Scaling to the Pandemic: Community Perspectives

Communities Magazine, Number 188 • Fall 2020

Since the onset of COVID-19, intentional communities all around the world have been asking themselves: Should we scale up or scale down during this pandemic? Unsurprisingly, every group has had their own unique response, ranging from near-complete isolation from society at large to continuing to welcome new visitors and members. Since March, reports from communities adapting to the pandemic across the globe have been collected thanks to the efforts of the Intentional Communities Desk (ICD, headquartered at Yad Tabenkin Institute in Israel), eurotopia (publisher of the Directory of Communities and Ecovillages in Europe, and based at Sieben Linden in Ger-many), and the Foundation for Intentional Community (FIC, based in North Amer-ica). When viewed together, these reports show numerous trends, including steps that the majority of intentional communities are taking to scale down in some ways, such as canceling public events, closing common houses, and reducing the number of out-side visitors, to name a few. (Outliers of course exist: Dancing Rabbit in Rutledge, Missouri still accepts new residents as long as they isolate for two weeks before joining the ecovillage.)

Lists of these reports appear on the “Communities Respond to COVID-19” page on the ICD website: gen-us.net/covid19. Many of the quotations which follow come from these reports, collected initially by Michael Würfel for his article, “Communities and the Pandemia” (see eurotopia.directory) or by Anton Marks for the Intentional Communities Desk’s C.A.L.L. newsletter.

Naturally, there is often disagreement on how communities should approach COVID-19, as MagnyEthique in France explains: “It is quite difficult for our group to hear each week at our meetings how different the members feel. There are two opposing groups: those who al-ready live on the site [...]. And those who are not yet residents and still have their homes outside, [...] who also often express their frustration at not being al-lowed to be here in the ecovillage.”

Every community experiences a plethora of these kinds of conflicts; a member from Nachbarschaftlich Wohnen in Dormagen remarks how COVID-19 has exacerbated all group issues, not just the ones concerning COVID: “I also notice that on topics that have always been difficult and the discussion has been heated, the differences of opinion become even more obvious and the skin is thinner.”

A prime example of one such issue is the case involving Frits from Amsterdam Catholic Worker, who, at the time of writing his report, was isolating with his family, although not of his own volition. As he explains, Amsterdam Catholic Worker’s method for handling sick/infected members is to confine them to their rooms in order to prevent them from accessing any of the facility’s public spaces. While Frits is unhappy with this rule, he knows others in his community feel that it is necessary. His predicament raises another pertinent question for the communities movement: How should communities balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the group? Although there is no universal answer, the search for one can nevertheless be a fruitful endeavor; for those communities willing to seek, they may develop covenants and rules for self-governance, and members might also discover what they truly want most from their communal lifestyle. For better or worse, COVID-19 has forced all groups to discuss how to live and on what principles to live, which will certainly outlast this pandemic.

For several communities, this much-needed discussion has already happened and incited some important changes. To address conflicts as they arise, one of the few things many communities are scaling up right now are their bodies of self-government. Forgebank Cohousing (UK), Kibbutz Amiad (Israel), and Ganas (New York City) all have created or expanded their crisis committees whose current focus is on containing the spread of the coronavirus. As a resident from the Vale in Yellow Springs, Ohio puts it: “The good news is that there now is a general agreement that our community should objectify its decision-making process and make it much more clear by putting it in writing.

Due to the hardships posed by COVID-19, many communities are taking time to reflect on what constitutes a healthy, fulfilling lifestyle—in other words, on what lies at the heart of the communities movement. For many, the pandemic has been a wakeup call to the world’s many ongoing problems; for example, the Kirschblute Community in Germany has expressed solidarity with the world’s refugees, poor, hungry, imprisoned, and otherwise overburdened peoples, who undoubtedly now suffer even more on account of the virus. Moreover, there is a general acknowledgment of how privileged one is who lives in an intentional community with a close-knit circle of friends, family, and neighbors. A member of Solens Hjerte in Denmark says, “It is certainly a comforting and empowering feeling to stand together and to work together in this special time of crisis; to use the skills we all have to make the everyday smooth and running and to be able to talk things through and find security and perspective in this time where it is so important.

”Everywhere, members of intentional communities have found ways to show their commitment to one another, from social-distancing birthday parties to virtual games to more frequent gardening (the latter of which probably has been the most consistent pressure relief valve for groups worldwide—makes sense!). Unfortunately, while communities provide an intimate social circle which can act as a support net during the pandemic, this very social circle might further spread COVID-19. As Anton Marks, editor for the ICD and founder member of Kibbutz Mishol, points out, “#socialdistancing and #stayinghome are a contradiction in terms. [...] [T]he social side is the most confusing, where our all-encompassing togetherness actually works against us. ”If staying home means being in frequent contact with multiple families, then social distancing is made all the more difficult, and the chances of contracting COVID-19 are increased. This is one argument for the communities movement to temporarily scale down. Many groups who have come to the same conclusion as Anton have closed their common rooms, insist that members maintain the 1.5 meter distance from individuals outside their families, elect certain people to run errands for the community, and hold virtual meetings, and some, like Birchwood Hall in the UK, have canceled the process for all prospective members. It is important to note that, although intentional communities might seem like petri dishes for the virus to spread, there is actually little evidence of this being the case. Overall, communities report very few numbers of coronavirus infections; even Ganas, a community located in Greater New York, reported zero cases of coronavirus as of April 12. Moving forward, intentional communities should take what they have learned from this pandemic for when the world recovers. The organizational structures that some have implemented will certainly serve them well after COVID-19, and the core principles by which com-munities live, and which they discover bubbling to the surface during these trying times, thus forge a clear identity for the group as well as the movement as a whole. Intentional community is an alternative to the systems that continually fail to serve the marginalized yet protect old power. In the words of the Ecovillage Los Portales in Spain: “[M]ost importantly, we investigate and appreciate to the fullest extent the hidden meaning of the situation, the ‘gift’ or learning that it offers us: to increase efforts for personal and community autonomy and empowerment and to foster the deepest and most effective relationship with the place where we live.” Indra Waters is the Senior Acquisitions Editor for the literary magazine Open Ceilings, which is run and published in Davis, California, and a new volunteer with Communities.

”Nachbarschaftlich Wohnen in Dormagen (Germany)

A community member’s reflections, published in Michael Würfel’s “Communities and the Pandemia”

At the beginning we felt quite a bit of uncertainty in our group. Some members had great fears, others much less. We held two meetings on the property (with appropriate distance) where everyone could express their concerns. In the meantime we have stopped all meetings or moved them to the internet; we meet regularly via Zoom. What is interesting here: Our by now very constructive culture of conversation obviously has to be practiced “anew,” but in the meantime it also works virtually. Of course, we have also cancelled Info-Cafés and generally limited visits from outside. Currently there are no free apartments, so the question of choosing new roommates does not arise with us.

The situation was especially difficult for the families with children, who met several times (but then always via Zoom). The result: we have two groups: Parents with school-age children form one group and those with pre-school children form one group. There are fixed “garden times” during which the respective families spend time outdoors. Very cautious parents who do not participate here have their own “starting times.” There are no agreements with the authorities, but we have not been approached here yet.

Apart from that, the mutual support runs as usual: With the necessary distance we help each other when needed, buy groceries for each other, have built up a small stock of things (toilet paper and flour) that can be accessed by everyone—there the community works well even in these times.

All in all the life is on the one hand calmer, more contemplative, many are in the home office or have cancelled their holidays, others have more time than usual. But I also notice that on topics that have always been difficult and the discussion has been heated, the differences of opinion become even more obvious and the skin is thinner—a little camp fever maybe?

Kibbutz Mishol (Israel)

Reflections by Anton Marks, published in C.A.L.L. #46

Tfw #socialdistancing and #stayinghome are a contradiction in terms.

I’ve spent half my life removing my front door, intentionally, hinge by hinge. Now I need to put it back on, I haven’t got a clue where to find it, and even when I do, I don’t even know which way up it goes.

I’ve had text messages expressing envy that we have lots of people around during a time when others don’t. However, since we have lots of people coming and going in and out of the building, those that work in health services or the voluntary work that we are doing, in order to protect our most vulnerable (we have a significant number of people with pre-existing conditions which puts them in danger), and to protect those that we are working with outside, we need to distance ourselves from one another, something which is emotionally, but also practically, a real challenge.

No, I’m not going to lose my job, or the roof over my head. We’ll definitely take a significant hit economically, but will probably only start to feel that in the months to come. I won’t succumb to this disease personally and I don’t have my own parents or grandparents to worry about.

The life I have chosen is an attempt to actualize an antidote to rampant capitalism. An alternative to the fractured society that we see all around us. Aspiring to create a society that challenges the blind acceptance of poverty, violence, racism, sexism as “that’s just how life is.” It’s an alternative for ourselves, but also for those we meet and create new realities with.

And suddenly we are thrown into a new, unknown, and unexpected crisis situation which challenges us both physically, mentally, and financially. But the social side is the most confusing, where our all-encompassing togetherness actually works against us.

I’m not writing this looking for sympathy, but to share the complexities of being part of a very intentional and close-knit community that is also committed to taking responsibility for our surroundings.

Birchwood Hall (UK)

A community member’s reflections, published in Michael Würfel’s“Communities and the Pandemia” I’m writing from Birchwood Hall Community, in a rural setting outside Malvern, Worcestershire in the UK. We have 10 adult members and around 15 people alto-gether, spread across two residential buildings about 50 yards apart. The biggest change for us is that whereas we all used to eat our evening meal together in one house or the other, we’ve now separated the two houses to help with social distancing and minimise interaction, so we’re now, in effect, operating as two (mostly) separate smaller groups. Also, a couple of members who are still working are living outside the community for now rather than coming and going. Although the community spans a wide age range (9-78), we have a few older and potentially vulnerable members and we’re trying to protect them as much as we can. Our biggest “weakness” in terms of isolation is that we need to shop for food, since getting deliveries from nearby supermarkets is impossible; but we’re using small shops and farm shops or local farmers as much as possible to keep away from crowds of people. We’ll have fruit and veg of our own by late spring and over the summer, but of course we don’t have that now, and we will never be self-sufficient in food. We aren’t receiving visitors, and we have suspended what we call our “potential new member” process for three people who had started it, a couple and a single woman. We are planning to stay in touch with them occasionally by Zoom, but we won’t be able to fully resume what can be a lengthy process, culminating in a six-month trial period, unless the epidemic recedes and we feel it’s safe. Apart from all that, life is pretty good, and the garden and grounds are getting more attention than they have in a while. Many of us are still working full-time or part-time from home, and filling time doesn’t seem to be a problem, except perhaps for the teenagers here. We are discovering what games can be played while maintaining social distancing; for example, we’re about to have a “pub quiz” using Zoom, and we can use our table tennis and pool tables as long as just two people are playing. With the weather getting better, we can play boules or croquet outside and still keep two metres apart from everyone else. Of course, we’re only a couple of weeks into full lockdown, not enough time for people to feel too claustrophobic as yet, and having eight acres of grounds to wander in (mostly woodland) helps. It remains to be seen what strains might become apparent if this goes on for months.


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