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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

40 Years in Community

An Interview with Michael Johnson of the Ganas Intentional Community

June 8, 2020
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Ebony Gustave: Hello, Michael. How are you?

Michael Johnson: Very good, Ebony. Thank you for the interview. Looking forward to it.

EG: Yeah. Thank you so much for joining me. I am with Cooperative Journal, a website that focuses on different interviews with different cooperative models around the world. And so I'm so excited to learn about Ganas' intentional community.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. So just tell me, how did Ganas get started?

MJ: Well, the Ganas community -- we're located in Staten Island, New York -- got started in 1980 and we weren't thinking in terms of starting an intentional community. In fact, hardly any of the original six or seven people even knew that entity called "intentional community." That happened later on.

But basically, everyone of that original group had been concerned in various kinds of ways, and through various kinds of experiences, with the fact that people who really want to do something special and they want to be in it together constantly run into the problems that anyone is going to run into when they work together or try to create something together. And far more often than not, they wouldn't really be able to deal with those problems right at a certain point. And, what usually happens when they got to that point is, if the project continued, it fell back into the old pattern of decisions being made behind closed doors, and the bitching and moaning happening out by the water-cooler, symbolically speaking.

And, So we were wanting to come together, work and live together, and the objective was to kind of be a laboratory in which we were both guinea pigs and the lab coats, because we knew if we started doing something together, the problems would come up.

Ah, here we go! Now we have this situation. Why is it so difficult to talk to each other about what's going on, and what's wanted, and what we can do to to make things work better?

And one of us had developed a -- she was a longtime psychotherapist, and a group therapist. She had started a private school to develop a trend called Human Relations Educators. She had eventually evolved a thing called feedback learning. And that was basically: what can we do to learn how to be available to receive information about my own performance, how I'm impacting other people in the group or in the situation, or whatever? How am I impacting myself, that's frustrating me from getting the things that I want in my life? To be able to be more open to that kind of information, and to learn how to give that information as well as possible.

And that's how it all started. A group of people that wanted to engage in that project.

EG: So does the feedback learning still continue at Ganas?

MJ: The first fifteen to twenty years, it was an intense focus of the community. And in that same period, we expanded from that group of six or seven to almost 100 people living together in 10 houses, and operating three distinct retail businesses, all focused on recycling. And since then, in the next half of our 40 year history has been much less of an intense focus on it.

It was like a 24/7 project for a very long time. And people reached the point, you know, just other things in life to do. But we wanted to keep the community and we wanted to sustain the culture. So our engagement in the feedback learning was very instrumental in developing the culture of the community. And so that has continued. The feedback learning is an underlying practice. But we haven't really developed it and expanded it, or taking it to other levels. So yes and no. That's the answer to your question.

EG: So how much property does Ganas own? And how did you acquire it?

MJ: At the present time we have seven residential buildings and five commercial buildings. We have one combination residential-commercial building that is being leased by another group. So that's no longer part of the of the community. And the question, how did we acquire it really opens up into a major part of the whole culture.

The original group, very soon after we got together, made a very clear decision that this is going to be a lifelong project, probably. And I'd like to be part of it. And we would like to be part of it. So we decided to pool all our resources. Money, skills, heart, everything, as much as possible. So out of that original group, there was one who worked on Wall Street and one who was a medical doctor and hospital administrator. So they were making rather large salaries and all of this was being pooled.

And one of the one of the guiding principles from the very beginning also was that everyone's work engaged in this project is of equal value. There isn't anything that's more important than what the other person is doing. So all of that sharing was valued as an equal. We've included inheritance in that pooling to some extent. And there's so much stuff we have and it's been, you know, kind of, well, a flexible item.

But anyway, it is through the income sharing that was part of this, sharing everything that we accumulated the capital, so that when more people came we would buy another house. More people would come and we would buy a house. And we decided to open up a retail business and we had the capital to buy the building. And prices at that time were much more realistic than they are now. And so over a period of about 10, 12 years, we went from owning one house to owning ten and five commercial buildings. And then, when we decided to step back from the intense focus of the research project, we started also to reduce the size of the community, to bring the scope of work down to a more manageable level. And so since then, [indecipherable] instead of having ten residentials we had seven.

EG: And so you noticed that there still wasn't a sort of hierarchy, despite having people that had higher societal status in terms of income versus those that did it and what they contributed.

MJ: Well, I'm going to have to step back a little bit to give more context, ok? So, when we started the project, we found people who were attracted to the project in various kinds of ways. Most of the people that were attracted to it, and came to it, and joined with us were not interested in pooling their resources, as we were. The we should...[indecipherable] has a very [indecipherable] core group.

So, we had people who were living here, and over the years that expanded. The people living here who were very interested in the project, but in a more limited way. And then we had people who were really interested in living here because it was a really cool place to live, but they were not that interested in the project. So they didn't become part of the project, but they were within the culture, that embraced the whole the whole community because the people involved in the project were really the ones generating and developing the culture that we developed.  

And that's probably one of the key things, at least for me, that I've learned is that you create a way of life by creating a culture. You generate the structures to serve the way of life you want.

So it's the culture has a much more primary role than the structures, because if the structures aren't serving the way you want to work, you change them. And the structures impact the way of life, of course, and so it's a reciprocal thing. But the really dynamic force of an organization or a community, is the culture.

So there were a lot of the people who came who weren't really interested in the project, that kind of covered a whole range of people who were just there. It's very affordable. And that's served a very strong purpose. Many people have come because they had a project, a short term project, a training project or something, in New York City and they found this to be a very convenient way to live on a temporary six month, eight month basis, whatever. We've had people who come and wanted to spend a month just visiting New York City. And we've had people who just say, "you know, this is really cool, I like it and I just just want to be here. And I don't necessarily want to be part of anything in any kind of major way." So we've had always this range of people within the life of the community.

EG: I think that's so important, because based off of the intentional communities that I've gone to - I mean, I'm sure they all adhere to the shared value system that you guys have, but it's the ones that I have visited, it seems to be this very -- everyone has these idealistic values, and if you're not a part of every single thing that they do, then you can't be a part of the community like this really intense screening process and consensus and everything. And so, I think having different tiers of people that are involved in the community can help it be more long lasting and slow.

MJ: Egalitarian communities, like Twin Oaks, is like what you describe. But they've lasted a long time. So I don't know how much, you know, that plays into the factor of long-lasting. So we're definitely not an egalitarian community, because our decision-making rests with the core group and an extended group of people who want to be active in the management of the community, whether they're actually filling a pay roll, or whether they're, you know, "I've got the time and the energy" and it's to whatever extent that they do.

Five days a week, in the morning, we have a meeting called the planning session. And this is where we try to deal with whatever needs to be dealt with in the operations of the community. This is relationships, policies, pragmatic "how we're going to get this to there and then get that back over to here," all the logistics, whatever it is involved. This is where the feedback learning and the being open to communication and the whole idea of wanting to hear the other person, what they're thinking, is sustained and practiced.

We found that if there is a conflict, and the people can move into a space where they will want to hear the others, then we can think together and then we can resolve the conflict. We don't always do that, you know, but we have a lot of substantial success in doing that, and that's really been the key piece -- from my perspective the key piece that's fed the longevity of the community and also the balance that we have.

So rather than prevent conflict, we allow it. That's part of life and then we do our best in working with it and making the most of it, because it also brings real opportunity. It opens up your mind to different ways of thinking.

I remember one time we were in a meeting, it was about one of the stores and one person on the staff of the store was making a very strong proposal by changing a major way, the store operated. And she explained it and laid it outk you know. My response was "that doesn't make any sense." And someone else in the group said, "Michael, it doesn't make any sense to you, but it's making a lot of sense to her. You've got to understand how that makes sense to her in order to understand that proposal." So that just like a moment when I really, really got what we were trying to do at a much deeper level.

So that's the whole way that we try our best to approach conflict. Really trying to get a sense of what this means to the other, and what it means to the people who are being impacted so that everyone is getting more and more information about the full scope of the issue and the dynamics underlying the issue. A lot of times the conflict isn't with the actual strategic or policy or practical implementations. It's about there's something else going on between you and me that's not working here. And that's what we need to get to. And that's about the capacity that we've been able to develop to a very significant extent. I think it's it's one of the major lackings in the overall society that people just don't know how to deal with those things effectively, and they don't help with. It goes back to the original purpose of why we started out to begin with.

EG: So it seems like you guys really value open communication. And how do you do that while still adhering to your values and being respectful of each other?

MJ: Well, the way you're presenting the question suggests that there's a conflict between the two, and I don't think there is a conflict between the two. I think the only way -- if you and I are in some kind of a real strong disagreement, my way of respecting you and your way of respecting me involves hearing me. If I'm not willing to hear you, I'm not respecting you. I think that people really want to respect each other, but when somebody has something to say that really threatens me because I do have my identity, I have fixed identity, there's there's a certain fixedness to it. My basic security is anchored in many ways to who I think I am. Whether that's logical or not logical.

And so the conflict comes when there's something about what you're saying to me that's disturbing me. So what is it? I mean, you just saying something to me. You might be saying, "You are a typical white male and this is the way you're coming across, and this is you're doing this and this is really imposing on me in ways I don't want to be imposed on." And, I'm going like, "No, I'm not doing that." And then all we're gonna do is battle.

So the question is, how can you say that, because that's what's going on for you. That's your truth, your reality. How can I become able to accept and receive your reality, so I can then evaluate it? I can't evaluate it unless I really get it, right? Because I don't know what I'm evaluating unless I get it. I don't have to agree with you. And we can that could be a whole other part of the conversation, but I have to get it first. So my respecting you is giving you this place to get your point, your experience, through to me. And you're respecting me as to respect the struggle that I might have in doing that. And we've got a group of people with us who are all contributing and helping to do that.

And I would rapidly add "if we can," because sometimes we don't. I think that we've all embedded in embodied cultures of our previous situations that are full of unresolved conflicts, because we don't know how to get to them in a constructive way.

And that's that was the whole point of the project. I mean, I've just beenn learning more and more and more about how complicated and difficult this is, and how challenging it is. And so the experiment has worked enormously well in terms of,"oh, wow, that's involved, too? That's another part of it? That's another piece?" And then that opens up more questions. You know, it isn't that we've come up, "Ahh, here is the way." It's just like we're there trying to do it as well as we can. And we've been able to do that for 40 years. That's rather substantial, I think.

EG: Definitely. Yeah, it's constantly evolving. And so how have you sustained Gana for 40 years and how will it continue?

MJ: We've sustained it by being able to stick to trying to live it. And we've been able to develop enough skills, and caring, and concern, connection with each other, and to value what it is that we've been learning, and appreciating everyone's efforts to incorporate this so that we can have a richer and fuller life. And to try to help people who come in who are like, "Oh my God, what are you doing?" to understand what we're doing.

But the key to the sustaining is we're primarily interested in listening and understanding. And then we can start to think together and work out what needs to be worked out. I think many things fail, not because the original purpose is off, not because the desire for it to work is off, or though a lot of times the necessary physical and financial resources are adequate enough to get going. But we just simply can't deal with this stuff that we have to deal with between us, without it turning into something more negative than it was before.

EG: Yeah. I think a lot of conflicts comes out of a lack of understanding and just receptivity in general. You can't understand somebody if you're not listening, if you're just waiting to impose your beliefs upon somebody else.

MJ: And listening involves so much more than I thought listening invovled. I was listening and getting logical stuff that I could argue with. But that, so many times, just didn't didn't capture what was going on for the other person and what they were trying to communicate.

EG: And so how has being in New York City been a challenge for being a community?

MJ: Well, there's an assumption that it's a challenge because it's New York City. I think almost all of us would say, "God it's wonderful!" I mean, it was in fact, in -- most of those six or seven people who started it were out in San Francisco when they made the decision that they wanted to do this.

And I said, "Well look, I mean, New York City is the best place to do it. You can really be crazy in New York City where you can't be so crazy in other places." So the choice was to do it in New York City. And there's just fascinating resources in New York City and New York City exists because it's able to manage an enormous amount of diversity. So, yeah, New York City, definitely for me, it has been a major asset for doing this.

EG: You also acquired the land during the right time in New York City. Like now to start a community in New York City, it's almost unattainable because of the higher rent costs. And also in the 80s it was an interesting time because a lot of landlords were abandoning buildings and people were squatting, and alot of those are now cooperative housing. So, yeah, it's become more structured now to attain housing in New York, I would say.

MJ: Yes, that's very, very true. I mean, it's been an enormously different market. However, you can immediately step back from that and say, "OK, what's going to happen now as a result of the pandemic? How is that going to change things? What are the opportunities going to be?".

When we came to New York, we had an intention. And the marketplace was more supportive of that by far than what it would be now, or what it would have been yesterday. Because now we don't know where tomorrow is going to be.

But if the intent is to create a place where people can really relate, and talk to each other, and work through problems in order to make the whole thing work better. I have worked so much better as a result of being here and that's been -- my transformation, in that regard, has been a one of my major contributions to the development of the community. That is where the individual and the social become mutually supportive, mutually contributing, that we're not at odds. "What do I have to do to get what I want here?" becomes less and less and less of an issue.

I mean. We're born, and we have this wonderful gift of a life, and I can't make much of it without other people. It starts with my parents and my siblings, you know. And so if people want to create a space in which they are going to get the most from each other, in order to make that community more beneficial to everybody, it can be done. But it takes one hell of a lot of work. And you can't think that starting a worker cooperative, or starting an intentional community is what will make it work. They're are better structures for this, but the structure doesn't make it work. You make this structure work.

EG: Yeah, like you were saying, it's the culture that encompasses the structure.  That's really what makes it. And so what would be the process of becoming a member of Ganas?

MJ: Well, right now, given the pandemic, everything is stopped in terms of new people coming in. But the basic way it has been -- and I assume whenever we can resume it, we'll resume it -- is, "hey, you sound like you have an interesting thing going on. I want to come and live there, or come and check it out so I can see if it's really something I want to do." "All right, come. Come and find out what it works for you." You will have to have enough money to cover the monthly dues, which is basically nine hundred and twenty dollars, and then a deposit of nine hundred and twenty. And that $920 covers everything you get living here, which is those five cooked dinners a week, the toilet paper, the toothpaste, the kitchen that is kept stocked. Each house has its own kitchen. They're all stocked five days a week, etc, etc, etc.. Internet, social life, you know, the whole nine yards -- or the whole nine hundred twenty yards. So we're open to that. A lot of people say, "I can't do that and I need to have work." Well, we can't provide work. We can only provide the work that we actually have. And so we have two stores now and then we have the staff that does the maintenance work, the housekeeping, the books, etc, etc, etc, for the community. And there has to be an opening within that range for us to say we can offer you some kind of work.

EG: So generally, you guys have vacancy for people to move in?

MJ: Yes, we usually do. Sometime there may be a waiting period. But, you know, usually there is some kind of vacancy.

EG: And what would you say is the greatest challenge in nurturing an intentional community?

MJ: So I'll answer that from the perspective of an individual. Here I am. I'm a member of this community. What is the best thing I can do consistently to nurture the community? And I would answer that question, I mean partially, but substantially by an idea that we've been really very good with from very early on, and that is, say "yes" if something is requested of you, unless there is a good reason to say "no."

Let your first response to be "yes." You want that? What can I do to help you with getting it? Yes. Pass the salt. Yes. Help me, I'm moving. I'm moving from this house to that house. I need help. Can you help? Yes. No, I can't. My leg's frozen or whatever. And that simple practice means people are constantly engaged in mutual benefit, mutuality.

I mean, there's many more answers, many more pieces to it, but just to give a very simple, succinct answer, I would go back to that one. And this has played a big role in the success of our community.

EG: So you would say it's a challenge to say yes, or you're saying that this is the benefit?

That's the benefit, yeah. But it is a challenge. And yet when people ask you, "hey, can you do this?" I mean, you have to look and say, you know, there's all kinds of, "No, no, I don't want to do that." "I'm being exploited. You're taking advantage of me." "Why would I do that? You made a mess of such and such and I had to clean it up. So why should I do that for you?".

Now, if I have that reaction, I can bring that up is a question. A real question. Or someone can say, "Michael, look at that as a real question, rather than as a justified response." If you open it as a question then we can talk about it. And then I might get persuaded. "Oh, yeah, that makes sense. OK. Yeah, I'll go do it." Or, "no, I'm sorry, I'm just not that's I'm not convinced. As far as I can evaluate, I have a legitimate reason to say no."

EG: So would you say that keeping the chain of giving going is the greatest benefit? Or is there another thing about the community that you would say is hugely beneficial?

MJ: So the other day in planning session, we were talking about a very major decision, and it had a lot of complex pieces to it. And I really didn't know how to get a hold of it or how I thought about it or to really get an adequate understanding, until we had just a 45 minute go-round in which everyone was saying, "well, at the moment, this is the way I'm thinking about it and this is what I think." "I think we ought to do this," or, "we shouldn't definitely." Whatever it was that was really prominent for them in that moment. And as we went around in that conversation -- actually I say we went around, that's that's actually the old format because we now have to do our planning sessions in which it's a combination of a few people in the room where we usually have it, and other people on Zoom because of the pandemic thing.

Anyway, it was just like I got clearer and clearer about the problem, what's all involved in it. I became more and more able to think about it. And after it was over, I just said, "Hey, you guys, I just want to say this, because I was really sensing in this moment, I really like being part of this group, because I can think so much better than I can by myself."

And I think I can also say that I would never have been in the three businesses that we started unless there were people who wanted to do those businesses. I would have never been engaged in this project unless there were people who wanted to do it and we came together to do it. And it's just been such a rich experience for me.

EG: It's amazing. The power of the collective.

MJ: And and also, don't forget the power of the collective is also the terror of the collective. I mean, there's real issues, real problems that we have to look at. You know, and there are a lot of -- I think a lot of things failed because people think, "oh, we're not going to have those problems anymore -- no way, Jose." You're going to have them. And they're going to be magnified because you're looking them when they're right in your face. So you have to have a way to work with them.

EG: Yeah, I think it's really powerful that you guys hold each other accountable, and you address issues as they arise, rather than just putting it underneath the rug.

MJ: As. Well. As. We. Can. That has to be tagged on everything.

EG: Yeah, it's an evolving process. And so knowing what you know now, what advice would you have given yourself when you first started the community?

MJ: "Dude, if you really want to do this. Strap yourself in. It's gonna be one hell of a trip."

EG: Yes. I like that. Awesome. It was so lovely to learn about Ganas intentional community. Thank you so much, Michael, for sharing your time and energy with me.

MJ: Thank you very much. I really appreciate the opportunity for the interview.

 

This interview has been lightly edited for readability.

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