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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Why should you care about Intentional Communities?

July 14, 2014
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Twin Oaks Community has been my home off and on for the last 15 years. It's one of the flagships of the Intentional Communities movement, and yet is fairly unique as one of only a handful of secular, income-sharing communities. Twin Oaks has been an active experiment in solidarity economics since 1967. At almost 50 years old it’s a successful, viable model, and, like all solidarity economy projects, it’s a work in progress.


We have 92 adults (plus 17 children) sharing finances, running businesses, managing a small scale farm, sharing housing, a fleet of vehicles, and covering all other basic needs, including health and dental, collectively. No money is exchanged internally; all work is valued equally and is organized through a labor system. By contributing 42 hours per week you have full access to the resources and governance of the community.

You could look at Twin Oaks as a bundle of co-ops rolled up together. It's a big amalgamation of a food co-op, vehicle co-op, housing co-ops, worker co-ops, clothing co-op, health care co-op, and the list goes on. It's also big enough to have a robust social culture, complete with traditional and community-specific holidays.


The founders of Twin Oaks, back in 1967, were trying to bring to life the fictional utopia of Walden II, by B.F. Skinner, creator of behaviorist psychology. Twin Oaks was different from other '60's commune's in that it wasn't started by hippies, but by academics and writers. According to founder Kat Kinkade, "the hippies came later and ruined everything," probably referring to the abandonment of behaviorism as a guiding force for the community by the mid-'70's.


According to Kat Kinkade, in addition to social experimentation, addressing classism was a major motivator in the design of the community. Twin Oaks holds egalitarianism as a core value, and it's primary expression is income sharing. Generally speaking, each member is not suppose to have significantly more access to either the communities resources or outside resources than other members. It also means collective budgeting and accounting for the entire finances of all our members, all our businesses, and all the shared resource systems we've create.


It's not easy, but it pays off. Income sharing allows for the creation of an internal economy that allows us to essentially pay ourselves (through labor credits) to do work that we otherwise wouldn't get paid for. Our systems of sharing mean that we need a lot less money to have the same quality of life that many middle-class people enjoy. On average members only work about 15 hours per week in one of the communities businesses. The rest of their 42 hours goes towards cooking, cleaning, child care, gardening, the dairy, community governance and management, etc. Most of these things of course being things that most people have to do on top of a 40 hour work week and don't get paid for. Add to that unlimited sick time and about 4 weeks "paid" vacation, with the option of working over quota to earn extra vacation time.

It's something of an accident that Twin Oaks is also a very environmentally friendly community. We consume and waste a third or less (and sometimes a lot less) than the same number of average Americans. Environmentalism is written into the bylaws, and it is very important to many members, but the real reason Twin Oaks is so “eco” is simply because of how much we share.


The other important benefit to intensive sharing is there's an intimacy pay off. I've visited dozens of communities, and what I've seen is that the more communities share, the more they have to deal with each other, the closer they are and the more satisfying their lives are. It takes some interpersonal skill and maturity to make this work, as well as robust organizational structures that can carry things when there are major conflicts. Trust, responsibility, accountability, and communication are things you learn about really quickly (sometimes the hard way) in a community like this. But when it's good, it's amazing.


I have no illusions that this kind of community is for everyone. We are not going to reorganize society into a lot of little rural intentional communities. But what Twin Oaks, along with other communities in the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, have modeled for us is that it's possible for a group of people to come together, cover all their basic needs plus more, and eliminate poverty, homelessness, and crime. We have to learn how to share all our resources, even money. Because isn't that the challenge we face as a global species? How do we share the earth's resources equitably and sustainably without resorting to violence?


Twin Oaks isn't the answer, but it's a piece of the answer.



If you'd like to explore intentional communities further come to the Twin Oaks Communities Conference, Labor Day weekend, Aug 29 - Sept 1.



My name is Sky; I'm a new blogger for GEO. I’ve spent the entirety of my adult life in cooperative communities, workplaces, and organizations. I’m a community builder. My life is about helping these groups thrive, as well as starting new groups. I’m a movement builder. My focus is on intentional communities but I try to keep close ties to the worker co-op movement and other branches of what I see as a larger cooperative movement. I see Time Banks, Transition Towns, and all manner of projects as being part of this same movement towards a cooperative, collaborative, sharing, solidarity economy. Intentional Communities have a lot to learn from other kinds of groups, and I see a lot that intentional communities have to contribute to this larger conversation.

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