Co-op Magic: Lessons for creating thriving communities

Meredith Turk
Jun 26, 2020 · 9 min read
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Welcome to a post in our new series: Community Deep Dives. Hearken knows that engagement and community growth are topics that apply to everything in life, including work. So we’re gathering community-builders to share the lessons they’ve learned that we can all take inspiration from. To sign up for our free monthly webinars or suggest a deep dive of your own, head here!

Almost two years ago, on a whim, fueled by what I can only describe as ennui (what I now realize was my statistic in the loneliness epidemic), I applied to live in Queen City Cooperative, a limited-equity housing cooperative in Denver’s historic Capitol Hill neighborhood. I was 33, just out of a relationship, living with a highly-extroverted cat, and wondering why I was feeling so lonely.

Two years later, one thing I am not is lonely. I have a life filled with social events at home — like live podcast recordings, talent shows, fancy dinners, and political gatherings. I am growing even more financially secure because I am building equity in a home I co-own with people. I feel connected to my community because I can afford to live in a beautiful space close to a magical park, within walking distance of my favorite bars. I live every day with a newborn baby who is not my own. Watching him grow and change is a hidden joy of my life I never knew I wanted. I didn’t realize that I would have so much more freedom to create the life I wanted when I wasn’t plagued by a feeling of loneliness.

I’ve tried to break down what is so special about my cooperative home, Queen City Cooperative, and share the lessons I think can be applied to any relationship, home, or organization. I hope you too can find joy and freedom in building a community of care in your life. From there it only gets better.

Fast forward to my first pandemic. I didn’t realize quite how special this group of adults and a baby was until we were under state-order quarantine. A week before stay-at-home orders were released we had already made house commitments during a regular house meeting:

  1. No one will lose housing.
  2. No one will go hungry.
  3. We will not blame anyone for bringing a virus into the home.
  4. We will trust each other to keep each other safe.

We will weather this as a team. In fact, our definition of a co-op is “facing the world together.” We were going to face the pandemic together, too.

We had already built up reserves for a mutual aid fund to support housemates who experience job loss or expensive medical bills. We’ve been saving for moments like this. We’ve been planning for resilience as a house.

As a result, life at the co-op felt pretty normal during quarantine. We made shared meals more often. We redesigned our kitchen on a work day and were able to refinance our home. We held a talent show (with a ribbon dance and karaoke). We had a fancy dinner party in the dining room complete with candles. We supported each other emotionally and sometimes financially. I’ve never felt closer to a group of people in my life.

We are able to be that much more able to and care for each other as jobs were lost, as childcare was lost, as the emotions ran high. Below are some of the ways that we have built resilience in our home over the years. These tools have helped us face the world together, and manage a changing world outside.

Shared Labor

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Here’s my housemate Sarah looking at our tool wall with pride! Before these were a mess of tools strewn across the basement. Sarah organized the tools during one of our house work days we have once a quarter.

When you talk a lot about labor, you unearth what real labor is. Invisible labor? It’s still in our home, but now we talk about it. For example, one of my housemates created a job description of everything she does in the home in an attempt for us to understand what work she does that we don’t know about. Ever tried that? It’s powerful.

How do we do shared labor?

We have a really detailed chore system. 1 point for every 15 minutes of work (We determine how much work needs to go into something to reach the standard we all agree on). For example, cooking dinner is 6 points meaning it should take you 1.5 hours. We have a huge running list of all the chores that we agree need to get done. And twice a week, we each take a turn at choosing new chores using a snake draft. And in the end, we all have equitable points. Our time is compensated equally. Below is what the chore and agenda system looks like.

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We use Slack to communicate daily and Trello to organize chores and our agenda.

I’ve shared this with married couples and people living in a home with one other person and it works well, too! When there is a breakdown in a relationship it is often because we are lacking clear agreements. A system helps you stay accountable and keep finger pointing and feelings of resentment at bay.

We also have a quarterly work day where we work on our home together. We clean the gutters, we paint the kitchen, we build a new garden. Work days help build a sense of shared ownership in our space. I also feel confident about using a drill now!

Direct Communication

Our mantra for communication: Keep Short Lists.

Keep short lists of grievances, that is. It is your responsibility to state when something bothers you, when you have a request to be made, when you want change. No one can read your mind — definitely not your partner, family, or your coworkers. Being able to practice communication about what you need to thrive is essential for living in a co-op, and I might say in all relationships of life. Keeping a short list gives you the power and the responsibility to advocate for yourself. Otherwise, we assume you’re all good and we can go about our day.

We practice other communication maintenance like:

  • Several times a year we do a training in the house about communication, or our implicit racial biases.
  • We learned about the Drama Triangle, and we use this often to break down conflict.
  • We make requests of others, which allows us all to agree to or negotiate for a different agreement.

The best part of all of this is that I am not afraid of conflict anymore. To me, it is a negotiation rather than a fight. We are all practicing better communication all the time, and therefore patient when it’s not always perfect.

Connection

  1. Shared Meals
  2. House Meetings
  3. Shared Spaces
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This is our house watching baby Charlie eat a lemon for the first time during a shared meal during quarantine.

Shared Meals
You know that moment just before dinner where everyone is relaxing at home, reading a book or watching TV? And you can smell dinner cooking? It just relaxes me instantly. I love that 30 minute window just before a shared meal. I feel like I’m being taken care of in a way I haven’t felt since I was little. We have shared meals like this every single Monday evening.

I’m getting emotional just writing about the experience every week. Everything can be solved when you share a meal together, I really believe it. During all our shared meals we have a check-in opportunity at the beginning of the meal. We spend almost an hour reflection how our lives our going, and asking for support when we need it. We have cried, we have shared that we are depressed, we have shared great successes. It’s such an important way that I give and receive care in my life. It allows people to care for you, even when you might not think you need it. Making this mostly required (you can only miss one house meeting a month) goes a long way to ensuring that connection is not lost, and important sharing happens.

Communal Spaces
Communal spaces allow spontaneous connection to happen. My favorite space is the library (it even has a fireplace!). We have a shared library with all the books we have collected in our lives. I love this space the most because I get to read books about Italian poetry, radical political theory, knitting, Julia Child cookbooks, and absurdist theater. My housemates carry all the value of their learnings with them in this shared space. I’ve grown immensely from spending time in this beautiful library. I’ve shared so many hours reading poetry with housemates in here, or discussing local politics, or just watching a silly movie. It tends to collect people slowly over the night and it always carries laughter.

The same spontaneous interactions happen in our dining room, kitchen, and porch. My life is richer because of these natural gathering spaces that don’t require me to plan for social interaction and connection. These spaces are key in cutting down on feelings on loneliness.

Celebration

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My housemate Anna about to load up on some water balloons for the Cathartic Fun Meeting water balloon fight.

Once a month one our weekly meetings is a fun meeting. We assign chore points for someone to plan this meeting, and we have a $75 shared budget that can be used. We’ve held some epic fun meetings. In the middle of our quarantine angst, we had a Cathartic Fun Meeting. We threw pies in each others’ faces, had a water balloon fight, and popped bubble wrap with our feet. And then we ate ice cream sandwiches on our porch. By the end, we were laughing harder than I’ve ever seen us laugh. That laughter got us through weeks more of quarantine together.

Designating the time — and recognizing the essential labor — of planning for fun allows it to actually happen. A few weeks ago we hosted a house talent show, and all learned a ribbon dance song. Again, this stuff doesn’t just happen without a little planning.

At the end of every weekly meeting, we also make sure to acknowledge each other for things we’ve done that week — thanking people who baked goods, or let others borrow their car, or held their baby. Positive feedback loops only increase.

Other things I’ve learned living in community

  1. The stories we tell ourselves (about ourselves and others) are often false.
  2. Life is resilient when you are connected — life feels relatively normal in my home.
  3. Everyone is flawed.
  4. Asking for what you need is the root of all relationships.
  5. People who understand the mundane qualities of your life are committed to your life.

Did you like this?

Questions about shared labor:

  1. How can an organization shift labor so that everyone participates and takes ownership?
  2. How can your stakeholders (audiences, communities) truly own parts of what you are doing?
  3. Can you set up a fund and allow your community to decide what it is used for?
  4. How could you build a labor or chore system for your home or organization? What needs to get done and what could be shared around?

Questions about direct communication:

  1. How do you practice making requests rather than demands?
  2. What are your communication goals?

Questions about connection?

  1. How can you design more time for connection and sharing?
  2. How often do you need to connect to feel good?
  3. What rules to you want to make about shared spaces?

Questions about celebration?

  1. How do you build laughter into your relationships?
  2. How do you acknowledge the labor it takes to creating fun and celebration?

Want to learn more about communities like this? Sign up for Community Deep Dives, a new series at Hearken that explores what makes communities thrive.

Meredith Turk is an engagement strategist with Hearken. Follow her on Twitter at @murdithshewrote where she posts about all things engagement and co-ops. You can also reach her at meredith.turk@wearehearken.com.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and…

Meredith Turk

Written by

Engagement strategist with Hearken. Member-owner at Queen City Cooperative. Building networks and resilient communities through storytelling.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help: http://www.wearehearken.com/

Meredith Turk

Written by

Engagement strategist with Hearken. Member-owner at Queen City Cooperative. Building networks and resilient communities through storytelling.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help: http://www.wearehearken.com/

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