After spending a very pleasant time in Ecovillage at Ithaca in Upstate New York I was making my long way south all the way to Virginia to visit a couple of rural egalitarian communities in the rural heartland of that state – TWIN OAKS and ACORN egalitarian communities, two of an increasing number of communities (e.g. also Living Energy Farm) in this area (developing into a network of intentional communities), in the rolling hills of (oak) forests and pastures at this time of the year blossoming in an explosion of greens.
Twin Oaks Community was founded in 1967 on approximately 250 acres of rural farming land in central Virginia, as an egalitarian community based on the publication Walden 2 by the behavioural Anthropologist B.F. Skinner, because of this some aspects of Twin Oaks are somewhat different from other communities. However, the community has also changed and evolved (and still does) over the years.
The guiding values of the community are cooperation, sharing, non-violence, equality and ecology, which are upheld in each and every decision-making process in the community. The community is not religious and members follow various beliefs of their own choosing.
Much of the land is woodland and forested and approximately 15 acres are used for agricultural production, which includes a wide range of veggies, fruit, berries, some crops as well as some livestock (i.e. cows, goats, chickens, bees) for dairy (including yoghurt and cheese) and eggs and honey, but also some meat (not all are vegetarian), with on-site processing and preserving to supply much of the food used on-site and also included extended production almost year round (it rarely snows in this area of the country) months with large poly tunnels. The production also includes many herbs and medicinal plants in a magnificent herb garden.
Twin Oaks Community currently has approximately 90 adult and 15 child residents. Average members stay approximately 8 to 9 years but many have been long-term residents (e.g our guide Valerie has been living here for more than 20 years) and spanning a wide age range up to the 6os, 70s and 80s (oldest member is 81), but appears somewhat younger on average than other communities I have visited. As an egalitarian community all income is shared and members live in one of a number of common houses where each member has its own room but share all facilities to achieve lower ecological footprint, where in some houses 20 to 30 people live together and also a large Community Centre, which houses amongst other things the communal kitchen where most people eat every day. Most houses at the site were built between the 1970s and 1990s in various styles with some ecological principles in mind (e.g. passive solar, insulation), but because of their age are not quite as of high sustainability design standard as newer constructions. Houses generally have gas boosted solar hot water and larger solar PV (including newer PV trackers installed with state government support), all of which is grid connected. Water supply is from on-site water bore and water saving appears of relatively lowe priority, judging by the conventional water appliances used. Waste water is treated in an on-site WWTP and discharged to a nearby river under a discharge licence, but biosolids are currently not re-used (a future project). Cooking is done with bottled propane gas and heating with wood from the forest.
Members do not own their own car, but the community has a fleet of 12 community cars/vans which are available to all members for a small fee ( 3 cents per km, encouraging car sharing to reduce costs further) using a well organised ride sharing system.
Most members generally only work within the community working on many different things (often at one time) at each members free choise. But each member has to do 42 hours of work per work, but many things which conventionally would not be considered work are included, like work to keep community operating, farming, gardening, cleaning, cooking, maintenance, repairs, childcare, visitors, communities work, administration, activism etc. and only 50% of work needs to be income earning. However, members are still allowed to do some work outside the community for example to earn some more money (every member gets $85 per month as pocket-money) for saving to go on a vacation (noting that everyone gets 3 weeks vacation a year, but one can work more to accrue from leave time for longer vacations). The community provides for all basic needs for each member, like food, shelter, healthcare, training, work, recreation, entertainment (and there appears to be lots of that). The community also runs a community weekend every year (September) where one can meet people from some 35 different communities from around the country (and event which is also open to outsiders – sounds really cool). The community also cares for the needs of children (i.e. childcare, homeschooling) but has limitations with number of kids due to space and facilities limitations. Everyone can choose to do the work they would like to do and the schedule they would like to work (and often people choose to do various things during a week, with a prefilled time sheet submitted weekly, for a coordinator to check to make sure that all necessary work is covered sufficiently. This provides for high degree of flexibility in work arrangements, able to accommodate almost any needs of individual members.
The economic basis for the community, which is basically self-sufficient in an economic sense (and always has) comes from producing handmade hammocks (and hanging chairs), a Soy business (producing tofu and tempeh), seed production and delivery business, a book indexing business, FIC directory sales, which provides for sufficient diversity to absorb fluctuations in the businesses.
As a community of substantial size and social, cultural and economic diversity Twin Oaks is extremely well organised and has well developed rules and regulations for the functioning of all of the parts of the community, like kitchen (all meals are communal, but people can still cook their own stuff if they wish), workshops, woodshops, etc. The community is run by a system of area managers (e.g. kitchen, workshop, dairy…) who can make decisions for day to day operation of their area, but with ongoing community input and consultation and open and transparent participation process (i.e. everyone can make a proposal for any change and all inputs are public at all times). Separate from that are three planners elected for 18 months terms who deal with more far reaching and longer term issues for the community (e.g. for budgets) who make decisions but with extensive community input and also but facilitate the decision making process, by collating proposal, and go through the process and facilitate community for decision making, where up to 20% of members can vote against a proposal and still being accepted. The community also has weekly community meeting. The community also has various committees for certain areas e.g. visitors, members, which can make some decisions in the area they work in.
Becoming a member of Twin Oaks involves the completion of a 3-week visitor program (open to everyone even just interested to check it out), followed by at least one month away from the community, to allow reflection and contemplation, which is followed by a decision process by the whole community to deliberate and vote on a new member. New members do not need to pay any joining fees to keep the community accessible for all. Twin Oaks also offers Internships for volunteers of variable duration (generally 2 to 6 months). Resources owned by a member remain the personal ownership of the member as well are personal effects and items of personal use (e.g. mobile phones, computers, clothing, etc). Conflict resolution process is highly developed and has many layers from directly resolution between people involved, all the way with support off group, a facilitator, councilor and so forth and everything in between.
The community feels like an impressively well run organism but has a very positive, friendly, relaxed and welcoming feel with lots of energy, enthusiasm, passion and dedication, but also loving care, fun, buzzing, energetic village with and extraordinary degree of self-sufficiency in relation to work for people living in community. And the community is likely still here because of a very high level of organisation and planning and strong systems, structures and processes in place to keen the ball rolling, but also with high degree of flexibility and willingness to change.
What an inspiring example of a sustainable village economy and community! Well worth a visit for everyone.
Due to the success of Twin Oaks Community, a number of “spin-off” communities developed in nearby areas, one of which I was able to visit. Acorn Community Farm describes itself as an anarchist, egalitarian community in central Virginia founded in 1993, with a start-up loan and support provided by Twin Oaks. Acorn is committed to non-coercive, non-hierarchical, voluntary associations both within our community as well as within the larger community in which they find themselves. Acorn is also committed to income-sharing, sustainable living, and creating a vibrant, eclectic culture.
Acorn community is only few kilometers from Twin Oaks and is an old 73 acres farm (including the old farmstead). The structure and operation of Acorn is to some degree similar to Twin Oaks (i.e. egalitarian and income sharing) with a number of living quarters having been built to date, from small visors quarters to a 14 bedroom communal house. Currently there are 25 adults and 4 children living at Acorn (with a maximum of 30 adults and 5 children possible). The main source of income for Acorn is a seed selling business with some seed growing on-site but also from Twin Oaks and other nearby communities which grow seeds as well.
As mentioned many aspects of operation of the community are very similar to Twin Oaks (even though economy is not as diverse) and community provides basic needs for all members, and all generally work on-site (42 hours a week with 4 weeks vacation per year and community covers travel costs if one wants to travel). The difference to Twin Oaks appears that Acorn does not seem to have as many rules and regulations and systems appear more fluid and much is based on weekly meetings of community which uses consensus decision-making process.
This is reflected in following description: Acorn is non-hierarchical. There are no bosses, owners, investors, managers or supervisors. Although structured in areas such as membership, we intentionally keep policies to a minimum (we have a policy of very little policy) preferring a calm anarchy to prevail. Of the few policies that are in place, our culture encourages personal responsibility rather than supervision, as well as taking issues on a case-by-case basis keeping in mind that needs of individuals vary.
Acorn community is and also feels younger than Twin Oaks with oldest member in their 6os. Like Twin Oaks it feels very diverse community with a more alternative at times almost hippie like feel, and is very casual and relaxed and easy going. Conflict resolution processes are well and highly developed and used in many different layers. Additionally the community uses an annual personal appraisal/review or clearing process of each member person to person in order to resolve any lingering issues and resentments with support provided by whole group in the process. This process is also used for prospective members who want to join the community.
The focus of Acorn is not so much on ecological sustainability (even though they recently built a large strawbale building, which houses the seed saving business and other facilities), but more on way to reduce personal footprint by living differently by sharing living spaces and resources, income and use of as little as possible form the outside. Acorn produces a fair bit of their food from on-site production (also including some livestock), but also supplements this with food from a grocer, which would otherwise be thrown away.
A very energetic and hip and young community with a very relaxed and welcoming lifestyle.
Fellowship of Intentional Communities (great resource for finding communities worldwide and related information and many publications)