Adapted from an article written for Communities Magazine‘s Spring 1996 issue: Diversity and Homogeneity in Intentional Community.

by Tony Sirna

There seem to me to be two primary ways that intentional communities can address issues of diversity. One way revolves around the specific focus and structure of the community, such as economic, legal, governmental, and physical structures. Decisions such as whether to be urban or rural, income sharing or not, what decision making process to use, and what is the primary purpose of the community will all select for a certain membership. These are things that are generally explicitly agreed upon as central and often inflexible structures of a community. Another factor in diversity rests on the social issues created by the actual members and their current social norms at any given time. Often a community will be structurally open to a broad range of people, but because of its current demography, it will select for a certain type of person who is compatible and comfortable with the other members. There will often be social filters that are not explicitly codified or considered central to a community’s goals or structures but can nevertheless have a great impact on the community’s diversity.

Early on at Dancing Rabbit, we realized that even though we agreed on the need for a radically sustainable 1000-person town, we didn’t necessarily agree on how each of us personally wanted to live. There was general agreement that cooperation and community were integral to a sustainable society, but there was not agreement on the specifics of economic and social structures.

Some of our group envisioned living in a fully income sharing egalitarian community. Others wanted the independence of a private home for their family. So we developed a structure which was flexible enough for us all and called it the Society of Communities.

The idea is that we could create a town-sized society which was made up of different kinds of communities. Small, medium or large; spiritual or secular; communal or cooperative; single family to co-housing to communes; or some with a specific focus such as art, a sociological theory, a specific ethnicity, or a specific diet–all kinds would be welcome and encouraged in the town of Dancing Rabbit. It would be as if many communities all settled right next to each other and could share the economic and social benefits of this larger society, cooperating towards its goal of sustainability. We wouldn’t dictate the details of sub-community structure, only the very basic social issues (freedom of speech, freedom to leave when you want, etc.) and ecological guidelines that will be the cohesion for the entire town. Furthermore, we would set things up to minimize the economic barriers for people joining (e.g., not having a high buy-in fee) so as not to have another structural filter on economic background. Also we theorized that as people moved through different stages of their lives they might choose to move from community to community within the town. There could be a community which addressed more of the needs of young parents, families with teenagers, or one set up for the elderly. We hoped this flexibility would allow us to be attractive to a wider spectrum of people.

We were quite pleased with our idea for this innovative social structure. Of course we soon discovered that we weren’t the first to come up with this kind of idea (Abundant Dawn’s Pods, Twin Oaks’s “small living groups” or even Acorn, etc.) But this only reinforced our belief that this idea, while not novel, was certainly an interesting and viable one for a project of our type.

So despite having a primary focus, radical sustainability, which will act as a considerable filter for new members, we saw real potential that our social flexibility and our goal of minimizing economic barriers would lead to diversity in our eco-town. But having potential will not guarantee actually having diversity. Furthermore, it is unclear how far we are willing to go for diversity. Diversity is something many communities have not achieved and it seems to require a lot of work and constant consciousness to a variety of issues. It even has the potential to interfere with the primary goal of a community, in our case creating a sustainability demonstration project. People have warned us that too much diversity when a group isn’t ready for it may mean divisiveness and conflict.

Should we decide to make diversity a high priority, we as a group will need to be aware of the social and interpersonal issues that can filter out people who are different than our existing membership, which is admittedly homogeneous on many social spectrums. We pay close attention to the image we portray, which as a forming community revolves around our two main activities of outreach and meetings.

One example of how our group did some unintentional filtering was our almost exclusive use of the internet for outreach and communication early in our formation. Email reaches only a small and somewhat homogeneous segment of the population. Also, the medium requires typing skill and promotes a certain style of communication, mainly long textual arguments and cross discussions, with emotions and such communicated very poorly. We never really denied that these obvious filters existed but our social inertia kept it as one of our main forums for quite some time.

Our meeting structure and style are an example of a much more subtle kind of filter, which is difficult even to notice and sometimes more difficult to remove if you decide to. Our meetings are run by consensus and despite efforts to moderate behavior, conversations often take on a particular style. People in our group often talk quickly and energetically and one person can often jump in as the last has finished. Also, early on, meetings were easily dominated by newcomers or individuals in the group with an agenda to push. This type of meeting style can often present a social filter to people who are shy, less articulate or unwilling to enter a not so friendly conversational arena. In turn, we noted that this personality filter appears to affect our gender balance, reducing the diversity of personalities and thinking styles present, with men in general being more comfortable with our meeting style than women because of the societal norms and inculturation we all experience during our upbringing. Fortunately, at Dancing Rabbit we are learning to have highly effective and inclusive meetings, but there’s always a long way to go.

We are now trying to take steps to broaden our outreach efforts to remove or counteract some of our unintentional filtering. For one we are trying to present our ideas in many different formats so as to be accessible to various people. Our original information pack outlines our project in a very academic, high-level text, but we are now experimenting with narratives, answers to common questions, and hopefully graphic images as well. We are now looking at augmenting our internet outreach by doing more local advertising with fliers, ads in local papers, interviews on the radio, and of course word of mouth. Specifically, we are hoping our membership will diversify through contact with other activist organizations with demographic characteristics different from our own.

When trying to decide where to hang up fliers we try to be conscious of what market we are targeting and whether we might be limiting diversity. It is very easy to think of all the places you might see a flier and put them there but you will most likely only attract people like you. We often talk about places where we can target a very broad audience, like public transit stations, and ways we can target specific groups, like posting at women’s bookstores.

We have even talked about achieving diversity by doing outreach not just for individuals but for entire sub-communities that are different from those already proposed by current members. We dream of some day being able to invite forming communities to come settle on our land and be part of the DR sustainability goal, but otherwise have autonomy. We have run across groups such as an African American back-to-the-land group and a Native American group that could potentially fit into DR and allow more diversity while not requiring everyone fit in with the same program.

Our hope at Dancing Rabbit is that we have set up a structure that won’t prevent diversity in our community by limiting who can join. But we realize that limiting who wants to join will always be a subtle and delicate issue to keep a close eye on if we want to achieve and maintain diversity in our group.