I moved back to West Virginia in late summer 2016 after eight years of living in cohousing in Vermont. Lucky for me, I had part-time employment waiting to help me reestablish some sense of belonging to an organization I could believe in. As an adjunct at Shepherd University, I could justify my time teaching Algebra by remembering that math offered us one of the purest vehicles for exercising logical thought, something seeming to be sorely missing in our partisan-divided world. I thought that, along with paying a few bills, I could at least be supporting students in developing their thinking function.
However, I couldn’t help but to allow my feeling self to leak into my time in the classroom. Looking out at the twenty students in each of my classes, I worried if I was really doing all I could to help them prepare for a post-graduation world where they’d more than likely be saddled with debt and at the mercy of a competitive job market that treated too many as expendable. I wondered if they truly knew what gifts they had to bring to more cooperative endeavors focused on more than just the bottom line. I wondered how I might impress upon them that there’s always more than one way to make a life—what I saw as preferable to simply making a living.
I wondered if I might have some worthwhile stories to tell.
When my family moved to Vermont, I’d been excited to experience for myself what I’d perceived to be a region full of independent minds aiming to be part of something bigger than themselves but smaller than corporate and industrial America pushing growth for growth’s sake. Something alternative sure enough pervaded the atmosphere there: an indomitableness reflected in entrepreneurial ventures—an earnestness towards supporting a more local economy in ways that just made good sense, like in the case of food.
Our own cohousing neighborhood, for instance, supported a resident team of young farmers in their market garden enterprise by allowing them to farm for free on numerous acres the community held in common. This, by the way, was the closest our “intentional” community ever came to looking like any stereotype hearkening back to communes from the ’60s and ’70s. To be clear, cohousing’s defining characteristics include the premise that independent households maintain independent rather than shared incomes, and though there are common spaces cooperatively owned and managed by residents, everyone gets to go back to their very own modestly sized home at the end of the day.
That said, the general assumption was that sharing other resources would be the norm. While many had been lured by cohousing’s promise of a few communal meals each week, a look outside a window on any particular day would often catch someone in the act of delivering eggs, milk, or surplus produce to someone else’s mudroom. As for human resources, I saw collective muscle relocate a chicken coop, harvest a fallen tree, construct a farm stand, erect a yurt—sometimes spontaneously, sometimes not. Though money sometimes exchanged hands for long-term childcare and animal care, barter and good-old-fashioned neighborliness were more the coin of the day. There was never any hesitation to ask for something needed, or give what could be given—exchanges unlikely in neighborhoods full of strangers.
Released from the grip of advertising and consumer culture, I felt tremendously empowered knowing that what I might’ve once perceived as needs were in truth only imagined wants, and sometimes not even that. Already, we were not the kind of family with a gas grille or big-screen television, the absence of which made invitations to cookouts and Super Bowl parties extra special. We were not the family with fancy garden gizmos or even a lawn mower, unnecessary when three or four of most everything were already shuffling around the neighborhood of twenty-two households. Tools and clothing cycled in constant rounds of hand-me ups and downs. Bicycles, skis, sleds, and skates were made available for those without. Cars were borrowed and rides were given in the spirit of cohousing’s ideal of neighbors helping neighbors.
While the present form of cohousing developed in Denmark decades ago, even more historical examples exist that are relevant to cooperative living through tough times. Shortly after moving to Vermont, I serendipitously discovered in a biography of depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange, a reference to an especially inspiring self-help cooperative: the Unemployed Exchange Association (UXA)—a group of industrious San Francisco Bay area residents who formed their own barter economy after tiring of waiting for the national economy to get rolling again. According to John Curl who wrote in his article, “Living in the U.X.A.,” appearing in the East Bay Express, November 11, 1983:
Their first focus was the neighborhood itself. They began by fixing up each other’s homes and circulating unused articles of every variety among themselves, cycling the useless into the useful. There had been little work in the neighborhood in the three years since the crash of 1929, so there was a great backlog of home repairs to be done. An abandoned grocery at 3768 Penniman became their first storeroom and commissary; it was soon overflowing with household and industrial articles. Broken items were repaired or rebuilt. The neighborhood, previously immobilized and choked with despair, was suddenly bustling with activity and confidence.
People poured into the new organization. They soon began sending scouts around Oakland and into the surrounding farm areas, to search out salvageable things they could acquire in labor exchange deals. Labor teams followed. All work was credited by a point system: one hundred points were awarded for an hour’s work. UXA members exchanged points they’d earned for a choice of items in the commissary. Each article brought in was given a point value that approximated the labor time that went into it, with some adjustment for comparable monetary value. Many services were also offered for points, eventually including complete medical and dental care, auto repair, a nursery school, barbering, home heating (firewood), and some housing. At the UXA’s peak, it would distribute forty tons of food per week.
Obviously, there was a real belief that skilled and caring communities can ride out vulnerable times together. Add to that, 1) social capital, 2) a willingness to think and do outside the box, and 3) a consensual governance structure, and you have the makings of a successful cooperative venture.
Many Boomers now in retirement are certainly thinking outside the box as more and more “fifty-five and over” cohousing communities are forming all over the country, including Shepherdstown’s own Shepherd Village. But perhaps even more inspiring to members of a younger generation, who might be wondering what life has in store after the structure of schooling has fallen away, is the example of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. Their focus on the handmade and homegrown suggests to me a real commitment to live more lightly on our finite planet with finite resources—a model worth emulating, and something we all might want to consider before our collective vulnerability becomes any more apparent.