I was so excited to get the book The Cooperative Culture Handbook: A social Change Manual to Dismantle Toxic Culture and Build Connection by Yan a Ludwig and Karen Gimnig. Maybe I”m too jaded and now have a deep mistrust for anyone who has lived in an intentional community, but I was disappointed the first time I read it. Then, I looked over it again and found some useful information. I think every community should have this book and use the exercises.
One of the things the book made clear is how many groups do go wrong by just trying to counter the dominant culture. They admit we are influenced by the dominant culture which they label toxic. My problem is what happens when an intentional community turns toxic itself? By just trying to counter culture causes problems of their own which they point out and is maybe what happened to me. So, I do like their idea of a cooperative culture which I do think intentional communities try to obtain and still believe in a Pollyanna way that some do work that way.
One big problem is that both authors do not have a therapeutic background nor do most advisors nor mediators in the small clique that help forming and existing intentional communities. That doesn’t mean they have not learned a lot and know what they are talking about, yet, most examples I ever see about conflict seem small. No one seems to take into account that larger, deeper social issues may need other experts. They could work along with intentional community experts to help a community but having someone who really knows how domestic violence or addiction or abuse or pathological mental illness work may be consulted to help communities struggling with big issues that may show up in the community.
Yana’s background is in activism. She studied the Indigenous philosopher Dr. Vola Cordova but does not seem to have lived in an Indigenous community. I feel lucky that I have lived in Indigenous communities, a few different ones in the United States. I like the other author’s Karen’s honesty about her background. The book says, “She discovered that finding a group that allowed her to join as a member was not at all the same as finding a space of connection and belonging. Even groups where some people seemed to experience belonging often included many others who did not. She began to be curious about the key elements of creating spaces that are reliable sources of connection and cooperation for the people involved.” (pages 2-3) They both have lived in intentional communities (at least for a time), and Karen has experience in cooperative schools and spiritual groups.
A nugget I like is how they say “Personal growth work and group process work go hand in hand, but you can’t substitute one for the other. Some groups err on the side of thinking that the heavy lifting is all in the personal domain, glossing over group dynamics…other groups ignore that piece entirely and think the solution to strife is to talk about things or create another policy. The healthiest groups don’t shy away from hard conversations but also foster an environment that is safe enough for people to do the vulnerable work of personal growth.” (p12) That is their goal – to give groups tools to accomplish that.
The one thing I did realize is that the book has many tools but teaching
compassion and caring is something people have to choose to do. It seems
easier to just be silent and walk away from conflict. And groups can
easily become paralyzed if one person or more acts in non-empathetic ways.
Whereas if one person or more start acting in more caring ways and lean
into conflict, others would follow that example. The HBO documentary on
the Heaven’s Gate Cult talked about that experiment, I forget the name,
where everyone purposely said the wrong number so the one person not in on
it said the wrong number too to be part of the group.
So, this book is a good guide to help any type of group.
Here is my favorite quote:
“It can be challenging to know the difference between following a
collaborative structure and actually acting in a collaborative way. One
indicator is the extent to which people feel disempowered or sense that
they are not being heard. If someone believes they are being run over, odds
are there is work to do. It may be that the group needs to change
something about how it is operating. (a particular case of this is when a
marginalized person points to marginalizing behaviors the group is not
seeing and those comments are dismissed by the group. ) it may also be that
the individual needs to change how they are showing up or do some personal
work around their reactions. Probably what will be most effective is a
combination of personal and group work.” (p 89)
I wrote a list of which exercises I liked the most and even tried them with an online group community I am a part of and they work. If you’d like them, send me a private message since I don’t want to give away their book on here!