Reflection on the Fall 2020 NICA Gathering

By Jonathan Betz-Zall

Theme:  Inclusive Communities Thrive Together

Date: October 3, 2020, 10 am to 2 pm

The Northwest Intentional Communities Association held our 2020 Fall Gathering on October 3 virtually. A total of 21 people attended, 8 from Songaia, 4 from Star Community, single members of 5 communities, and 4 individuals. 18 were from the Seattle area, 3 were from the San Francisco Bay area. This year’s theme was “Inclusive Communities Thrive Together”, reflecting the learning that some of us had gained from a Cohousing Conference in September. 

We began with a land acknowledgement: 

“On behalf of the Northwest Intentional Communities Association, or NICA, I acknowledge that the land on which we stand was originally occupied by indigenous people who took responsibility for their obligations to the web of life that sustains us all. I vow to honor those obligations as well, and to include the descendants of those people in deciding how to do so.”

Our president introduced the theme by pointing out that the most long-lasting cultures have been those that welcome and respond to outsiders, thus making themselves more diverse and therefore most resilient. But our current culture, the one that dominates North America, was built on three major forms of theft: land from the indigenous people, labor from enslaved Africans and capital from working class people of all ethnicities. If we want our communities to truly be inclusive, so as to gain the benefits of diversity, we will need to change our culture to address these thefts. Those changes need not threaten most of us, in fact we will likely find them enjoyable, even liberating. 

Our speaker, Crystal Byrd Farmer, a board member of the Foundation for Intentional Community  from Charlotte, NC, then presented  “Lessons from the Token” on understanding the full meaning of diversity in our current social situation, with implications for life in community. No matter how hard we try, most community members continually make missteps that make their communities unwelcome to people of color. They set white, middle-class norms for their communities that people from minority groups must adjust their lives to meet. But everyone will feel more comfortable if those cultures can flex a little bit to make them feel more included. In our society, some identities come with more privilege than others. White supremacy culture is the umbrella of the privileges that white people enjoy because of their identity, not necessarily because of their preferences or even awareness, whether or not they exercise or enjoy them. This generates “microaggressions”, small-scale but intensely hurtful slights that synergize to create an unwelcoming atmosphere from those who differ from mainstream norms. These can be identified by asking searching questions of our community, like:

  • What kind of foods and personal care products are made available? 
  • Do we emphasize formal rules and procedures as opposed to developing interpersonal relationships for any given situation? 
  • Are people with diverse experiences discounted in discussions? 
  • Do we expect people to use specific terms in our discussions that others might find unfamiliar or off-putting? 
  • Do we discount emotional expression in our discussions? 

For responding to criticism for engaging in microaggressions, she advised

  • Realize that defensiveness is a deflection from thinking and feeling about being white
  • Avoid questions or comments on someone’s identity and check assumptions about people you don’t know
  • Don’t ask a person to forgive you or fix you, teach you or comfort you. Instead, process any uncomfortable feelings with someone who shares your identity.
  • Practice saying “I hear you and I’m sorry.”

On the community level, it could be useful to 

  • Host workshops/book groups
    • Identify one area of marginalization at a time
    • Hire experts/facilitators
  • Avoid asking marginalized people to speak to community in public
  • Review policies that may impact marginalized members [e.g. rental vs owning, volunteer requirements, etc]
  • Solicit feedback:
    • Ask leaders in the wider community to tell you what their members think of you
    • Survey current and former members
    • Ask for consent
    • Keep responses private
    • Consider how to repair past harm while fixing the larger issues
  • Implement the changes and repeat the cycle

Afterward we watched a video on resilience and resistance,

“The Years of Repair” which provided food for further discussions.