taking it apart
This is a first step from a white male in exploring patterns of patriarchy, white-supremacy, and capitalism in radical organizing and cooperative groups:
I've been politically conscious from an early age. At 8 years old I was aware of George Bush Sr. winning the election from Michael Dukacas, and believed that meant more nuclear weapons, more war, more money into the SDI. Some of my earliest memories are from Twin Oaks Community, where my parents met, from a visit when I was 4. I grew up knowing there was this whole other way of living, and never really felt comfortable in the mainstream - things just never seemed to make sense. I was raised as a feminist, an environmentalist, and a socialist. The ideals of consensus and cooperation were never explicitly spelled out, but they were the norm. No wonder the mainstream world felt weird.
It wasn't until I was 18 that I was exposed to radical, alternative lifestyles. I spent the summer caught up with Earth First! and enjoying a quintessential commune experience at East Wind Community. It didn't take much after that to "drop out." My radical sociology professors at UC Santa Cruz gave me all the facts I needed to support my objections to the institutional structure of mainstream society. After I missed the deadline to declare my major, the administration put a hold on my enrollment unless I signed up for specific classes. I didn't want my education controlled. But even more, I just didn't care anymore. The allure of a diploma just wasn't enough.
I'd been living at the Cesar Chavez Student Housing Cooperative, helping rejuvenate the house from a decrepit state, avoiding a lawsuit from the city, leading new policy changes, assisting in re-writing the membership contract, and acting as membership coordinator. I'd found my calling.
I'd been shopping for my brand of activism. Seeking and fostering deeply intimate relationships that helped the individuals involved grow and evolve had always been important to me. And collective living offered a satisfying expression of my environmentalist and cooperative values. At 19 years old I found myself in something of a homecoming, moving to Twin Oaks where I was to spend the next 8 years.
During my tenure at Twin Oaks I became an activist for intentional community. I organized for the Twin Oaks Communities Conference. I provided the bulk of energy and motivation for the Federation of Egalitarian Communities for several years. I helped build a relationship between the intentional communities movement and the student cooperative movement. I went to numerous conferences, gatherings, festivals, colleges, talking and giving workshops. I was a believer.
About 4 years ago I organized a panel discussion at the Communities Conference on "the state of the movement." I remember one of the panelists asserting that the question, do you want more community in your life is an easy one to get a yes, but most people are never going to live in intentional community. I was incensed, but also afraid. I didn't want to consider that he might be right.
Now, I agree. The Twin Oaks bylaws define the community's purpose thusly: "Together our aim is to perpetuate and expand a society based on cooperation, sharing, and equality... [w]hich serves as one example of a cooperative social organization, relevant to the world at large...." I took this very seriously, and resisted any energy in the community that wasn't in line with this. Perhaps I am just jaded and bitter, but I think the relevance of Twin Oaks, and of the intentional communities movement, is limited, and getting smaller.
I use to resist the notion that living on a rural commune was escapist. It's part of building the alternative! Finding the systems and structures that will replace those in the mainstream once unsustainable social, economic, and environmental practices demand that things change! I still believe this is true, but I also think that it is a form of escapist. Worse, at this point, it's hard not to see the intentional communities movement as another form of white flight.
The movement is predominantly made up of white, middle class individuals, and thus the culture is predominantly an extension of white, middle-class culture. This is a culture that is still very steeped in patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism. Looking from any historical perspective, this decreasingly so, but to some extent these patterns have simply become more insidious and subversive, enabled by the tendency of those on the left to assuage their guilt by tokenism and self-congratulation.
Intentional communities cannot be "relevant to the world at large" if they do not address this. The systems and structures for cooperative organization will not be accessible. A global perspective is necessary for intentional communities to develop in such a way that they effectively address unsustainable and unjust practices and policies in the mainstream, and this will only happen if mutually supportive, peer-based, cross-cultural relationships are developed.
While I still have a close relationship with Twin Oaks I have been consciously divesting my identity from the community over the last year. My experiences during this period have assisted in a re-evaluation of the intentional communities movement, paralleled with an investigation into urban working and housing collectives movement, and a renewed education in anti-patriarchy and anti-racism theory and practice.
I recently spent several months living at Tryon Life Community Farm in Portland, OR where I was fortunate to participate in an anti-racism training. Early in the training the question was raised of how racism expressed itself in the community (at the time in that group there was a woman of Lebanese decent, a woman of Persian decent, and a woman of white, Jewish, and Persian decent.) I wanted to learn so I decided to display my ignorance. I didn't see racism in the community, I said. I seemed like everyone actively expressed west-coast, new-age, hippie culture, and I didn't see any difference in how people related to each other.
The answer I got was very edifying: There are parts of ourselves that we simply don't express in white culture. We've learned how to assimilate and you're simply not aware of it. The culture you take for granted is the norm. That's racism, that's white supremacy.
I reflected back to Twin Oaks. In the last couple years of my time there we'd had a surprising influx of 4 African-American women over the course of a couple years. Two we're half white, two were not. The two that were not got into bitter conflicts with various other members of the community, as well as the systems and structures, and left in state of mutual enmity. Of the two that we're half white, the one that had been raised more in black culture also struggled with the passive-aggressiveness and indirect communication prevalent in the community. While she mostly "fit in" and was a "hard-working, respected member of the community," she also ended up in some bad conflicts with people and ultimately left. The last of the four, raised in a military family, the one who was the most calm, reasonable and conflict averse, is still there, and is a well loved and respected member.
Early in my time at Tryon I went to a conference called Beyond Patriarchy, at the University of Oregon, in Eugene, where I'd been invited to lead a workshop on men and feminism. I'd given men's issues workshops several times in the past. I was invited to lead based on piece I wrote after facilitating two discussions on sexism at Twin Oaks last winter.
Going to the conference I decided to take the opportunity to practice my feminism. In workshops I attended I focused on listening, and made sure that there were at least a few women who spoke more than me. I made a point of staying aware of my tendency to evaluate women from a sexual perspective and focused on relating to people in a non-sexualized, non-gendered manner.
I went to a workshop on the historical and cultural background to women's reproductive rights. The participants were told that, according to historian Gerda Lerner, in one of the earliest written code of laws, from the Sumerians circa 5000 BCE, something like half the laws involved curtailing the rights of women. The most brutal punishments were reserved for women who practiced abortion, while the rights of men to expose unwanted infants were upheld.
Through this workshop the thing that I got the most was how patriarchy has for millenia not only systematically disempowered women, but taught women to distrust themselves. I realized on a deeper level than every before that for all my insecurities and negative self-messaging, I still tend to assume a sense of confidence and superiority in expressing my opinions and ideas, and that this is not the norm for women. I shared this with a friend who offered a quote they'd recently read. The person said that they thought that "as men get older many for the first time begin thinking maybe they were wrong. Whereas women, as they get older, for the first time begin thinking maybe they were right."
While in Portland, my partner and I, in preparation for relocating to Charlottesville, VA (the city nearest Twin Oaks) with the plan of helping start some kind of multi-faceted urban community project, interviewed people from about a dozen different collectives and non-profits. We learned a lot about what has worked and what hasn't worked for these groups, which was very similar to what we knew about the dozens of intentional communities and cooperatives we'd collectively visited during our time at Twin Oaks. Many of these themes related to the new depth of understanding I was gaining about patterns of patriarchy and white supremacy, patterns that I believe also often relate to the culture of capitalism. This in turn related to conversations I'd been having with a good friend at Tryon about leadership, and the need to find a true expression of cooperative leadership. All of a sudden I was realizing how even the most radically oriented cooperative groups that I knew of were still fundamentally struggling with this stuff, sometimes in very obvious ways.
This needs to change, I thought. When I get back to C'ville I need to get more training in this stuff. I need to figure out how to build cross-cultural, cross-race relationships as a foundation to the organizing work I want to do. I need to help my white, intentional communities associates recognize and counter the effects of the patriarchy, white-supremacy, capitalism bloc.
But what's the way out, I began asking myself? Rebecca, a new friend, professor at Portland State University, and anti-racism activist, had been providing me with language and a theoretical frame work for what I was experiencing. She sent me a link to an organization providing workshops on challenging white-supremacy. Their website states, "Challenging White Supremacy (CWS) workshop organizers believe that the most effective way to create fundamental social change in the U.S. is by building mass-based, multi-racial grassroots movements led by radical activists of color." That list bit really triggered me. But I'd been so engaged in this stuff that I recognized I was being triggered. Okay, I thought, is this my white supremacy expressing itself? After a couple days I realized, yeah, putting myself under the leadership of people of color, and women, would probably do me a lot of good.
All this has lead me to a question that's been guiding my thinking for the last few weeks: how would our ways of engaging with each other and our methods of organizing change if they came from women and people of color? I'm only beginning to explore this question, both within myself as a white male, and in conversations with others, and further writings will follow. To bring this first step of exploring these ideas to a close, here is a list of the ways of engaging and methods of organizing I see as stemming from patriarchy and white supremacy present in alternative circles (thanks to Kassia for helping me flesh out this list.)
1. Cooperative groups tend to be formed by or around one or two highly motivated individuals, who tend to be white men. This tends to create power struggles between the "founders" and other members of the group, especially if significant property
2. Many members of cooperative groups tend to have an almost exclusively inward-looking perspective on their group, as opposed to seeing it in the context of a larger movement or larger society.
3. Many members of cooperative groups participate in those groups out of a sense of image or exclusive cultural identity.
4. There tends to be a focus on theoretical, visionary ideas and concepts as opposed to relationships and practical, hands activities
5. Individuals in cooperative groups tend to work in isolation as opposed to working in concert with each other on projects and activities.
6. The driving motivation for organizing tends to be around some kind of revolutionary political critique or ideology as opposed to having a spiritual, humanitarian, or earth-based orientation.
7. The atmosphere of work and living environments tends to be goal and productivity oriented, on doing and accomplishing, as opposed to loving, caring, peaceful, and nurturing. Spaces tend to be disorganized. Aesthetics of calm and comfort and basic needs like healthy food are deprioritized.
8. There is limited space for emotional struggle or expression. Sharing about one's personal life is a byproduct of working together as opposed to being a core component.