Wednesday 15 September 2010

The challenge of community living

The community living side of the Otesha tour was one of the things I was really interested to experience as increasing community spirit is one of the key aims of the transition movement. However, like many people in modern society, I had never lived in a community where I knew everyone and they knew everything I did. Now I know that my experience this summer had significant differences from living in a strong local community, but it was interesting none-the-less.

I lived with 12 other people, together for every moment of the day, eating together, sleeping together, making decisions together and looking after each other for two months. And amazingly it worked! We didn’t have a single real bad feeling in the group for the whole trip, which was a bit of a miracle, but also a testament to how cooperative we all were and how well Otesha prepared us for group living. Some of the key aspects that I think contributed to the success of our group living were evening meetings, consensus decision making, group rules, rotating roles and a shared mission, which I shall explain in turn.

Every evening on the tour we all sat down together and had a meeting where we discussed what was happening the next day, any role changes, any problems, anything else someone wanted to discuss and always finishing with Highs/ Lows and Angel/ Joker. These meetings meant that everyone always knew what was happening, any issues were discussed long before they became problems and we could keep making sure that we were living as we wanted to (face paint, yoga, lentils and all). The Highs and Lows deserve a special mention. They involved everyone sharing the high point and low point of their day. This provided a good way of keeping the group bond strong, checking the mood of the group, making sure everyone was alright and importantly finding out what everyone had been up to! It was amazing how you started living your day through Highs and Lows – such as ‘this will definitely be todays high’ – and I really miss them. Sharing your day with twelve other people is very special. Similarly the angel and joker nominations for the day made sure we heard of all the good deeds and silly stories of the day!

In the training week we were all taught the basics of consensus decision-making, which was an important aspect of the evening meetings. Now true consensus decision-making takes years to learn, but even using the basic structure made a big difference to our group. Essentially it is a set of rules and hand signals to make decision-making run smoothly. I cannot explain it in this post, but it includes aspects such as always having a facilitator, taking it in turns to talk, not repeating or making unnecessary points and signalling your agreement through ‘twinkling’ your fingers (please forgive me when I accidentally do this at future transition meetings!). It is interesting that I now find group decision-making without consensus a bit intimidating and stressful, so I would definitely be up for encouraging the use of this ‘safe space’ in Transition meetings.

In the training week we also set out what we expected of the group in terms of our behaviour towards each other and everyone else we came into contact with. We also decided what actions would be taken if these expectations were breached in minor or major ways. Although this felt a little bit scary and bizarre at the time it meant that we all knew exactly what the deal was. So it created a safe environment where everyone knew the boundaries, but could enjoy themselves as much as they wanted within them!

Everyone in the group had a role, such as ‘time lord’ – to keep everyone on time, ‘compost’ – in charge of disposing of the compost and ‘organised fun’ – to ensure we didn’t get bored!! And these roles were ‘rotated’ every 3 days or so. These were great as they meant that everyone knew how they should contribute to the group effort and who was responsible for what. And rotating them meant that no-one was stuck being Big Zip trailer fairy for longer than necessary (Big Zip was the bike trailer for the cooking equipment and the fairy had to keep him clean, in working order and pack him up before a cycle – a challenging and time consuming role!). There was also, however, the essential role of super swap who could help out those who were struggling and take over from those who were ill or absent for whatever reason.

Finally, we had all chosen to come on the tour and were all passionate about spreading the word about sustainability and social justice in as fun and engaging a way as possible. And we all wanted to make it work and for the team to get all the way up the country. So although we all had many different motivations and journeys to get there we had a shared mission and this meant we all tried our best to make it work – and it did!

Now it is quite difficult to see how you could apply some of these to Transition, but I have a couple of thoughts and would love to discuss transition community with anyone else who would like to! I, like many other people in transition, get meeting fatigue! But I think keeping meetings practical, respectful and personal makes them much more enjoyable. Emotions are also an important part of any meeting so acknowledging them makes life easier for everyone!

I would definitely like to organise more ‘meeting skills’ workshops (non-violent communication, consensus decision making etc) for Transition members as I think these are vital skills that are largely missing in modern society.

Rules and boundaries are essential to creating a safe and productive environment and although transition is fluid and leaderless I personally feel it would benefit from some structuring ground rules. How we developed these though would require discussion!

Breaking tasks down into lots of small roles means that one person doesn’t always end up doing everything, especially if the roles are rotated around the group. This could theoretically be applied to any plan that transition members came up with.

Finally one feature that Transition definitely does have is the shared mission and keeping this in mind and reinforcing it is very important. We are all working together for the good of the planet and our future – creating a better world for ourselves. I am very glad to be in this with you all.

Now discuss.

(and ask me lots of questions about my trip, I will be very happy to talk!)

Photos: catching some rays (Sarah Hunn), collapsing in a heap (Laura Kim), consensus decision making in action (Mike Snyder), cooking dinner (Laura Kim), celebration (Hannah Read), team puncture (Beth Sissons)


  1. The trip looks great fun Kerry, maybe I can organize an OAPs version when I retire!

    I'd be interested in a meeting skills workshop, we have run Freegle by consensus but learning new skills is always good.

    The photos show a variety of tyres - what was the optimum trade off between speed and punctures?

  2. Well considering the amount of weight we were carrying we weren't really optimising our speed, but we generally found that it was important to have reasonable tread - definitely not slicks - otherwise you lost considerable amounts of time to punctures on the off-road sections.