first published in July, 2014 as an article in New Community magazine
The future must enter you before it happens
It’s lonely to get to the future first
The Muses … in the dreaming … we are participating
I am participating in something greater than myself
Where it all started.
This is the extraordinary story of a small, dynamic rental housing cooperative called Earth that grew up to become a ‘community’. From its humble beginnings in 1986 Earth Co-op took a philosophical journey to create social change through affordable housing and security of tenure. The co-op started small and grew to have eleven properties mainly around Heidelberg. Along the way it housed sixteen households over twenty-five years, seventeen if you also count the nurturing of the Sustainable Living Foundation (SLF) in its early years.
I lived in my co-op home for twenty years and loved it. This was the home in which I’d raised my two daughters and over the years provided space and celebrations for my five stepchildren. I must’ve cooked about a hundred birthday cakes in that time. It was where we enjoyed our two dogs, our ducks, chooks, the bountiful veggie garden, the little orchard and especially the abundant cherry tree. It was where so many active and inspiring people stimulated conversation around the dinner table. I had ‘a room of (my) own’ where I studied, where SLF began and where my sustainable living and eating book was created. Our colourful home was vibrant and generative and full of memories and paintings and books and all the things we loved.
But the Co-op was considering creating a co-housing community and for that to happen, my house would have to get out of the way. No small thing, it required the demolishment of my own home.
I was faced with a choice. Through my work with SLF I knew we were staring climate change in the face. I had forced myself to metaphorically look the tiger in the eye and I understood I had to act. I held the conviction that if indeed everything is at stake, if the very future for all species and all civilisation is at risk, and if we have even a slim chance of changing track to avert disaster, of transformative change, we must challenge ourselves. “Name one good reason” I asked myself, “for not giving it your very best shot in every corner of your life?” Failing to find one I knew I must take action – decisively. Did I jump or was I pushed? It was a distressing yet exhilarating prospect. It also felt like the decision was inexorable if I was to be true to myself.
So, catalysed by climate change and the need for rapid transformative change, the decision was made and Earth took the risk to initiate a cohousing community with eighteen new member households. In itself this was an allegory for transformative change: some things have to get out of the way.
In December 2009 the house in Bamfield Road that we’d lived in for two decades was vacated by my daughters, myself, our two old dogs and the whole mènage, including the superdooper-wormfarm. We made way for the bulldozers, the house was demolished and the die was cast.
Intentional communities are different by virtue of that very intention to be a community in the truest sense of the word. They are predicated upon the belief that living together equates to ‘doing it better’. There are many variations on this theme from communes to shared households. All the benefits are talked about often, of living more affordably, eating better food – much of it home grown, sharing lots of things and having a smaller environmental footprint, being secure and supported through all the ups and downs of life, creating enjoyment, cooking, dancing, making music together, sharing the experience of life, making sense of it and of having a home in a community for the long-term.
Our community is made up of people of all ages, a co-operative legal entity and a property comprising both independent living for twenty households and facilities shared in common that are more than ample for our community life. The Formation Group of new residents began getting organised from early 2011. With our two other participating Earth co-op properties near-by we had altogether twenty households. Forty-four men, women and children were making decisions about the buildings we were moving into and the tasks we foresaw and lots of hands were going up indicating who would do what.
We were very interested to get to know each other and enjoyed meeting as a whole group socially for picnics and pot luck dinners at one another’s houses. It was a lot fun. We had three-weekly meetings in church halls, community halls, Borderlands and the local scout hall. The coordination group met almost daily. We celebrated birthdays and met the children, several of whom coincidentally went to the same school.
There was a lot to get on with though. Meeting the other Earth co-op members, setting up a website, determining our energy options, sorting out bike storage, planning the Visioning Day and setting up a communal kitty to get some money in before moving in together. Selecting and getting permission for a name for our new home was a big deal. We chose MURUNDAKA which is Wurundjeri for “a place to stay; a place to live”.
By mid year a number of Working Groups were well underway. The Garden Group was already having Working Bees in the other two offsite properties. The ESD Group banned treated pine from the veggie garden, formaldehyde from the kitchen cupboards and ensured low VOC paint throughout our homes. The Finance Group set up the new accounts and books. The Food Group explored food co-op possibilities. The Communications Group focused on internal website and internet options. The Common House Working Group undertook a ‘Things Audit’ so we could see what was being gifted or loaned to the community. The Waste group audited our current waste management in our suburban homes and negotiated to reduce landfill bin volume by half, recycle bin volume by a third and to eliminate green waste bins altogether meaning a lot less bins to the kerb each week. We visited some established communities and were thrilled to see a lyrebird at Moora Moora. Everyone’s birthdates were noted as these are threads which knit together a community. The Kids Group wanted to know what the policy was on parties. We all completed a pet audit and found we now had between us one old dog not two, six cats, a rabbit and some cherished chickens – we agreed no new pets until we had a policy in place. Food allergies and health issues would be prioritised for action as we had around forty people who didn’t know each other and we had to establish ways of operating together which would safely accommodate everyone. Amongst us we had nut allergies, celiac, meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans. Many things were high on the list.
All this was happening and we hadn’t even moved in yet. The level of enthusiasm was high – extremely high – and there was a lot of energy to match it. Nearly everyone was involved with several Working Groups. We did what we had to do – we were stepping up to the challenge. It was extraordinary – it really felt like a breakthrough. The sense of team, the sense of shared purpose, of ‘one in, all in’ was high. It was showing all the signs of delivering what the intention had always been: Transformative Change.
As the building neared completion we headed for a weekend in a rural intentional community near Seymour – Common Ground. This was the first of what became our Annual Community Retreat: in itself a strong, wise and resilience-building thing to do and great to have established right from the word go. Ideas flowing, creativity high, energy buzzing, imagination unleashed. Some apprehension to be sure; expectations were discussed; participation was emphasised. However hopes were high, commitment was strong and we had our Vision to guide us.
Honey Moon Phase
It was December 2011 and we arrived. With the help of a well-considered plan scheduling everything from removal trucks in the driveway to what had to go where, we brought eighteen households, with all the animals except sadly no old dog, into the ‘site’ and formed our ‘sudden’ community: Earth Co-op’s co-housing community at Murundaka on Wurundjeri land.
In those first early days, now officially the Honey Moon Phase, the energy and enthusiasm was unbridled. Hanging out in our brand new “common house”, making meals together, sharing the bubbling of ideas, the outpouring of hopes and dreams, and the generative surge of creativity, the sheer excitement of what was happening was intoxicating. Settling into our smart, new apartments for our independent living with their passive solar outlooks and big, sliding glass doors outside was delightful. Even the dry, empty moonscape of the barren bare-earth backyard was pictured as a lush and productive garden yet to be created. We looked at our new home through the lens of our optimism. Our eyes saw potential everywhere.
We were now living co-located in close proximity. Buzzing with the amazement of where we found ourselves. Having friends and family visit. Running tours. Throwing parties. Having a lot of fun. Loving the spontaneity. Enjoying the outlet for self-expression as we set up and decorated our shared spaces, exploring the potentials of the buildings. Lots of laughing, cooking, a bit of drinking, dancing, some fancy dress, celebrating birthdays, showcasing our place and acknowledging our great good fortune.
To commence our practice of reciprocity we immediately reached out to our wider network inviting others to make use of our good fortune and hard work. [PHOTO – convergence of seventy people involved in food co-ops.] We regularly host SLF’s Council Review Day; Urban Coup’s mid-year Feast; Common Equity Housing’s Information Sessions; as well as CoHousing Australia, Banyule Co-housing, Transition 3081 and many other groups. Our one shared Guestroom gets considerable use as interstate and international visitors frequently come to stay at Murundaka. It really feels like the world comes to us.
Establishment Phase continued but, at the same time, the sweet Honey Moon that had fired us up was beginning to wane. Challenges and enthusiasms had arrived almost on top of each other and in equal measure. So many creative ideas and long-treasured possibilities; we were chafing at the bit to get our teeth into our “projects” but now we had to hold ourselves back. We first had to move in properly, bed ourselves down and iron-out some immediate ‘wrinkles’. We had lots of building defects to deal with, a car-park that turned into thick, sticky mud every time it rained, EXIT doors that didn’t open and 19 different doors in the Common House to check and lock up every night.
From the outset there were several people who were not able or willing to leap into the activity. There was a lot to do and some urgency and plenty of enthusiasm and willingness however it was of course, not uniformly shared. It was only a few out of the many but the impact was felt. By January 2012 many of us were tired and stressed. The original Earth members who had already been working on the Murundaka project for years were more than ready to hand over but this proved impossible. Mostly the people who had the skills and capacity were experiencing their own overwhelm and exhaustion. The community focus was stuck on housework, garden and practical issues of living together. The administration of the Co-op was still not on the collective radar screen.
Almost immediately upon arrival many people leapt at the very thing the Common Equity Rental Co-op (CERC) program was there to facilitate – committing more time to getting on with life thanks to security of tenure. People went from part-time to full-time work, took on university double degrees, started businesses, formed new relationships. A pregnancy commenced. Health issues emerged. Relationships fell apart. An affair d’amour caused an unexpected departure. It was all happening.
After interminable delays and all the packing, moving, relocating and letting-go, the adjustments, stress and the hugeness of it all intersected. As we got to know each other better in the reality of so much to do, there were irritations, frustrations and exasperations. The community was high on aspirations and low on experience and it became evident that we weren’t all a ‘good fit’ for co-housing. Fatigue showed in frayed nerves; emotional volatility made meetings unpredictable. Some people remained hands-off, others pulled right back and a couple of the strongest contributors pulled out leaving an almighty chasm behind them.
And then in June we threw an amazing Housewarming Party and we lived off the uplifting happiness for many days afterwards! It was so palpable we immediately planned more celebrations. Winter Solstice to be the first of many.
The demands on our time were huge and we were all struggling to various degrees. The move had taken its toll. Fitting in to our smaller abodes meant stuff and storage were a problem. Trying to keep work and commitments going, managing children, relocating kids to new schools, learning new bike trails, new public transport routes, finding the new acceptable shops, all these things were requiring effort. Then there were the meetings – community meetings every three weeks, co-op meetings from time to time too, working group meetings and work and projects and housework, the bins, the gardens, events and on and on it went. The concept of “busy” had to be ventilated. It is one of those things that comes up time and again – busy-ness as a reason and busy-ness as an excuse and one person’s busy-ness being of greater value than another’s – at least in their mind.
‘How narrow is the vision that exalts the busyness of the ant above the singing of the grasshopper’,
Or that exalts paid work above unpaid work,
Or my work above your work,
Or vice versa.
Tied in with wanting to pull back was the fear of being judged. This is a big one in community and particularly in the early days, when we were getting to know each other and be known, it was paramount. People deal with it in different ways and go through stages; nervousness, reticence, wanting to ‘be nice’. But throughout all the highs and lows there was an acknowledged sense that the spirit of sharing needed to be cherished and protected. Acknowledging sharing became important. We talked about the status of money and paid time and of time valued but not with money.
Quite early in the piece the concept of the Goodwill Bank emerged. A virtual bank for intangibles; random acts of kindness, gifts and positivity; willing and receptive attitudes, forgiving and allowing and trusting – all those things. The Goodwill Bank established the awareness of reciprocity and the rule of common sense that says friends are more likely to give a favour if the person asking has established a relationship of mutuality. Then there’s anonymous generosity such as the washing fairy who pops up from time to time taking someone’s washing off the line before it rains and picking up things that have blown off. All part of the Gifting Economy.
“They were nothing more than people, by themselves. . . . . But all together, they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great. Therefore, all together, they are the instruments of change”. (Hulme). By ourselves we are nothing more than people living in proximity . . . . but the way we step up, come together, communicate, relate, share, co-operate, compromise, pull our own weight and make community decisions, the way we express our hearts and share our muscles and exercise our minds makes us a community. A community is the sum of the parts and how we are in ourselves as individuals and how our behaviour reflects that. As a community we are an instrument of change.
Spring arrived and we took ourselves off on Retreat. Just making the effort to get away to Common Ground for a weekend together to focus on ‘Gratitude, Challenges and the Year Ahead’ did us the world of good. We looked at how we could make more time for our community. We were figuring things out between our lofty aspirations and our challenging reality.
That reality was about to change profoundly. Much anticipated by everyone, Heidi and Chris brought their baby into the world, born in their home with all the happy, expectant aunties and uncles sipping champagne in the common house nearby. We can’t help but call her our ‘community baby’ and feel grateful for a truly uplifting experience. Elle is delightful on a daily basis as she grows and thrives kept safe, loved and looked after by mum and dad and her extended family. She is cherished in the hearts of us all. She understands English, French, a bit of Japanese and ‘Chook’. Children and babies are great to have in community.
Meanwhile, finally in November, after months of development including a three-month consultation phase, the Participation Policy was presented to the community meeting where it was adopted by consensus minus one. It reinforced the group consciousness and reconfirmed with clarity and detail the understanding that all new members had committed to when they signed their Tenancy Agreements – that Participation was a requirement. Founder and very experienced long-term member of Common Ground, Phil Bourne says that the experience of Common Ground is that once agreements have been hammered out, written down and enshrined in policies and rules, the issues that catalysed them generally subside to be less problematic. Rules rarely need to be enforced once agreement has been reached.
Establishment Phase proved to be longer, harder, deeper, more dangerous, more challenging and more complicated than any of us anticipated. Yet human capacity to get on with things and make happy times happen, even when major difficulties are being experienced elsewhere in one’s life, is quite staggering at times. The weaving of the many threads of community life went on even as the unravelling was happening elsewhere.
The New Year arrived and in spite of some destructive behaviour and non-compliance by a few TCMs (ie Troublesome Community Members is a term used in the international intentional community movement), life went on very nicely. Organic food boxes kept arriving direct from the farmer, decisions were made about chickens and compost, and whether we could have Wwoofers stay with us or not, and how to stop polystyrene coming onto the site and into our home. A successful grant application meant workshops to run, and there were things to celebrate and fun things to do – Bastille Day, our own ‘Tour De Yarra’ bike ride and picnic and a housewarming party that squeezed twenty-five people into the loungeroom of a one-bed apartment. We opened our place up and ran sessions for the Sustainable Living Festival. We had design charettes for the garden and our common house and a French Playgroup was set up. All the while the children kept their parents busy, contributed their voices and energies and sometimes helped with things and often made us laugh. Baby Elle brought joy to the Common House and made her presence felt even from her basinet. Some amazing visitors passed through giving us their seal of approval and congratulations and encouragement on their way.
And amazing things came from within as well. The challenges had brought out capacities, insights, good practices and somehow forged a greater bond. We got to see who had what to give and where the preparedness to step up lay and where the maturity and strengths and reliabilities were held. We got to experience group wisdom which was good because what we didn’t realise was we were then in ‘the calm’ and were about to experience ‘the storm’.
When problems arise a common first responses is to take them on face value assuming everyone holds best intentions. Conflict between needs and wants and conflict between different values is part and parcel of the human experience. Finding empowering ways to deal with these things is a challenge yet, notwithstanding the lack of experience in the community, best efforts were made to do so. However the Troubles had set in and the Honeymoon was over. Peter Cock, founder of Moora Moora, explained that “some people buck any system, some want to be the gurus, and some just want it their way”. Whatever was going on, we had to deal with it.
Discussion about non-violent communication led to community mediation. The effect was profound. Most of the community participated, most stuck with it over a series of sometimes deeply painful sessions. The level of self-disclosing was heart-warming and the effect of that opening up and the skilling up with the tools of Mindful Communication created a much-needed shift.
But it was also the events and activities that were initiated around that time which, with closer examination, show a certain determination to provide an antidote to the negativity and conflict and to rebuild and heal even as the strife and trauma had to continue to play out. Efforts to directly remedy the problems included communication mind-mapping and workshops and eventually an agreement. A review of the fee for the Shared Common Areas, Community Facilities and Amenities was initiated. A week-long camping holiday at Raymond Island in the Gippsland Lakes was organised and a flurry of Common Meals – “5 Nights a Week” – helped. A special Thankfulness and Gratitude event acknowledging all the many people who had inspired and supported Murundaka into existence over many years, in fact decades, also helped maintain the positivity. There was an amazing Wake for my own mother’s funeral celebrating her life brilliantly. A Culture Day transmitted a deeply important awareness about indigenous life, history, experience, past, present and future. When we stopped to do a review of the previous twelve months the overarching feedback was one of gratitude for being here.
Getting through involved learning to recognise and name what was happening, to know when to take action and to take it, to acknowledge pain and damage and yet still ‘stay the course’; learning to trust, let go and “swim in an unknown current” (Moustakas). It involved looking inwards to reflect and interrogate the shadow side, acquiring new skills and learning to trust the community wisdom. It meant reaching out for, receiving and giving support. Having stepped down after twenty-eight years as a Director I was relieved to move back from the front line. I found that intuitive perceptions of the energy in the community flickered across my awareness like little blips on a radar screen showing the array of ups and downs, the buds of concern that needed nipping, and the currents of happiness wafting through. I realised at a certain point that everything would work out and I didn’t have to do anything. (It is as it is). As a founder I believe ‘holding of the flame’ is probably my most important ongoing role.
Phil Bourne, explained that “Conflict can actually be seen as a gift”. It has within it untold riches for those willing to dig deep. It’s in the digging and unwrapping that self-awareness grows and with it, capacity to handle life’s crunch times. As Byron Katie sweetly says, “Our job is unconditional love. The job of everyone else in our life is to push our buttons.” Getting through was full-on.
But get through we did. Several people have since left and surely the understanding of the need for a ‘good fit’ would be one thing upon which all would agree. But as with selecting marriage partners, or employees, or even travelling companions, it is the behaviour and approach to stressful times that flush out the ability to pull together or not. Learning from conflict and problem-solving helps better manage the challenges of the future. If learning doesn’t take place the problems will simply reappear somewhere else. Have we learnt some stuff? Have we learnt what we need to learn? What else do we need to learn? What is the higher purpose of all this? This community is applying new learning and no doubt has many more lessons in front of it yet. While none of what has happened is unusual in community living, the intensity in these first two and half years has been a challenge especially when combined with the nature of a “sudden” community and in the context of the layering of the many other challenges we faced.
An achievement like this requires great determination, tenacity and passion. Solid, unwavering commitment is needed; high enthusiasm for the possibility; and truly giving it its best shot. I think as a young community, we are moving quite fast. We are bootstrapping ourselves with an amazing strength of character and willingness to ‘step up’ and to ‘dig deep’ and to go into unknown territory together. Maslow emphasised that “there is no substitute for experience, none at all” and the community has certainly been on a vertical learning curve through the lived experience. We were panning for gold dust and found nuggets.
There is no doubt that – with the issues of global warming, climate change, and all the associated social and environmental stressors, the interwoven crises and disruptions that are unfolding where even the best-case scenario is challenging – we are being forged as individuals and as a community on the anvil of transformative change. This is part of the journey and living this way is transformative. It is said ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ and learning the hard way … is there ever an easy way? Those who step into the roles to keep things on track have to do the job as well as they can in what is in the best interests of the co-operative and the community even if sometimes the actions needed are confronting and unpleasant to execute or unpopular with some people. These roles do not include a popularity award and sometimes tough decisions have to be made albeit with the support of as many people as possible along the way.
Living in close-knit communities or in villages or extended families is the closest approximation for community life we can find and many people hanker for it but it’s hard to achieve. Most people live in suburbs creating their own trans-local communities with family and friends here and there, workplace somewhere else, service providers all over the place. In these situations it is entirely possible to be deeply isolated and living a highly unsustainable life.
We need to foster community for so many reasons. To enrich our own lives, become more self-reliant and able to live with fewer compromises with ‘the system’. To live healthier, happier lives more connected to one another and more affordable lives sharing lots of the things we need amongst the group, and importantly, far more sustainable lives treading much more lightly on the planet.
Yet with all this going for it intentional community living in Australia has always been an alternative option – radical in the best sense of the word: i.e. getting to the root of the problem. These fraught times we are living in make an increasingly compelling case for building stronger, more autonomous, more self-reliant, thriving communities and yet there are many barriers to this. The biggest of all being the misconceptions that people hold in their heads.
Meg Wheatley, in her work “Leading through Crises”, developed a Framework for Changing Beliefs, describing two worlds: one of entrenched institutions and failed systems; the other “People who are pioneering new worlds for people who take the primary unit being community itself”. She enjoins us to “pay close attention to the phenomenon of being lost and confused”. It can be tough and confusing as a group, as a community. It can be challenging to an extreme. “The dawning of awareness may be refreshing and peaceful or it may be disturbing and even jarring.” (Moustakas) Yet even while that difficult work is going on, the flip side is also happening. The clarity which can come through different people at different times is wonderful. Unexpected gems of wisdom. Insights which make everything appear crystal-clear. Ideas about what is actually going on can arrive out of left field with incredible force. Understanding things in different terms, thinking outside the square, – these things, these moments can bring jolts of awareness, glimpses into one’s own dark side, different ethical appreciations, admissions and awarenesses that can enable other breakthroughs to occur – letting go, courage to try, recognition of one’s own part in it all, confirmation and compassion.
To live in community is to live in relationship with others. It’s potential is as an enriching experience of connection and inclusiveness, of heart-warming surprises, of being understood, valued, loved and respected. When our experiences are of feeling supported and enjoying a sense of security, trust and stability we can relax and “be ourselves”, dropping the fears, being more self-disclosing and expressing individuality in the group. At times like these we are learning and growing and perhaps even becoming better people. As humans we are drawn to others, we enjoy feeling close, having rapport, identifying, relating spiritually, feeling togetherness and empathising. We need to feel belonging and in this setting we can thrive.
“The capacity to respond to change while maintaining identity has been called resilience” (Cook). When thinking through the phases we have been through and about the future and the way forward, the thing that leaps out is the overarching need to build resilience. So many attitudes, issues, problems and responses that have made an already-challenging exercise that much more difficult, stem from overwhelm and lack of “spare” capacity; probably the most important ingredient within resilience. Being in a perpetual state of having only just enough capacity to cope means getting off the back foot and onto the front foot is seldom achieved and never more than fleetingly. Sensitivities are amplified. Inadequate participation, undermining, withdrawal, unreliability, self-interest, preciousness, disregard, disrespect, complaining, blaming and excuses get in the way of thriving. To keep things in proportion and to steadily work through the ‘have-tos’ and ‘want-tos’ of community life and to thrive, spare capacity is needed. Therein lies resilience. How to achieve that is the continuing challenge.
Is it an enjoyable challenge? Yes. Do I appreciate living here? Definitely. Am I more socially connected? Yes. Am I living more affordably? Am I living more sustainably? Yes. Is it possible to live more simply in a modern neighbourhood and bring back the positive aspects of village life? Yes, it is, but at the same time you have to be prepared for the journey. Mine started with the demolishment of my home which my daughters and I still deeply miss. Yet would I make the same decision again? Absolutely.
Wheatley M. (2002) Leading Through Crises
Woolf, V. (1929) A Room of One’s Own
Hulme K. (2005) The Bone People
Moustakas C. (1990) Heuristic Research – Design, Methodology, and Applications.
Byron Katie : a quote
Maslow A. (1966). The psychology of science: A reconnaissance. New York: Harper & Row
Cook C. (2009) Editor Australia 21 Brighter Prospects Report – Enhancing the Resilience of Australia
 A Room of One’s Own – an extended essay by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1929.
 The Conscious Cook – Sustainable Living and Eating, published by Brolga Publishing in 2008