The Founders’ Dilemma

This article first appeared in the Winter 1994 issue of Communities Magazine

The Elizabethan home that Frank Stephens built in Arden. Its name, "Tomorrow is a New Day," was carved into the door beam.
The Elizabethan home Frank Stephens built in Arden. Its name, “Tomorrow is a New Day,” was carved into the door beam.

Many of our communities are just now reaching that sobering age when we start to question our immortality. The founders are aging, as are many long-time members. Meanwhile, there is a surge of interest in the communities movement among younger people, who see this lifestyle as a partial solution to the multiple crises facing our world. At the place where these two phenomena meet lies a crucial challenge–the blending of old and new.

This is the “founders’ dilemma.” It is the creative tension between affirming the original intent of a community, while at the same time being deeply responsive to the need for growth, flexibility, fresh air. New people arrive with strong and good dreams of their own. How can their visions be woven into the original tapestry without obliterating it?

I have been on both sides of this dilemma. I grew up in Arden, one of the oldest of today’s intentional communities, but left there in the early seventies, young and knowing everything, to help found Light Morning, a small community in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Twenty-some years later, I find myself very much a part of Light Morning’s old guard, its establishment. And now there are new, younger people at the door, wanting to know if we are open to change. Attempts to answer this critical question have taken me back to my roots in Arden, where there is a story well worth pondering.

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A young Frank Stephens, campaigning for Single Tax in Delaware in 1896
A young Frank Stephens, campaigning for Single Tax in Delaware in 1896

Arden was founded in 1900 by Frank Stephens and Will Price, both disciples of Henry George, an economic philosopher who envisioned a better way to organize land and wealth through the Single Tax movement. George believed that the Earth, like the air and the water, should be a shared, communal resource. He felt that private ownership of land, by the privileged few, inevitably resulted in exploitation, speculation, and poverty. As a corrective measure, he therefore advocated the abolition of all taxes except a single tax, to be levied on the value of the land, irrespective of the value of the improvements on it.

The passionate followers of Henry George tried to take over Delaware in the elections of 1896 in order to demonstrate the virtues of the Single Tax theory at the state level. Donning backpacks and uniforms displaying a symbol of the Earth, they campaigned vigorously, only to be severely trounced at the polls. In the aftermath of this electoral defeat, Stephens and Price decided to set up a demonstration project on a smaller scale. So they scrounged up enough money to buy an old farm north of Wilmington and laid out plans for the village of Arden.

Besides being avid Georgists, Arden’s founders were also artists, musicians, and craftsmen, heavily influenced by William Morris and Elizabethan England. Their little village quickly took on this artisan flavor. Soon it attracted a rich diversity of other artists and social activists and became known for its weaving, woodwork, and stained glass; for its Shakespearean theater; and for its eccentric population.

Upton Sinclair lived in a tent. A young Scott Nearing peddled “Nearing Perfection Vegetables,” prompting Dr. Moore (as the story goes) to advertise his produce as “Moore Perfect Vegetables.” With Single Taxers and Socialists, Anarchists and Communists, Arden in the early days was a wild mix of young hotheads and visionaries. Nowhere was this more evident than in the town meetings.

Arden was set up as a land trust. Three powerful trustees were to keep the community true to its Georgist, Single Tax course. In counterpoint, the founders also called for town meetings, in which every man, woman, and child was to have a vote. The inherent tension between these two decision-making bodies quickly evolved into a classic portrayal of a community’s conflicting needs, both to hold fast to its founding vision (the trustees) and to be open to re-interpretation and renewal (the town meetings).

The battles were often intense. As the years passed, the forces of change pounded away at the village’s Georgist legacy. Much to the dismay of founders Stephens and Price, the original vision lost out. What remains of Single Tax in Arden today is but a shadow of how it was meant to function.

In early Arden (above), as in the early days of Light Morning, residents sometimes lived in tents before building their homes.

Old family letters (Frank Stephens was, conveniently, my husband’s great-grandfather) offer intimate glimpses into this man’s acute sense of failure as he saw his dream lose ground. By the early 1930’s it was clear to him that his beloved Arden, in which he had invested his life, would never become the instrument of economic revolution that he had so ardently desired it to be.

Growing up in Arden in the 1940’s and 1950’s, we children were oblivious to these seeming failures, as most of the village happily remains today. What survived of the dream is rich and special–the beauty, the quaintness, the town meetings, the arts and theater, the Gild Hall and the gilds, the village forests and greens, and a town that, nearly a century later, still eats together on Saturday night. It’s all very good.

But is that enough? Can a community that strays from its original mission still be considered a success? As the years, then decades pass, as people come and go, as the political, economic, and social climate changes, how relevant is that original vision?

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An older Frank Stephens ponders the waning of Arden's founding vision
An older Frank Stephens ponders the waning of Arden’s founding vision

Most of our communities are perhaps still too young to offer a clear perspective on how the passing decades test original intent. It would behoove us, then, to pay close attention to those who came before us. What happened to these earlier communal endeavors? And what of their experience is relevant to ours?

In Arden, the struggle was between the trustees and the town meeting. In the communities movement today, the same tension exists, but perhaps not so obviously portrayed. For many of us are using consensus, rather than voting, as a means of reaching decisions and settling disputes. While holding the promise of a true reconciliation between old and new, consensus can also be abused, assuring instead the effortless protection of the status quo. I have seen this happen time and again at Light Morning, and I would guess that we are not unique.

But when utilized in conjunction with a radical willingness to truly cooperate, consensus can be stunningly effective in resolving the founders’ dilemma. Long-time members must continually stretch to be open to renewal, while “newcomers” need to take active responsibility for the core intent of that which attracted them in the first place, being careful not to slide into either submission or rebellion.

As one of the founders of a community, and deeply devoted to its original vision, I have been wrestling with the call for more openness and flexibility. My question, at least until recently, has been how to remain responsive to change and still hold true to course. Yet a closer look at Arden’s story suggests a far more threatening consideration. Is “holding true to course” all that critical in the long run?

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Frank Stephens died believing that Arden community had failed. His “come one, come all” policy had indeed proved fatal to his cause. What he could not see, however, but which is visible to us nearly a century later, is that in founding Arden he had established a garden–a fertile, sustainable garden–in which not only he, but many others after him, could build toward their dream of a better world. His beloved crop, Single Tax, was lost, but the garden itself survived.

In setting up those democratic town meetings that, in the end, voted him down, this founder trained a staff of vigorous and experienced gardeners, eager and able to carry on, season after season, long after the founders had passed. This is not, perhaps, such a terrible thing.

Although many of us today may use a different form of decision-making, our process offers the same perilous opportunity. Through it we hone our skills, learning responsibility and compromise, respect for each other’s needs and perspectives, how to build together and take apart, how to handle power.

Often we get caught up in the issues–should we grow our wheat or buy it, build the new shelter here or over there, use hand tools or power?–and neglect to see that it is the process that is crucial, and the training of vigorous gardeners, not so much any particular outcome. This is also why our communities are best left a little undone, a little imperfect, providing a seemingly endless supply of flaws to be corrected, issues to be hashed out, grist for the mill.

These are the skills that will, if continually exercised, keep a community alive and relevant beyond its founding generation. Changing times call for discernment, responsiveness, perhaps even a radical reorientation. Such shifts often entail the stripping of outmoded form from essence, and so require not only a strong grounding in the vision–it’s hard to pull a board off a 2×4 if the framing itself is not well anchored–but also a willingness to bend. For the dismantling of old (and perhaps precious) forms can be painful.

Can we long-time community members, then, trust ourselves to keep nurturing the skills of renewal and redefinition, though they carry the potential for what may feel like our own undoing? And do we really have any other choice, if we want our communities not only to outlive us, but to stay vital and growing while we are present?

Do not misunderstand me. These are, by their very name, intentional communities. This implies a purpose beyond the every-man-for-himself version of the American dream. We must not let some undertow run us aground on those tempting and familiar shores. But surely we are learning to discern the difference between a shift that’s grounded in true responsibility for the bettering of our world, and one lacking that fire.

So I’m not, by any means, advocating that we abandon the helm, anything goes, come what may; only that we make space in our enterprises for the gestation of new dreams to succeed our own.

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Dancing the May Pole in early Arden
Dancing the May Pole in early Arden

I am not sure how fully I can do this, how flexible I can be. I love my community, tucked back here in the mountains. There are aspects of it that I am very attached to–the simple, labor-intensive lifestyle; the common table; a shared respect for dreams, meditation, and prayer; our “rose-work” (the thorny business of learning to hear and understand one another); the quiet and beauty of the land.

I have been shepherding this dream for close to 30 years now. I am pure “establishment,” attuned to all the forces that want to keep things just as they are, forever.

But the seasons are changing. Will I respond, or will I hold tight to what has, until now, been sufficient? As a gardener, will I see the yellowed leaves on a favorite crop and know that some vital nutrient is missing, or maybe even that the crop needs turning under? Am I open to sharing my garden with other, newer gardeners, hot to plant other, newer dreams?

We can make peace with this process, realizing that change is not nearly so perilous as the lack of it. Or we can try to cling to what is, using consensus to protect us, rather than allowing it to invite renewal. But to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “a community not busy being born is busy dying.”

To be truly sustainable, then, our communities must navigate these perilous waters. We need to honor the goodness of much that has been so carefully crafted over the years, while at the same time ensuring sufficient elbow room for new imperatives. Only in this way may our communities realize their full potential and become viable seeds cast into the fertile soil of these troubled times.

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For a fuller discussion of Henry George’s philosophy,
see “Henry George and the Single Tax.”