Home A Case Study in Creating Community

A Case Study in Creating Community

user profile picture SagerXX Nov 09, 2010
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Take a little trip with me…

Ben Bernanke finally prints A Dollar Too Far. Or the bond vigilantes have their day. Or various foreign countries begin to dump their Treasuries en masse one Wednesday morning. Or Fraudclosure pitches the TBTF banks (and mortgage insurers, et alia) into a hole too deep for any bailout. Or oil producing nations decide to cut back exports by 20% when it becomes apparent that some of their largest fields are well past peak and starting down the steeper part of the back side of the curve. 

You can pick one of any number of liminal events, or more likely several of them will make up the Family-Size Valu-Pak o'Doom. But it's obvious to me that El Ponzo Grande is beginning to develop a mortal wobble. Like the top in the last shot of "Inception," it only continues to spin endlessly in a world of illusion. In the real world we inhabit, wobble indicates the top is getting ready to fall.

That is the view from where I stand.  

My journey to this place began a number of years ago. Here are some of the stops/signposts along the way: 

  • In the early 90s, living on Avenue C and 11th Street in Manhattan's East Village (Alphabet City was

    what we jaded bohemians and the cops called it), stepping over catatonic smack junkies and dodging the hinked-up crackheads, I imagined an alter-ego named SagerXX (the name just came to me outta nowhere) who lived in some sort of post-Collapse dystopia of which 'Bet City '93 was just an early echo: squatters living in abandoned buildings, unemployed/homeless people marching in Tompkins Square, rampant crime, and a government unable or unwilling to do anything about it. When I joined, I figured ol' Sager was the perfect net avatar for these times. He'd already been my imaginary companion as I bobbed and weaved in a socio-economic environment that was falling apart. Of course, that was just one corner of Manhattan. Now we’re talking entire countries.
  • In 1999, sitting in Yankee stadium, goggling at stock quotes on the scoreboard. It was a double mindbender: Why are there stock quotes on a baseball scoreboard? Isn’t the whole point of a summertime ball game to unplug and relax? And who the !@#$% figures Dunderhead Software oughta be at 144? So I've been wondering about the vapor economy (and the way the media bombards us with EARN SPEND ENVY CONSUME in every conceivable environment) for over a decade. (And just parenthetically, I’ve wondered whether or not the vaporware IPOs of the dotcom boom provided inspiration for the klepto-geniuses in the dark corners of the FIRE economy.)
  • In 2005, I read “The Long Emergency.” 'Nuff said.
  • In 2006-2007, I began doing a lot (too much, my wife said at the time) of reading on the Net, digging into alternate sources of information about the economy, energy, politics, the environment and so forth. There wasn't much comfort to be had.
  • In 2008, the coming crash was foreshadowed in a lot of ways. I had a bad feeling, but I wasn't savvy enough to synthesize all the information. I didn't have anybody to discuss it with (my wife had imposed a Doom Embargo). People either didn't have any information to share, didn't believe what they were hearing, or were deep in that Egyptian river. Even my buddy who lost his job when Lehman went down wouldn't go there with me.
  • In 2009, I found this community (hat tip to Rob & Chaz!). I was instantly hooked, grateful for the information available, for all I was learning – and, perhaps most importantly – grateful for the camaraderie. It sure is nice to find simpatico souls after spending years feeling like somebody’s hitting you with higher and higher doses of The Crazy.

I believe that our communities will be of paramount importance if any sort of good life is to be salvaged from the wreckage that’s piling up day by week by month. There is an era coming that is going to make the goings-on thus far seem like the Good Old Days. It might be a full-on storm of economic and political destruction that tears through our world like a tornado. Or it might be an endless drought – few jobs, less money, and no apparent solution in sight. And while I salute the Hunker In The Bunker crowd for having the courage of their convictions, that’s not an option for any more than a small fraction of 1 percent of the population in countries affected by the predicaments posed by the 3 Es. (Stone-age tribesfolks: y'all get a pass on this crisis! Although you may get refugees from the Modern Era.)

We're going to need each other in ways we have forgotten for a generation or more.  

People have a real hunger for fellowship and community. In this world, where social interactions are mediated by technology, and where our communities have become too atomized, people feel more isolated than they have in generations. Surely technology has a role to play in organizing and communication (witness this online community), but the real solutions are going to be found and implemented through face-to-face interaction and by people working side by side. So much time and money has been invested in creating walled-off little worlds (whether literal – gated communities where people tend to prosecute their social lives in isolation from the greater world – or figurative – folks hemmed up inside the cocoons created by Facebook, Twitter, and immersive big-screen TV entertainment centers). A similarly herculean effort will be required to build communities resilient enough to thrive in the coming years. Put down the remote and STEP…BACK!

Creating community is both easier and harder than you might think. Few of the things that foster the growth of community are super-difficult to do. Sure, people as a whole are often not an easy lot, but I find if I keep that idea in mind it keeps my expectations of progress realistic and makes me a much more patient and forgiving fellow. In my experience thus far, the greatest obstacle to the creation of community is the amount of time that has to be invested – not only by myself, but by the other folks who are ostensibly going to make up the community. Doesn’t matter if I have 10 hours a week for community-oriented projects if everybody else has 2 hours every other Sunday afternoon. Sure, you can build community on alternate Sunday afternoons between 3 and 5 p.m. – it’s just going to take quite a bit longer. And how much more time do we really have before what we have in hand is what we’ll have to work with for the foreseeable? If the just-in-time delivery system goes thud, or inflation really pops and bulk pinto beans go up 10x in price, very few people will have the opportunity and the means to organize a community day for Long-Term Food Storage.

I’ll flatter you all by saying that if you’re reading this at then you’re all sharp enough to know some likely venues that could act as platforms for building resilient communities – and further acknowledge that if you’ve already come this far you have the fortitude to undertake the task. I’ll just offer up what I, my wife, and our circle have been up to in the last few years. If it makes you smarter or inspires you to take action, then I’ll give the credit to those that blazed trails for me and mine – some of whom are longtime members and prolific contributors to this site.

Here are a few stories about how my wife & I went about it, since when we started we were new to our locale and therefore didn’t have any pre-existing relationships we could exploit in terms of getting a core group together to put a more resilient lifestyle in place. We’ve gone from zero to fifty in a few years. Let’s set Matrix Escape Velocity at 100 and say that I feel as if we’re halfway there. Here’s hoping the below speeds up your progress towards Escape Velocity.

First Friday

My wife and I moved to New Paltz, NY, in 2005. We’d always thought the area was gorgeous and there were plenty of options for an active outdoorsy lifestyle. The area was also attractive culturally – the Hudson Valley is pretty hopping for a mostly-rural area. There are a lot of urban expats (mainly from the NYC – a common joke when you meet somebody new is “So, where in Brooklyn are you from?”) of the sort that craved living closer to the land and wanted off the HappyFunTimeMoreMoreMore carousel that in my opinion, largely drives life in NYC. The biggest drawback was that we really only knew one person (a friend who’d made the move from NYC two years before we did) when we arrived.

Halfway through the first Winter, my wife was climbing the walls. She was used to Brooklyn – crowds of people and a whole world to socialize in juuust outside the apartment door. In New Paltz the joke is you’re a half –hour drive from any/everything. And we knew so few people that in the Winter it felt like the whole world went on lockdown, socially-speaking, once the cold and inclement weather set in.

We decided to do something. And for what it’s worth, deciding to do something is the most important step to take. (Dr. Chris calls it “Step Zero” – nothing happens until you take that particular step.)  Figuring we weren't the only ones new[ish] to the area, and figuring we couldn't be the only people that could do with more social contact, we created a thing called First Friday.

On the First Friday of each month, we open our house to any-and-all comers.  It's a low-key come-as-you-are affair – no need to go home and spiff up, or bring anything.  Just finish work on Friday and hie yourself over to our house.  We have simple food and provide a little wine/beer and non-alcoholic bevvies.  Just come on over and hang out and talk, listen to music, whatever.  It goes from about 7 p.m. until whenever people leave.  Some months, everybody's gone by 9:30 p.m.  Some months, it's 1:30 a.m.  One month, nobody came. (We also had one occasion when somebody showed up on the wrong Friday – and when they hurried to leave, they backed their car into the ditch along the road that fronts our property. Just a little example of the unforeseeable ramifications of getting involved in this process – we got to spend some awkward time waiting for the tow truck with the mortified individual in question on a Friday night we had assumed was going to be quiet family time…)

It started small since we didn't know many people.  The first gathering was 5 people including my wife & me.  We encouraged people to bring their friends – and then those friends were encouraged to bring their friends – and within a few months we'd have as many as 20+ show up. Some people come once and that's it.  Others become regulars and are now good friends.  (The buddy who helped me pick out my shotgun in post #286 of the Definitive Firearms Thread is one.)  Eventually, people really got into it and started bringing their own food and drinks. Now it’s common to have folks show up with homegrown pickled green beans, homebrewed beer (or mead!), fresh-baked cakes, salsa fresh out of their gardens, and so on. Lots of gardening and cooking tips get passed around. It’s a regular DIY food and drink seminar, just about. A big asset to the growing community.

So we started with First Friday and things organically grew from there.  A bunch of the guys decided it'd be cool to have Dudes Bowling Night once a month.  So we did that.  The womenfolk, mildly put out that we were leaving them all home every fourth Tuesday night, decided to form a women's circle that meets on the same night.  Deeper friendships and affiliations ensued.  Activity groups (kayaking, pottery, etc.) have spun off.  Community projects arise (we had a firewood log-splitting 'party' last summer, and now one couple have taken small donations from various peeps and are building a wood-stove-powered community sauna, and so forth). We created a yahoo! message board to share info/coordinate activities.  The community had 2 marriages last Summer, and I deejayed one reception, and my wife and I were the officiants at the other. To the extent that we have a thriving community going where none existed before, FF has been an unmitigated success. To the extent that MY definition of success includes the idea that everybody’s prepping for post-Fan living – well, we’re still working on that (more below).

Fire Circle

Another community-creating activity for me was a men’s fire circle. I was invited by an acquaintance to join a group of guys who’d been meeting for some time. The basic idea is simply get together around a fire (in all but the coldest months we gather outside), and sit. And talk. But we keep the talk on the subject that can be described, more or less, as answering the question “How is it with your soul/heart?” No small talk, no politics, etc. We just talk about how we’re feeling about where we’re at in our lives. It’s funny – at first there’s not a lot of talk. And then we find there’s not enough time in the hours we allot to say all we have to say. 

Yeah, I know, getting men to sit still without some other thing to Do while they talk is Not Usual. My Dad was a member of a men’s bible-study breakfast thing for years – his version of my fire circle – but again, it was organized around whatever book they were going through chapter-by-chapter (he got really excited about Jeremiah – “Wow, does he get pumped up!”) and that’s fine, too. Whatever gets people sitting and talking from the heart and really listening is the main thing. In my experience it’s better simply to sit/talk/listen. Once people understand the rhythm of it they generally dig the chance to slow down, listen closely to the others and relish the chance to simply speak from the heart, at their own pace and without interruption. In my opinion you learn more (about yourself and the others) without some other subject to focus on. And if I’m going to trust in and lean on other people, I need to know who they are and what they’re really like. 

(I was still in the corporate world on 9/11, working on the 43rd floor of a building in Midtown Manhattan. The people who were calm and collected in the face of that day’s insanity were not necessarily the people you’d have suspected. A number of the Office Toughguys [and gals] were limp dishrags or completely over-the-top enraged and therefore useless to our efforts to respond to the crisis. So: seize every opportunity to get to know people in a deeper way. You can’t judge a book… I want people around me that in a crisis will embody the words of Corporal Hicks in “Aliens”: “Stay frosty, people…”)

In the fire circle, one of the few rules we have is:  don't interrupt.  Other rules: don't offer solutions (unless they're solicited) and when you're making judgments, preface them with "I believe" or "I feel" or "In my experience" and so forth.  That's not to say we have a core belief that "everybody's right" or "everyone's feelings are equally valid/true" but if you preface your comments with the above, you're not de facto setting yourself up as an expert on somebody else's life, or Everything In General.

It was this group of guys, sitting around a fire, that formed the core of the group that put together the weekend at SUNY New Paltz with Dr. Chris. From humble beginnings…<smile>

The Ol' Homestead

For a more complete version of this saga, check out my “The Ol’ Homestead” posts in The Community Building thread. Through a contact in my men’s fire circle, I met a couple – D&B – who are basically carving a homestead out of 20+ acres north of where I live. About 16 months ago I started volunteering my labor there roughly ½ day a week. So by now I’ve spent the better part of 200 hours up there doing everything from toenailing the joists for the floor in their house-barn (man I left a lot of blood in that floor) to building stone retaining walls to learning how to mill a raw log of locust tree down into an 8”x8” post. Of course, along the way, I’ve gotten to know D&B (and their sons) pretty well – warts and all. Recently D (the husband) & I agreed we’d take the familial partnership up a notch or two. Ultimately my wife & I would like to build on their land and throw in with them on their eco-village-esque concept. First we have to sell our house and so forth. It’ll take a few more years, most likely, to really join forces with them. But in the meantime we’re figuring out ways to collaborate on that larger project as well as smaller projects with more immediate payoffs. Most of the wood we’ll use in the woodstove this Winter came from D&B’s land – a little thank-you gift from them to us for my work up there. 


I’ve noticed in the last six-plus months (as a few people have begun to join us in our preparations) that my own actions have been the single most important factor in getting other people to join in. The most apt metaphor I’ve come up with is “drafting” – when I move forward, other people get pulled in and “draft” behind me. So I’d say do not wait for other people to volunteer to do preps with you. Just get started cutting the trail on your own and watch who falls in behind you. 

I’d been pushing forward the Crash Course and trying to discuss the state of things with our social circle for quite awhile, to little effect. This included being part of the group that brought Dr. Chris to New Paltz for a weekend of talks & workshops. Even after all of the hard work putting those events together, nobody in our immediate circle was willing to begin collaborating on resilience-related preparations. 

But as soon as I just went back to my prep list and headed off to take care of the next item (junk silver buy), a couple we know (responding to a message I’d posted some weeks previous) sent me an e-mail asking if it was cool if they came with me to the coin shop in Albany. They also joined in for the next item after that, which was…

Long-Term Food Storage

LTFS is a resilience-related project that is tailor-made for a community to undertake together. Not only does it cross a major item off everybody’s to-do list, it is an excellent opportunity to see how people work on a team, who can lead, who wants to lead but has no talent for it, who can adjust plans on the fly when said plans start to go sideways (or backwards), and so on. For the definitive dish on a major LTFS day, check out the Definitive Food Storage Thread

It seemed as if nobody in our growing community wanted in on the LTFS my wife & I were planning. (We’d circulated a message on our community’s Yahoo! message board regarding our plan and inviting other folks to join in.) But just before we were going to place our order, the couple who made the junk-silver trip with me decided to join us for the LTFS too. So I simply doubled our order of grains/beans/etc. and they volunteered to get together the buckets/oxygen absorbers, etc. So while our LTFS day wasn’t as epic as the one Dogs and his wife Cat put together, it definitely deepened our ties to this other couple – and we discovered the four of us make a good team and that the other couple are organized, dependable and adaptable. That’s Win where I come from. Here’s hoping that when we do round 2 (to push our supplies up to a full year) other people will also come out of the woodwork. And so the circle will continue to grow…

“Community” Isn’t the Same as “Friends”

Not everybody I’m trying to connect into my community network is somebody I am or will be friends with. Sure, in a perfect world I’d be good friends with my electrician, the local farmer, my mechanic, plumber, doctor, dentist, dairyman, and so forth. But I’m not going to wait to act if things don’t shape up that way. In fact, if I get my wish of being part of a village-type community (maybe 5-6 families sharing land/chores/gardens/equipment, etc.) I don’t even expect to be good friends with everyone in that group. If they’re standup types, competent and hard-working, that’ll do. If we’re friends, that’s just a bonus. 

So I wouldn’t count anybody out just because I’m not crazy about them. And I’m not counting anybody in because I’ve known them for 15 years and they do a killer Christopher Walken impersonation.

Other advice

Start Small – Our first community gathering was 5 people. Including us. And all we were asking them to do was stop by our house and have a drink and hang out. Never get discouraged by how small your first steps seem. They are just building blocks towards the much larger goal.

Start now – We’ve been at this for three-plus years and I feel as if we’re only just getting the Resilient Community thing specifically underway.

Be patient – As I’ve experienced it, the community-building process can’t be rushed. People let down their guard and develop trust at their own speeds, many of which can be grouped under the heading “glacially slow” – especially as it pertains to their family’s future. And although it took over a year to show any results at all from my efforts to get people collaborating on resilience projects, we’re taking collective steps on a much more frequent and regular basis now.

Share the Crash Course – Many folks on this site have shared stories of how they got people together by giving/lending them a copy of the CC DVD. There are also plenty of stories from people who gave folks the CC and frightened those folks off. Of course, our good judgment is always required: If you think somebody’s ready to absorb the message of the CC and think they’d be an asset to your future resilient community, by all means steer them to the CC. But if you think they’re still in denial or otherwise unready, recruit them indirectly by getting them involved in some project that’s non-scary but still community-oriented (gardening, helping to install a solar hot water heater, etc.). By the time they’re ready for the CC, you’ll have gotten a huge head start on the whole community-building project. And who knows, spending time with you on a project like that might provide them with the reassurance and understanding that you’re not off the deep end, you’re just very concerned about where things are and where they seem to be going. Helping you build a chicken tractor might just be their way of “checking you out” – and may get them to ask you if they can borrow your Crash Course DVD.

And lastly – take what people have to offer, no matter how small – you never know what it could lead to. The converse is doubly true…

Further reading

There is a heap of excellent information related to community available here at The Community Building thread is an obvious choice. And I’ve already cited Long-Term Food Storage as being a perfect community undertaking. The Definitive Agriculture/Permaculture thread also contains loads of info on a subject that is very community-friendly. 

In terms of books, I recommend Diane Leafe Christian’s two books Creating a Life Together and Finding Community.  While they tend toward the crunchy-granola and have an emphasis on ecovillage-type communities, the books are full of excellent advice on what to do and – just as important – pitfalls to avoid.

And if anyone has questions or comments, please feel free to comment (either here on on the relevant pre-existing thread) or PM me.

And, as always – VIVA!   Sager