Sunday, October 28, 2007

Living and working in community: a “Letter from SI”

When university students recall their undergraduate years with nostalgia, the experience of living in a community often stands out in those happy recollections. In later years we may find community in our workplace, in a religious congregation, in an activist group or in an avocational interest group focused on horseback riding, tennis, automobile racing, quilting, or sailing. But the foundational social institution in America is the nuclear family, thinly connected to an extended family of relatives, often geographically separate, or not connected at all. If, as some believe, community is a fundamental human need, America’s social order is not fulfilling that need, for the most part.

Members of the Cobb Hill intentional community, located in Hartland Vermont, are experimenting with a radically different social order. Sustainable living, in community, is Cobb Hill’s organizing concept. Cobb Hill coexists with and overlaps with the Sustainability Institute, whose mission is research, public activism and public education on sustainabile-living issues. Sustainability Institute staff members who also live at Cobb Hill have the unique opportunity to pursue work, family life, and community life in an environment where each reinforces and affirms the other.

This experiment is also unique in that it, and its precursor, “Foundation Farm” have been chronicled for more than 25 years. Dana Meadows, familiar to Dormgrandpop readers, began writing “Dear Folks” letters in the late 1970s or early 1980s. When Dana died in 2001, Susie Sweitzer, a Cobb Hill resident and Sustainability Institute staff member continued them. Now the letters have morphed into to “Letter from SI,” which combines Institute and Cobb Hill news, viewed through the eyes of those living and working there.

This month’s newsletter, the second in the new format, described how the Cobb Hill community is seeking to recycle waste from its composting toilets, on site. One Cobb Hill couple described a three month trip they are planning - to Japan, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines Thailand and South Africa. They will be “interviewing people with experience and insight in social change. Another reported on a road trip to the Northwest with their children, duly recording the miles traveled and CO2 produced each day. Their chronicle included a humorous account of their successful trip from the San Francisco suburbs to the San Francisco Zoo, by public transport, despite the absence of any directions to guide them.

Neither Cobb Hill nor the Sustainability Institute are paradise, but the community members are seeking to achieve a lifestyle that many Americans yearn for at some deep level, but see no hope of achieving. They may get back in touch with what it was like to live in community at college reunions and it is a bitter-sweet experience.

Check out the Sustainability Institute website at


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