Sunflowervillager's Blog

Growing into community

Simplify! Flow charts help! Find the Milestones! October 22, 2017

Over the last month, I’ve made real progress on the business plan with support from the board, my advisor, and an architect! This post is primarily on what I have been learning through the process of developing the business plan. The short short version is: Simplify! Consult the experts. Flow-charts (even miniature ones) help table conundrums, and figure out your project Phases & Milestones!


The conversation started with Market Research. I had been focusing on the intentional community movement and how Sunflower Village is different from other communities. My advisor helped me realize that this section needs to be much more powerful, and I can do that by clarifying what are markets are and who our competitors are in those markets. With the help of the board, I realized that our main markets are housing, tiny house placement, and intentional community. Housing, especially affordable housing is a major issue in Southern Vermont. People with tiny houses are looking for places to put them, and people want their lifestyle to deeply incorporate community. My advisor also pointed out that focusing on the term “intentional community” may not be helping us. We draw on audiences who may not be familiar with the intentional communities movement, and they do not need to be in order to appreciate the benefits of Sunflower Village. I still include it in the marketing section as people with an interest in cohousing and intentional communities may find what they are looking for in Sunflower Village, but we need to avoid having language that feels exclusive.

My advisor also suggested removing much of the philosophical language and putting it in a “Paper Basket” or aPhilosophy document. I am finding this helpful as I kept feeling like I had to explain the why for everything. I think this is a useful thing to have available, but I want the Business Plan to be focused on the logistics of how Sunflower Village will work, not arguing why they should be that way. Shortly after this discussion, I went on a weekend retreat with my extended spiritual community. I came home with a fresh perspective on building community and some of the core principles of Sunflower Village. Combined with the discussions with my advisor, I realized that I needed to drastically simplify my approach in other ways too. I saw that the Triad approach to governance is ridiculous for a very small group, which Sunflower Village will be at the beginning. Essentially I came back (again!) to David Grant’s point about the life cycle of organizations. I need to figure out how Sunflower Village will work for each phase if I am going to give prospective Villagers and investors any meaningful understanding of what I am asking them to be involved in.

I also saw that the idea of having each board member be a key person for the different components of the buisness plan was not effective, as some members were waiting for clarification on earlier pieces before they could make any significant progress. At our October Board Meeting, I proposed that, once I pulled out some of the philosophy parts and work on developing phases, we can go through the sections together, using Google Docs collaboration tools to edit, comment, and make suggestions as a conversation between us.

Consult the experts

On Monday, I had a great meeting with Aviva. She is a friend of mine and an architect who has worked on developing cohousing communities. We talked for three hours on dinner about planning for common houses, community social dynamics, the importance of site plans, least expensive ways to place tiny houses in keeping with building code, and a little bit about kibbutz. Overall, my conversation with her was full of key insights and useful reminders, including components I had researched some years ago.  For example, Aviva reminded me that existing land trusts can be useful not only in obtaining land, but in doing some of the ground work research, negotiating with towns, and finding funding. It was an inspiring conversation, and it bounced around my mind throughout the week.


The Common House Conundrum.

I got stuck yesterday. Blocking out Phase one was easy for me, but as I tried to dig into the rest of them, I was having a hard time figuring out what would happen when between the beginning five years of Sunflower Village and the ideal Sunflower Village I imagine. I knew there was a lot to do and grow between those places, but I struggled to break it down. I found that a contingency was holding me back: the land. What kind of property will Sunflower Village look for? Undeveloped property open to shape according to our needs, or a place with a building? Aviva had pointed out to me that cohousing communities have to decide whether to build a Common House from the beginning or later. If they build it later and focus on individual dwellings, they often do not have the funds or plans for it later. She also said that it is generally harder to try to fit an already existing building to the needs of a community and can require remodeling which can ultimately be just as big a project as building a Common House. I liked the idea of finding an existing property because it will already have space and utilities, offering the opportunity for people to live there while they construct tiny houses. I basically created a little flow chart for myself on the issue, and that let me refocus on developing the phases.


Phases & Milestones

One of the great questions Aviva had for me was “How will you know when it’s time to transition to the Triad?” That was a great thing for her to ask me! This question helped me when I was feeling stuck in making progress on developing the phases of Sunflower Village yesterday. It reminded me of some of the tools from my Outcomes and Evaluations class at Marlboro. In particular, I needed to incorporate Results-Based Accountability. This tool was developed as a way to help organizations with social missions measure their impact, and I love its directness. It asks people to answer three questions:

  1. What did we do?
  2. How well did we do it?
  3. Is anyone better off?

I developed a variation of this in future tense to help me think:

  1. What are we doing?
  2. How will it show that we are doing it well?
  3. How will we know if Villagers are better off?

Using these questions to inspire my thinking, I dug into the social & economic components, and finally got a flow going. I now have a draft of  three phases that includes for land, governance, social, and economic  milestones. I believe that having these phases outlined will clarify the whole business plan! I certainly feel a lot more clear!





Misnomered Communities October 28, 2009

Filed under: economy,land trust,landlessness.,social investment — Saera @ 1:28 pm

I want to address some problems that exist with some current types of intentional communities.

An ecovillage is a community based on the premise that we can counter the environmentally damaging effects of modern lifestyles by developing a physical community which uses little to no oil generated energy, recycles, and integrates other strategies for reducing footprint. This sounds wonderful, but there are some major problems with the idea as it is practiced in reality. One is that practically any neighborhood can call itself an ecovillage or a “green” community if it is using something seen or portrayed as “green”. I have seen advertisements promoting gated communities which require organic or “green” lawncare, recycling, and have energy efficient housing. Certainly, this is an improvement on conventional gated communities and on suburbian design in general. However, this is a small bandage that is really an attempt to allow things to continue pretty much as as they have, without requiring any real significant changes or sacrifices to lifestyle. I’ll start with an easy example: these lawns could be cared for with certified organic businesses. But that does not begin to even think about addressing the problems of excessive land use/misuse for individual houses. It does not say anything about biodiversity or the huge environmental impact caused by gas run lawnmowers. It does not provide for rainfall dispersal and watershed preservation, and it could still be rare to have a commons.

But the greatest flaw of these types of communities is their exclusiveness. And this is not just a trait of “green” gated neighborhoods…. it persists through the design of many intentional communities. Recently on the community bulletin board at work, there was an advertisement for a “Solar Village” with “generous income requirements”. This was $68,000 for one person! It is understandable that since these communities, often newly built, and with expensive features and technologies, need some way to pay for the land, the buildings, materials, and services. However, requiring that level guarantees that, while the community will be financially stable, it will also tend strongly to exclude the following people: many blue-collar workers, young people, blacks, latinos, asians, the handicapped, poorer artists and artisans, small-scale farmers, activists, non-profit workers, and students. Excluding these groups from a community constitutes a huge flaw. Some of these groups, such as activists, artists, farmers, students, and young people represent groups which have very high potential to be vibrant, active, and innovative.But excluding any population of people from a system called “sustainable” is problematic. If only the wealthy can afford “sustainble” lifestyles, what happens to the poor people? Since there is a huge population of poor relative to wealthy, we will not have truly sustainable systems unless they account for everyone. That is to say, if some groups have access to solar power and other forms of renewable energy, but the poor can only rely on coal, oil, and other non-renewable energy sources, then we are not building a future which is truly sustainable. This type of use and abuse of the term “sustainability” makes it into a form of status and propagation of problematic forms of organizing society.


Land Trust Non-profit evolutions! October 19, 2009

Filed under: land,land trust,organization — Saera @ 2:48 am

Today I went to my second meeting of a group of people considering forming a land trust non-profit. I think there have been a couple of other meetings, but I only found out about this in September via Chris. It was interesting, because today the meeting contained an entirely different group of people than the last, except for the central organizer and myself. But it seems like we’re boiling down to a few ideas:

One, that we’re probably moving towards forming a non-profit Land Trust. This could be a parent/umbrella organization whose main purpose is helping people get access/education about land.

Two, that there is clearly a group of people interested in developing some kind of community related to this Land Trust. This could end up as one community or multiples. We will do more brainstorming about shared visions we have in this area.

There is discussion too, about whether we should try to get onto some land right away, renting or whatever, as a way to practice/experiment/learn about community and developing related skills, or whether we should focus on ideals and bonds.

I’m really excited to be working with people, figuring out practically how we’re going to do this stuff!

And Tom and I have been talking about ideas too! Now if so much of school didn’t feel like a distraction!


The Dream Gets Closer September 14, 2009

Filed under: land,land trust — Saera @ 12:35 pm

Yesterday went to a meeting of “the Valley Community Land Collective”. This baby is in it’s inception. There was a lot of thoughtful dialogue, and it was exciting to be around 7 or 8 people with similar interests. A representative from a Land Trust in Franklin County was there, and she fielded a lot of questions about the logistics of how a land trust actually operates. The conclusion of the meeting was that we need to continue getting to know each other and what our goals are, finding the intersections there. I have a lot of appreciation for Matt, who’s been working hard to get people together around this, and for Chris M, who sent me the info about the meeting in the first place. The dream gets closer.

P.S. This meeting was a block and a half from my house, and pretty much all the people live in Northampton…

I also ran into Sara P. earlier in the day. I keep thinking about her but not calling her, so this was a gift. I have so much admiration for her, and wish to learn from her.