Community: Meeting Our Deepest Needs

by Helen Forsey

This piece was originally published in Home! A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright, New Society Publishers, copyright 1990.

When we look at human needs across cultures and over time, a recurring theme is the need for roots in the Earth, for a reliable, sustained relatedness to a particular area or locality. The multiple visions of people seeking and creating balanced, egalitarian, harmonious communities all have in common that element of sturdy rootedness. Bioregionalists call it “living in place”; most people would call it home. But the concept of “home” has been viciously distorted—coopted by capitalism to refer to an exchangeable piece of real estate; corrupted by patriarchy to mean a man’s castle, where women and children are neither free nor safe. In this context, “homelessness” takes on for us a new and broader meaning, referring not only to the harsh realities faced by those who actually lack shelter, but also to a pervasive phenomenon of modem alienation even in the midst of creature comforts. It is time we reclaimed the concept of “home,” and made it synonymous with the kind of community that ecofeminism strives to create.

Human beings have always created ways of living together; we are social animals after all. But, under patriarchy, those ways have been oppressive and harmful to people and to the Earth. More and more of us are realizing now—with the hope that it is not too late—that we must turn that phenomenon around.

So, in our various spots on this planet, groups of us cluster together again, more or less intentionally, in homesteads, neighborhoods and networks, to forge new ways of living and working together, new models of community that will comprise this essential turn-around. And we ask: How can we make the most of these efforts to create a new reality out of our best visions? What pitfalls do we need to watch out for and avoid, so as not to fall back into the old oppressive patterns? How can we build, from our small scattering of communities, a network of growing strength that can truly help to bring about the enormous cumulative changes that the world so desperately needs?

A fundamental part of the answer is that we need to be ready and able to draw on both our experience and our understanding, and allow the theory and the practice to nourish and deepen each other. Unless we can become aware of the meaning of our experience and reinterpret those meanings in our actions, we risk losing the valuable lessons we can learn from the experience….

As we build community, we need to learn to listen to each other and to ourselves, to be aware of our experience and to hear our own inner voices. Reflecting on those times in our lives where we have experienced wholeness, empowerment, joy, we can see those experiences as signposts for our deepest needs, indications of how those needs can be filled. This process is part of what the feminist poet and nonviolent activist, Barbara Deming, calls “remembering who we are.” Whether the “relevance” of what is going on is immediately obvious or not, we need to allow our awareness and our understandings to surface. If something feels right, or wrong, there is probably a reason, whatever the experts or the bosses or the politicians may try to tell us. We need to begin to trust both our intuition and our common sense— as the feminist movement has long been encouraging women to do—and be willing to spend the time and energy, individually and collectively, to fit these together and build from what we learn.

Our experience and understandings as feminists and as ecologists are, of course, absolutely vital to this process. So much of our search is for an alternative to the alienation that permeates modern industrial society, where our interrelationships with other humans, animals, plants and the Earth itself are distorted through power hierarchies and prescribed roles, electronic technology, plastic packaging and layers of concrete and asphalt. The basic causes of that alienation lie in patriarchal attitudes and structures, distance from nature and lack of knowledge and respect for its cycles and systems. If we fail to recognize this causality, we are apt to find ourselves recreating those same alienating structures in our attempts to build community, and any hope for the evolution of a true alternative will be doomed.

In fact, as we attempt to practice community, we find that this effort by itself does not automatically change our old behavior patterns and our accustomed ways of relating to each other and to the Earth. And to go on relating in the old ways threatens to destroy the community and the integrity of the alternative we sought. This contradiction has spelled the end of countless experiments in collectivity, with people coming to the tragic—and mistaken—conclusion that such alternatives run counter to human nature. I believe that it is not human nature itself which is at fault, but rather the stifled and distorted attitudes and behavior that unnatural and oppressive societies have cultivated.

Thus, in order to make possible the necessary fundamental changes in all our relations, we need to continually develop our understanding and analysis of what must be changed and why, as well as our determination and ability to live and interact differently in our daily lives. Without such understanding, the old destructive patterns will tend to dominate our actions, preventing any real change; whereas theory alone, without practice, is sterile.

Alternative communities can, of course, take a multiplicity of forms, and this potential for endless variety is one of the most hopeful aspects of the communal movement. Communities can be neighborhoods or villages, small homesteads or more geographically dispersed webs of commonality and interaction. We are not talking here about the patriarchy’s repeated attempts to define “community” in its own oppressive terms, but rather about the many kinds of social experiments which are consistent with ecofeminist principles. To explore the characteristics that such communities tend to have in common would form the subject matter for an entire book, but I want to touch on a few of the elements that my experience tells me are essential for building sustainable alternatives.

First, community living is life-affirming and nonviolent. Community people come together out of love for each other and for the Earth, commitment to certain basic values, and a hope, however tenuous, for a better future. This commitment often involves anger, struggle, and pain, but that in no way cancels out the love or the continuing possibility of joy. Community does not represent a withdrawal from the struggle; instead, it is an affirmation that better ways do exist, and an expression of our determination to live those better ways in the here and now.

Communities value autonomy and self-reliance based on equality. Community people have a common urge to make their own decisions, control their own destinies, both as a group and as individuals. This implies responsibility, “knowing what it takes to live,” as one community woman put it, an ability to cope, and a willingness to share those capabilities. It also requires both an internal and an external balance—equality and respect within the group regardless of sex, race, class, age or other differences, and freedom from intervention from the outside. Once again, everything is connected. If inequalities and exploitation exist within the community, those attitudes and modes of behavior will threaten not only the cohesiveness of the group, but also its relations with its homeplace and the creatures that co-inhabit that place. And if control of decisions or resources is imposed from outside, the balance and cycles of the community’s life are likely to be disrupted or destroyed. Without implying isolation, there needs to be a degree of autonomy which will permit the community to grow and flourish in the context of its own ecofeminist values.

Community demands openness, clarity, emotional connectedness and the ability and willingness to communicate about the things that matter. The inevitable problems faced by people living together cannot be resolved without honest and sensitive communication which builds trust and understanding. This is nowhere more true than in a group of people committed to new and better ways of relating. People in community must be willing to be vigilant and self-critical, as well as patient and generous, in addressing the group’s internal dynamics; ready both to challenge and to affirm, keeping constantly in mind the principles of respect, equality, cooperation and caring that they have committed themselves to.

The issue of tolerance is a thorny one. How much are we willing to tolerate actions and attitudes that go against our cherished values? How do we handle such contradictions when they arise? Is it elitist or unrealistic to demand that everyone in the community be committed to ecofeminist ideals and practice? How accessible are these ideas to a wider public, and might our insistence on them prevent the growth of the very movement we wish to see spread?

How we answer these questions, and how, in practice, our communities deal with these situations, is indicative in each case of our own relatedness and respect for ourselves, other beings, and the Earth. Surely there are many answers, and none of them are simple. Community is not a simple solution to the world’s problems. We know by now that simple solutions don’t exist in any case; they are another of the patriarchy’s lies. What community may be, however, is humanity’s next evolutionary step, giving more and more people the opportunity to live in ways consistent with our deepest needs. If we can understand those needs, and practice what it takes to meet them, we can find the strength to grow, and perhaps also to bring about the kind of changes that must be made if the planet is to survive.

Community develops quite naturally, then, out of ecofeminist ideals. The many and varied forms that our communities take, from Northern Mozambique to Eastern Ontario, from Ata to Mattaposett, evolve according to the myriad factors which influence any group choosing to live and work together in harmony with the Earth. Both the commonality of principle and the diversity of practice are characteristics of the ecofeminist movement, as indeed they are of the natural universe itself. By honoring both, we in our communities can help to build the kind of future we dream of for ourselves and for the Earth.

(First published in Healing The Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1989.)

Helen Forsey is a Canadian activist and writer. After earning a degree in agriculture from McGill University, she worked for 18 years in international cooperation and popular education. In 1984, she moved to a rural co-op in eastern Ontario. She has published a number of books and articles dealing with topics including the environment, politics, feminism, and social justice. She is the daughter of labor researcher, constitutional expert, and senator Eugene Forsey.

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