by Nick Licata
First published by Communities Magazine on September 7, 2008 – Issue #140
Elected legislative bodies are un-intentional communities, whereas housing collectives and co-ops are intentional communities. Joining an elective body is like joining a club or community uninvited, and perhaps even unwanted— just the opposite of an intentional community, where people seek each other out and choose to live and support one another.
Nevertheless, after living in a collective for 25 years, I recommend that anyone joining a city council, state legislature, or Congress strongly consider living in an intentional community before entering the political fray.
Let me explain by way of example. I lived in the PRAG House collective in Seattle along with about a dozen others while I was both a citizen activist and an insurance broker. PRAG House was started by close friends of mine who had come together as graduate students in Sociology at the University of Washington to protest the Vietnam War in the early ’70s.
In the depth of a recession, when urban planners feared that inner city neighborhoods would become slums, housing prices slumped. Taking advantage of capitalism’s cyclical economic crash, my friends pooled their meager funds together and plunked down $4000 to buy a 37-room mansion in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. I joined them as soon as my girlfriend and I returned from our $5-a-day year abroad.
In the beginning we were a political collective in the fullest sense: we wanted to change the world by changing our environment and our lives. No processed foods entered the house, only one phone was allowed but no TV, we shared a ’54 Ford Pickup for local trips and also to haul our 30-pound metal milk canisters in from some farm over an hour’s drive each way come Sunday evening. We broke bread together, at first every day, then several days a week, and eventually once a week and so on. For years we ate only home-baked, and at first we even tried to grind our own wheat.
And although we did not pool our incomes, we did institute a limited income-sharing scheme whereby a small percentage of each person’s take-home pay was included in our monthly rent. The word rent itself is slightly misleading. After a couple of years, the house’s value began to rise and those who had provided the down payment were moving on.
As a collective, we faced a problem: what do to with a valuable asset that was increasing in value. No one wanted absentee owners; it was anathema to our values. We couldn’t agree on selling the house: how do you divide the amount by over two dozen people who had lived in the house over various periods of time and who had not all contributed equally to its operation? So we turned to the easiest solution: none of us would get the house and no one would ever get it. We placed it in a trust for perpetuity. In essence we rented the house from ourselves, since anyone living in the house helped operate the trust and once you moved on, you were no longer part of the trust.
And so the collective, PRAG House, which began in the summer of ’72, is still chugging along, albeit now with multiple TVs, computers, phones, and yes, even processed foods, although for the most part they are still organic. But the core principle of people choosing to live under one roof and to meet regularly to manage their collective environment remains the same.
This brings me back to politics, or more precisely the formal political structure of legislative bodies. Like PRAG House, they are a group of people living under the same roof for at least part of the day, meeting regularly to manage the collective environment of themselves and others who have elected them to this body. And while they do not choose each other to live under this common roof, they are forced, like those of us who lived in PRAG House, to arrange a common budget, manage resources, and make laws governing our social interactions.
Managing a collective’s many functions can be practical training for a legislator, but that is only the beginning. At the core of living in a collective are interpersonal relations—these are also at the core of practicing politics. There are three lessons that I have carried over from my collective experience into the City Hall Council Chambers.
FIRST LESSON: Learn to expect the unexpected and accept it, don’t fight it.
Once someone moved their possessions into PRAG House, they generally thought those things would be safe and last forever. Living in a collective is dynamic if not chaotic: things change. It may take someone a few months to a few years to learn this lesson. What has an esteemed value for someone may not have any value for another. The same is true in politics with regards to values.
Let me illustrate. Once someone moved into PRAG House, which would take a unanimous vote, they would attend their first house meeting all bubbly and looking forward to a long harmonious future. There is nothing more poisonous to a happy life than false expectations. In order to douse such a belief, we would ask them to go back to their room and bring down something special that they brought with them. After they returned with their precious object and talked about how important it was to them, it was handed to one of us. Holding the object high above our head, we then told them that we were now going to relieve them of the worry and future pain of discovering that someone had broken it, by smashing it now on the floor. We actually never did, but they got the point: nothing is going to last forever, and especially in this house.
I have seen those entering politics with a sense that their precious values were sure to overcome the misguided beliefs of others. When that expectation is not met, many a cheery soul has turned bitter and cold from disappointment. I went through my test when I was first elected to the Seattle City Council. Flush from victory at the polls, I was determined to change the world the following week, and what better cause to pursue than fighting the ruthless, cruel military dictatorship in Burma.
The Council had been approached before I was elected by activists to support a boycott of city contractors who where doing business in Burma. Nothing had happened. I arrived and announced that I would bring the issue forward through legislation. A few of the longer term Council Members smiled slightly as I explained my plan. It was now my moment to have my precious belief in international justice smashed on the floor. And it was. But I did not regret sharing it with the others. And I have since then shared other such values to see them also discarded. I have even learned to expect the un expected victory. In any case, I have come to appreciate the experience and the pleasure of sharing my values and have released my sense of ownership of them. If others reject them, that is their decision not mine.
SECOND LESSON: The more room you make for others, the more room there will be for you.
At our weekly house meetings, the usual topics of who wasn’t cleaning the kitchen, who was not doing house chores, and who was creating the most problems for others were the regular courses served at dinner. There were also proposals for doing new things, like holding a fundraiser for Central American refugees or saving a neighborhood tree from being cut down. More often than not, it was not the content of the discussion which created tensions, but the manner in which it was presented. Too often the most forceful speaker would dominate the discussion, but domination does not create acceptance. Resentments would grow, and ultimately the dominant personality would find him or herself vilified by others, if not openly, then behind his or her back.
From watching this pattern repeated, I found that if I wanted to get my way, I would offer a proposal and then step back to assess other house members’ reactions. By encouraging others to speak and be heard, I could focus on content and not on bruised feelings. Or if someone was pushing something that I did not want, I would encourage others to speak up and express their opinions, whatever they might be. And if two others were fighting over an issue, I found it best to not take sides, but rather encourage participation by others to diffuse the conflict.
It is almost reflexive for politicians to think about of how they are going be perceived in the public media. When we run for election, we must get our name out. We must obtain name familiarity. The desire to be known is equated with power, since name recognition generally means more votes, as long as it’s not based on criminal behavior. This orientation leads to wanting to grab the mic at events, to give longer speeches at meetings, to dominate debates on the dais. These are all behaviors that can easily overshadow other legislators, which feeds resentment and ultimately opposition.
Democracy is about making room for people to think and be heard. Whether a discussion takes place in a collective household or a city council, there needs to be room for it to take place. The more room there is, the greater the chance for common agreement. Dominant personalities do not like democracy because it favors the weak—not only because it allows them to speak, but because by definition there are more of them than those who are dominant.
LESSON THREE: Make allies, not enemies, by talking.
Taking the time to explain your intentions builds bridges; being silent about them builds walls. PRAG House, I’m sure, is no different from any other co-op or intentional community: unavoidable conflicts arise between house mates. There will be some folks who will never turn the TV off or close the entryway door quietly. In those instances, there may be no way other than a direct rebuking of their behavior. But more often than not, conflicts arose in PRAG House because of a difference in unspoken priorities. Talking openly about what you want avoids confusion and allows others to join you. Avoiding open discussions sows distrust in the community and reaps conflicts.
A classic example was how we treated our rural property. Shortly after buying the house, we came into possession of a 20- acre rural property which we tagged as Pragtree Farm. Our goal was to balance urban living with rural work by taking turns living at each property. The problem was that common goals were never agreed to. Everyone seemed to go about on some unspoken plan of their own. One batch of folks went out and planted strawberry fields, but they never tended them properly before returning to the city. The second seasonal shift came up and plowed the fields under, seeing that they were effectively abandoned. The result was zero production and a multitude of harvested bad will.
The City Council last year restricted a pot of money from being spent, in order to stop the Mayor from purchasing and installing some public safety cameras in three particular parks until the Council had reviewed and analyzed his request. The Mayor received complaints from some neighbors around one of those parks on Capitol Hill and, wanting to show that his office could respond, he installed some, drawing the funds from a pot of money that did not fall under the Council’s restrictions. Although he had not technically violated the agreement, by failing to discuss his decision to proceed with the cameras he violated the spirit of the Council’s request and subsequently was accused of breaking their trust in him.
There is no meter on talk, but it does take nerve to speak up when you feel that others will react strongly. I have to keep reminding myself that talking openly and directly about my concerns, rather than being silent and just acting on them, is the only way to success. My experiences in PRAG House have shown me that the way to make allies and not enemies on the Council is to sit across the table and tell my fellow Council Members what I think and not leave them guessing.
These three lessons come to mind when reflecting on my collective living experience as I wheel and deal with other elected officials. In both worlds it comes down not only to treating people as if they were part of my community, but discerning how to keep them in it as well. In community there is strength, whether it is in a co-op house or a legislative body.