16 May 2011
1) Ben, Tell us who you are in relation to the concept of collective and cooperative living. What are your primary formative experiences and what makes you tick and continue to push for this type of lifestyle?
I first became familiar with the concept before I ever lived in a cooperative house....
While volunteering with an AmeriCorps emergency response team, a group of ten or so members and I would leave on deployments where we served a common purpose, cooked meals together, shared facilities, shopped together. It was very much a cooperative living experience and I had formed close bonds with those folks that I missed when I left.
After returning to Rochester I was looking for a place to live, my sister had heard of a type of living called cooperative living on the radio and thought I might be interested. I googled “cooperative house Rochester, NY” and found Ant Hill.
The first night I visited, people where playing music in the living room as others finished preparing dinner. I saw that they had a clothing library, a large movie room in the attic, a bike repair shop, all great features I never expected to find in an apartment. I knew I had stumbled on something pretty great.
To be clear, I don’t think cooperative living is for everyone, but I think it is for way more people than are experiencing it now. So I definitely feel it is important to push for something that is more sustainable, generates a sense of community, is fun and in many ways empowering.
2) Bread and Roses Collective , where you currently reside here in Syracuse, uses a process of consensus decision making to guide it's management. Can you describe how the process works and what benefits it provides?
We use a book called On Conflict and Consensus that describes the consensus decision making process. In the book they write of consensus as a process for respecting others opinions that necessitates active participation and requires disciplined speaking and listening. Which means that for every decision that we feel should be a house decision we discuss the item at a house meeting, test for consensus, try to address any issues that might come up and vote with a thumbs up or down. Each vote has equal value, but if someone votes against a measure, the proposal fails. This process necessitates communication and understanding. It can be time consuming and can be contentious, but the process ensures that we walk away with the best decision for the house.
3) You are embarking on a two-month road trip, titled Collective Footprints, to document urban and campus cooperatives across the country. Can you tell us what you hope to accomplish with this project and why you have decided to undertake it?
I hope to accomplish a few things. First, I’d like to promote and share cooperative living solutions to environmental problems. Second, I’d like to help showcase the history and culture of environmentally progressive cooperatives. Third, I’d like to tell an interesting story. I think video is the most vivid and engaging way to accomplish these objectives, which is why I am turning the experience into a documentary with the help of fellow ESF students, Julia Palmer and Josh Morrow.
Honestly, I am not entirely sure what will happen because of this project, or even what the experience will be like. I’ve lived in cooperative houses so I have a general sense, but there is definitely a sense of adventure and curiosity that I am pursuing.
4) Besides projects like Collective Footprints, do you have thoughts on any other strategies or activities that you feel are beneficial to helping educate and inform about collective and cooperative living arrangements here in Syracuse and farther afield?
Locally, I think Bread and Roses is becoming increasingly active in the community through workshops, green renovations and such. I think we will see a lot more from intentional communities in the area over the next couple years. Also, I say this a lot, but starting a cooperative is easy and very affordable. So I hope that others will look not only to existing cooperatives or collectives, but will create their own. The more the better for the movement.
5) Many people in today's mainstream culture may feel that a cooperative model of living is "backwards" or doesn't integrate with our prevailing economic or social models. How would you convince them otherwise? What major hurdles do you believe may be holding them back, and what techniques or skills could they integrate for easy and simple changes towards converting their current hierarchical living situation into a cooperative living situation?
I’d need to write a book to address that question sufficiently. In thinking about mainstream apartment sharing situations; I think it’s important to recognize that for a lot of things, life is just easier if we share resources. It’s easier to cook for five once a week than cooking for one five times a week. So for people interested in efficiency, as many modern day institutions and people are, I think cooperative living is not so radical, but a very effective way of living. Cooperative living is more than just efficient use of time, but it is one example that this notion that cooperative living is antithetical to mainstream values is false. People interested in cooperative living can start by creating a cooking chart, look into buying food together, create a chore sharing schedule or do a small project together.
6) How can our readers help the Collective Footprints project succeed? Do you need donations, funds, other types of support?
One thing I learned quickly is that making a film is not cheap. But I think we have been rather resourceful and put together a budget of less than $5,000 for good equipment and thrifty travel expenses. Approximately 500 person hours have gone into the project so far with around 2,400 more hours to go (which is not figured into the budget). So donations to support this work are welcomed and really help cover the most basic costs of food, gas, lodging and equipment. I am half-way to reaching my goal of $2,000 and I need more help to make this possible. Those wanting to support the project should go to collectivefootprints.blogspot.com and look for the Kickstarter.com link on the left.
7) The last words are yours. What last thoughts do you want to impart about cooperative living?
I think this is an exciting time for cooperatives. People are recognizing the need to work together to address wicked environmental and social problems and for young people particularly, cooperative living is a way to be a part of a larger movement simply by saying no to individualism. I think many in government, business and even the non-profit community want us to believe that we can change the world by switching detergent or whatever. That simply is not enough. We need to start looking beyond individual responsibility to create a better world.
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