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Episode 6a: Keys to Creating and Sustaining a Successful Intentional Community




Note: This is an article only. It does not have a matching video interview on this website. Overview: With the world becoming more chaotic, increasing numbers of people are seeking to éxit current structures in society and build parallel systems. As this happens, many people are deciding it would be beneficial and rewarding to live and share resources with a like-minded group of people in an “intentional community.”


What is an “intentional community,” and what makes it successful for the people involved?


This article pulls together key information from several of the 14 podcast episodes in the first season of the Inside Community series sponsored by the Foundation for Intentional Community (FIC) and produced by Rebecca Mesritz. Ms. Mesritz is one of the Co-founders of the Emerald Village located in San Diego, California, and is currently co-founding the Terra Lumen Community in southern Oregon.


She says: “If there’s anything that we’ve learned from the time of COVID, and extreme weather events and polarization in the government, it’s that … now more than ever we need each other to survive.” (1) Rebecca also graciously gave me further information in an interview and provided additional input to this research.

This article also includes insights from myself, Melanie Rubin. I have lived in two intentional communities: a meditation community where I resided for 11 years, first located in Cambridge, Massachusetts and then relocated to Portland, Oregon; and a small, rural, sustainable community outside Albuquerque, New Mexico where I lived in 2021. I also attended Derrick Broze and John Bush’s Greater Reset conference jointly presented in Morelia, Mexico, and Bastrop, Texas in January 2023, where a number of people who are currently living in or building intentional communities shared thoughts which are relevant to this article. I’ve included some ideas from that conference as well.


With my life partner, I have been investigating options for becoming part of an intentional community. At the publication of this writing, we believe we’ve found one we will join. Please stay tuned! Part of my motivation for putting together this article is to synthesize relevant information for my own understanding as we move forward.


IMPORTANT NOTE: This article is meant only as an overview of key success factors for intentional communities. Understanding how to implement these elements requires additional inquiry.  I’ve provided some references for further research in the notes section at the end of the article.


It’s also worth mentioning that whole books have been written on this and related topics. Please make sure to check out two foundational texts by expert Diana Leafe Christian, Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities and Finding Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community. Another terrific resource is Communities Magazine from www.IC.org, the Foundation for Intentional Community, available digitally or in hard copy from. A print or digital subscription includes access to all back issues.

 

Executive Summary: Here is a list of the key success elements for intentional community that rose to the top for me as I listened to Rebecca Mesritz’s podcasts, spoke with Rebecca, and attended the Greater Reset conference. Most of these concepts are explained further in the following article:

Joy: A place that is nourishing, fun, and rewarding to live with like-minded others, including great food.

Vision: A clear vision and mission for what this community is dedicated to, and what it wants to accomplish.


Higher purpose: Collaborative work towards achieving a purpose greater than the community itself.

Place: The right choice of a place to live, that supports the vision and mission of the community. People: Responsible, mature, active people dedicated to working together to realize the community’s vision.

Agreements: Clear agreements about expectations concerning how the community will live and work together.

Desire for Growth: Members need to be dedicated to growth and learning, as a community, and personally.

Realism: Living in community is not a fairy tale utopia. People need to realize it will often be hard work.

Finance: Great financial management and financial sustainability that is equitable for all members.

Structure: Excellent up-front and ongoing organization, systems, and processes for all aspects of community life.

Land engagement: “(those) that succeed are...where everybody is committed to being engaged in the land.” (2)

Community mind: Expanding the scope of self-interest beyond oneself to know we can only thrive together.

Shared power: Community members must share leadership and power, without egos getting in the way (3).

Communication: Excellent, transparent, non-violent, inclusive, ongoing communication with all members.

 

Founding vs. Joining an Intentional Community: In terms of founding vs. joining an intentional community, the following exchange between Rebecca Mesritz and community expert Yana Ludwig is particularly striking: (4) (RM) this whole endeavor…of founding community…it’s really hard. So, if you can find a community to join that’s already up and running and shares your values…you should just go. (YL)…you’re going to put in two to seven years (to found a community), and you’re going to get something that’s (only) close (to your vision)...(so) I am very pro joining community rather than starting them…unless you’ve got a really strong founders urge…

Introduction: The 30+ year-old FIC defines an intentional community as “a group of people who have chosen to live together or share resources on the basis of common values.” At the time of this writing, the FIC intentional community directory lists over 1000 intentional communities, including several hundred in the U.S., more than two dozen in Mexico, several dozen in Canada, and more than one hundred in other parts of the world. (5) Some of these, like Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Rutledge, Missouri, where the FIC is located, have been in existence for decades. Clearly, there are many intentional communities around the world that are not listed in the FIC directory. Why might you want to live in an intentional community? There are so many reasons it would take a long article of its own to list them all, but here are a few:

  • Accomplishing things together that are impossible for individuals or families to do on their own.

  • Cultivating very deep, meaningful relationships through daily contact and shared experiences.

  • Enjoying great times having meals, educating children, working, and sharing spiritual practice together.

  • Contributing to something you believe in that is greater than yourself.

  • Living in a beautiful place you might not be able to afford or create by yourself.

  • Learning things from and with each other you would not have learned without being in community.

  • Being connected to the earth and the land through ongoing work on the property.

What can some of the challenges be of living in an intentional community? Again, this topic could fill many articles. Off the top of my head, some of these can be:

  • If one person, or a small group of people, have all the power, other people feel dominated and leave.

  • People’s emotional “stuff” comes up. Each person needs to be responsible for doing their own personal work.

  • You can’t hide. People’s moods and shadow sides are readily apparent when they live closely together.

  • Living in community doesn’t solve your personal issues. You have to be accountable and take care of yourself.

  • In life, people often aren’t easy to deal with. When you’re in a community, you have to deal with them.

  • Everyone needs to compromise on some things to create a situation that works for all.

  • To build and maintain a community is a lot of work, physically, mentally, emotionally, and takes a lot of time.

Success in an intentional community: What does “success” mean for an intentional community? One measure could be longevity. Certainly, a community must be doing some things right in order to stay together for any length of time. However, communities, like marriages, can be dysfunctional and still stay together for years.

For the sake of this article, the success of an intentional community is defined as its ability to support its members in a healthy, respectful, and holistic manner, as it continues to move towards its vision and accomplish its mission, while growing, evolving, and adapting in a changing world. With this definition, a community which only lasts a few years could still be “successful” during that life span. (6)

As Ms. Mesritz says in Episode 1, (7) there are many types of intentional communities, with a wide variety of purposes, sizes, lifestyles, and values. These range from communities that come together to do certain kinds of social justice work to those that are focused on environmental sustainability to those that share a particular ideological, belief, or spiritual system, to those that have other orientations. Regardless of belief system, focus, or goals, there are certain structures and approaches that seem to work best for creating and sustaining successful communities. Three categories of key success factors: For the sake of simplicity in this article, key success factors for intentional communities fall into three broad categories:

1.       Overall Principles

2.       Creating a Community

3.       Sustaining a Community

***

1. Overall Principles

Joy and Fun Since creating and maintaining a community is a lot of work, why would anyone want to do it if it wasn’t rewarding? Communities need to have fun together, and this includes having great meals together. One friend who has lived in intentional community says that in order for communities to thrive, they need to do three things no matter what else is going on, and that these three things are the glue of the community. The first two of these are about joy and fun: - Have meals together (this includes planning, cooking, and eating great food) - Have fun together (whatever this means for the specific group. Movie nights? Parties? Dancing? Sweat lodges? Trips? The third is about working together: - Work together (on the community – also often on businesses that support members and/or the community)

Communication An overriding principle for community success is the quality of communication among organizers and members. This is true both in the creation and sustainment phases of community development. (8)(9) Hallmarks of communication success include:

  • Transparency, with inclusiveness and access to relevant information for all founders and members.

  • A policy of keeping everyone in the loop with necessary information.

  • A commitment to kind, respectful communication amongst members, especially when there are challenges, while understanding that nobody is perfect, and upsets do happen.

  • Clarity about expectations, processes, roles, and responsibilities.

  • Established processes for conflict resolution.

  • Dedication to continuous improvement of communication as new needs arise.

Several people at the Greater Reset conference in 2023, as well as Rebecca Mesritz in my interview with her, mentioned the value of intentional community members getting trained in a common communication system, such as Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-violent communication. See The Center for Nonviolent Communication | Center for Nonviolent Communication (cnvc.org) Collaboration, Community Mind, and Trust The American ethos values exceptionalism and individualism. (10) This doesn’t work well in a community. Although everyone in a community is special, no one should be more special than anyone else. Communities succeed because of collective action, not because of any one person’s actions. Because of this, each member needs to have great value for the power of the collective effort. This prioritizes including each person in the collective process, above lionizing any one person’s efforts or contributions. Leaders need to seek to include, delegate, share power, and take creative input. (11) This approach lays the foundation for the concept of developing a “community mind” which Clifford Paulin references at the end of Episode 5. (12) This type of community mind requires trusting each other, as Yana Ludwig discusses in Episode 4. (13)

 

2. Creating a Community

A Realistic View (14) A lot of people are drawn to the idea of community because they want to find others who share their ideals and values to live and work together, creating a micro-world more closely aligned with their dreams. Mesritz reports that although living in community can be amazing, it is not a dream fantasy come true. It takes a tremendous amount of work to build and maintain a community, both sweat equity, and deep, inner, personal work – because it’s like running a business, being in an intimate relationship, and co-habitating with a group of people, all rolled into one. (15) So, community members must interact and come to terms with each other’s personal patterns and trauma over the course of time. Most people who desire to live in intentional community do so partially because they have struggled in some way for autonomy, right livelihood, integrity, and a sense of self-empowerment in the broader world. As a result, many people who want to live in community have grown averse to familiar structures and are, as Rebecca Mesritz says, “seeking a utopia where people just sort of spontaneously do what’s right and what needs to be done.” (16)   However, the reality of the situation is that it takes a great deal of structure, organization, financial resources and savvy, design and building skills, maintenance skills, and communication and relationship skills to create and maintain a successful intentional community. In fact, Mesritz paraphrased Lee Warren, her guest in Episode 3, saying that for the first 5 – 10 years of its life, a community is like a baby that needs nourishment and development from its founders and members, rather than being like a parent that will take care of its children.

Ms. Mesritz quotes cohousing advocate Zev Paiss, saying that “living in community is the longest and most expensive personal growth workshop you will ever take.” (17) Mesritz goes on to comment that “Being willing to claim the fact that you are not perfect and are going to make mistakes, and sometimes really nasty ones – and are going to have to take accountability for yourself is really at the heart of what community is.” (18)

Vision, Mission, Goals, Timeline In Podcast 2 Ms. Mestritz interviewed Dave Henson, who is a co-founder of the almost 30-year-old Sowing Circle Intentional Community in Sonoma County, Northern California, and the Executive Director of the non-profit Occidental Arts & Ecology Center, www.oaec.org. Henson is also one of the creators of a 5-day course on starting and sustaining intentional communities. He says that it’s important for a community to begin with a core group of founders who create the vision and mission (19). According to Henson, one way a community can begin visioning is for the founders each to write what is important to them. Then they can come together to compare and combine this writing into a vision statement that works for all of them.


Ideally the resulting vision statement should be inspiring and aspirational as well as sufficiently clear to define what this community will be, and why it is being created. However, it should also be simple, short, and open-ended enough to allow room for growth and some degree of flexibility. Henson notes that the visioning process for the Sowing Circle was remarkably easy, with the founders working on it gradually over the course of several weeks.


Once the Vision is created, outlining the overarching focus of the community, a more operational mission can be developed. Out of the operational vision, the founders can draft specific goals and an initial timeline for development.


Mesritz notes in Episode 2 (20): “The reason that…communities that I’ve seen that are successful are successful is because they have very organized people who … get off on writing up visioning documents and creating spreadsheets and making ways to have it all make sense.”


The Right People

In Episode 2, (21) Rebecca Mesritz paraphrases community expert and author Diana Leafe Christian to say: “Who do you want in your community...You want to have the people who are doing well in their life, and who are financially, socially, and emotionally responsible…so that you’ve got good playmates.”


This includes the right founders, members, and extended community. The first founders may also want to consider their approach to diversity in finding the other founders, in terms of age, background, education, financial resources, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, national origin, disability, religious orientation, inclusion of children, etc.


Henson suggests that a community begin with no more than 8 to 10 founders. This was the approach for both the Emerald Village and The Sewing Circle communities. Founders must have a fairly easy, natural alignment, or else they are not a good match. (22)  People who wish to join the community must feel comfortable with the vision statement and any core community agreements decided by the founders. If they do not, it is likely they won’t fit in well with that community. See references for additional information (23).


Location (24)(25) 

It almost goes without saying that the community must be located on the type of property that has the right climate, micro-climate, land attributes, and necessary services to meet the needs of its community members. The location must also support growth and development to realize the community’s vision over time. The context for the community is also essential, including its location in relationship to cities and towns, the political and social environment, transportation, education, zoning, other land use requirements, tax structures, and information and physical security.


Attaining Land

Clearly, one essential factor in the success of a community is how much land it attains, where, what type of land, and how that land is acquired. This includes how the land will be purchased, owned, and managed for the lifetime of the community to ensure equity, security, and good relationships among members. It is likely that not everyone will come to the community with the same level of resources to invest. So, it’s essential to have a good plan for what will truly work and feel fair over time for both the resource investors and the other members. (26) These are complex and important questions with a variety of solutions, beyond the scope of this article. Readers may wish to begin delving into these topics by listening to two “Inside Community” podcasts on legal frameworks and finding land. See reference for additional information (27).

 

Planning for Change (28)

Since “Change is the only constant in life.” (Benjamin Franklin), communities that plan for change from the outset remain more resilient. For example, although a close group of founders may hope that none of them will ever leave, life happens. People fall in love, fall out of love, get opportunities to travel or work elsewhere, have sick family members on the other side of the world, move to take care of grandchildren, and respond to many other types of life transitions. Although it can feel uncomfortable to consider the possibility of people leaving, planning for this likelihood on the front side will allow for clear expectations and a smoother transition when it happens.

 

Financial Arrangements (29) Financial arrangements include how:

  • The land is owned.

  • Members build financial equity.

  • Revenue works (including whether community members will do some form of income sharing).

  • Costs are approved and managed.

  • All of this is executed with good agreements and transparency to ensure inclusion and equity for all.

Without excellent financial stewardship, a community can’t survive. So, it’s critical to figure out good, realistic, fair systems for financial management on the front side. Social Structures

Having a set of structures that founders and community members alike understand and agree to from the outset is also essential in maintaining transparency, peace, and alignment. Community structures will include each of the following:

  • Membership (30) What are the requirements to become part of the community and how does this happen?

  • Governance and decision-making  Governance can be described as the way groups organize and manage themselves to get things done and take care of the group. (31) Governance includes but is not limited to decision-making. (32) See references for additional information (33).

  • Ongoing stewardship and management roles The community must structure the roles necessary to keep it running smoothly including but not limited to: leadership, communication, transportation, conflict resolution, gardening and farming, childcare, meal coordination, construction, cleaning, aesthetics, maintenance, recreation, celebrations, and ceremonies. (34)


3. Sustaining a community

Once a community is up and running, what are some of the key considerations for surviving and thriving?

Lifestyle questions and agreements

The people in the community need to have lifestyles that are compatible enough to feel comfortable with each other and how the community operates. In Inside Community Episode 2, Rebecca Mesritz says “Lifestyle is probably as important as whatever it is that you’re intending to do as an intentional community.” (35) Most communities develop a set of agreements that cover key lifestyle questions such as: food, devotion or spiritual practice, noise, kids, agreements about health care, drugs and alcohol, visitors, pets, physical and information security, aesthetics, cleanliness, regular meetings, community schedule, and communication. (36) and (37)

The Right People As described in the section on creating community, choosing the right people as members, extended community members, and supporters is important to make sure the community stays aligned with its vision, mission, goals, and ongoing lifestyle preferences. In creating a plan for finding members, the founders may want to consider the community’s approach to diversity in terms of age, background, education, financial resources, sexual and gender orientations, race, ethnicity, national origin, disability, religious orientation, inclusion of children, etc.

Joy, Fun, Connection, and Work

Any community needs to have the “glue” that makes it nourishing and rewarding to live together. This is about the cultivation of relationships through time spent together in one way or another and typically includes: meals, recreation, work in the community, and celebrations. It may also include: spiritual ceremonies or practice, running businesses together, and projects that contribute to the larger world beyond the community. (38) and (39)

Conflict Resolution System (40)

Last but certainly not least, successful communities have a system for addressing and resolving conflicts that members are not able to resolve satisfactorily amongst themselves. This could be, for example, a process for conflict resolution, or a team that is empowered to facilitate a discussion with the people involved in a conflict. Sometimes this involves training in conflict resolution, and sometimes the system is less formal. See reference for additional information (41) Conflict resolution is essential for the long-term success of any community since, as some organizational experts say: “a healthy organizational culture can be measured by the speed at which problems are identified and addressed, in the face of day-to-day demands.” (42)

*** Conclusion: Starting and sustaining an intentional community can be extremely rewarding and beneficial – and it’s complex and sometimes challenging. The same could be said for most things that make life worthwhile, including having a close friend, being in a romantic partnership, raising a child, running a business, and doing social justice or activism work.The author hopes this article has been useful in enhancing or consolidating your understanding of what is involved in founding and running an intentional community. Best wishes in your pursuit of growth and learning on this topic. Thank you for reading.

NOTES: All podcast episodes are from Season One of the Inside Community Podcast with Rebecca Mesritz, located at https://www.ic.org/podcast/ HERE.

(1)     Episode 1: What is Community? Fantasy vs. Reality with Rebecca Mesritz, at approx. 5 minutes

(2)     Episode 5: Demystifying Legal Frameworks with Clifford Paulin & Jonah Mesritz, at approx. 1 hour 16 minutes

(3)     Episode 4: Part I: Finding Co-Founders & Creating Cooperative Culture with Yana Ludwig, at approx. 26 minutes

(4)     Episode 4: at approx. 30 minutes

(6)     This definition of success in an intentional community is the author’s opinion.

(7)     Episode 1: at approx. 4 minutes

(8)     Episode 2: Vision and Values with Dave Henson, at approx. 1 hour 10 minutes

(9)     These ideas about what makes for effective communication in a community come partially from the author’s experience of both effective and ineffective communication in the communities where she has lived.

(10)  Episode 2: at approx. 1 hour 13 minutes

(11)  Episode 4: at approx. 20 minutes

(12)  Episode 5: at approx. 1 hour 17 minutes

(13)  Episode 4: at approx. 22 minutes

(14)  Episode 1, throughout the podcast

(15)  Episode 4: at approx. 15 minutes

(16)  Episode 1: at approx. 11 - 16 minutes

(17)  Episode 1: at approx. 10 minutes

(18)  Episode 1: at approx. 18 minutes 30 seconds

(19)  Episode 2: at approx. 13 minutes + approx. 49 – 55 minutes

(20)  Episode 2: at approx. 56 minutes

(21)  Episode 2: at approx. 1 hour 2 minutes

(22)  Episode 2: at approx. 28 minutes

(24)  Episode 2: approx. 1 hour 9 minutes

(25)  Some of these considerations for locating a community come from the author’s experience of being involved in relocating a large community across the country, and the wide variety of factors and considerations that went into looking for, finding, renovating, and building on a new property. Some of these reflections also come from the author’s experience of moving to a rural community, and all the considerations that went into locating there, and developing that property.

(26)  Throughout Episode 5

(28)  Episode 2: at approx. 22 minutes – 25 minutes

(29)  Episode 2: at approx. 45 minutes

(30) Episode 2: at approx. 42 – 49 minutes

(31)  Episode 1: between 6 and 10 minutes

(32)  Episode 7: Governance & Decision Making with Diana Leafe Christian, at approx. 7 minutes

(34)  From the author’s experience of some of the functions and roles necessary to keep a community functioning.

(35)  Episode 2: at approx. 32 minutes

(36)  Episode 2: at approx. 32 – 42 minutes

(37)  From the author’s experience of some of the lifestyle questions that come up in intentional communities.

(38)  From the author’s experience of some of the ways people spend time together in intentional communities.

(39)  Episode 5: at approx. 1 hour 19 minutes

(40)  Episode 2: at approx. 41 minutes

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