what I thought was a shared common vision and what others perceived as our vision and purpose, and still others who didn’t really think about such things or thought that having a vision at all was irrelevant. Contentiousness began to rear its ugly head between those who felt most of our efforts should be targeted toward social justice, and those who felt that ecological issues were the most important. I was always on the “No ecology, no planet; no planet, no Justice” part of the argument. Of course, several were simply satisfied to live in affordable housing where everyone knew your name, you felt safe, and people didn’t think you were weird if you recycled or composted or didn’t own a car.
And then there was the painful reality of the tensions between founders and those that come after. I was wearing over a dozen hats in those early years, and, often there was no clear communication about what hat I was wearing, a recipe for repeated disasters, not atypical of people who are driven. For years, members called me a “control freak,” and I would feel so unloved and unappreciated, until much later I realized that “If I wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here,” and that it was my gift! And I developed a sense of humor about it to remind folks how fortunate they were that I was a control freak.
There was no commonly understood definition of an “ecovillage,” other than something “Lois goes off at the mouth about on the tours.” Our worldwide reputation as an urban ecovillage long preceded our on-the-ground development activities, so I was always hoping that my early community mates would learn that their neighborhood was famous from someone other than me. Occasionally, that actually happened. A vacationing community member would return and tell me how they met someone in an airport in London that knew all about LAEV!” It felt good.
With lots of hard work and heartache over the years, our three nonprofit development organizations share the common vision of “reinventing how we live in the city.” Our members understand that they are part of a world wide ecovillage movement, and many have visited other ecovillages. Our mission of “Demonstrating higher quality living patterns at a lower environmental impact” is commonly understood by our members. Community members quite naturally participate in the on-going development of the Village, knowing that it is dynamic, fluid and always changing depending on who is here and what gifts and challenges each brings to the community.
Problem: Membership Process Fuzziness.
Initially the membership process was so fuzzy, that all you had to do is say you wanted to live more ecologically and cooperatively, and pass a credit check. I naively felt that if we just collected enough people who felt that way, we would figure out how to live that way together. Several years later, my hard earned wisdom informed me that one had to “demonstrate” that commitment to more ecological and cooperative living patterns. However, what constituted a demonstration was also rather vague, and it was, by that time, up to those who were already here to determine who would be accepted for membership, most of whom had fuzzy criteria for their own admission to the community.
Conflict and divisiveness took their toll on me, and others in the community, as well. I knew academically that communities go through stages just like children (and adults too); but was just too busy wearing too many confusing hats for the community to learn from anything academic sounding. It was more or less eyeball rolling time when Lois brought out books and magazine articles about the very problems we would be struggling with and how other intentional communities resolved them. It was clear that the LAEV community wanted to reinvent the wheel at every turn. The fuzziness began to untangle during our second decade with the help of several retreats facilitated by excellent intentional community process consultants, and, of course, substantial budgeting for their services, which I was greatly relieved to authorize.
There were often tear filled sessions during those retreats. Often I would escape to my apartment for my tears which were sometimes coming from joy because folks were growing and resolving so many issues, and sometimes of pain because of the incessant critical feedback I would regularly receive during such sessions. And later I recall one of our members to whom I was closest to telling me how important it was to show the depth of my emotions to the community. To this day, I am uncertain about what personal growth issues that would have fostered for the community, most of whom, imo, have an abundance of empathy already.
In spite of a fairly tight eight person membership and visitor committee plus well written and consensed upon membership application policies and process, we may be edging toward the opposite direction, that is, being overly tight and less flexible in our membership and visitor process), This often happens, as we have been reminded in Diana Leafe Christian’s books on ecovillages and intentional communities: The entry gate gets tighter and tighter with each bad experience. I feel confident, though, that we are striking a good balance as long as we can keep giving one another helpful feedback.
Problem: No Member Participation Policy or Requirement. No Structure for New Members.
Early co-founders were all dedicated volunteers, including me. I made the faulty assumption that future members would be dedicated volunteers as well. So every aspect of the community moved very slowly, because there was no mandate for participation, no accountability or consequences for those who didn’t participate, and no paid staff. Whoever showed up, we’d figure out something to do together. Having a clear structure with a manual of written roles, responsibilities and accountability for new members would have been a great help, and, I believe, have allowed much more rapid progress. And it is this resource of experience of 100s of intentional communities today that are collected on a series of websites, and shared at several conferences and gatherings for intentional communities across the country and the world.
To get through our membership process generally takes about six months during which time one cannot live in our buildings, so as to avoid the divisiveness that has occurred in the past when the community was split between those who were in favor and those opposed to someone’s membership. Although our participation requirements are still somewhat minimal, we expect much more from our members. We get to know folks pretty well through their regular participation during this six month “candidate” phase of our process. But we don’t schedule a decision on their membership until everyone has gotten to know them well enough to agree on their membership. Essentially, no surprises for the community or the candidate, when their membership comes up for consideration on our weekly agenda.
Problem: Pre-Existing Neighbors.
I clearly did not want to see any involuntary displacement of tenants when we bought each of our three buildings. Having been unfairly threatened with eviction many years earlier in my prior neighborhood when a new landlord wanted to unfairly raise my rent, CRSP even lowered rents when we acquired our first building. This first acquisition of ours, a 40 unit building, was half empty and in near slum-like conditions. I exuded wide-eyed and bushy-tailed enthusiasm for “transforming” our existing building tenants into LAEV intentional community members. I tried to entice them into gardening, recycling, bike riding, composting, energy and water conservation, our local currency, veggie potluck dinners, and more. Many had already lived in our buildings for many years and were already good neighbors, and in some cases, friends with one another, so that was a good sign, but I made no requirement that they join the intentional community, and none ever did.
As new intentional community members began to populate the building, they, too, encouraged the participation of our long term pre-existing renters, but to no avail. Nonetheless, the long term tenants were a friendly presence in our buildings, and I had enough of what to do with building management, recruitment of new members, training, special events, tours, and increasingly painful contentiousness between me and several intentional community members.
Most of our long term renters have moved on. In our now 50 units of housing in three buildings surrounding the intersection of our two main streets, six units are still occupied by the long term renters in our two Urban Soil-Tierra Urbana (USTU) Co-op buildings. Many, of course, have become good neighbors, and some do helpful contract work with our housing co-op* and our land trust* management. Several of them have even taken to gardening, composting, bringing their cloth bags to the market. It still warms my heart and fuels my hope when I see them engaged in such activities. But none have participated in our regular activities: meetings, weekly potlucks, work parties, special events.
Problem: During a Decade of Contentiousness, No Requirement for People in Conflict to Resolve It.
Some people moved here without ever going on an LAEV tour. Some showed no interest in our history or how we got to be and did not show any particular interest in the tours or any of the effort it took to come as far as we had come. Several came to be residents who were anarchistic in negative ways, who, from my perspective, had issues with me or CRSP, our founding organization, that were of the “bottomless pit” variety, including personality disorders.
Some people in conflict would avoid passing one another in the halls or avoid going through certain parts of the buildings or land to avoid the possibility of bumping into someone whom they did not like or were in conflict with. There was endless negative gossip. There were people that tried to set one person against each other, vicious backstabbing and worse. People wrote nasty hurtful attacks on the community listserve and on our public activities schedule white board.
Because I lived in the community, and because I had, from my perspective, transferred decision making authority to the LAEV Intentional Community from the very beginning, and saw myself as just one among many, I did not put a halt to any of this, even though I had the legal authority to do so. And the conflicts affected the quality of life of many other residents. As a result, there were many painful years for me as well as others, and some of our most skilled and congenial members simply moved on, rather than live in such an environment.
Eventually, I learned the difficult lesson: there’s no opting out of responsibility; when the “buck stops here,” you’ve got to deal with it. Being in denial about being responsible is no excuse.
Six members have been trained and certified in Conflict Resolution and comprise our CRT (Conflict Resolution Team). Several of us also have been trained in Nonviolent Communications and try to help one another practice it when anyone gets a little hot under the collar. Folks are expected to resolve their conflicts one on one, but if they can’t, they are responsible to have the CRT help them. Generally, members do not tolerate negative gossip, but will be quick to re-direct any attempt to the person they’re having a problem with. Nonetheless, members will lend a helpful ear and advise one another on problem solving with other members.
Problem: Using Consensus Decision Making and Allowing Untrained People to Be Decision Makers.
This was probably the biggest mistake that I made over the years. I was an idealistic romantic about consensus decision making. I had been on the Fellowship for Intentional Community board for about a decade by the time LAEV got fully underway, and had observed the finest consensus process going on in the U.S. at the time (most of those board members are professional process trainers today). So, I was insistent that we use this process, even when several early LAEV members did not like the idea. “Why can’t we just vote?” I would often hear. I was immobilized by my ideology, and paid the price for it. It resulted in as much as a decade of very slow growth while folks learned how to make decisions together, and until enough of them got enough training and sufficiently empowered to lay down effective rules about our meeting process and hold members accountable to them. But I could have saved myself and a lot of other people a lot of heartache by mandating the trainings earlier as a condition for being part of the decision making group.
Several of our members hold regular workshops on consensus for both our incoming members and visitors and the general public. Our Membership Committee holds comprehensive orientation meetings for candidates for membership and potential visitors. We have rotating facilitation teams at our weekly community meetings. Today, I find our unanimity rule for consensus annoying. I believe we spend far too much time on minutiae that could easily be delegated to the appropriate committee. Sometimes, it seems that there are so many LAEV committee meetings that that is the main way people relate to one another, yet something seems to be going on all the time. Sociocracy is the up and coming decision making process spreading throughout our intentional community, cohousing and ecovillage movements, and I expect it won’t be long before we’re using more of it. I find it frustrating that many members avoid discussing potentially contentious issues outside of a meeting, and yet I think that’s where most of the discussion should take place: informally and without an agenda and without a time constraint! Ultimately, I believe that the more trust there is, the less bureaucracy, so I’d just like to see us work more on that. Though, given what we’ve been through, I’m not complaining.
Problem: Lack of Strategic Planning and Needed Diversity of Expertise and Interests.
Many wonderful people moved to LAEV during our first dozen years; however, we (me, my board, LAEV Intentional Community members) never collectively planned for our future nor tried to specifically recruit people with the skills to implement such a plan. Growing up in my parents’ real estate development business, it kind of seeped into my genes to be a planner, and I made lots of plans, but I just had to let go of that part of me, and let blossom what might. Little by little, I realized this was wonderful. Members were bringing amazing skills, learning, researching, trying different things, so many people doing so many different things and no integrated plan. Members loved each other, got married, had kids, formed close friendships, had fun together. Still in all, good things might have happened much more quickly, had there been strategic planning and strategic member recruitment.
And many pieces of LAEV did indeed happen with individual initiatives in no way controlled by me: woo hoo! By year 25, there is a limited equity housing co-op and a community land trust, a multi-school learning garden, a food co-op, a self-help bicycle repair shop, a toy loan library, a childcare service, an art studio, a sewing studio, a tool shop, permaculture gardens and food forest, greywater systems, a weekly music group, 10 pro-active committees, a variety of workshops and public events, a dozen or so members employed within the community, either self-employed or working with our nonprofit organizations. Often, I am the last person to know what’s going on. And I feel great about that!
* SIX SOURCES OF STRUCTURAL CONFLICT IN INTENTIONAL COMMUNITIES
from the book by Diana Leafe Christian – Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities, pp 7-8.
1. Identify your community vision and create vision documents
2. Choose a fair, participatory decision making process appropriate for your group. And if you choose consensus, get trained in it.
3. Make clear agreements in writing.
4. Learn good communication and group process skills. Make clear communication and resolving conflicts a priority.
5. In choosing cofounders and new members, select for emotional maturity.
6. Learn the head skills and the heart skills you need to know
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