Broadcast January 21, 2021
Featuring: Diana Leafe Christian, Sara Carter
International communities expert Diana Leafe Christian shares what she learned from interviewing people from successful and failed communities, and the questions people who are looking for a community should ask. She tells about how she ended up living at Earthaven and why it’s her forever home. She also tells the story of a woman and her snarling German Shepherd who drove into Earthaven without calling ahead – displaying all of the things not to do when seeking a community.
Diana shares what she plans to cover in her Finding Your Community Home workshop and how it will benefit both folks looking for a community and communities looking for new members.
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Diana Leafe Christian
Earthaven Experience Programs Faculty
Diana is author of Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities, about forming successful communities and ecovillages and Finding Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community. She speaks at conferences, offers consultations, and leads webinars and workshops internationally on starting successful new intentional communities, how existing communities can resolve conflicts and become more healthy and thriving, and sociocracy, a self-governance and decision-making method she finds especially effective for communities.
My vision is that communities exist everywhere and anybody who wants to create them has a rather easy time of it and it works well and they know what to do. And the people who join them understand what they’re joining and they know how to join and they find it easy to do. And it’s a good fit for everybody.
Hello, everyone, my name is Debbie Lienhart from the School of Integrated Living at Earthaven Ecovillage. Welcome to the Integrated Living podcast, where we explore integration within ourselves with the people around us and with the planet. In this episode, host Sara Carter talks with intentional communities expert Diana Leafe Christian about how to find an intentional community that’s aligned with your needs.
Hi, Diana. Will you please introduce yourself and tell us how you learned about this topic?
Well, my name is Diana Leafe Christian. I live at Earthaven. I’ve lived here about 20 years. I have studied intentional communities from my great interest starting in the early 90s to know how did they get started successfully. They were like Athena sprung full form from the head of Zeus. And I thought, well, wait a sec. They must have gone through some steps and I couldn’t find any information anywhere except a paragraph here and there in various books on communities.
I was editing a newsletter about how you start communities in order to learn how you do it. It was journalism as forcing function. And then I got hired by Communities magazine to be the editor. And when I did, I continued to interview people to ask them, how did you form your community? What did you do? What were the steps? I didn’t ask people what they thought theoretically, their values, their beliefs. I asked them, what did you do?
And I interviewed as many people as I could from failed communities, which they were all around me in Colorado where I live, as well as successful communities. And I saw a clear, clear pattern of what the communities that succeeded did and the communities that failed. And I thought, holy mackerel, somebody ought to write this down. And so I wrote a book “Creating a Life Together”, which must have been the right book at the right time, because it’s been translated into eight languages by now.
And after that, and while living at Earthaven, which I had recently joined, I realized, oh, there needs to be an equivalent amount of information on the other side of this. How do you find a community that you want to join? How do you find a community that’s a good fit, that resonates with your values, your lifestyle, what you want to do? So I decided to write a book about that and I did Finding Community. I was on Earthaven membership committee, which I loved being on and which was very meaningful to me.
And I interviewed membership committees of various other communities to find out what their methods were. And I interviewed a lot of people who were seeking community or who had sought community and landed in the community that they liked. So I learned a lot about it, wrote the book, and now I’m doing this online class for SOIL, the nonprofit here at Earthaven, to help people know what I learned so they could find the community of their dreams ideally.
What drew you to Earthaven?
Well, there are highly noble reasons and a simple, silly, practical reason. The highly noble reasons are what’s really cool. It was beautiful. The land is beautiful. I really liked the people that I met, which were the earliest, earliest founders and early members because it was so long ago. It was very primitive. There was one falling down, three-sided cabin, a gravel road and a few minimalist huts made of wattle and dab, all pieces of this and that.
And people were living in trailers and camper shells stacked with straw bales to keep them warm. So it didn’t look like much at the time, but it had a beautiful permaculture design. The people who were founding it were very impressive to me because of their long term vision. It was going to be a village scale community, which it has become. So I was impressed by permaculture, the fact that it’s a beautiful forest and the people that I met and the vision for it, that the ultimate ideal, we’re going to be an agrarian village and the fact that it was going to be and was an educational organization to help people know this is what we’re learning how to do.
And we’ll share with you what we’re learning that works well and doesn’t work well. So that was really inspiring to me. Here’s the mundane, practical reason. I just lived one county away and it was the closest one. And also there were very few in the US at that time.
There was maybe three that were village scale and they were in other states. So it was kind of a no brainer.
What year did you write Finding Your Community Home, 2005?
Well, the book is called “Finding Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community”.
So how did you learn about what people seeking community need to do in order to choose the one where they’ll stay?
It’s like getting married, I think. Don’t marry the first community that has to date them first. Be very cautious, get references, you know, find out what they’re like and what they’re like, really.
And so what I did was the same thing I did to understand how to write a book about advising people how to start a successful community. I just interviewed people up one side, down the other. I talked to as many people I could on membership committees of long standing communities and of people who were seeking community and what had their experience been at the various communities that they had visited and what were the downsides and the things that went wrong. And there were loads of them. And I wanted to help people not have to fall into those pits. And I also found out what tended to work really well.
And what the community can do to make it easier for people and what the people can do to make it easier for the community to get to know them and to like them. And some of the worst things you can do and the best things you can do when you call them, when you email them, when you visit them and how you can assess is you or is you ain’t my eventual baby, so to speak.
And now you’re teaching a seven week online class called Finding Your Community Home for people searching for community to join. Why do you think this is important?
Well, because I want to make it easier for both communities and the community seekers. Well, let me back up about one step. Communities have visions for the better world they’d like to see and missions or missions and purpose, which is what we’re doing right here right now as people on this land that we hope will eventually contribute to making that better world. Well, people can do that, too, not just communities. So I have a vision for a better world I’d like to see. So I’ll tell you what it is, and this fits right into it.
My vision is that communities exist everywhere and anybody who wants to create them has a rather easy time of it. And it works well and they know what to do. And their local, state and federal government supports them in that, rather than throwing logs in the road and the people who join them understand what they’re joining and they know how to join and they find it easy to do. And it’s a good fit for everybody. So anybody who wants to live in community or create one or be a thriving, contributing member of the community has good information about what works and doesn’t work.
So my vision is a world where it’s like that. My mission and purpose, which is what am I doing right here right now, is to draw upon my background in journalism and find out stuff, do research online, talk to people, interview people, gather as much wisdom from as many people as I can, and then try to put it into clear, thorough, interesting, engaging writing and classes online, like through SOIL and other online classes that I do.
And share what I’ve learned and share it in bite size, easy to understand pieces, so it’s not arcane or strange. So that’s why I think it’s important.
A lot of times people just think “I want to live in community. Well, there’s one over there. I’ll go check that one out.” They have no idea.
All the different kinds there are they have no idea. There are two basic, extremely different kinds of internal community finances, such as income sharing communities, which are rare but prominent, and independent income communities, like Earthaven. This makes a huge difference in your experience of living in the place. They don’t know that the different kinds of missions and purposes for different communities will totally affect what their life is going to be like.
They don’t know often that whatever legal entity, singular or multiple legal entities the community has will have a huge effect on their life. They don’t know that how many work hours may be required of them or no labor requirements, how that will or won’t affect their life. They don’t know that how the community governs itself and makes decisions will totally affect how well or not they enjoy living there. They don’t know that a membership process needs to be clear, thorough, and rigorous so that their future neighbors will be people that they like and feel good around. There’s so many things people tend not to know because they tend to have starry eyes like “Whoo! Community. I just want to join one. There’s one. I’ll just see what they’re like.” And they mean well.
And oftentimes the people in the community, just want to tell them about their community, but they don’t really have this sort of larger context because people in communities tend to know about their community, but not about communities in general.
Are these the things you’ll be covering in the course?
Yeah, yeah. There’s about seven things that I want to share with people who take this course, this class, the different kind of communities there are that are out there, there’s about seven or eight different kinds. How to research communities thoroughly online.
How to know what websites really mean, you know, how to read between the lines and pick up on certain clues, and what to ask when you email them if it’s not already on the website and how to plan visits, which is a very big deal, very time consuming. And you have to take off work and it’s expensive. And so it’s a big deal. And how to be a great guest at a community, which is good for you and good for them.
What to bring and not bring. Do bring leather work gloves. Do not bring your dog.
How to ask questions when you still don’t have the answers and what questions to ask and how to ask them sensitively and not be in people’s faces and be annoying, in which case the person might respond with a gruff voice and a scowl when really the community is more friendly, but you’ve got them at a wrong time. And questions to ask like who owns the land? How do you make decisions?
What is your decision-making method? Who makes the decisions? Do you get your money back if you leave? How much does it cost to join? What are the annual due’s and fees? Do you have them? Do you have labor requirements? Do you track them? What do you do if people don’t work? What do you do if people don’t pay? What do you do if people violate your community agreements? Do you have community agreements? How do we know what the community agreements are? Do you have an orientation process for new incoming members?
All kinds of things like that that a lot of people wouldn’t think to ask because they’re thinking “Whoopie, community, people will love me, finally.
What would someone who is founding a community learn from the class?
Well, let’s say we have a group of community founders or one or two founders from different communities who are taking this online class. They would learn a whole lot about how to help themselves attract exactly the kind of people they want to attract and perhaps courteously deflect away others who might want to do a completely different thing than they want to do or who somehow wouldn’t be able to pay whatever is required or wouldn’t be able to do the work, whatever is required or who have a completely different set of lifestyle choices or different values.
So you know that expression, a double edged sword. There ought to be an expression, a double-edged blessing, like a good thing. So it’s beneficial if you’re seeking to join a community. But the very same information can be beneficial if you’re seeking to create one. So you’ll know how to attract those members. So one of the things that I’ll be talking about is different kinds of membership processes that different kinds of communities do, and giving some real examples of real communities that I’ve researched both a while ago and more recently.
And so people starting communities will be able to get a sense of, oh, yeah, we could take that idea from that group and we could consider that idea from that group. So I think people starting communities could benefit from this class.
A little story about seeking community
Once upon a time, I was out in the little culvert between our two properties here, and I was pulling up some weeds and doing something. And a woman pulled up in a car and she had a German Shepherd dog in the passenger seat with a seat belt across his chest. And she pulls up and she was very, very distressed and near tears. And she said, “is this Earthaven?” And I said, “yes, it is.”
And she said, well, I’ve come a long way and I want to I want to stay here and I want to see if I want to join this place. I just left my home I’ve got everything I own in my car. And I need a place to stay and I need to know where to go here.
And I thought, oh, golly. I said, listen, did you contact Earthaven before you came here to talk to the campground manager you set up to stay in the campground? And she said no. And I said, did you contact Earthaven ahead of time to see if you could stay here and visit and that you’re here during a time when you could visit? No. Did you did you arrange to take a tour? No. Did you did you know we had a website? Did you look at the website? No.
and because she was getting upset with me, her dog. Being her protector and her best friend and dogs being telepathic with their owners, began to leap and snarl at me across the steering wheel towards me because he believed I was harming his mistress, who was ever more upset by each question I asked. And I was looking around thinking, what the heck to do?
She’s stuck. She’s scared. She’s driven a long way. And she was telling me how hard it was for her to find the place. And so she finally found it. And so she was feeling really relieved to have found it.
But she was scared and all she wanted was the place that we would put her up and take care of her because she misunderstood that communities aren’t places that offer hospitality, like the medieval set of monasteries that you could go to and they put you up, and so the two problems I had was I didn’t know how to break it to her that she actually couldn’t stay here and would she like to get a motel in Black Mountain, which is the nearby town.
And the other problem I had was, is that seat belt secure because of the slathering and growling and spittle coming out of his snarling jaws as he was leaping across her to try to get out of his seat belt and get out the window. And I was down low under the window. And I thought, am I in grave danger of having my throat torn out by a raging German Shepherd because we don’t offer hospitality here for people who just show up.
And so how it ended was the dog remained securely in the seat belt. And I told her, I’m so sorry, but we can’t accommodate you because we didn’t know you were coming. If you’d like, you can go to the campground and I’ll call the campground manager who can meet you there and see if you can arrange to stay there. And you just can’t arrive like this because this is our home and we need to know when someone’s going to visit us.
That was shocking for her because she said, well, I thought this was a community. And because I knew what I knew after all these years of research, I knew what she was saying. She had projected onto the word community the idea that we just take care of people and a lot of people think that.
And it’s heartbreaking to see when you are the one down in the culvert pulling weeds with the dog slithering at you. That, in fact, that’s not the case. So she said, well, I’m just not going to stay here. I thought this was like a community and she was crying and the dog was growling and barking and snarling and they left. And the second thing that came out of it was I knew more even than I did before that people who want to visit a community need to call them first and email them first and go to their website and find out what to do. So that was a very dramatic example of that for me.
Are people asking “can I contribute in a way that makes me valuable in this community?”
I think it helps to make an analogy with romance. When you’re going to marry someone, you don’t just marry the person you don’t know at all. You get to know them first. And I’m using a high school analogy from decades ago. You might date a little. You might go steady, you might get engaged, then you get married. But you don’t just go from, I don’t know you at all to getting married. And so both people have to want to do this thing.
So both parties – a community and a community seeker need to want the other. There needs to be a resonance between their values, shared values, a resonance between this is what the community is doing and this is why it’s doing, and its activities and its purpose. And the person wants to do those activities and has that purpose for the community they would live in. And they are willing to abide by the community’s agreements. And the community understands that they’re willing to abide by their agreements and they tell them what they are as compared to not telling them and expecting them to telepathically understand and then abide.
But we never told you what they were where the new person puts their foot in it all the time. And that happened to me when I first came here and. They need to be able to afford it in all the ways that are important, including can I make a living living there? And do they accept pets because, you know, I have Snarly, Barky, Scratchy, and Bity, and I want to make sure that they are welcome.
In your search for community, how many of communities have you been to?
Yeah, I’ve been to about one hundred and ninety. I made a list. And all over the world too.
How did you know and how do you know that this is your community home?
What a great question. I think it’s paradise here now that we resolved some of our most excruciating and crushing earlier mistakes, and we’ve turned ourselves into an agrarian village-scale ecovillage that seems to me healthy and thriving with vibrant, well-organized governance and wonderful new incoming young people who really give life and vibrancy and new ideas to the place. I was telling a friend the other day that one of our new young people who came in introduced holistic management to us and now we utilize that. And another incoming new young person introduced ecstatic dance and contact improvisation and other kinds of dance that we now have available regularly once a week and in other ways too. And various people who come in with visions and ideas for really good things to do and find a natural incubation place here to then manifest their dreams. Another young person who came in is about to start a holistic healing center in her neighborhood so it strikes me that this is a place of opportunity for people to manifest their dreams and I get to live here.
So I would rather live here than any place, although I do have a list of my seven favorite ecovillages in the world and Earthaven is one of them.
When you were first exploring Earthaven when it was much rougher in terms of physical and emotional infrastructure, how did you know then that this was your community home?
How did I know at the time that I joined when Earthaven was so much rougher that I’d want to be here? Well, do you know that tarot card with a guy with a stick and the little white dog is stepping his foot off the cliff? The fool.
Perhaps I was being foolish, but for one thing was taking a chance and stepping off the cliff. And for another thing, I didn’t know just how rough it was going to be. I didn’t know how hard it would be for me or how hard it would be for the community to go through its various challenges over the years. I was aware of these kind of challenges from other communities that I knew about by then, but I really didn’t know any details about what would be happening here.
And I sort of grew up in a community with Earthaven growing up. I personally grew up because when you go to community, you sure do grow your consciousness better than it was when you got there, because you have to or else you can’t stay there. You really have to. And I ended up feeling wonderful about Earthaven and but I didn’t know then what I know now. If I could have seen ahead, I would have thought, yes, I’m willing to go through those years in order to get to those years, like the years now. And I think things are going so well. So seems to me very fortunate for me that I got to land here.
How can people reach you? Do you have a website?
It’s really easy. It’s Diana Leafe with the E on the end of Leaf, Christian spelled exactly like the religion DianaLeafeChristian.org. And that’s how people can reach me and find out about my various online classes, workshops, consultations and other things I do.
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