The Founders’ Dilemma

This article first appeared in the Winter 1994 issue of “Communities Magazine.” The core question that Joyce explores here continues to be relevant twenty-five years later. Light Morning found one answer to this question. Other communities and organizations are finding other answers, or have not yet wrestled with the question.

The Elizabethan home Frank Stephens built in Arden.
Often called The New Homestead, its other name

comes from what he carved into the door beam:
“Tomorrow is a New Day.”

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’s 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: how to blend the old and the new.

This is the founders’ dilemma. It’s 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 I left there in the early 1970’s — 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’s a story well worth pondering.

Arden was founded in 1900 by Frank Stephens and Will Price. Both of them were 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 saw that private ownership of land, by the privileged few, inevitably results in exploitation, speculation, and poverty. As a corrective measure, he advocated the abolition of all taxes except for a single tax, one to be levied on the value of the land, irrespective of the value of the improvements on it.

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

The passionate followers of Henry George tried to take over Delaware in the elections of 1896 in order to model 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 between Philadelphia and Wilmington and then 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 attracting a rich diversity of other artists and social activists. It became known for its weaving, woodwork, and stained glass; its Shakespearean theater; and its eccentric population.

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

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

Arden had been set up as a land trust. Three influential trustees were to keep the community true to its Georgist, Single Tax course. In counterpoint, the founders had also set up New England style town meetings, where every man, woman, and interested child would have a vote. The inherent tension between these two decision-making bodies quickly evolved into a classic power struggle which revealed the community’s conflicting needs to both 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. To the dismay of founders Stephens and Price, the original vision lost out. What remains of Single Tax in Arden today is but a faint shadow of how it was intended to function.

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 that his beloved Arden, in which he had invested almost his entire adult 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 50’s, we children were oblivious to this apparent failure, as many of Arden’s residents seem to be today. What survived of the dream, though, is rich and special — the beauty; the quaintness; the town meetings; the arts and the theaters; the Gild Hall with its gilds; the Arden forest 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 and decades pass and people come and go, as the political, social, and economic climate changes, how relevant is a founding vision?

Most of our more recent communities are still too young to have a clear perspective on how time can 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 how might their experiences be relevant to ours?

In Arden, the struggle was between the trustees and the town meeting. The same tension exists today in the communities movement, but perhaps in a less obvious way, for many of us use consensus rather than voting as a means of reaching decisions and settling disputes. While this holds the promise of reconciling the old and the new, consensus can also be abused by subtly protecting 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 responsibility for the core intent of what attracted them in the first place, and not 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 this call for more openness and flexibility. My question, at least until recently, has been, “How do we remain responsive to change and still hold true to course.” Yet a closer look at Arden’s story suggests a more threatening question: “Is holding true to course all that important in the long run?”

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

Frank Stephens died believing that his community had failed, his policy of “come one, come all” having indeed proved fatal to his cause. What he could not see, however, has become visible to us nearly a century later. In founding Arden, he had planted a garden. It was a fertile, sustainable garden where not only he, but many others after him could grow their dreams of a better world. His own beloved crop, Single Tax, was lost. But the garden itself survived.

In setting up those democratic town meetings that would eventually vote him down, Stephens trained a crew of vigorous, experienced gardeners who were 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 use consensus instead of voting, it offers a similar perilous opportunity. Through it we hone our skills. We learn how to respect each other’s needs and perspectives; how and when to compromise; how to take responsibility; how to handle power. We learn to build something together, and later dismantle portions of it so that something else can be built.

Often we get so caught up in our issues — should we grow our wheat or buy it, build a new shelter here or over there, use hand tools or power tools — that we neglect to see that it’s the process that’s crucial. Training enthusiastic gardeners is more important than any particular crop or issue. That’s also why communities are best left a little undone, a little imperfect. For this provides 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 radical reorientation. Such shifts often entail stripping outmoded forms from essence. This requires not only a strong grounding in the vision — it’s hard to pull boards off a 2×4 wall if the framing itself isn’t well anchored — but also a willingness to bend, as the dismantling of old and often precious forms can be painful.

Can we long-time community members, then, trust ourselves to keep nurturing the skills of renewal and redefinition, even though they might lead to what feels like our own undoing? Do we really have any other choice, if we truly want our communities not only to outlive us, but also to stay vital and growing while we’re still around?

Please don’t misunderstand me. By their very name, intentional communities are intentional. This implies having a purpose beyond the every-man-for-himself version of the American dream. So we must not let an undertow run us aground on those tempting and familiar shores. But surely we’re learning to discern the difference between a shift that’s grounded in responsibility for the betterment of our world, and one that lacks this essential fire.

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

Dancing the May Pole on the Arden Green.
(The Craft Shop is in the background.)

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’m very attached to: the simple, labor-intensive lifestyle; eating our meals together; a shared respect for dreams, meditation, and prayer; our “rose-work” (the thorny but lovely business of learning to hear and understand each another); the quiet beauty of the land.

I have been shepherding this dream for close to thirty years now. So 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 hold tight to what has, until now, been sufficient?

As a gardener, will I see that the yellowed leaves on a favorite crop may mean that some vital nutrients are missing? Or that the crop itself may need to be turned 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 as perilous as the lack of change. Or we can try to cling to what is, and use 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 need to navigate these perilous waters. We need to honor the goodness of what’s 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.

[A fuller discussion of Henry George’s Single Tax philosophy can be found here.]

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