Here is the transcript for the first Episode of The Art of Togetherness. Here Yana Ludwig share some insight from her 23 years of living in intentional community.
LUCY: So Yana, it’s really amazing to have you here on my show as my very first guest. It feels incredibly fitting because over this last year, I’ve had such a strong sense that we’re only really going to get through the turbulent times ahead by learning how to be with each other, how to really move in with each other. I wanted this podcast to basically be about having guests on the show who I could really draw out wisdom from that could then be applied to everybody else living in all the different types of community that we have around us.
Your book, which I absolutely love by the way, is all about how to form resilient communities as a way of moving through the coming times. It’s such an absolute treasure trove of wisdom, and so I’m excited to have this conversation with you and begin to share it with people out there. Welcome!
YANA: Thank you. I’m really honoured to be your first guest on your podcast. I guess congratulations are due in getting it off the ground. That’s great!
LUCY: Yana, can you tell me a little bit about the community that you’re in right now?
YANA: Solidarity Collective. We are an anti-oppression and anti-capitalist income-sharing group that is in Laramie, Wyoming. For folks who are not familiar with the United States and the more detailed politics here, Wyoming is one of the most conservative states in the country that’s already fairly conservative. We are a group basically of socialists and anarchists who are coming together for reasons of economic survival, as well as for ecological reasons, and also just to get our social needs met a lot better.
The United States is very individualistic in our orientation in general, and so for a lot of us here, community is one of the ways that we can sort of counteract that individualism and actually have deeper and better relationships with each other.
Right now we are five people, and there’s other people that are coming and going, but there’s five committed members. We bought an old historic house and have been fixing it up and renovating it, turning it into a good space for communal living, which is one of the ways that communities do things in a way that’s more ecologically sound like rather than building from scratch, actually reusing housing stock. So that’s a little bit about Solidarity Collective.
LUCY: Wow, that sounds so fascinating. Already, I just want to ditch all of the questions that I had planned to ask you and just focus in on that one paragraph you just spoke. Is that a central community area and then you have little bits around that different people live in?
YANA: Well, there’s the main house. There’s six bedroom in the upstairs of the main house and then the whole main floor is communal space. And then there’s also a number of apartments on the property that were mostly old motel rooms that were moved out on to the property after the big house was moved out here. It was set up well to be a communal property in the first place, and so depending on what people’s needs are, they either have their own bedroom in the upper area of the house or they’re in an apartment.
LUCY: From your description of the Solidarity Collective, your mission is so clear. You’re very clearly an anti-oppression community based around that purpose. I’ve heard that one of the things that means an intentional community succeeds or fails is whether it has a really strong sense of purpose.
YANA: Yeah, definitely. When you have a clear sense of purpose, it really helps particularly when things get tense, and they almost always do because we’re humans and we get into conflicts easily with each other. When you have that thing that you can lean into and reach for that’s like, “Okay, we’re having a really hard time with each other right now, but we are here for this purpose that we share,” that is incredibly helpful in terms of communities lasting over a long period of time.
It also helps because you attract the right people when you’re clear about what your purpose is. You don’t end up in conflicts that are about, “Oh, well, I thought community meant X, and I thought community meant Y.” Instead it’s like, “We’re clear that we know what this community is about.” It’s much easier to have things work long term. If you start out fuzzy, things tend to get fuzzier over time. Nothing clarifies itself when things started out fuzzy.
LUCY: It’s really insightful. Thank you, Yana, because that is something that can be applied not just for intention communities and all of that. All the different sorts of pop-up communities that happen around — parents and children groups, street parties, all the different ways and different forms of community — that’s a beautiful insight that is true for all of them, too. If you’re clear on your purpose, you get the right kind of people joining in and you can work through the hard times.
YANA: Yes, absolutely.
LUCY: It’s also a very good segue to a question that I just absolutely have got to get out of the way because, one, I am quite curious about it, and I think also that a lot of others will be curious about this, too. So, I’m loving your book. You say that living in community is world peace activism because it gives us the skills to connect, to cooperate, to have compassion. It’s really a world-changing thing that we’re doing by living in community.
I totally get that. I have a feeling that loads of people out there would absolutely get that, too. But then there’s this real, kind of crunchy, practical question: How do you live with people you don’t like? I feel like that’s everybody’s fear. Yeah, they can get behind the philosophy of intentional community, but how do you share a land or share a home with people that you find really tricky to get along with? I’m just wondering if you’ve got any tips about that or have you experienced that in your life?
YANA: Yeah, absolutely, and I do think that that’s the hardest thing. The number one thing is to not expect it to be easy and to not expect to love everybody just because you have some things in common that brought you together. I often think a certain amount of this is just expectations management that if we go into it and we think, “Oh, well, now that I have found my community, I’m never gonna get into an argument with anybody again,” or “I’ll never gonna have tension or whatever.”
Even if you just are holding that unconsciously, then it tends to be incredibly disappointing. Conflicts that would have been minor in other situations end up feeling like a really, really big deal because there’s kind a loss of faith that happens or like a loss of the rose-coloured glasses and all that kind of stuff. The let-down is a lot bigger when you go into it with those really high expectations. I think that’s the number one thing. Expect it to be hard. And then lean into it when it actually gets hard.
I think another thing that is really important… I know the folks that you’re connected with, you have a big following in the UK and a big following in New Zealand. I know the United States very well, and so this, I think, probably still applies in those other contexts, but I’m not 100% sure about it. The way that I talk about it with Americans is that we were all raised in a hypercompetitive culture and a very individualistic culture. When we moved into any kind of cooperative endeavour, whether that’s living together or trying to be part of a social change movement or a non-profit, or even a church or any place where there’s an urge toward cooperation, that competitive training rears its ugly head really quickly.
We have all the best intentions in the world to cooperate, and it’s completely reasonable and understandable that because we haven’t been taught how to cooperate and how to resolve conflicts, that stuff comes up, and then we don’t really know what to do. I think it’s incredibly important for people to recognize that if you’re going to be doing cooperative stuff, you have got to be committing to culture change work and you’ve got to be committed to personal growth work because that’s going to absolutely happen.
There’s a lot of pretty good resources out there, and I’m actually working on the book that I talked about in Together Resilient, the Cooperative Culture Handbook, it looks like we’re finally going to get it out this year. The whole purpose of that book is to help people with that cultural transition stuff. So that’s a chunk.
The other thing is this little quirky piece that I started thinking about a number of years ago when my son was very young, and his father and I had not been a couple for a long time, but we still we’re good friends and we made an attempt to start a community together. It was a complete disaster. (laughs) We should never have done it.
What I realised at that point is something that I call the theory of right distance. Basically, what that theory says is that you can get along with anybody as long as you’re at the right distance. Right distance for some people is in your intimate life, sharing a bed with them, and right distance for some people is the other side of the world. Figuring out what that right distance is is really important. It turns out that with my son’s dad and I, we tried community, living under the same roof again, that did not work. We ended up in a situation where we were both in different intentional communities that were on the same block of a city, and that worked great. So for us, living on the same block was the right distance, and we got along terrifically well.
I’ve also had an experience, just as another example, with somebody who I lived in my last community. We did just fine in community meetings. We did just fine passing each other on the path and being cordial. We did not do fine being on committees together. And so we had to sort of figure out where can we actually get along with each other, where we have a good relationship, and it was a lot about what that distance was.
LUCY: Wow, I am loving the theory of right distance so much. Brené Brown says it’s hard to hate people from a distance, so you got to move in. I’ve kind of taken that really to heart over the last few years and have found it beautiful in lots of cases. Not that I struggle with loads of people. I really don’t on the whole, but just a couple, particularly where there’s been tension in very personal relationships that are very dear to me. Such as with my husband, if there’s been a little bit of tension, actually using that rule and moving in and leaning in. With my kids as well. Really leaning into the trickiness that they’re going through at that time. It served me so well.
But there’s been one or two relationships where I’ve tried the moving in, and it just exacerbated things. It’s been like, “I can’t really handle being around this person. They really don’t make me feel good about myself.” But then when I see them every now and then, it is actually fine and I can be my better self. And so, I’ve carried it around over the last couple of years a little bit like, “Well, Brené Brown says I should be moving in.”
So I love this idea of right distance and putting it together with Brené Brown’s thing about being vulnerable and learning more about them. Putting them together actually seems to make it really clear way forward because it is about where you can move in with that person but then recognising that actually for some people you need to be in different settings and a different environment, and sometimes that environment is one that’s not very frequent in order for you to be able to move in with them?
YANA: Yeah, for sure. I think of it in terms of what level of relationship would I be in with this person where I can deeply appreciate who they are and what they’re contributing to my life in the world, and that’s the right distance. Sometimes that is really close and sometimes it’s not. It keeps me basically in pretty good shape with most people in my life at most times as long as I can be at choice about that.
LUCY: I’m having a big revelation. If you could see my face right now! I can immediately say that’s absolutely true where I have said, “Well, I’m not gonna be moving in hard with this person.” I’ve allowed distance with care. From a distance, I’ve been able to really appreciate and value who they are and their gifts that they’re bringing to the world, whereas up close, it’s harder for me to do that. Loving it! Wow, thank you so much.
YANA: You’re welcome.
LUCY: So one of the things I’m loving hearing about through your work is stuff like the joy-activating parts of community living over the last year really. I’ve done a little bit of work in climate change campaigning over quite a lot of years, like 10 or 12 years, but it’s really been over this last year that I’ve been hit incredibly hard with the grief of it. I’ve just experienced this very visceral grief like a period of mourning for about a year around all we’re set to lose with the ecological crisis that we’re in – everything that we are losing every day and everything that we’ve already lost. It’s felt very up in my grill in this last year.
While I’ve been going through this process, I’ve been quite aware of the need for myself to be very intentional about activating joy and creating more opportunities for me to laugh and dance and have fun for myself. But also in a community that I live in where we are all kind of experiencing mourning, it feels like this very intricate dance of dealing with our grief while also keeping a balance of the joy of being alive and enjoying what we do have right now.
So I love hearing about how in your last community Dancing Rabbit, you actually formed a blues band and would host country dance weekends. Over this last year, we’ve been forming a little bit of a dance troupe and a kind of movement to bring circle dance back into our communities. And I just love to hear you talk a little bit about the role of joy and community as we try and get through these times that we’re living in.
YANA: I think that it’s probably one of those things for me that it’s kind of everything has its right time. I do think that we can either get so much chasing after the joy and the fun and the humour that we kind of checked out from the grief, and then there’s ways that we can also fall into this pit of despair and never come up for air and never touch back into why we’re working so hard and why we’re struggling so hard to try to preserve life and to try to make sure that our children have a planet to operate on and that kind of stuff.
And so I think it’s a really important thing to move between those different places regularly. Some people are good at this and there’s this effortlessness where they can always find a silver lining and they can always find the humour, and they can always find those sparks of joy and that connection to the natural world and that moment of peace when we’re looking at our children and just completely light up and that kind of stuff.
And then for other people, it’s a real struggle to be in touch with the incredible loss that is happening right now in the world. So many things that we’re losing, so many people that we’ve already lost, and so you have to be really deliberate about it if you’re not somebody who finds that naturally. Cultivating those spaces deliberately is important to do.
I’m happy to hear that you’re leaning into dance. Being in our bodies is kind of the thing that connects us to things together for me. I mean that’s where grief lives, and that’s where grief gets expressed, just through our bodies. But it’s also where we have our physical connection to all of the incredible beauty on the planet where we’re able to dance, where we’re able to sing, where we’re able to be fully present to the whole range is the important for me. That’s kind of the crux of it for me.
LUCY: Do you see the body and basically (embodiment 19:25) as a key to all of those things?
YANA: I do. I think it’s when we get caught in our heads that it’s easy to check out from either one of those holes and also sometimes to check out completely from thinking about any of it and dealing with any of it. We can talk ourselves in circles endlessly. I do think it’s important to actually be connected with the physical as much as we can as we’re going through this grief process and this rediscovery of “What does joy even mean on a planet that may not survive humanity?” What does that actually mean and where do we find the joy in that case?
For me, I think a lot of it is the conversations that I get into with my partner and my housemates while we’re hanging out in the kitchen cooking breakfast and that kind of stuff where we’re able to move into this kind of banter and more joyful space. The ability to be around other people, I think, is the thing that keeps me grounded and keeps me connecting to that joy.
LUCY: Awesome, thank you. So much of what we’re talking about does seem to come down to what you mentioned earlier – the conditioning that we experienced as we’re developing and forming opinions. You wondered if that was just an American thing, but having lived in the UK and New Zealand, I would say that that’s the conditioning that is just very Western. It’s definitely very prevalent here, and I’d say I’m quite scathing of the schooling system. We live without school, and part of that is to try and free our kids from the conditioning around competition and also their own self-worth.
I think that relates to the joy thing because it can be very hard for us as adults to release into play, joy and dance. We’ve learned through our lifetime of living under capitalism that that’s not a good use of our time, that it’s kind of frivolous or something. Both of what you are talking about before about being able to relearn how to live cooperatively, but also this joy piece, to me, really feels like that’s conditioning that we can actually undo if we’re willing and prepared to go there with the inner work and the practise.
YANA: Totally. To me capitalism is the anti-joy.
LUCY: Yeah, it really is. We call ourselves ‘unschoolers.’ Loads of reasons and lots of benefits. I could pretty much talk about it all day. But one of them is that mainstream education, to me, is not teaching the skills that are going to be required within a climate crisis. So when I read your list of sustainable C’s, the skills that are required, I was really intrigued by that and excited. It felt to me quite resonant with the way that we’re trying to raise our children.
Your C’s are compassion, courage, cooperation and creativity. This might be a big ask, but I’m wondering if it’s possible for you, with each one, to share an example at how people can practise this skill in their daily life, whether they are living in an intentional community or wherever they are. How they can hone in on this skill that is going to see us through the coming years?
YANA: Yeah, I’m happy to try to give that a go. Compassion is the first one, and the way that I think about is I think it’s easy to do compassion, just sort of how compassion in a theoretical way for people that you’ve never metal before and sort of have like warm fuzzy feelings, and that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about with compassion is something that’s more material and direct, and it’s to me about a willingness to make concrete changes in our lives because those changes have a positive impact on other people. It’s compassion that is really lived out through my actions and through being very tuned in to impact rather than intent. And this is also a big distinction that comes up a lot in the anti-oppression world: you may have not intended to do that thing, but it had this impact on other people.
And so for me right now, I think of compassion as being… I think our big obligation as humans right now to each other is to get active in terms of activism and politics even, which I know a lot of people really don’t love in the alternative worlds, but politics impacts us constantly. And so any of us could have any kind of influence in that domain or willing to wade into it, whether that means going to town council meetings or actually running for office or lobbying or whatever that means, I think that’s one of the ways that we can actually be living our compassion more and more directly right now. Because it’s not enough to just feel empathy with other people. I think we have to take it one step further and move into the material playing with that. So that’s what I would say about compassion.
Creativity and courage to me are closely related to each other. The well-beaten path of how we’re supposed to be living in the modern world is incredibly damaging to other people. You talked about capitalism a little bit ago. What capitalism tells us we should be doing with our lives is being good consumers and being good workers, and being kind of obedient to a certain way of doing life. It takes a lot of courage to actually buck that and to say, “I’m gonna be doing something different with my life.”
Living in community is, I think, an act of courage. Being able to get involved in any kind of activism work that’s designed to get at the roots of unpinning that stuff, I think those are really courageous acts. This is getting better absolutely over the last decade, but I think there is still a lot of judgement and misunderstanding about why somebody would want to be doing things differently. To do that, it takes a lot of creativity because we are just making it up as we go along. We don’t have these answers that are being handed to us in a neat box that everybody around us understands because that’s how we’ve also been raised to do things.
We think of creativity sometimes as being the domain of professional artists, and that’s really damaging. I love professional-level art and artistry. I think it’s amazing. Creativity is a birthright for all of us that we should be able to be creative in our own lives in ways that are either artistic by a technical definition of that but also are practical. Anytime we are solving problems and are coming up with solutions to things together, that’s an act of collective creativity. I think that we could all be leaning into that.
That might look like a community garden, that might look like doing public art that is activist in nature. For some groups it’s stuff like dumpster diving and figuring out how to take out the stuff out of the dumpster and making an excellent meal out of it. There’s a thousand ways that you can be creative, and most of them will rub more conventional people the wrong way, and so the courage piece is really critically important.
LUCY: There’s a lovely quote I read just this week somewhere about what the artist offers the world. It’s not their art, paintings, music or whatever that is necessarily the important bit. It’s the way that they view the world, that is where they have much more to offer, and I thought that was beautiful because it says that artistry isn’t in necessarily producing, but just the eye through which you’re looking as a creative person… not even a creative person because I’m with you. I don’t actually think there are creative people and not creative people – I think it’s just that some people have been able to unlock their different way of thinking or decondition their obedient thinking that they’ve been raised with.
Something just came to mind for me when you were talking about the relationship about between courage and creativity. We live with another family and we do have two cars which I know is way more compared to what you have had in your communities. But one of the ways that we get around people going off to do different things is by hitching around a lot. We do quite a lot of hitch-hiking. It’s very safe here in New Zealand.
This weekend, the two dads on the farm needed to get to different places. And so I think, one that is a creativity straight away is that they need to get somewhere, so instead of borrowing someone’s car or using another kind of fossil fuel, you just stand on a road with your thumb out and get a ride. I think that is creativity, but it’s also courage because you’re really putting your life into the hands of something very external to you. Nearly always with hitch-hiking, really weird magical things happen.
My partner Tim was hitching and his first ride was somebody who had just that morning lost their mum. They spoke for 40 minutes about grief, and Tim said it was so beautiful. His next ride was with someone who he hadn’t met yet but was meant to meet the week before on our farm, but he didn’t end up coming. So they then got to talk for an hour about all of the stuff they were meant to be talking about the weekend before. It was very, very weird.
And then the other dad on our farm just got home last night from being on the other side of the North Island, and his last ride that he picked up two hours away, he described the way he was coming, and she was like “Oh, I think that’s where I’m going.” And we lived in the middle of nowhere, but she was going to camp at the campsite right next door to our farm. They had such a lovely chat, and she drove him right to the door, and then basically got out of the car and ended up camping overnight at our place in one of our visitor accommodation things that we have, and it was just so beautiful.
It really makes me think hitch-hiking is a beautiful metaphor for surrendering and stepping off the beaten track and into the unknown and trusting that you are eventually going to get to where you need to go. Because you will. It might be raining and you might have to wait a few hours for a ride, for example. It’s kind of a bit of a metaphor.
But I also wonder how do you live with that same kind of trust and surrender in your everyday life? It’s often like a challenge that I ask myself: “Lucy, how do you bring the hitch-hiking vibe into your day to day?”
YANA: Nice. I love these stories. It’s so great that it’s still safe there to be able to hitch. I know so many people that have had amazing experiences with it. I think it’s a less safe in the United States at this point, so I’m grateful to hear that there’s places where it’s still a fairly safe thing to be doing. That’s great.
I was just thinking about it as you were talking. Maybe the crux of it at this point, and I haven’t really thought about it in these terms before, but it’s anything that you’re doing with your time or making with your hands that is not commodified, where there’s not a dollar exchange happening or somebody measuring your productivity or whatever.
We’re talking about decolonisation, but there is this redecapitalisation and commodification process that I feel so many of us are in right now as well. We’re reclaiming our creative energies from capitalism and from colonialism and needing to back out of it. It can be really hard to make space for that in our lives because so many of us are still struggling. We haven’t been able to leave behind the need to be interacting with that capitalist economy, and so it’s a tough thing to do. But I just want to celebrate every time somebody does something that is an act of decommodifying your own life force. That should be deeply celebrated because I really think that’s a direction we need to be going in.
LUCY: Yes, I totally agree. You put this so beautifully. I love that. So you have one more. I don’t know if you thought I was letting you off the hook. But you do have one more skill. The last skill is cooperation, right? I don’t know if you’ve got sort of application how people can practise this in their everyday life.
YANA: I think all of these are principles that people should be as creative as they want to be about how to apply them. This is everything from how we interact with our intimate partners to creating communities like the ones that we’re talking about, like intentional residential communities, to coming together with other people in our community to do the work to preserve a marine reserve, or to create a public park, or anything that’s there for people beyond just ourselves to be getting something out of.
I guess it’s a collective version of that decommodification thing I was talking about. How can we come together to create something that is bigger than ourselves and our immediate benefit, and it’s really for everybody. But as far as how that works, I think it’s more about the how than the what. Learning how to cooperate with other people and to not be in competitive dynamics with each other in our everyday lives, that to me is the goal of this particular piece.
I also call cooperation—I did a TEDx talk in 2015 and I talked about it as the mother of all sustainability skills because I believe that reducing our consumption only really happens when we’re in more of a cooperative dynamic with each other. We can reduce it some as individuals, but I think when we get to a place of sharing housing, sharing land management, sharing cars, and sharing food, all that kind of stuff requires us to be doing just basic cooperation with each other, and they all represent ways where we’re unhooking from that hyperconsumptive culture and economy that we’re in right now.
LUCY: Yeah, and I love that idea that it’s a practice. So I guess what you’re saying is you want to invite people to look around them and see if there’s anything that sparks an interest to them. And then instead of seeing that necessarily as something worthy that they could or could not do, maybe to wait for that passion to fully flourish within them. You’re inviting people to go, “Actually, no. I’m going to join in with that thing because this is a skill that I need to practise, and I’m only gonna be able to practise by doing it,” and then stepping into it. Through that you’re building this massive ability to then face whatever it is we’re going to be facing or that we are facing.
So I guess that’s what I’d take from that – the invitation to not wait for the real, “Oh, my gosh! I’m so passionate about this thing.” But instead be like, “Actually, I’m going to move in this group because I really want to learn how to work cooperatively.”
YANA: I think there’s a whole bunch of interesting pieces in what you’ve just said. It’s kind of deepening into our own sense of ethics that often what we get passionate about is what the world needs. I think there’s going to be a double-edged sword of waiting to have your passion be guiding everything you do. At some point, what does the world need and what can I get passionate about that the world needs, and how can I find ways to be cooperative about it in the process of doing that thing? To me, that’s the sweet spot of the whole thing. What does the world need that I can get passionate about and how can I do it cooperatively?
LUCY: This brings me perfectly on to the next. I think this is a very tricky question. I’m just preparing you for that. In your book, you used the phrase “ginormous bummer” to describe the stuff that we just need to be doing. For those of us who want to create a sustainable world, who really are passionate about intentional community living, there’s quite a few things that need to be done around legals. You already mentioned around politics, and I love how you called it a “ginormous bummer.” Absolutely cracking up because that’s pretty much what I would call it, and I’ve gone through different phases in my life where I have been involved, and I’ve been like, “Ugh, I just really don’t like it,” and then move away a bit.
Obviously, you have taken these ginormous bummers very seriously as your responsibilities that you’ve done heaps of diligent research and work around intentional communities, but also now in running for senate. I’m really curious about this edge that you talked of because for me personally part of my own deinstitutionalisation, another D, that’s what I refer to a lot because I basically feel I’ve lived my life under so many institutions and it’s affected my world view and I’m trying to unpack all of that.
Part of that has been figuring out what I loved to do and then throwing myself into it. Really trying to embody the idea that everybody in the world follow their bliss, to borrow a term, the world would be a far more beautiful and aligned place. I’ve been trying to do that and go where my energy is. Obviously, there is no right or wrong answers, but I just love you to occupy that space a little bit more with me about how you have danced that dance between your sense of responsibility and actually just doing stuff that needs to get done, but also creating heaps of space for your own natural skills, passions and flow.
YANA: It is super tricky right now. I’m learning a lot about this, and I don’t feel like I have fully polished understanding of all of it even while I’m in the middle of it. Obviously, leaning into a big version of this right now with doing something that could land me in Washington, D.C. for six years as a legislator for the United States is incredibly intimidating, completely outside of my comfort zone. Also, when I looked at that test of what does the world need right now, the United States Senate is kind of the biggest staking point that I’m aware of in terms of the whole world being able to make progress and climate stuff. That’s where it’s bunkered up.
I have made that choice to lean in to what the world needs and I’m working on finding where I can be passionate about it. The part that’s easy for me is the community building parts of running for office of getting out there and talking to people and trying to deeply understand what’s important to them and what their world means, and then how could being in the US Senate intersect with that and could we be doing good from that position.
It’s fortunate because there’s parts of it that are very easy for me and that I am passionate about and then I have already skills around. I’ve been living in community for 23 years and in some ways living in community is constant policy development. You’re listening. You’re trying to figure out what’s going to work for people. You float some ideas. You see how people respond to it and then you finalise it and then you do the work of getting it past through community process. It’s kind of the same stuff being in politics except on a much bigger level and it’s moving into a place where the stakes are much higher than the five people, or 50 people, or 100 people that I’m in intentional community with, but it’s just a much bigger version of community in my mind. That’s how I’m trying to hold it and how I’m trying to conduct myself. I’m figuring it out in some ways and I’m falling short in some ways. It’s been a fascinating process. I feel like I’m learning a lot about it.
For me, I have a great life right now. I have a great partner and a great community. My work with intentional communities and worker cooperatives has really taken off in the last year. I have a book out. I have another book coming out soon. It’s pretty good package already. I don’t think I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t really feel like we’re running out of time, that the climate stuff is not going to fix itself, and we really need to be getting serious on an international level about climate issues.
I could stay in my comfortable, frankly pretty white privileged zone and the deeper safety and comfort of community and not get more active and not step up into this role, but that feels ethicall off to me at this point. People are dying. People have already died. Why is my life so special that I get to protect it? Why do I get to not do the hard thing? When I was looking at this, and last year at this time was really when I was up to my eyeballs and like, “Oh, my god. Am I actually going to do this?” It was that formula of “I don’t get to sit this out.” I could and it feels wrong to sit it out to some extent.
I don’t know about following my bliss. Being in DC for six years kind of sounds like hell. I don’t think this is a bliss decision. I think it’s an ethics decision. I have capacity position to do something like this because I’ve lived in community for so long, and because caring about people in a material way, in an active way is what I have learned how to do. And so, I have capacity to do this in a way that I’m not sure everybody has or sees themselves having, and I’m not actually sure which is more important.
LUCY: Just something that springs to mind is maybe bliss or maybe the things you love. Maybe they’re phrased in slightly the wrong way for these times that we’re living in, and maybe the word is “wholehearted” and maybe the thing is that you follow what you can be wholehearted about things if you go up-into-your-eyeballs banana. Do you know what I mean?
YANA: Yeah, totally. That’s a great way to put it actually.
LUCY: Stick with the thing that you can see there’s a need around and you go there with all of your emotions. You go there with your grief. You go there with the reality of it all, and if you spend enough time in that place, you can actually fill your whole heart up with passion and desire to create change in that. And then if you act on that, acting on your wholeheartedness, it’s exactly the same as acting on your bliss to me. It’s fully in the flow zone. Maybe that’s kind of a better phrasing.
YANA: For me it’s really about alignments and about having everything in my life moving in the same direction with purpose, and that is what creates that flow space for me. But it doesn’t have anything to do with being easy or being comfortable. It’s really as much as leaning into the discomfort that the world is calling out of you as it is being comfortable with stuff because it’s not. For the places that haven’t already full on hit it, we’re about to go into deep discomfort collectively. I would rather be at choice about that timing, and this is kind of my timing. This is one of those moments where I’m stepping into that discomfort maybe before I need to, but because being at choice about it makes the discomfort easier.
LUCY: That’s a little bit of a theme in your book – a bit of haste. Soon we’re going to have to be doing all these things anyway, but we’re not going to be prepared for them, and there are not going to be any choice. Whereas, if we can still start practising these skills and living these by now, then we’re doing it with the full sense of freedom, and we’re going to be way better prepared for when things really get crunchy.
YANA: Yes, (laughs) “crunchy.”
LUCY: Yeah, it’s really not the right term. One of the terms we use in our farm is “when the balloon goes up.”
We’re trying to disempower a little bit so that we can talk about it when we’re with our families that sense that things are going to really get gnarly.
I wanted to talk a little about your kind of happiness that was also this idea that community isn’t some kind of magical wand. I was already interested in the statistics you shared about happiness. In your last community, 81% of participants reported a level of 7 or above on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being least happy and 10 being most. And then the question was maybe they’re just happy people. The question was posed, “Is life better or worse since joining a community?” Almost a thousand people who responded to the question, 80% said that life was better or much better, with much better being the most common response, which is really quite a significant sway, isn’t it? But then you go on to say that community isn’t some kind of silver bullet. But what it is, and just to quote you — it’s a bit embarrassing when people quote you. I get that.
YANA: (laughs) It’s okay.
LUCY: So you say what it is instead is a powerful tool. In the age of climate destruction, it is a tool that has the potential to save a lot of lives and preserve a lot of goodness in the world if wielded skilfully. I really get that. I’m also really curious about, if we are picturing it as a magic wand, the ways that it can be waved unskilfully. What is the danger zone around where community living can be harmful in your experience?
YANA: I guess the biggest one is when we get into communities that are top-down in terms of power in a non-consensual way. This is the sort of classic cults which are real things, where somebody is running an ego agenda and pulls a whole bunch of people in there with them. It feels good and it meets some needs for some people up to a certain point, but then you’re sort of losing your capacity for self-determination on some level. I think there’s ways that there are versions of community that can undermine that for people.
I don’t think that’s most versions of community, and it’s certainly not most communities that I have direct experience with. But I do think that that is the bringing people together in alignment toward a goal. If it’s a bad goal, you can do damage with that, and if it’s really about one person’s ego that’s running the show and they’re just particularly good salesmen with how they bring people in, then that’s an example of wielding it badly.
I also think that there’s a lot of political movements out there that they’re not about caring for humanity as a whole. They’re not about taking care of the planets. They’re not about people’s genuine personal growth. Community is a tool and it can be used in a lot of different ways. I bumped into a lot of people who have a lot of trauma around community attempts, and I think some of it is about that thing of it was just wielded in an unskilful way and unmindful way.
It’s part of why I emphasize the cooperative culture stuff and the anti-oppression work so much. I think as long as we are doing our work in those areas and moving toward improvement, we’re also simultaneously moving toward the skilful wielding of community as a tool.
LUCY: Awesome. That’s so helpful. Now, a lot of my own work, my writing and other creative experiments is funded from Patreon. It’s a really cool thing for me because it does help me to do some of that unpacking around my conditioning around work and wages and accepting monetary gifts from people. It’s pretty great. It’s also an amazing community of people to have around me, too. They have offered up some questions. I’m going to ask you five or so questions that have come from my patreons, if that’s okay.
YANA: That’s great. I have a Patreon as well, but I have never used it that way, so I’m like, “Oh, this is juicy. This is fun.”
LUCY: Yeah, it’s really super fun. So quite a few, practical questions. One is about the process that people coming on board with a community. It said, “Do you have a trial period for them? How have you decided who comes to live with you? Have you ever had to say no to someone?”
YANA: These are all really good core questions. Yes, the communities that I’ve been a part of that I think of as being successful all had some kind of a formal membership process that is something that is done even-handedly. Everybody knows what that process is, and it usually does involve some kind of provisional membership or associate membership or something, some temporary state where you can think of it as being the engagement process before you marry someone, and so actually joining a community is a pretty big commitment relationally and sometimes economically. You want to really be sure that this is the right relationship for you to be getting into. As your asker said, trial periods, I think, should be really thought of as being mutual, that we’re both here figuring out if this is a good fit and if this is really a relationship that we want to move into.
Yes, I have definitely been a number of times in a place where our discernments as the existing group has been like, “This isn’t a relationship we want to be getting into with someone,” and so we have had to say no sometimes. Being able to be compassionate and direct in your no is really important. Some groups are really sloppy about this. I’m thinking in terms of care for the world, larger than just our immediate membership, I want us to try do things as relationally as possible even when we’re saying no to each other.
LUCY: So in that no, would the criteria be around just whether you felt they were or weren’t a good fit, or would it be around you didn’t get along or something, or is it more like they don’t quite get the purpose of the group?
YANA: I think it can be a number of different things. I talk in the book about having even-handed criteria for membership and that includes things like, can they fulfil the requirements of membership? Some people they want to come in, but they’re not in a place where they want to be doing the level of work that the community needs to have done or they can’t do the financial means that the community has. So there’s just a flat out ability piece, and I think that needs to be done sensitively and adjusted for people with disabilities, but unless that’s the case, then I think you should just have some fair criteria and people might not be able to do that thing and step up to the plate. I think being aligned with the vision and with the current agreements that the group has is important that you don’t want to bring somebody in who’s going fight with you about your basic agreements. Presumably, we have made our agreements as a community for certain reasons, and so you want folks to come in with the willingness to align with that.
I think the other piece, the most important piece in some ways, is social skills. Even if they’re not terrific communicators right now, have they demonstrated an ability to be willing to grow in terms of how they communicate. Are they willing to do conflict resolution if that’s necessary? It’s stuff like that that I think is critically important. And then sometimes the community has other particular reasons why they might say no.
One group that I had been a part of said no to somebody who had a particular kind of criminal record that felt like it was potentially unsafe for the kids in the community to be around it. If they had had repeated run-ins with the law, they’re very volatile, and that felt scary for the group in terms of, “We have young children here.” We might be able to handle some of that as adults, but we don’t think it’s responsible for us to bring that in. We’ve also said yes to plenty of people who have criminal records for other things. If you have any kind of criminal record, you should never be allowed in a community – that’ doesn’t make sense to me. There are sometimes cases like that where you do want to be a little more discerning like, “If we bring this person in, is that really going to be caring for the relational fabric of this community and particularly for our kids?”
LUCY: Thank you. That’s really practical help. This one leads a little bit from something you mentioned in that answer. I don’t know if it is to your experience, but it can sometimes seem from the outside that a lot of eco communities can look quite homogenous, and I’m wondering if you’ve got any thoughts on how eco communities in all the different ways they expressed, how can they bring in more diversity?
YANA: I think doing our anti-oppression work is the number one thing with that because there’s so many things that whether it’s middle class people or white people or all heterosexual people, there’s a ton of ways that we do. It’s referred to as microaggressions that aren’t necessarily blatantly racist or blatantly homophobic but are just subtly undermining of people outside of the dominant group of the group, feeling like they can trust and feeling like people actually get it.
And so I think it’s really a bad idea to try to bring diversity in just for the sake of diversity without having actually done that work because then we’re getting into tokenism, and we’re actually being deeply unfair to those people that we are bringing in because we haven’t done our work to make it liveable and emotionally and spiritually positive space for people outside of our immediate in-group.
I think a lot of eco groups are up to their eyeballs in work just trying to figure out the eco stuff and so they don’t do that anti-oppression piece as well. I think that is going to condemn your group to being permanently not very diverse. And so I think we need to think of anti-oppression work as being a sustainability issue and doing that work, and then actually having genuine relationships with people who come from groups that are different than ours, and if they’re interested in community, inviting them at that point, but not just inviting people in because we want to look better from the outside looking in. I think that’s the wrong motivation.
LUCY: You went to say that actually the first step is doing that decolonisation, unpacking that colonised mindset that we have. This is another question that a patron asked. They have learned that you changing your name was actually part of your personal decol work and they’ll be just interested in you sharing a little bit about that.
YANA: Sure. I just turned 50, so that’s one context piece of this whole thing. When I was in my early 20s, I did a lot of work with the indigenous community in Michigan. I’m a white woman, and I was part of a group called the [01:03:22]. It was a mixed native and non-native organisation and explicitly wanting to be that that was led by an indigenous elder named Keewaydinoquay, who we all just called Grama Kee.
Grama Kee was doing two main things as her lifework. She was teaching traditional Ojibwe herbalism and we were located on traditional Ojibwe territories, so the plants that we were interacting with were ones that she had deep experience with and had long cultural background and understanding of, and also the Ojibwe naming ceremony, which is a multi-layered, very beautiful process.
So she took many people through that naming process, and she was the one who gave me her blessing to take on my old name. It’s actually the name that’s on my book because I just have finally gone through the legal name change process on the other side of this recently, so the name was Ma’ikwe. I was given that name, I took on that name when I was 23 and did it legally when I was 24.
For a long time, I was very comfortable with that decision, and then when I started doing deeper anti-racism work myself which was probably a decade ago that I really started leaning back into that work more. Basically, the deeper I got into that work, the more uncomfortable I became with that decision that I had made. I would meet somebody new, and they’d be like, “Oh, you have such a cool name. That’s awesome. Tell me the story.” I just got to a point where I wanted to barf. I was getting so much social cred out of having an indigenous name and having it come from an elder.
I hadn’t done work with that community in years. They were getting nothing for that, and I was actually getting a lot out of that. That, to me, is the core sign that you’re doing cultural appropriation is when you’re getting something out of it, and the people that you’ve appropriated the thing from are not, and then it’s actually very damaging for a lot of us populations of people because you still can’t, in some places, have an indigenous name if you’re an indigenous person. There’s a lot of social barriers to that, and it can actually become dangerous in some cases, but I could get away with it as a white one. That whole formula just got increasingly uncomfortable for me.
And so about two years ago – that would have been about a year after the book came out – I sat myself down and did an internal talk about, “All right, what are we actually going to do about this? This feels wrong. I know you’re getting a lot out of it, but you need to really seriously look at this.” And so I started the process of backing out of that as my name instead of going through like, “Okay, well then, what do I wanna do? Do I want to go back to my birth name? Do I want to do something different?”
I was slower than I would have liked to about that. I had a little bit of shame about that, that probably five years ago I should have done this, and I didn’t really get serious about that process until two years ago. I had to go through a thing of, “Does my original birth name make sense to me to be going back to or not?” and figuring out “What I’m going to do? If I’m not going to be my current name, who am I?”
It was a longer process than I like to admit with it, but it did feel it was the right thing. Yana is a very European name, and sometimes it’s spelled with a J. Sometimes it’s spelled with a Y. Sometimes it’s Hana in different traditions, but it’s basically all the same name, and it’s all very, very, very European. That felt like that what was I needed to do was to find a name that wasn’t… My original name was Victoria, which is an English queen’s name, and that felt off for other reasons. I mean like, “Let’s celebrate colonisers by going back Queen Victoria.” And so it was complicated to sort out what I wanted to do with that and where I landed was my full name now is Mayana Katherine Ludwig.
I had a daughter who was adopted by some really close friends, who I had for them, and her original name on her birth certificate was Mayana, and my mom’s name is Katherine, and so I sort of plopped myself in my own feminine lineage in a way but also made sure that the name that I go by is just really damn European. The rest is history.
LUCY: It’s a beautiful story. I really wanted to spend a lot of time on it. That’s not so much about community, but it is an example of the kind of courage that it takes to do what you know deep down inside is right, but having been colonised – because we’re all colonised, right? It’s hard to perhaps tell if it is as big a deal as it feels in your heart, and if acting on it is too dramatic for the thing and feeling into the power balance around it as you did, and really getting so honest with yourself. I absolutely know that this is probably cringey for you because you already mentioned that you didn’t like the social cred around your name. I’m totally bigging you up right now.
But names are huge, right? They’re hugely related to our identity. You carry them for years and years, half a lifetime, I imagine. So that’s really brave. It is really inspiring and a good challenge to be like, “How committed are we to this personal decolonisation work? How deep and how honest are we prepared to go with it?” So thank you for sharing that.
YANA: I think the core question in that, and it also ties back to what we’re talking about with my senate run earlier is how much are we willing to give up our privilege once we recognise that we have it? Are we going to stay in comfortable privilege, or are we going to be willing to do some concrete things to actually get out of it? Not just think different, but actually make different choices in our lives. I think that is to me the crux of the decolonisation thing. Are you willing to choose things differently simply because it’s good for other people?
LUCY: Beautiful. Another question from Patreon. It’s about your top three tips for beginning an eco community. I know in your book you actually say, “Don’t begin an eco community. Join one instead.” But then you also acknowledged that some of are starters. So for those of us that have got that starter energy, what would your top tips be for beginning an eco community?
YANA: Well, I think the number one thing is getting really clear about why you want to start something. It’s a really tough role. Being a founder is hard and it’s a big stretch. Nobody has the full skill set that it takes to get a community off the ground. That makes it hard and that makes it vulnerable to do. I think it’s critical that you’re starting it for some reason that’s beyond just your own ego gratification. If you don’t do that and you get into the first time somebody is critical of what you’re doing or saying or what you’re intending, it’s going to be really damn hard if it was just about your ego. And so that’s the first thing is just get clear (it). Know yourself well enough to know what’s motivating you.
The second thing is being realistic about things like timelines and legal stuff, and I don’t know what all the legal frameworks are in all these different countries that folks are listening from. But whatever those legal frameworks are, just being willing to be very practical and realistic those things, and that you are going to have to do them.
And then I think the third part is recognise that there is going to be culture change work and personal growth work involved in it regardless of what kind of community you think you’re doing, and to get some training and to get some perspective on what does that cultural shift actually look like, and what is it going to take from us as growing humans to be able to do this well.
I think those would be the three things. So it’s ego management, being realistic about the practical stuff, and the culture change part.
LUCY: Amazing. Thank you. I get the feeling that maybe you are a little bit of a starter? You got the energy to throw yourself into things and get them off the ground. Maybe that is why you did this, and there is some curiosity from a Patreon around why you moved from Dancing Rabbit, very well established community, to the one that you’re beginning now in Wyoming.
YANA: I fell in love with a guy. This is 100% about I fell in love with a guy. He was in Wyoming, and his kids have never lived anywhere else. It didn’t feel like the right thing to do to either ask the kids to give up having their dad around or ask the kids to move, and so that was really what the decision was about. I had kind of promised myself I was never going to try starting a community again, and then here I am.
I don’t do well not living in a community. For me, at this point, living in a community is like water and food, at the level of “I need it to be healthy, whole and sane.” And so I knew when I moved that that was going to be part of the package – I was going to have to go back into being a founder again. But what brought me here was definitely not like, “Oh, I want to be the founder of Wyoming’s first community.” It was like, “Oh, shit. I’m gonna have to found a community again, aren’t I?”
LUCY: “Because I’m in love.”
LUCY: I love it.
YANA: Because he is amazing and his kids are amazing. I mean I have no regrets about that decision, and now there’s an intentional community in Wyoming, which there wasn’t before.
LUCY: That’s awesome, and it’s a really great example of being open, surrendering, trusting, just saying “Well, the new state of things is that I’m head over heels in love, and I’m gonna have to move to Wyoming. So I’m gonna give up any promises I’ve made to myself about not starting a community and just open the door to what that might look like.” I think that’s totally beautiful.
The last question from a Patreon, a really great one, and it’s from somebody who is doing some really amazing zero waste fight in her community, and she’s began a kind of street gathering, so getting all of her neighbours together. She is really curious about if there’s anything that you do in your community or in the communities that you’ve lived in that might easily transfer to an ordinary suburban street.
YANA: I think the easiest thing to apply to lots of different context is doing some kind of meal sharing thing. The most common version of that is having a monthly potluck on your block or something like that. But there’s also deeper versions of it that are things like setting up a meal sharing program. Say you have four households that are willing to participate in this, and each household would make enough dinner once a week for the other households, and then either you’d get together and eat together in somebody’s home each time, or you could just drop by their house and pick up your dinner on your way home from work or whatever.
And so things like that are really creative ways of building community, and meal sharing as like breaking bread together is the single best way to create community that I know of. Thinking of how could we be sharing the work and the responsibility, but also the joy and getting to know people through the kinds of food that they like to make is actually a super fun way to get to know people because we have cultural overlays to those things. We have family histories around foods that we like and that kind of stuff. And so there’s a lot of layers that you can do around food sharing, and so that would be the number one thing that I would encourage people to play with.
There’s also car sharing. If you have a few families on the block and right now you are all two-car families. I don’t know if that’s as common in other places as it is in the US, but it’s really common here. Maybe you each have a car and then there’s a shared car that you have among those four households, that you create some system for how you sign up for using the car and that kind of stuff.
Truck sharing is also great. A lot of people need a truck sometimes but not all the time, and so there’s a lot of variations that you can play with around car sharing as well that I think are super fun.
LUCY: Thank you. They sound really cool. We do a few versions of the dinner sharing one in our area. One of them, we just call them crap dinner parties and it’s about recognising that we can’t take slightly too much pride in our food. When we have people over, it feels like a really big deal because you want to, not stun them, but you do want them to be like, “Oh, Lucy is a great cook, isn’t she? Look at all these fresh vegetables in this salsa that she made from her garden.” You kind of do want them to think well of you from the food that you deliver.
Instead, we call them crap dinner parties and it’s basically all coming together and bringing just the food you were actually going to eat with your family, so pesto pasta, or a pizza, or garlic bread and soup. Just the most basic food. It’s just about releasing all of the pressure that makes getting together around food the kind of stressful or too hard thing so that you don’t do it, you know? It was really great because it does mean that you can just organise it in the morning because you don’t really have to think about what you’re going to bring, and you can just send around a text and be like, “Crap dinner party” and it’s really about their coming together and being with each other rather than the feast. There’s definitely a time where I tend to have like a magnificent feast for sure. But if you really want to do things regularly, it’s quite nice to lift the stress and pressure off it and just be like, “Let’s just eat pasta.”
YANA: Oh, my god. I love this. The thing that I love the most about it is that backing away from it, and what you’re describing is a really competitive dynamic of that sort of “I’m the best cook,” or “I have the best garden,” or “I do the best whatever,” and being able to release that and turn it from a competitive dynamic into a cooperative one, it’s just gold. I love it. It’s great.
LUCY: Crap dinner parties for the win.
YANA: Crap dinner parties! Yohoo!
LUCY: Now, you finished your book with a powerful call to people who are living in community right now. You asked them to raise their heads and show up, to be proud of the absolute relevance that we have for these times that we’re living in. You asked us to organise as if our lives depended on it. In fact, you kind of say that they basically do. Our lives do depend on us organising well.
I really love this challenge because it’s something I see all over the place. Beautiful people doing beautiful world-changing things, but doing it so quietly. I completely understand this desire that they have, just to get along, just do their thing and not talk about it or whatever. Personally, when I have shared on my YouTube channel and blog when we’re doing cool stuff, I have felt a little bit like an oversharer, like a loudmouth or something. So I do get that feeling too, just keep my head down and get along with it.
But as you’ve made clear in your final chapter, this alternative way of living has got to get out there. It’s got to permeate the collective consciousness for it to become a reality for many more people. I just want to ask you if you’ve got anything more to say to those of us who are doing this humble, beautiful work about how we can amplify the work, and really begin to shape culture.
YANA: Of course, the thing that’s on my mind right now probably just because of the way that I’m doing it, not that this is necessarily the best way to do it, is politics. I feel so much of the alternative worlds finds politics so distasteful and I get it. I really get it. Worldwide, we see fascism on the rise right now, and we know that human worth and dignity is the goal of the community. I really want people to start seeing themselves as worthy of being public servants in bigger and bigger ways, who have been living in community for a long time. It’s been amazing to me to start waiting in there and how much people are simultaneously intrigued by my background, and also “What does that have to do with politics?” and being able to learn how to get more articulate about that, but also just show up and be like, “Lots of people live in community, and we deserve representation too, and we also have something to bring to the table.”
I don’t know. Maybe it’s like find the biggest table that you dare to bring yourself to and bring yourself to it. You don’t necessarily have to be doing that as a community ambassador or something, but don’t be afraid to show up and be real and authentic, and you’re going to bring community with you into those spaces because community changes us in some really profound ways in terms of our service affect and how we think about people and how we think about creativity and all that kind of stuff that we’ve been talking about.
I guess that would be my additional exhortation – show up in leadership ways in that wider world, and don’t be ashamed of your background, being weird or something, because actually that weird is what we completely need in a world right now.
LUCY: Amazing. Thank you. Yana, this has been 100% pure pleasure and inspiration.
YANA: Wow, thank you so much. I appreciate it.
YANA: You’re welcome. Good.
LUCY: I’m so grateful and I’m just going to be sending you all of my heart energy… Well, not all of it, but a good chunk of my heart energy over this year as you do the real hard graft at running for senate.