Sky Blue found his proper place in the world when he was 19, a college dropout who visited a Virginia commune called Twin Oaks. Fifteen years later, he’s still there, amid a thriving mini-society spread out over 450 acres of farmland, gardens, woods and small factories.
Twin Oaks was created to demonstrate how a completely classless society could work, and Blue was attracted to a life that might offer him an alternative to the drudgery of dutiful moneymaking he felt was the sole goal of his education
None of the typical totems of adulthood are necessary for life in Twin Oaks. But that doesn’t mean that the common burdens of adulthood don’t creep in – like the economy.
Still, he didn’t intend to stay long. He’d grown up knowing Twin Oaks existed – in fact, his parents had met there – and he figured that he’d explore a range of alternatives to mainstream existence before settling on one. But after three years he had a son, and a deeper commitment to the community’s project of egalitarianism.
Blue (his real, given name) took on leadership roles, including a stint as one of three Planners, the top rank in Twin Oaks’ government. Blue was serving in that role when, a few years before the global economy’s full-blown financial meltdown, Twin Oaks faced an economic crisis of its own, one that nearly derailed its financial future.
It’s not an isolated blow. In recent years, many of the U.S.’s roughly 3,000 intentional communities – a term their members tend to prefer to the word “commune” and its connotations of sex, drugs and burned-out hippies – have had to tighten budgets as the economy has slowed down. They’ve also had to grapple with how ballooning student debt may be constraining new membership. A look inside an intentional community in the midst of the economic slowdown is a look at what it’s like to live set apart from our society’s dearest economic values – acquisition and individual ownership, debt, consumption as fuel for the growth imperative – but still remain under their influence.
What it all indicates is that moving outside of the long reach of the mainstream financial system is not so easy to do, even in utopia.
The community’s Planner-Manager system of self-government is also taken from payday loan in Oklahoma “Walden Two.” Three rotating Planners, who serve for 18 months, are responsible for general decision-making within the community. Any decisions they make can be overturned by a member majority vote. Some 60 managers head up the more specific aspects of community functioning, such as food planning, plumbing and bike sharing.
Sharing resources allows for cheap communal living. Twin Oaks spends about $5,000 annually per member. Most everything is shared: the 17 cars; the food produced by the property’s gardens, orchard and dairy; an outdoor sauna; a fully equipped woodworking shop; and a community music room with a range of instruments. As for health care, often members will qualify for state-subsidized health care, especially since individual income is so low. The community also pays out of pocket where necessary, as well as putting funds into a catastrophic health insurance plan called PEACH run by the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, a network of income-sharing communes in North America.
No diploma, resume or credit score are required for entry
Each member is guaranteed a private bedroom in one of seven residences, but beyond that, most spaces are common, like the large dining hall, where two meals are served a day (and which can be easily converted for dance parties). Members receive a small allowance of between $60 and $100 each month (depending on the state of the community’s finances), for small discretionary purchases like cigarettes, chocolate or a movie in town. Otherwise, everything the community and its members need is paid for by a common treasury.