Twin Oaks Intentional Community
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Recently published articles by Twin Oakers.
• "More Changes at Twin Oaks: 40 years and Counting....." about long term members leaving, by Valerie. Slated to appear in the Spring 2007 ICSA bulletin.
• "Financial Security vs. Community Freedom" about Twin Oaks stopping making hammocks for Pier 1 Imports, by Tom Freeman. It will appear in the spring 2007 issue of Communities magazine. [1-Feb-2007]
• "Aging in Community" about elders living at Twin Oaks, by Valerie LivingWater. It will appear in the spring 2007 of Contraste, an alternative publication in Cologne, Germany.

More Changes at Twin Oaks: 40 years and Counting...

By Valerie

In the last ICSA bulletin, you read about the shifts our communal economy has undergone, as we lost the largest customer of our primary collective business (hammock-making) and our subsequent shift to our secondary industry, tofu-making, and an increase in work outside of the community. We're still in the process of weathering those changes, although our financial picture has strengthened and we're back on solid ground in that realm again.

The latest driving force of change is in our population demographics. "Exodus" may be too strong a word, but in the past several months, a relatively large number of our older, longer-term members have announced plans to leave the community. Losing people that have half- jokingly been referred to as "lifers" is having quite an effect. Many hold positions of responsibility that are quite central to the community, and our remaining members over 50 are anticipating a loss of peers. We'll also lose some of the valuable perspective of those able to take the "long view" of community living via their own personal experience. Interestingly, this is all happening at a time when we've reached our maximum population capacity, and are looking at starting a waiting list.

Currently over 50% of our members have lived at Twin Oaks for four years or less. This, in a community that will celebrate it's 40th anniversary of existence in June 2007! We have an abundance of energetic members in their twenties, and we're working on attracting more people aged 35 and over. As always, we're also interested in any internationals (hint, hint) coming our way. We'd love to see you here.


Financial Security vs. Community Freedom
By Tom Two years ago the retail chain Pier 1 Imports ended a 30-year relationship with Twin Oaks community in Virginia, dropping us as the vendor who made their rope hammocks. The immediate impact was to plunge our community into economic austerity. Our continued existence was never in doubt, thanks to many years of prudent and conservative fiscal policy, but we had to slash our domestic spending by 40 percent.

There was a sense of irony in the relationship between Twin Oaks and Pier 1. Twin Oaks is an egalitarian, income-sharing intentional community that prides itself on creating small footprints on the land, a voluntary labor system, and social consciousness. Pier 1 is a multinational conglomerate that sells overpriced consumer goods imported mostly from developing nations. Yet, we attribute our longevity and growth at Twin Oaks to our relationship with Pier 1.

And we were not the only community to benefit from this relationship. As Pier-1’s hammock sales increased, we were able to offer the excess production to other communities, first bringing East Wind in Missouri into the business as a partner, then contracting with other smaller communities to also create hammocks. Making hammocks for Pier 1 was like pennies from heaven dropping into the pockets of the communities movement.

The relationship with Pier 1 had its price. As Pier 1 grew, so did their orders. Then, Pier-1 began tightening the management of their supply chain, meaning (since hammocks were a seasonal item), they began asking us to ship larger orders in a shorter window of time. Hammock “pushes” (a systematic and intense increase in production) were common in our winter months at Twin Oaks. This seasonal production fit Twin Oaks well, as outdoor work wound down in the community during the colder months..

In the mid 1990’s the number of hammocks Pier 1 requested became staggering. Members of Twin Oaks felt they were being asked to make more hammocks than they were comfortable doing. Our community managers of the hammock business tried to shift more hammocks to East Wind and other communities. Many of them did not have the same seasonal labor shifts as Twin Oaks and felt exploited at being asked to make so many hammocks in such a short time. The seasonal up and down of production did not fit well for their internal economies, as in winter months they would be flush with production and summer months they would have little.

To ease the labor issues of hammock production at Twin Oaks and the other communities, the managers of our hammock business decided to spread out hammock production over the year and store the finished hammocks in our warehouse in anticipation of Pier 1’s spring orders. For a while this worked fine. Twin Oaks still made most of its hammocks in the fall and winter but the rest of the production was spread out over the rest of the year. And the other communities could make the same amount of hammocks each month if that suited them, allowing them to plan a more stable economy.

As Pier 1 grew larger, the very nature of their business changed. No longer were they just an importer of cheap imported goods, they began to see themselves as design and style leaders in the industry. The simple rope hammock we had been providing was no longer good enough. They wanted something different. We had a warehouse full of rope hammocks waiting in anticipation of their needs and they wanted something different. They wanted a fabric hammock.

In retrospect, we can look back and see that their request for fabric hammocks was the beginning of the end. At the time though, we saw it as a new opportunity. We scrambled to both create the new fabric hammock for Pier1 and to convince them of the ongoing saleability of the rope hammocks in our warehouse. For a while we kept it going with a win-win compromise. We made the new hammock models that Pier 1 wanted and Pier 1 still sold the traditional rope hammocks that we like making.

Pier 1’s changing product needs brought new uncertainties and tension to the communities involved. The managers of our hammocks business could not anticipate from season to season what Pier 1 would want. Hammock production returned to a seasonal nature. Many individual community members felt dismayed at what they perceived as Pier 1’s dominance of their lives and the communities they lived in. Members of Twin Oaks began to voice concern about the negative impact of the Pier 1 relationship on our community.

In the mid 1980’s when Pier 1 started their expansion, Twin Oaks recognized the danger of being dependent on one large customer. We created the “Pier 1 strategy,” which in fact was an intention and plan not to be so dependent on Pier 1. To meet these aims, Twin Oaks started a tofu business, put more energy into its fledging indexing business, and attempted to sell hammocks to other retailers besides Pier 1.

As Pier 1 continued to grow, meeting its needs taxed our community’s resources and there wasn’t much left over for the Pier 1 strategy. Our tofu and indexing businesses remained small and hammock sales to Pier 1 still accounted for the vast majority of our income. At the same time, some Twin Oaks members felt that being a Pier 1 production facility was easier than the alternative. After all, we had been dealing with Pier 1 for almost as long as there had been a Twin Oaks. They would never drop us.

But in August, 2004 they did drop us. They informed us they would stop selling hammocks (though they would take some of our inventory to be negotiated later at a reduced price). The moment that many people had prophesied about but few believed would ever happen, happened. Twin Oaks was without Pier 1.

When this news was announced, our community became very quiet. There was some anxiety, some fear, but mostly I remember a sense of serene peace. There was a feeling of emancipation. We knew there would be discomfort and hard work ahead, but we had choice now. We could dictate our own future. We could create the economy that fitted our desires for community and right livelihood, not the needs of a large multinational conglomerate. We could return to an intentionality in our economy that had been missing for many years.

The last two years without a Pier 1 account have been hard. We’ve tightened the belt a few notches and cut spending. There have been some positive developments, though. Over the last two years our tofu business has tripled its net income. Our indexing income is up 45 percent in the same period. And we are managing our money better than we have in the past. The new Twin Oaks economy brings its own tensions and problems. We’re still not out of austerity yet. Though each year gets better with our economy being more broadly diversified.

If there is a moral to this story I think it lies in learning the danger of creating a community economy dependent on one large customer. If we were a traditional business we could just keep expanding to buffer the dependency on a Pier 1-type customer. We could produce our product with cheaper labor in other countries, as our competitors do. We could expand our product line to other casual furniture. We could do these things and more. Instead we’ve chosen to be a community but not a business. We have businesses in order to support our community; we’re not a community that exists to support our businesses. It’s an important distinction.

A few months after Pier 1 ended the relationship, a representative from L.L. Bean called. They were interested in having a domestic hammock vendor. Their orders would be approximately half the amount of the Pier 1 account at its height. Our community talked about it. It would end our austerity period after just a single year. It would bring in lots of money and the things that money can buy.

In the end we decided we didn’t want a new Pier 1. Finally free after all those years, we chose not to go back.


Aging in Community
By Valerie


[This article slated to appear Spring 2007 Contraste magazine, an alternative publication produced in Cologne, Germany.]

At age 72, Cameron is about to embark upon a voyage. He'll be spending a one-month vacation kayaking the waters of the east coast of Canada, in a boat that he has spent the last year building himself, with a group of kayaking enthusiasts that he met over the internet. At age 83, Piper spends five days a week running her “Reading Window” program. She has an office where she tutors children who have difficulty reading, during after-school hours. A former teacher, she developed this unique teaching method herself, has received an $8000 grant from a local agency, and has plans to write a book detailing her method so that others can benefit.

Are Cameron and Piper typical elders at Twin Oaks community? They're certainly in good company. In our community of 85 adults (and 15 children), 30 members are aged 50 or older, and all are living the active and engaged lives that are the norm in our ecovillage of 100 people.

In our community, each member works 44 hours a week, both in our collectively-owned businesses (hammock-making, tofu-making and book indexing) and in our domestic areas (gardening, cooking, office work, cleaning, building repair, etc.). This is how we support the community and keep it running. More-or-less in exchange for this work, the community provides all of our basic needs – housing, food, healthcare, clothing, etc. Once someone reaches the age of 50, the person works one hour less each week every year. In this way, older people are able to stay engaged and continue being active, which is of benefit to both physical and mental health, while also being able to take it easy and work less if that is required. One older member reports that his favourite work is herding the dairy cows that provide our drinking milk (along with organic cheeses and yogurt) with our Border Collie sheepdog, which we jokingly call a “cow-dog”. Another older member balances communal laundry shifts, which keep her physically active, with office work, which “provides a variety of problems that I can use my brain to solve”.

By and large, older members report being relatively fulfilled here, and having most of their expectations of life as an older person met. Although some struggle with health challenges, because of our lifestyle, Twin Oaks members tend to be more fit than our mainstream counterparts. Our older members overall are relatively healthy. One older member, who requires a very-low-sodium diet due to a physical condition, laments that our communal cooks don't always remember to take this need into account when serving groups meals. The community has provided a Care Group for this member, and one of their tasks is to help coordinate these types of needs related to her condition. Our oldest member does have one thing that concerns her, which is her desire to avoid a lingering death. She feels she has no peers with which to discuss this. However, she has arranged for a Living Will, through the community's Legal Manager, which clearly states her request to avoid “unnecessary prolonging of life by artificial means”. Sometimes the most difficult thing can be asking for help with something. Our oldest member explains: “It can be especially hard when people say no, but even when they say yes, there's always a balance of how much to ask for. I try to think about prevention—how I can stay as self-sufficient as possible for as long as possible. That means not pushing myself, but I need to find the balance between doing things myself and asking for help.” One advantage is that at Twin Oaks, unlike many older people living alone, there is always someone around to ask.

But how does life on the commune overall compare to the lives our older members would be living if they chose to have a more conventional life? How do they feel they measure up to their peers in mainstream society? Most older members feel they are better off living in community. As Piper says: “It’s enormously better here, there’s always something you can participate in if you choose to. Also it’s important for me to be doing something politically meaningful, and that’s easier here than in the mainstream.” Piper loves to dance, and knows she has it good at Twin Oaks, with our frequent parties where a woman in her 80's dancing to rock-n-roll is a normal occurrence, not an unusual spectacle. She summarizes: “I am definitely better off here than I would be out there. I know I could survive in the mainstream, and I’m actively choosing to be here.” Cameron feels similarly. He notices that older people are much more integrated at Twin Oaks and much less segregated by age than in mainstream society. He believes he is less socially isolated here than he might be elsewhere. On a very practical level, he realizes that, as a former professor of Anthropology, his job peers have more money than he does (at Twin Oaks, retirement income is turned over to the community) but that is outweighed by other benefits, including the fact that he doesn't need to worry about medical costs himself, since the community will cover those expenses.

With members living more closely with people of all ages, this also raises the question of a potential downside, and the possibility of increased intergenerational conflict. Whether or not this exists depends at least partially on who you ask. Marione, aged 75, says she doesn't perceive conflict per se, however she does notice a sense of difference from younger people. She explains: “Younger members have a different life energy. I try to make verbal connections with them so I feel more personally connected.” Another member says that sometimes it can be difficult to participate in conversations with younger members: “I talk in full sentences, and younger people talk in sound bites.” Sometimes younger members don't seem to have the patience to listen to an older member. Piper's approach is to remind herself that “all the older people here have had the experience of being younger, but none of the younger people have had the experience of being older.” This gives her compassion during times of a lack of understanding, such as when a younger member was unhappy that the community has provided motorized carts for older members who have troubles walking from building to building.

From a younger member's perspective, the difference can be individualized. Aubee, aged 30, reports: “For me, it's more personal. Some older members I like, and some I avoid, like anyone else here. I don't perceive older members, as a demographic, to behave a particular way.” Other younger members do notice some cultural gap between age cohorts, and see some separation but not active conflict. Aubee adds that sometimes it's hard to gain respect from older members unless you've “paid your dues” working in the community. She feels there is a perceived transience of youth, which is partly true but partly a stereotype that she resents being cast in. Tom, aged 40, points out that depending on one's age, being “old” can mean very different things.

These differences in perception played a role several years ago when the community was having difficulty attracting new members in their 20's, and having an abundance of members over 50. At that time, after much discussion, we decided to temporarily put a hold on accepting members aged 55 or older, until our average age dropped. Creating this policy was a difficult decision, and controversial in the community. Our challenge was finding a balance between maintaining a non-ageist policy, and on the other hand, being able to address concerns such as health care costs for our already sizeable population of older people, a culture that remains a blend of youth and elders (without becoming a "retirement community"), and enough strong backs to fulfill the substantial amount of physical work needed by the community. At the same time, we also realized that all communities have barriers; some are economic, some religious, some behavioural, some geographic. Happily, our average has become lower, we have dropped that policy, and decided not to return to it. This is a relief for the members who were concerned that it was at odds with our value of non-discrimination.

And where does this leave our older members? Many are happy to have peers coming into the community. Piper has a broader view--she likes the idea of “oldies” in different communities being in contact, perhaps by email. Marione sagely sits back and contemplates that she is observing the process of Twin Oaks adjusting to meeting the needs of older members as that demographic grows. “This process is going well enough, with Twin Oaks doing it's best to meet our individual needs as we age and change”. That description is of course a perfect metaphor for the community itself, which will this year reach middle age when we celebrate 40 years of existence in June 2007. Perhaps the group can take some wisdom from the individual(s), and itself learn to age with grace, dignity and serenity.