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Permaculture, intentional communities and power dynamics

*Trigger warning: this article contains personal recollections which some people may find disturbing

Recently I was invited to teach / facilitate a couple of sessions on Social Permaculture, in between sessions and during meals I was lucky enough to be able to spend time with these new up and coming permaculture enthusiasts as they were going through a jam packed two weeks of permaculture design course sessions with Ras John Craswell. There was a lot of curiosity about me as I entered what was quickly to become a well balanced group, who was I, what was I teaching, where am I going and what do I think about this and that but more interestingly I was asked about my time as a part of an intentional community. It was the first time I spoke openly about my difficulties at the intentional community I spent 4 years trying to build up before I left to come to Spain.

What is an intentional community?

I define intentional community as 2 or more people who decide to live together, this can be in the same building or in separate but nearby buildings or a mixture of both. Sometimes they are also referred to as communes. For the rest of the world you might think of it as a co-living situation in which you get to choose your house or room mates. Almost always they have some shared purpose and shared agreements of how they will live together.

In this case the community ideals were set around the permaculture ethics of people care, earth care and fair share amongst others.

Why would anyone want to live in an intentional community?

This could be answered in a hundred ways but often reasons include the want to live with people who share similar or same ideals / beliefs / religion / spiritual practice / political views etc.

Often it is the people who might not fit whatever the mainstream is in that moment that more likely to be drawn into starting or joining a commune. I credit the need of belonging as one of the main motivators.

So why had I wanted to start and live in one and did I feel like I belonged when I got there?

I was trying to break out of corporate wealth management which was wrecking my mental health into a more sustainable lifestyle. I saw an opportunity to try something different with a person I fell in love with. Had I felt like I belonged? yes and no. I found out almost immediately that even though I felt like I did belong in the environment, got on with people and fell in love with the lush green spaces, I had walked straight into a situation which left me little to no power. I lived in someone else’s house, the person I loved was not as supportive as I had imagined they would be, I had no space to call my own however small in the beginning and I had lost something very important to me — a private living space in which to be in solitude. After I set up my own little room I quickly found out it did not give me adequate privacy. I was still very much in the large house with constantly changing people and inevitable social interactions I could not avoid.

What is power? and why does it matter?

Much of our life is already outside of our control but what I felt happen to me was the total loss of control over my own life. The experience was so overwhelming that I descended into a life threatening kind of mental health state basically depression. The more power I lost the more of my identity I shed and the less me I became until one day I no longer knew the person in the mirror. Not only was she an unknown entity but at her lowest points I hated her with a vengeance because she was an angry hurt despondent child. I was in pain and I blamed myself.

Only when I was completely alone could I tap back into the small and delicate fragments of what was left of me, I could love myself then a little. Taking back some of that power was incredibly exhausting and so much resistance came from the other side that conflict became inevitable.

At one point I developed cysts in my breasts that were very large and the doctor said that I had more lumps than breast tissue. I grieved then not only had I lost myself now I was also going to die of cancer. My partner then said he liked it when I cried so that he could make me feel better, in the same breath he said he loved me very much. I was horrified.

I no longer felt comforted or better after that, to think that the person you love gets any kind of pleasure from your emotional distress is for lack of a better word disturbing but also eye opening. In contrast when he cried it broke my heart. All that emotional up and down, the on again off again I had cried plenty then and he had somehow got gratification from it so there was then a motivation to all this instability, it was by design. I felt abandoned, betrayed and alone.

Taking back some power, this meant that from now on, I tried to cry alone when I could and when I couldn’t I would hide my tears as best I could. At least my pain would be mine and not a source of gratification or worse a reward.

My support system did not understand poly-amorous relationships and so everything that is wrong in the relationship suddenly is my fault because I chose this. It is like magic blinkers that stops people from truly listening as they dismissed me as a wretched woman who made her bed and now refuses to lie in it.

Luckily my cysts were not malign, the doctor said I should get pregnant to get rid of them. I got angry that a health care professional should just backhandedly give out such advice to a person she barely saw for a few minutes — what if I didn’t want to or worse I could not. With time I noticed my cysts responded to stress so I tried to take better care of myself. I loved myself until they went back to being barely there.

Sadness and rage were taking up all my emotional space and I felt very consumed by it. I felt like everything had been taken away from me, I was nothing, had nothing and would be nothing. I felt sexually harassed and humiliated.

I started to take my hurt self into my arms and self soothe to survive when I could and keep all the stressors at bay whichever way I could, at points my anxiety was so high that I would find myself in a frenzy desperate to alleviate it. I recognise that in so doing people got hurt as I pushed them away and lashed out when I was in pain and for that I am sorry.

I am still not out of the woods yet.

How had this happened?

All that childhood trauma with the same patterns crushed me like a ton of bricks in that first year. I wanted it to work so I tried to keep working at it because this was now my family and this was now my home. I was brought up in perseverance and so that is what I did.

After 2 years of not earning anything I had run out of savings and found myself now dependent on the charity of others so now I also started to hear “Yes but I am paying for this…” basically buying with money the right to circumvent consent.

During the 3rd year I had managed to find some work and come out of that toxic status but I was still stuck with the gaslighting and the power imbalance… then I finally caught a break when my little house in Malta sold and now I had money to equalize the ownership divide only to find out the owners had no intention to de-valuate their property to include me in it. This was a hard blow. I will always remain an odd tenant, no real power, they could simply trash the life I had built there and move me on — at least that’s the way I felt. At this moment the words of one wise woman rang in my ears “The family will look out for themselves, run away as fast as you can.” I had thought when she told me, but this is our family.

On year 4 all four people started thinking about moving on to a more egalitarian location where we would all own a share, together we made a plan taking into account our needs and wants and started looking but that soon fell apart as the person at that moment with power decided to keep it to himself. Two of us left and one stayed as a tenant. We had essentially gone through and repeated mistakes that many intentional communities had gone through before.

As I made my way across the continent the weight lifted and as the days and weeks passed into my 8 week time of solitude I slowly started to find myself again. My wounds have only just started slowly healing. I need more time and probably years of therapy.

Why didn’t I leave before?

I believed that all issues could be resolved by working together, I started going to therapy on my own as he didn’t want to try that, I believed that even though things were hard they were not impossible to overcome if there was a will to do so. There were a lot of good times too, warm love, tenderness and friendship I had accepted this to be my forever home, the place I had chosen to grow old in with the people I cared about and loved. In the end there was nothing left.

I tried to feel out loud as much as I could but then who wants to live with and be limited by crippling anxiety, fear, anger…?

I had facilitated and counseled others who wanted to start their own groups and communities, I had taught non violent communication, I tried to apply the tools here too but it was not enough, I was too close and we were too far gone into conflict.

Perhaps if we could have talked about these things right from the start we may have had a chance.

Sadly the will in the end ran out. My relationship ended, I drew tight protective boundaries to survive, I left with my other partner and what’s left is now in limbo.

Power matters — but you only realise it when you don’t have any!

As soon as decisions started being made with money instead of consent and you have no money then you quickly realise the bubble has truly burst. Out the window go the ideals and the power imbalance is apparent to everyone.

When you realise you don’t really have any place to go to cool off then you know you are trapped.

When you are not able to process and it starts showing up as anti-social behavior then you know you need to make yourself space.

If opportunities to equalize power imbalances are not met by those who have the power then you know it is time to leave.

Would I consider joining or starting a new intentional community again?

Perhaps. But I would certainly be more wary now. I would not join a co-living situation in the same building. I learnt the hard way I need my own little space and a bit of land that is private to me which I don’t have to share at all times. I also know that I am not comfortable with a constantly changing home situation where I have to share my space with transient people I might only get to know for a few days. My advice is to know yourself, your needs and your boundaries.

I would heed the power inequality flag and interview the people who live there starting with the grumpy ones.

I would want to sit at meetings and listen into how decisions are made and how money is handled.

Finally I would never join a community without a trial period first. You don’t know people until you have lived with them for a while.

Beware of fancy ideals and little implementation.

Watch out for sexual advances and predatory behavior on yourself as a guest and perhaps on others especially young traveling volunteers etc.

Amanda Rain writes in Community Accountability: The Struggles, Challenges, and Hope for Community Action on Sexual Assault “ When people feel a sense of safety and openness, of feeling at home, their defenses go down, which increases their vulnerability.”

Remember you don’t owe anyone sex, intimacy or a carte blanche on your body. You need not repeat your NO. If someone cannot take no for an answer even after being called into accepting that as you not giving consent remove yourself. Do not stay in any relationship in which sex is a currency for acceptance. If you feel coerced into doing anything you do not want to do in order to feel a part of the community, to keep a relationship going or to have a roof over your head it is time to leave.

Finally, make sure you don’t box yourself in. Remain connected with your support system outside of the community and maintain financial independence to give you a way out if you ever need it.

I am sharing my personal experience so that others are better equipped o recognise red flags when they see them and take care of themselves.

There are countless communities and people living in community and this is by no means a reflection of what happens everywhere.

If you would like to discuss these issues please feel free to contact me.

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#permaculture practitioner, teacher and designer, co-founder of #ecohackerfarm, writer, project manager and activist get in touch mail@aimeefenech.com

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Aimee Fenech

Aimee Fenech

#permaculture practitioner, teacher and designer, co-founder of #ecohackerfarm, writer, project manager and activist get in touch mail@aimeefenech.com

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