Unless you’re Mayor Bloomberg or the CEO of Starbucks, the New York real estate scene is brutal. A friend who recently moved here from Sydney, Australia was horrified when I explained that the first step in a New York metropolitan apartment search would be to decide between space and light, because we can’t afford both. Living in New York means that at an age when I thought I’d be grown, with all the attendant trappings of adulthood, I’m still relying on Ikea, hand-me-downs and roommates. But what if, rather than looking at cohabitation as a financial necessity, we endeavored to create intentional living communities that further our politics and our values?
On Sunday, a whole bunch of your friendly neighborhood Jewish changemakers got together to teach and inspire each other at the fourth annual Inside the Activists’ Studio. The afternoon consisted of a panel, a menu of workshops, an art installation, vegan, ethically-certified food, and a giant dancing chicken. I took away a lot from the event, but here I’d like to focus on Tal Beery’s workshop “Being the Change”: The Possibilities and Drawbacks of Collectively Living Your Values.
In college, I was part of an eating cooperative. There were 30 of us and we each had to commit to five weekly hours of service. One hour had to be a cleaning job of some kind: doing dishes, sweeping floors, organizing the fridge, etc. The other four hours could be devoted to cooking, purchasing food, ensuring the co-op met restaurant health code, administrative duties, etc. For the three years I was a member, the co-op was my home base. It was a place I lingered over mostly good and sometimes bizarre food to have those seminal college conversations about the meaning of it all. It was a place where someone would eat the brownies I accidentally cooked at 600 degrees and where I wept into the mop water when Kerry gave his concession speech. It was a place where we all helped each other grow up. Kids came to college not knowing how to boil water or what to write on a check. We mocked each other relentlessly, but we also taught each other to bake bread and do laundry. (Yes, this speaks to the nauseatingly sheltered nature of many college students today–a Rwandan six-year-old would have whipped us into shape in about 10 minutes.)
The co-op was also a political space. It was a space where men and women had equal obligations–and, I should say, a space where the gender binary need not apply. It was a space kept both Kosher and Halal (but that’s another story). Since we graduated college, friends and I have lamented the loss of our community. We have periodic idle discussions about what it would be like to live that way again, but it’s never seemed within the realm of true, grown-up possibility.
Enter Tal Beery. In his workshop, Beery asked participants to consider how we could make our living situations intentional. How does where we live, how we live and who we live with embody our values? Could we interact with our housemates in ways that are distinctly mutually supportive? What would that be like? In a group of four, we each wrote down personal goals and then tried to strategize about how we could create a fictional home that would support all of our goals and values. I’ve never had a conversation like this with a roommate. How sad. And what a waste. Collective living can be as deep as the situation Beery created with five others in which all income was communal, or as simple as organizing your apartment building to share a few internet routers instead of having everyone purchase their own. The point is that we should maximize our relationships and also our resources.
We are reared to want. And the myth is that our want makes us more creative, more motivated, more persistent. We are told the American machine is more magnificent than any other. But I think the truth is that our want simply fattens some and robs from others and is on the whole a meaningless hamster wheel existence. Too often, I think my politics will be enacted at the ballot box or the office or even marching in the streets, but I almost never think of home. I feel entitled, just like the rest of us, to my own little plot of heaven where no one else can interfere. In striving for our own private houses with green lawns and shiny cars, what are we sacrificing? If we are waking up to the fact that this isn’t sustainable, are we really willing to do the hard work on our own turf?
Intentional collective living can take many forms. It doesn’t have to be rigid. You can create it as you see fit. It can have the benefits of more intimate relationships, a sense of belonging, division of labor, environmental sustainability, efficiency, and financial savings. There are also drawbacks. You have to compromise. You have to give up some privacy and some autonomy. But is it worth it for a vision of a different world? One with less conspicuous consumption? Is it worth it to stop hurtling toward the wasteland and to take the hand of someone you care about and say, let’s try this together? Let’s try to be the change.
In the meantime, check this out this article on collective living by another Inside the Activists’ Studio speaker, Yotam Marom.
Lily Brent is a graduate student in Social Work and International Affairs at Columbia University. Prior to entering the dual masters program, Lily worked for the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, a holistic community educating and caring for 500 orphaned and vulnerable youth in Rwanda. She spent 2010 volunteering on the ground in the Village as part of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Jewish Service Corps. Lily is a graduate of Oberlin College and a New Jersey native. She blogs at redclimbinglily.wordpress.com and has published short fiction at 42Opus.