co-op member, humble thyself

12 Kalimat 167 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head: Ulrich Schnauss, “Passing By”
Rethinking Think Thoughts Thinking
geralt / Pixabay

I believe that synchronicity is often no coincidence.  As such, two events that happened one after another earlier this week have given me real pause to reflect on my years of co-op living.

While on the bus on my way home from work Monday afternoon, I was talking with a dear Eritrean friend of mine on the phone.  (Eritrea is a country on the horn of Africa lying on the Red Sea next to Ethiopia.  And yes, you really *should* know where it is.)  She said that a man in the Eritrean community in her city had recently passed away, leaving behind a wife and young children. She describe how everyone in the community was coming out to the funeral, and that a fundraiser was being held to help the bereaved family.  This Eritrean friend and I have had numerous discussions about community.  One thing that really struck me was how she felt that Eritreans tend to focus more on the “we,” while most Americans tend to focus on the “I.”

After I got home from work, I had to prepare dinner for my co-op house because it was my turn to cook, and we had a house meeting scheduled that evening. I’d had a very busy weekend and didn’t really want to cook.  But I put some sweet potatoes in the oven to bake and started cooking some quinoa.  I was cutting vegetables for the stir fry when a housemate walked by and said, “I don’t think anyone is going to be at the house meeting.”

This surprised me.  This was going to be an important house meeting.  Our kitchen remodeling is almost done, and one of my housemates wanted to have a discussion item about getting the kitchen ready for use again.  I also had a discussion item about reorganizing our house workjob system, which needs to be done before we start assigning workjobs when the new house members move in next month.

When people in our house realize that they can’t make a house meeting, they are supposed to “proxy”–that is, email house members notifying them why they can’t make it, share what they’ve done for their house jobs and give input on the agenda items.  I noticed that a lot of people in the house did indeed send proxies, but I hadn’t read through every one of them due to my busy weekend.  

But after my housemate (who herself wasn’t going to be at the meeting) brought up the subject again, and reminded me of a couple of people who were out of town, I realized she was right.  Out of eight adults, I was going to be the only attendee at our dinner meeting.  So I shelved my stir fry project and had a very nice dinner of sweet potatoes and quinoa.  Then I quickly cleaned up, went upstairs, and unwound.  

I’ve lived in some kind of intentional community setting for a little bit less than one-fifth of my life.  For many more years I’ve been fascinated by the notion of community living. There is quite an impressive communities movement that has existed for quite some time.  Nearly one thousand intentional communities exist in North America alone.  

But as someone who has lived in co-op houses for the last seven and a half years, I have to say that I often find the quality of community to be quite wanting.  Or when it is good, it also tends to be short-lived.  Where I live now is probably the best community living situation I’ve had–at least since the Global Walk.  

So, as I sat at the dinner table by myself eating my dinner, I really found myself comparing the moment I was in with the efforts my friend’s Eritrean community was making on behalf of a bereaved family.  In my more cynical moments, I found myself thinking that maybe the best efforts that white Americans could muster in such a situation would be to form a committee.

Americans and Europeans have devised some rather fascinating models for the organization of intentional communities, from land ownership models to decision-making processes.  I, for one, am quite fascinated by the consensus decision-making process developed by Quakers and practiced by others.  Yet, I cannot help but think that these elaborate systems exist only to compensate for the fact that we really don’t know how to live together in groups.  I could extend that theory by saying that great management models exist only because Americans (and not just Americans) have lost the ability to listen to each other, cooperate and think of the greater good.

I remember attending some co-housing meetings when I lived in Chicago.  There were a lot of people really interested in co-housing, but very few projects ever got off the ground. Groups would form, last a few months, and then break up again, and then new groups with different combinations of people would form again.  I went to a few of those meetings, and one thing that struck me was the lack of warmth and connection among the meeting attendees.  Discussion focused almost exclusively on physical structure of the co-housing project.

I’m not saying that Americans are stupid, nor am I saying that Eritreans have all the answers.  I’m just saying that we are a product of our culture, and the culture we Americans grew up in was and is a very individualistic one.  The nuclear family is a product of the industrial society we live in.  So those of us raised in such a culture start with what we know and then experiment. People willing to undergo such experiments deserve kudos.

Yet we also need to be humble. In a lot of texts about the cooperative movement, credit for the first innovative co-op is frequently give to the Rochdale Co-op started in Rochdale, England in 1844.  (Oddly enough, that was the same year that the Báb made his declaration.)  But as African-American and Latina members of a New York City co-op politely reminded attendees at a NASCO conference about four years ago, cooperation and community existed for thousands of years before the Rochdale Co-op.  It’s the nuclear family, not cooperation, that is a recent development.  What Rochdale really deserves credit for is creating a cooperative model responding to the economic dislocation caused by the Industrial Revolution. But they didn’t invent cooperation.

Many societies–including, it seems, the Eritreans–have not completely forgotten what it means to live in a cooperative society, and as such, we probably have a few things to learn from them.  I really look forward to learning a lot from my Eritrean friend.

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