D.C.'s ‘intentional communities’ put strangers in a house joined by core values

Sure, you’re a typical idealistic Washingtonian who believes you can make a difference. But how seriously do you take your values? Would you be willing to construct your entire home life around them?

There’s a growing cluster of houses in Washington filled with people who already are.

Called “intentional communities,” these group homes are occupied by strangers who live together based on core values, such as intergenerational child-rearing, environmental sustainability or the attempt to live out Catholic social teaching.

(Katherine Frey/ The Washington Post ) - Megan Donohue, 45, watches as her children, Makiya, 9, and Noah, 7, load a dishwasher, as Helena Woodvine, 29, cleans the large pots after dinner at the group home in Takoma Park, Md. The intergeneration group home has 14 people now sharing the household responsibilities.They have manifestos on the fridge, nightly house dinners, monthly “feelings and needs” meetings, and commitments to shared decision-making. Is a clothes dryer wasteful? Should non-married couples be allowed as residents? What’s a “Jewish” way to ease poverty?

There are at least two dozen of these homes just in and around the Northwest neighborhood of Petworth, a large enough constellation to gather for a regular potluck and an “Olympics” with such events as a compost-toss.

With their mostly progressive, war-opposing, meat-eschewing bent, the homes can feel reminiscent of 1960s communes made up of people who sought to escape mainstream life. But this is intentional living 2013, D.C.-style. These houses are filled with advocates and political organizers who are likely to do their civil rights work for the Justice Department or have a meeting at the White House after morning prayer. The potluck can be a networking opportunity for someone advocating for affordable housing or LGBT Catholic inclusion. (Perhaps the emblem of this is D.C. Council member David Grosso, I-At Large, who was raised in a Petworth group home filled with Catholic anti-violence activists, including clergy.)

In fact, an inside joke among intentional communities involves that tension between being a typical Washington go-getter and the desire for a purer life that’s more about what’s in the community garden than what’s on the résumé.

Laird Schaub, executive secretary of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, said there’s been a boomlet in intentional living since about 2005. His organization — one of the bigger clearinghouses for intentional living — has been getting 10 to 15 percent more Web traffic each year lately, and he estimates that at least 100,000 people in the United States live in an intentional community organized around spiritual, political or other principles.

Unlike in the ’60s and ’70s, he said, typical Americans are more likely to yearn for more “community” around them. Also, more people older than 50 are expressing interest in intentional living, Schaub said.

People “say there has been more alienation and fragmentation, more divisiveness and tension, less sense of neighborliness than when they grew up,” he said. “The reason [the homes] are important is because in intentional communities we are learning about or recovering the ability to get along with one another and solve problems.” Below are three models of modern-day communes:

Maitri House

Founded: 2007

Residents: 17

Organizing values: Cooperative parenting, intergenerational living, sustainability

Rules include: Significant house decisions made by “values-based consensus,” which means agreeing to something that seems best for the house, not just for one’s self; residents agree house should be generally open to travelers in town for social activism or to learn about intentional living

When the children of Maitri House wanted a puppy, they did what you do in the bustling, 17-person Takoma Park collective: They took it to a house meeting. Which is what non-parent residents did when early-morning kid noise was getting to be oppressive, leading to a discussion that included input from the children.

There are five kids, most under 10, in this 12-bedroom brick home on a sleepy circle, but their needs are central. The backyard is bordered by two huge kid-built forts, one of logs and the other of used tires. The mission statement on the fridge calls for “cooperative parenting . . . living as a large family, sharing the joys and challenges of living with children.” A common topic is how to balance the different parenting styles that coexist under Maitri’s one roof.

A recent weeknight was typical, with one mom eating dessert while another resident played soccer with her son in the backyard and another arm-wrestled with her daughter on the other side of the huge common-area table.

Support for children — right now there are three families with children — is part of Maitri’s core value: the deliberate pursuit of high-quality, intimate relationships.

Residents are expected to attend six dinners a week and a monthly three-hour “feelings and needs” meeting at which people who struggle to open up to a large group can pick an “empathy buddy” to whom they can speak directly.

More regular meetings include a time for “withholds,” or conflicts someone may be feeling, as well as a reading of “love notes” of appreciative thoughts people write during the week and leave in a big box on the fireplace mantel.

Ryan McAllister, a Georgetown University biophysicist who six years ago co-founded Maitri (a Sanskrit word for “unconditional friendship”), first studied group dynamics and picked a number meant to make sharing optimal. The group was big enough that people could do mostly chores they like and are good at and experience different relationships, but not so big as to lose intimacy.

Maitri residents co-own the house, so as to increase commitment to the community.

Jane Connor, 65, came to Maitri House two years ago after her previous career as a psychology professor and her marriage ended.

She’d lived in a traditional home for 35 years but wanted more community. She now works on conflict resolution in schools but still found it an adjustment to be told how to put the knives away (in the sink, so kids can’t reach them) or how to wash a pan (no soap in the cast-iron one).

“As an adult, to hear right away there are five things you’re doing wrong, it was like — whoa,” she said. “But then you start to learn the rules, and you have to put the emphasis on the relationship first.”

Now she is so attached to Maitri that she is trying to blend her home life with a new boyfriend who wishes to live more conventionally.

“Human beings are social animals,” she said. “We’re meant to be together.”


Founded: 1986

Residents: 13

Organizing value: Living out Jesus’s call for peace and justice

Rules include: Married couples only, whether same- or mixed-sex; general attendance at morning prayer and evening meals

Outside, Petworth remains in dawn’s early light. But inside one nondescript brick rowhouse with a green, plant-rimmed “PEACE” sign on the front porch, a living room full of unrelated people sit around a circle of couches with their eyes closed, in prayer. A red candle flickers on a table in the circle’s center; the sound of coffee brewing comes from the kitchen. This is morning at Assisi House.

Joe Nangle, an 81-year-old Franciscan priest, offers a prayer for President Obama as he considers Syria.

Siobhan Dugan, a 55-year-old federal employee and former Capitol Hill press secretary, says she is praying for the safety of a friend’s teenage son and for all other black youths at risk of violence.

Rhegan Hyypio, 34, a soon-to-be nursing aide, asks God to help her and her housemates to have clean motives and stay free of hypocrisy.

“God, hear our prayer,” they say in unison after each request.

Violence, racism, ego — this is typical fodder at Assisi House, one of the city’s oldest intentional communities, which these days consists of 13 people ages 4 to 81 sharing morning prayer, nightly meals, one kitchen and a mission statement calling them to “live faithfully the Gospel call to work for a more just and peaceful world.”

When four devout, antiwar Catholics bought the rowhouse in 1986 and named it after social justice icon Saint Francis (the pope used the same inspiration), they were driven by the Central American solidarity movement and Catholic efforts for nuclear disarmament and simple living. They purposely picked then-rundown Petworth to live among the poor and disenfranchised.

A hundred residents later (including two of the founders who remain: Nangle and Marie Dennis, co-president of the international Catholic peace group Pax Christi), Petworth is gentrifying quickly. But inside the Assisi House, talk is still about how to stop war, torture, sexism, materialism. How to live together.

“This isn’t just a nice way to live together, or a more convenient way, or even a way to be politically active. This has to do with the divine, how we’re expected to live,” said Nangle, who says even fellow priests who see their sparse, communal house ask why he lives this way. “It’s kind of gritty.”

To many people, the challenge of Assisi living may be the communal deliberation that’s required. There are the long meetings on whether to get a microwave (yes) and a clothes dryer (no). There are the twice-yearly retreats (and retreat committees) to pore over such questions as what do we believe? How are we changing?

In a house where activism is so standard that protest posters are always propped up next to the front door, Assisi would seem ripe for dispute. Long-timers remember two people leaving over politics, and Dennis recalls discord over whether anti-government groups during El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s could have been justified in using violence.

Many times at Assisi, the most intentional value — as it is at many group homes — is to offer community during the routine challenges of life.

At a recent weekly meeting, Dugan spoke about her brother’s sudden death in 1996 and the support of her housemates.

“When I look back, I don’t know how I would have gotten through it otherwise,” she said. “Here, there’s enough people to listen to me.”

Green Vine Co-op

Founded: 2009

Residents: 8

Organizing value: Buying, cooking, eating and acting intentionally together around food

Rules include: Label non-
vegan items clearly; sign up for “hobbies” (or chores), including performing duties of accountant or coordinator

Tomatoes and kale harvested from the backyard garden were in a bowl on the table, alongside mustard-seed potato salad made using items from the nearby Petworth Farmers Market.

And what is served up for conversation at a typical nightly house dinner at the Green Vine Co-op?

“A recent big conversation was about quinoa. And it was passionate,” said Amanda Wilson, a 31-year-old international development contractor.

Green Vine, a gray, six-bedroom rowhouse on a quiet block bookended by churches, draws residents who take food seriously.

Shopping and cooking is shared, dinners are communal Sunday through Wednesday, and spring begins with each person naming two items to plant for the season in the big backyard beds (this year included escarole, endive, chard, eggplant and at least 30 tomato plants). Much thought and talk goes into decisions about things such as whether CSAs (“community supported agriculture,” which usually means giving money up front to local farmers and getting regular installments of fresh food) significantly help farmers, which one to partner with and what qualifies as organic or fair trade.

And there’s the problematic quinoa question: Are higher prices driven by the booming U.S. appetite for the super-nutritious grain making it less affordable for people in the Andean regions where it’s grown?

The eight people who live in the house — ages 20 to 37 — are into the ethics and politics of food but also just into cooking. They view shared eating as a way to deeply bond. Committing to a vegan dinner together at least four times a week is part of the intentional structure of Green Vine, said Joe Wheeler, a government civil rights lawyer who co-founded the house.

In interviewing prospective residents, Green Vine folks have found an illuminating question to ask: What meals would you cook here?

If the candidate hasn’t given it much thought or says something boring and predictable, such as “lasagna,” it’s probably not the house for him or her.

The ad the house posts when there is an opening names its priorities: “Open-minded, community-oriented, active, and quite silly . . . a mix of non-profiteers, social-justice advocates, runners, gardeners, former Peace Corps volunteers, sauerkraut makers, readers, dancers, bike riders, explorers, writers, cooks, AND MORE.”

“In D.C., people are busy, and I feel it’s a self-selecting situation,” said Kate Conmy, an advocate for women’s rights in the Catholic Church who moved into the house nearly three years ago. “You have to say: I’m going to spend time cooking and eating together, and it does take time and energy. We’re looking for people who don’t want to be just ships in the night, but we’re so much more.”

Residents tend to be advocates and active, particularly in left-leaning social justice causes.

“One person might be working on anti-bullying legislation, another writing about a recent Supreme Court decision, another working with the [D.C. office of the] Peace Corps,” Conmy said. “We are all in interesting islands in D.C. and able to connect around the dinner table.”

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