You may have noticed I’ve been quiet for a while. True to my battle with doing things in an orderly fashion, I have been holding off writing anything until I finish the next item in line (chronologically speaking) – a little intentional community in Qld.
Trying to do it justice has been stifling my ability to do anything at all – ironic isn’t it? Some related advice came my way from the book I’m reading, Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon. “The way to get over creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself. It seems contradictory but when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom”. I think that’s pretty true – do you know that paralysing sensation of being overwhelmed when you are free to do anything? Suddenly swimming in a sea of possibility, there are so many options it is impossible to choose. Just something is needed to provide a starting point, hence the necessity for a constraint. It provides the framework for choosing a path, and the impetus to start walking.
That’s where I am today – having held off for so long, there is now an entire highway of ideas and happenings backed up behind me. So I’m chalking it up to another learning experience and moving on – let’s pick a path and start walking….
Our couch surfing hosts in Mullum were overflowing with good suggestions, including the one to stop on our way out and visit ‘The Famunity’. After several failed attempts at comprehending the language they were speaking, further explanation ensued. The name, it turned out, was a combination of ‘family’ and ‘community’. Ah – yes, that made sense, and also highlighted some key points of their vision. Benny & Sophia were kind enough to put us in contact with the Famunity and they gave us the ok to come for a look-see.
The Famunity sits just North of the NSW border in the Gold Coast hinterland – on a property which appears no different to its neighbours, save the small whimsical cow on the front gate. We met with Andrea, Danielle, Mel & Linda who were all generous in sharing their experiences and showing us around. One of my first questions was going to be “why here?” but it became redundant as soon as I walked through the house and caught sight of the view – panoramic vision of their land with beautifully interesting topography melding into the adjacent national park – you would think you were a million miles from anywhere. It’s a shame my photos don’t do it complete justice.
As the name suggests, one of their foundations is operating as an extended family – what they consider to be true “community”, as opposed to ‘multiple occupancy’ (or co-living, or a village). This distinction was something I wouldn’t appreciate until down the track – becoming clear with the differences at the next place we visited – Crystal Waters Permaculture Village. It was obvious once we knew – they even state it in their name – ‘village’, not ‘community’. While to some it may just be semantics, to me it raises an interesting difference of intention. I and many others assume they are the same thing – which is no surprise really, given the general concept of ‘intentional communities’ isn’t on the radar for your average person, let alone the intricacies. In the beginning, I was expecting all intentional communities & villages to have everyone interacting on a very personal level, which isn’t necessarily the case. For example, in Crystal Waters the people live together on 250 acres of bush but within their own allocated block of land, and choose the degree to which they participate in group activities or business. By contrast, Famunity members live more communally in many facets of life – residing more closely and/or sharing living spaces, actively contributing to common areas and workload plus the formalised communications which all members are expected to participate in.
I want to explore the Famunity’s communication model a little more because it seems a key element of good cohesion. It starts with a pledge the existing group has come up with and committed to. Printed and visible on the wall, it acts as a reminder (not unlike the vision or value statement of a business, don’t you think?) as well as a clear guide to any person wishing to become a new member. In a similar vein to the probationary period for a new employee, if the person decides they want to join, they start a three month trial set out for newbies to make sure it works for everyone. The importance of the pledge of values and conduct is substantial and reiterates another consistent lesson: be clear in what you are about, and set expectations.
The parallels with business surprised me, but they probably shouldn’t have. Like any organisation, (be it a business, project, non-profit, sporting team or whatever) they work best when there are some good policies, practices and communication in place. After the initial set up, I suspect the hard work lies in maintaining it, or rather maintaining the relationships.
This is where I think The Famunity impressed me most – their approach to communication, in aid of those relationships. When we spoke, members were meeting together three times a week – once to talk business & organisational type stuff, once to check in with how everyone was feeling on a personal level and once to do an activity purely for fun – building and maintaining those bonds. I was really taken by that model, clever to formally address all those aspects on a regular basis. And clever to do it separately, minimising the risk of getting it all mixed up in a giant jumble of heartache & urgency that doesn’t go anywhere (I think it’s much easier to hold your tongue if you know you have a guaranteed opportunity to get it off your chest later in the week – or if, in fact, it is irrelevant to the particular meeting at hand).
I’ll take the liberty of assuming a process in tackling a fun activity is pretty straight forward, and there is plenty out there about facilitating a productive business meeting. What may be less common knowledge is their technique in keeping everyone open and settled on a personal level. They call the meeting ‘heart circle’ – from what I can tell it is like a general speaking/listening circle. You may be familiar with the idea if you have ever had the fortune to experience one (I have – just the once but it was a revelatory example in how we can communicate and be heard).
Picture people coming together in a circle, encouraged to share whatever is on their mind. The key is it must be about them and how they are feeling, rather than pointing the finger or complaining about somebody else & their conduct. It’s a bit reminiscent of passive vs aggressive language use – passive communication can follow a pattern like ‘when X happened, it made me feel Y’. There’s more to it but let’s just say it’s about releasing your perspective, not blaming others. In the circle I took part in, a ‘talking stick’ was used – some item placed inside the circle that one must pick up in order to speak. While they have it, they are the only person to be speaking and others listen. When they feel they are finished, it goes back in the centre and somebody else can have a say. How much detail one goes into during their turn and the degree to which boundaries are pushed is something I guess you get a feel for. And with the aid of someone acting as facilitator to guide things back on track when they go astray, which I would imagine is very likely if members aren’t accustomed to talking in this way. It did, as you might think, feel pretty funny to start with but soon became familiar.
The Famunity is a community wishing to embrace children & families, and raise them in a largely self-reliant environment. Encourganing things like home-schooling together where all members are expected to take a turn in contributing to this communal education. Building on the close-knit design is a conscious effort to also actively engage in the wider community. For example, there are plans to start a playgroup in the nearest town. This and other interaction helps to alleviate some of the alienation that can occur when people haven’t knowledge or connection with something like an intentional community. Fear and apprehension can often follow. As one of the members Danielle said, the more you build relationships (with external community), the less freaky it seems. She also recounted a story of someone speaking their mind freely in her presence without realising she lived there – it was a good opportunity to start the conversation about what actually happens. And so she did, telling the more-boring-than-expected truth – people living together – just doing more activities together, and do they want to rely less on the government? Yes – ok cool. Presto – it’s not that foreign anymore – a bit of “community immunity” as they put it (love that term, by the way).
Danielle’s own story seemed somewhat of a bridge – an average family living in mainstream society but with a long held wish for community (20 years in fact). They got all geared up to travel and find a place, then ended up just a half hour from where they started! While they may have wished for more travel, it appears to have been a joy to find a place they feel home in. For them, as with others others, showing people is powerful. They had talked about the idea for a long time, and met with their fair share of fear and apprehension. Now that they have done it and have something tangible to show people, everyone wants to visit!
I set out to say a lot more, but for now I will just add that we have much gratitude for this and all the other wonderful stories we heard from the members that day. Indeed I felt spoilt because this was our first ‘intentional community’ visit and what an inspiring example. There were lots of aspects I found interesting, and many I would like to see in our own future community like growing food, structured communication/interaction and a drive to increase self-reliance.
Lastly, while I’m no expert on intentional communities, what I have picked up leads me to say this: communities are like people – they each have their own personality. Even when you find the common threads between them in their goals, philosophy or governance, chances are the who, how, why or when will differ – like similar flavours used to blend a different & unique dish. So regardless of what your favourite people, food or communities are like, it’s good to get out there and meet/eat/see new ones!
If you are interested in knowing more about the Famunity they hold regular ‘open gate’ days where you can come camp overnight and get to know the place and people. You can contact them on their Facebook page here.