Why people join communities and why they stay

One of the articles in Being A Planetary Villager (IC#1)
Originally published in Winter 1983 on page 26
Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute

WHAT MAKES PEOPLE join a community, and what makes them stay? In this general form this question has a simple but useless answer: everything. People join for a wide variety of reasons, and their reasons for staying or leaving are equally varied. Just the same, somewhere in there is an urgent question, and as the communities face problems in attracting and holding members, they have to ask it in meaningful ways and search for productive answers. The question becomes "What things about this community attract the attention of desirable potential members, and what things sustain or discourage the continued commitment of old members?" The answer is still "everything", but introducing the concept of "desirable" narrows the field and give some clues. The people we want to attract or to hold onto are attracted or repelled by certain characteristics of the community. As those characteristics change, so also the range of people interested in us change.

Everything we are, everything we do, every person we live with operates as a SELECTOR for other members. One person may join because there are other young people in cos [her or his] age group and another may decide not to join because there are too many young people for cos taste. A well-equipped electronics lab will attract one person, and another will find the same lab a deterrent. The presence of a garden will appeal to people who love fresh vegetables and discourage others who dislike agricultural labor. Does the kitchen serve sweet lemonade in summer? One person finds it a blessed refreshment, another a sign of impure food habits. Is there a cottage industry in the community? It will give us members who think a cash economy is necessary and desirable, and discourage those who yearn for total self-sufficiency. It is virtually impossible to name any facet of any community that does not act, consciously or not, as a SELECTOR of members.

For this concept to be useful, we have to dismiss from consideration those things that we can’t help. Dandelion is Canadian, rural and primarily English speaking. There is no point in worrying about the people who need to live in California and speak Spanish, or those whose professions tie them to the city. Beyond that, Dandelion is still living on a small budget, and will automatically discourage people who can’t make themselves go through a pioneering phase. As to those who want an opportunity for a full-time career in art or science, or a riding horse of their own, they need a much larger group, heavily capitalized. They’re not going to find it in 1982, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

There are, nevertheless, a lot of selectors that remain for us to consider. Dandelion, Twin Oaks and other communities should take a close look at their active selectors and observe whether they are selecting what the community consciously thinks it wants. Potential members should take an equally close look and examine whether they are being led astray by trivial and accidental clues that do not really represent the community’s goals at all. It is an unfortunate thing for someone to join a community in which co [she/he] cannot be happy; it is even worse for someone to decide against a community in which co could have been happy but doesn’t know it. Either of these things can happen by accident, because of our active selectors.

In these days of diet-consciousness, food is a major selector. A vegetarian community will not get meat-eating members. Dandelion, when it started, happened to be made up entirely of people who preferred a vegetarian diet. Though Dandelion’s food ideology did not specifically exclude meat-eaters, it unconsciously selected against them for years. As the community begins to change its eating habits to conform to its actual tolerant opinions, there is naturally a protest from those who liked it the way it was. But the change is important, because Dandelion does not want to select on the basis of diet. There are too many more important issues.

Size is another major selector, and Dandelion cannot help the problems that its growth patterns have created. Its founders have always stated frankly that they wanted to make a fairly large community, and this statement of intention has attracted and held people who dream of the things that only a large group can have. At the same time, Dandelion has in actual physical fact always been small, and its actual size attracts and holds people who have rejected the larger communities and chosen the more intimate, smaller group. Thus, contradictions between what a group is and what it intends to be automatically create internal conflicts. The group must face this and take a close look at its related selectors. If it gets too many members who like it the size it is, it will not be able to keep on growing. If it gets too many future trippers, it may lack hands-on workers who get joy out of the status quo.

Dandelion expects eventually to embrace an age range including grandparents, but it currently has no housing except the children’s building with bedrooms on the ground floor and easy access to a bathroom. Thus, extending the age range remains merely a goal until some future time when it becomes a priority strong enough to influence building plans.

Over the years that I have lived in community, I have seen the following things act as serious detractors for people who might otherwise want to join:

Dirt and disorder. When members of a community allow their buildings to become messy, when tools get lost and are not replaced, when members leave their towels forgotten by the swimming hole and nobody picks them up, that community gives off an aura of general chaos that seems to make material success unlikely. These conditions discourage people who are not willing to be poor for their whole lives. As a learning experience, community is interesting; as a place to make a life it remains dubious. This condition by itself is enough to explain a certain percentage of the turnover in some communities. This problem compounds itself, because the presence of disorder not only selects against people who refuse to live with it; it also selects FOR those who don’t notice it. Thus over time the group has a larger and larger component of people who have taught themselves not to see dirt, except occasionally when their parents pay them a visit. Is this seriously a basis on which we want to discriminate? Of course not. It is just a matter of carelessness, shortage of labor, other priorities. Just the same, the selector is out there working against us all the time.

Coldness to newcomers. This is, fortunately, not Dandelion’s problem. Partly because of its size and its determination to grow, Dandelion has been able to extend a warm welcome to the continuing stream of people who visit and think about joining. It is the bigger communities that struggle with this one. It is entirely beyond the purpose of this paper to suggest ways around this problem, but both community thinkers and prospective members should realize that this is a situation that nobody wants and nobody intends – it just happens, and it is devastating to community recruitment goals. It is a selector that works in two ways – it selects for those people who have the social skills to get past it and find their way into the hearts (warm underneath, just shy) of the members. And it selects also for those who are accustomed to being ignored, who have learned to live in isolation, or who don’t really like people. Such people only occasionally make happy members. The real problem is that coldness selects against really good people who would, if they found friendliness, be inclined to join, but who are appalled by what they consider bad manners, or hurt by what they interpret as rejection, and frequently leave within the first 24 hours without even looking any further.

The presence of people with emotional problems. This is a sticky one. The community accepts a person of borderline emotional stability, feeling that it can in many ways be a non-threatening therapeutic environment. Which of us would not, if we could, extend a hand to help those less fortunate than ourselves? If we are successful with one such shaky soul, we grow confident and accept another, or perhaps a third. Then prospective members come along and instead of seeing us as a community strong enough to be able to allow these folks to function happily, they see us as a place where, if they joined, they would have to "live with a bunch of crazy people". This problem is particularly acute if the visitor program is weak, and the newcomers see more of the very conspicuous emotionally troubled folks than they do of the stronger core members, who are avoiding visitors.

Old members are affected by selectors too, but they are more subtle in this sense: the old members look not at what the situation is right now, but at what they believe it is becoming. They look at trends. This is the meaning of the oft-heard "I get so tired of dealing with the same issues over and over, every time we get a new bunch of people." The fatigue is not simply boredom; it is the feeling that there will never be any progress on the issues under discussion. No sooner does one group begin to understand why things must be a certain way than there is another new group making the same old demands, impeding the progress along certain vital (to the old-timer) lines with arguments that the old members can remember having already presumably defeated. The old member looks to see if things are likely to change for the better within the reasonably foreseeable future. The newer member is still pleased with the status quo and feels threatened by talk of change. It was under this kind of pressure that most of the communities started their children’s programs before they were really financially comfortable. They had members who were ready to start families, who had already waited several years for the community to get ready, and who were beginning to feel that a movement in this direction was a necessary condition of their continuing to live communally. The same kind of force was at work in the movement in some communities toward small living groups. It is typically the longer term members who favor larger private spaces, better vacation facilities, and other items of a higher material standard. It is not that these people were unwilling to pioneer; it is that they have already pioneered and have struggled in the hope for better things, and unless they see some of the fruit of their labor, they will become discouraged and leave.

No community has unlimited resources, and it is always a struggle to figure out how to allocate money and labor. As the community makes its choices, it creates selectors. It may create or enhance areas that will attract newcomers; it may move in directions that are intended to put heart into the old-timers. It cannot do everything at once, and the choices are always difficult.

It is worthwhile, however, to keep the idea of selectors in mind while making these choices. What does the community need most this year? Is it in danger of losing several long-term people who could be kept happy if they saw clear progress in meaningful issues? Or is the population so dangerously low that it is urgently important to take in promising new people as fast as we can get them? Or, if both conditions prevail at the same time, which is more important? The effectiveness of the decisions the community makes at such crisis points may well be a matter of which selectors are most in evidence.

The thing that the prospective member or visitor needs to remember about selectors is that some of the most striking features of a community may well be superficial, accidental, temporary, or even false. One community, for instance, has a very impressive machine shop, and if the newcomer took that shop as a symbol of the group’s industrial capacity, co would be badly misled. The machinery is there because it was donated, and it is in fact hardly ever used. Or perhaps a visitor may be totally turned off by the fact that someone is playing loud rock music in the shop, and go away thinking, "I could never live with that loud music", when in fact the person playing the music happened to be a visitor who ended up getting rejected, the community itself tends to be a rather quiet place and the new member who enjoys conversation in the shop would be warmly welcomed. It is wise to stay longer than a few days if you’re considering living in community, and wise to keep your mind open, and your ears as well, to hear what the real community opinion is on the topics that are important to you. You can’t always judge by what you see at first. It may be that the thing you feel the community lacks is just below the surface, and the addition of your energy would make it flower. The community is not exactly what it seems at first glance. Don’t believe all those accidental selectors. Look deeper. Talk to people who have been there a year or more. Find out which people are deeply involved in the community’s central movements. How do your ideas fit with theirs? This is likely to be a better indicator of your chances of happiness than the superficial things that strike the eye the first day.

So the moral of all this is two-fold. To the communities: We must watch our selectors. Are we putting out the message we mean? Are we selecting for the people we need, or accidentally selecting against them? And to the visitors: Look past the superficial. Communities are complex organisms, and simple messages are almost always wrong.

This article is reprinted with permission from Dandelion’s newsletter, Pappus. Dandelion is a community in Ontario, R.R. #1, Enterprise, ON K0K 1Z0, Canada.

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