Commonground — An Experiment in Social Change

A vision for a Just, Non Violent & Sustainable World

The sun is streaming through the mud brick building. It feels quite warm for a winter’s day in Central Victoria. We are sitting around the communal dining area chatting to Phil Bourne at Commonground — a social change intentional community he helped set up about 35 years ago together with a small group of close friends. Their vision is to create a just, nonviolent and sustainable world. Their aims are threefold and include a desire to not only enable a vibrant community of people living there but also to share the space as a conference and retreat venue for like minded groups, while providing education and training opportunities for people who are seeking social change. They are very mindful that they live on the ancestral lands of the Taungurung People. Working together with the local aboriginal people is very important to them and they feel honoured to support Koori culture through parts of their work. Their spiritual practice is to be more connected to the people around them, their food systems and the work they do while living a simple life. The creation of Commonground has come from a desire to create a space where they could live within their ethics and principles. Those early founders were a small group of social activists who set up this intentional community as a social experiment that others could learn from. Phil explains they are still in their infancy and are continually learning and evolving as they plan for the future.

As we drove up one morning on Yellow Box road, a group of kangaroos scurried away. The community is set in a beautiful pocket of regenerated bushland, yet Seymour is just about an hour’s train trip away from the hustle and bustle of Melbourne. The founders of Commonground believe that we must learn to live and work in a more collaborative way if we are to offer our best creative contribution toward a just and sustainable world. Phil and his friends are the early adopters but as we begin to feel the ravages of climate change and the stress of life in overcrowded cities begin to take their toll, more of us will look for resilient solutions that enable us to thrive. Millennials priced out of the housing market and able to work online are already looking for new models that allow them to be mobile but still have access to work and live hubs.

We are sitting in the common building referred to as the Wedge.

It has been beautifully designed with philanthropic funding, professional builders and the blood, sweat and tears of the residents. It is both a conference centre and the main residential quarters for the people who live here. The high thermal mass in the building has reduced the need for heating. But this is Victoria and in the colder months, a wood fired hydronic heating system keeps them warm. Commonground started at the radical end of the Intentional Community spectrum. While each adult had their own personal space — a room in the building — there were no couple or family spaces as they planned to bring up their children together. They had a common purse, cooked and ate meals together and worked on the property while raising and educating their children in this ‘village’ atmosphere. In those early days, they contributed their income to the common purse and took from it what they needed for their living expenses. I am surprised to read that this aspect was never a source of conflict. I know this part of their experiment would be a struggle for most of us who have grown up in the mainstream world of nuclear families. But those early residents were intent on living outside these myths, creating a more tribal culture and a space where everyone was welcome. These rules have now been relaxed to enable more personal freedom. The residents pay ‘rent’ by contributing a minimum of 10-hours a week on the work of Commonground, in hosting social changes groups at the Wedge venue. They now have a shared vegetarian meal in the evenings and the occasional BBQ in the summer but attendance is optional.

Unlike many of the eco-villages and intentional communities I have visited, Commonground is quite a small community.

Currently, there are 14 residents who live here permanently, out of a total of 25 members. The non resident members are actively involved in the project but live in Melbourne. Despite being a small community, Phil says there are 3 generations living here; his son was born here and his daughter has returned with her family after travelling overseas. From our experience of visiting eco-villages we know that it is often the human element that brings these social experiments undone. So the talk turns to governance and how they resolve conflict. Phil explains that 35 years ago governance structures like the now popular Sociocracy model was not specifically known to them. However, they practiced consensus decision-making and developed their own understanding of collaborative processes, keen to do away with hierarchical and patriarchal structures. From this process the training aspect of Commonground was developed under the current name of Groupwork Centre. One of the founders has documented their mutual learnings on group process in the book, “Getting Our Act Together.”

There is no doubt there is a wealth of experience here, gleaned through living and working together in such an intimate way.

Their own governance structures have also evolved over time as they have come to recognise the wisdom that elder’s bring to the table while enabling the next generation to put their own stamp on the community. The Commonground Festival is an example of how the next generation is having an impact. The festival attracts a wide audience from around Victoria and beyond, and is a wonderful way to sow the seeds of new ideas in the hearts and minds of people who come here. Phil says that while having fun is important, there is also a deep level of discussion that takes place, challenging everyone who attends to ideas outside their comfort zones. One of the couples that came for the festival has now decided to live here.

We go for a walk outside to admire the gardens and to learn about how they source their basic needs of food, water and energy.

Various residents and an accomplished gardener and non-resident member worked on building up the soil here to grow their veggies. It is winter, so the fruit trees are dormant but the veggies are thriving, thanks to the care given to them by the residents and the horse manure sourced locally. They grow most of the vegetables they need and some of the fruit with berries, apples and pears are thriving here. However, they bulk buy other items including legumes. There is often surplus fruit, which is preserved for the winter. They are generally self reliant with respect to water — relying on the dam to source water for the garden and the toilets and harvesting rainwater for drinking and showers. This year’s drought and low average rainfall resulted in Commonground needing to purchase drinking water — in one of the few times in 35 years. We see the dam in the distance. It is not as full it should be at this time of year and Phil fears for the summer if the rains don’t come. They are not self sufficient in solar energy but have a 3.5 KW solar system — the maximum they are allowed — as they are at the end of the line. They plan to install batteries and an updated solar hot water system when money allows.

It has been an interesting visit and we are thankful to Phil for taking the time to show us around and share some of his story. Intentional communities such as this are not for everyone but as our one-person and two-person households grow, we need options besides the single detached family homes that are both unaffordable and isolating. We also need solutions for the next generation who are priced out of the ‘Great Australian Dream’. Phil reckons that young people are either giving up or getting really active. Giving them places to live where they can access their basic needs, work remotely and still be able to commute into the city for fun and work is what drives Steven and me. We have commenced discussions with Mitchell Shire Council about our ideas to build a pilot regenerative village, so it is good to know that models like Commonground have already been established in the area. We hope that our contribution to the future would be to embed such change in the planning scheme, thereby making regenerative village developments that tend toward zero waste and a one planet lifestyle easily replicable. Phil says that what they have created is a mix of thinking involving the principles of permaculture, feminism, social justice, equity and anarchy.

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