Adventures In Egalitarian Living

by Jon Dumont

(originally published in �Permaculture Activist� #46, July 2001)
Seven friends got together in 1995 to buy two houses in the central
district, Seattle�s poorest, hence most affordable urban neighborhood.
The idea was to form an intimate, family style commune that made
decisions by consensus. We saw too many people living their lives in
meaningless isolation, killing themselves at jobs they didn�t care
about, and that weren�t benefiting anyone except the rich. Community
struck us as a sustainable solution. Admittedly, it isn�t much done,
and seems extremely frightening, even un-American (whatever that means)
to most. But as we found out when we began to nose around, there is a
vital movement out there, that believes in what it is doing, and is
eager to provide information to help others plug in.
Our first official decision after we moved onto the property
was to call ourselves the Jolly Ranchers. Jolly Ranchers makes us
laugh, and seems a mild antidote to the common ailment of choosing a
name that sounds like a retirement village. So far we haven�t been sued
for copyright infringement.
Our purchase of these modest, cheaply built homes was the culmination
of several years of intense dialog concerning ideology, lifestyle,
compatibility, geographical and demographic need, finances, psychology,
and child rearing. Initially, more than twenty of us were involved in
this conversation. A core of us had gone to college together at the
University of Maine, and had somehow managed to maintain unusually
close ties over the years, despite the many expected and unexpected
life changes and large doses of middle class drift. Our numbers
dwindled as the conversation became more focused. It was a little sad
whenever someone backed away from the project, but degree of commitment
was what we were trying to determine. Finally, after several years of
chatter, the time had come to put up or shut up.
None of us had very much money, and the only way we were able to
bankroll this project was through collectivization of resources. Alone
we were probably going to be renters for life. Two of us were
self-employed artists, four of us were human service workers, and one
of us was a union organizer. The overhead on the property was high, so
we were all working full time at our jobs in addition to scrambling to
create a large common space out of a basement, fixing the many things
that were broke, and painting whatever was drab. It is fun to think
back on those days. We may have been short on experience and know how,
but we lacked nothing in terms of sweat and idealism. Fixing it Up
The newer of our two houses was built substantially from found,
donated, or second hand materials, and we have continued those
practices, both inside and outside the homes whenever we can. Though it
is almost prohibitively expensive, we have used blow down timber, and
non-toxic paints. Almost all of the furniture in both houses has been
gotten by means other than the retail store and the checkbook.
Fortunately for us, people are always throwing away perfectly good
couches, dressers and lamps.
When we bought the property, it was rather weed strewn and overgrown.
The previous owner had planted some peach and apple trees, but they had
been neglected for some years. We started to rehab the yard by
liberally making and using compost and mulch to help rebuild a healthy
soil ecosystem. To the existing edible landscape, we added pear and
plum trees as well as a wide variety of cultivated and native berries.
During the past year, our resident gardener has largely focused on
recreating northwest native habitat (including a small pond) around the
periphery of the property using many salvaged plants from local
development sites. It is important to us to use plants all through our
landscape that attract and support beneficial insects, such as mason
bees. Additionally, we build a small greenhouse, again, largely out of
donated materials. In it, we can grow things like tomatoes and grapes
that require more heat units than our cool summers provide. And, of
course, we are totally organic.
The first major stumbling block that the Ranch had to face arose when
we were trying to make a decision about money sharing. This concept was
extremely important to some of us, and as inseparable from notions of
egalitarianism as consensus based decision-making. The idea that we
would be a money sharing community had been a part of our conversations
from the beginning, but it became extremely contentious once we began
to try in earnest to nail it down. All sorts of fear and mistrust began
to rise to the surface and our house meetings became sullen and polite
at best, blameful and teary-eyed at worst. After trying hard to work it
out, our two resident blacksmiths decided to leave the community.
We were unprepared for an exodus this early in the project, and
dismayed that it occurred over this topic. There were resentments and
hurt feelings all around. Obviously we did not possess the
communication skills that we thought we did. Our learning curve was
daunting. However, we managed to handle Lauren and Matt�s departure in
a fair and agreeable manner, and we remain friends. Tuning the System
Six years later we are still money sharing, and it has never
been a problem at the Ranch. We�ve fine-tuned our system, but it
remains essentially what we agreed to in the autumn of �95. Members are
encouraged to work at jobs that are both personally satisfying and
socially beneficial. The commune�s governing philosophy is strongly
anti-capitalist, so what we would consider right livelihood usually
falls in the human service, activist, or artistic realms. We value flat
or nonexistent hierarchies, are critical of sharply defined job
divisions, and certainly don�t want to see anyone making a profit off
the backs of others.
The number of hours that we each work is also a personal decision, but
open to discussion depending on how the community�s finances are
looking at that particular time. Generally speaking, we want to be a
group of people who are maximizing the time that we can spend with each
other, and engaged in the activities that hold the most passion for us.
All of us deposit their earned income into the Jolly Rancher account.
As of this writing, everyone receives a $250 monthly stipend for
personal expenditures. The stipend does not include medical bills not
covered by personal insurance nor vacation expenses (subject to a group
decision by consensus), both of which the Ranch routinely pays. If a
person is only working twenty hours for pay, it is assumed that they
are spending their time in a way that is directly or indirectly
benefiting either the Ranch or the larger community, perhaps by
gardening, maybe by reading philosophy, possibly by engaging in civil
Members have used some of the time gained by living in community to
contribute to many worthwhile projects over the last six years. Energy
has gone toward becoming active in the local community council,
volunteering for a preschool literacy program, writing grants and
organizing local gardeners toward the purchase of the neighborhood
p-patch, and participating in various actions sponsored by Earth First,
and Food Not Bombs.
During the protests of the WTO beginning N30, the Ranch was able to
house more than 30 activists who had traveled from out of state to make
some noise and let the world know how they felt. It was an inspiring,
chaotic week. We are proud of the many ways in which the Ranch was able
to help during this historic action. Two of us spent the week in jail
for exercising their right to free speech. It might have been more
difficult for us to make the decision to get arrested without the
financial stability and moral support that comes from living in
Meeting the Challenges
Since we began, we have met as a community - somewhat less than
religiously - once a week for at least an hour, and occasionally for an
entire day. On average, our meetings run a fast-moving two hours.
First, everyone gets a chance to check in with the group about how they
are feeling, and chat a bit about significant events in their week.
Anything can be a topic for the body of the meeting. A lot of it is
financial, material or chore oriented, and we can often push through
those pretty quickly. Someone facilitates, and that duty rotates each
week, but anyone is free to contribute additional facilitation at any
time. We try to adopt a listening posture: give the speaker time to
finish her thought, ask probing questions of the speaker rather than
immediately contributing additional content, really know what the topic
is, and move the conversation vertically rather than horizontally.
Meetings have remained informal over the years. Some have felt that it
is confoundingly structureless, but we think that our meetings
encourage a high degree of personal responsibility, and allow for
flexible and creative solutions.
Our practice of consensus is similarly informal. A decision is only
considered final when everyone truly believes that they can live with
it. An objection to a proposal should be made using the framework of
our mission statement. We try to avoid the tyranny of the most
articulate by actively encouraging the more reticent among us to speak
their mind, and by providing lots of space, and what is hopefully a
comfortable environment in order to figure out what it is they want to
say. This process can be messy, painful and slow. However, it also
feels very empowering, and often results in solutions to problems that
would probably have not have been uncovered through any other method.
When we have made a good decision, every one of us feels included and
knows that they contributed to strengthening and deepening any proposal
that we have agreed upon.
House meetings are at their most interesting when the topic is
interpersonal. By intention our lives are more interdependent than
most, so shit definitely comes up. At some point or another we all have
become angry, hurt, and entrenched, unable to see the part that we have
played in the misunderstanding, and in need of assistance to
communicate clearly, and to restore what passes for harmony at the
Ranch. No one has to talk about their issues in group, though everyone
is encouraged to, but everyone must be willing to talk through their
conflict with the other involved party(s) at some point and in a
fashion agreeable to all. Brushing a problem under the rug is not
acceptable. We have found that, in general, the presence of a group of
people who we care about, and who care about us, helps to make it
easier to talk about a tough issue. We use a m�lange of communication
techniques borrowed from Dr. David Burns, and Dr. Marshall Rosenberg,
among others. Simply put, their suggestions have helped us to talk
about what we want, (staying in the �I�) rather than characterizing the
behavior of others, which is often inaccurate, and almost always
contentious. We want people to take responsibility for their own
emotions, and be clear, direct, honest, immediate and, when possible,
compassionate. All of this is easier understood than accomplished, but
having clear goals and guidelines is a great place to begin.
A Community that Shares
Obviously, our standard of living is high with less income
because of the advantages of an economy of scale. Two houses full of
people share a lot of resources, which cuts way down on expensive and
wasteful duplication. Our groceries are much cheaper than if we lived
alone or in pairs, which gives us the freedom to buy higher quality,
less toxic food.
We own one automobile, one refrigerator, one stove, one stereo, and
probably only one of anything else you can think of. When something
breaks, we pay for the repair out of our joint account.
In the fall of �98 the Jolly Ranchers joined the Federation of
Egalitarian Communities, and co-hosted, along with the Beacon Hill
House, another Seattle based community, the twice-annual assembly. The
FEC is a network of communes that holds its property and labor in
common, practices non-violence, incorporates an equitable form of
decision making, acts to preserve natural resources, does not permit
discrimination on the basis of race, class, creed, ethnicity, age, sex,
or sexual orientation, and creates processes for group communication.
It is important to us to be a part of a larger movement. As late
capitalism�s circus draws to its painful conclusion, we believe that
the network of intentional communities will undoubtedly play a
significant part in whatever social reformation may then begin to
Of the seven founding Jolly Ranchers, three remain. Though not
what we expected, or hoped for, all of the other communities that we
know of have similar rates of attrition. In fact, the life expectancy
of a new community is something like two years. The Ranch has had some
tough times, but right now it feels pretty healthy. We remain full, or
close to full, by accepting temporary members, people who want to stay
at the Ranch for a year. They cost share, but do not money share, and
have consensus only on matters that concern them directly for the time
of their stay, and not on physical plant changes at all. Of course,
their opinions are valued on every topic. We enjoy having temporary
members, and if we did not accept them, bedrooms would remain empty for
long periods of time. It turns out that people who are interested in
money sharing in an urban commune are few and far between. We get as
many inquiries as we can handle, and lots of requests for temporary
membership, but in our experience it is rare for someone who has not
lived in an FEC community before to have considered putting their
politics in play on this level. Except within the confines of the
nuclear family, income sharing remains a taboo.
Warts and All
There are several downsides to having a two-tiered community.
The most obvious and problematic is that there is a huge power
imbalance. Temporary members feel, well, temporary. They do not own the
property, and feel that they have less of a voice. The permanent
members feel powerful and clumsy, and are always self-conscious and
apologetic about the difference. It turns out that landlords suffer
too. The other major downside is that, although temporary members
always bring a lot of excitement and new energy to the Ranch, building
an intimate relationship with someone who has decided a priori to stay
a year feels provisional in a project that intends to be life-long. We
talk about this a lot, and have mitigated some of the problems, but
they will never go away. We would love to be full of permanent members,
and it may be that even before that happens, we will decide to no
longer accept temporary members.
Everything that the Ranch is doing now is subject to change.
The only things that we can expect to remain constant are the
principals that guide us. The Jolly Rancher Project has been a wicked
ride so far. I have learned more in the last six years than at any
other time in my life. That�s not to say that lots of it hasn�t been
difficult; it has been. Taking a long honest look at the way that
society has shaped and even warped us is not always pleasant, although
it is probably necessary. The first summer that we were together, at
the beginning of each house meeting, a playing card would be dealt to
each of us and, without looking at it we would place it up on our
forehead so that everyone else could see its value. This always broke
the ice, and made us erupt into nervous laughter. We don�t do that
anymore, but I still appreciate the power of the metaphor. Those who
love us can often see who we are in both our strength and our weakness
more clearly than we. And they can help.