The workshop “Another World is Possible: Creating Communities that Reinvent Ourselves as we Reinvent the World,” at The Scholar & Feminist 2013: Utopia, offered incredible insight into the process of creating a community based on ideas of equality and respect for diversity. Building utopia requires a complete transformation of the existing notions in society. The ultimate utopia for feminists is based on complete and irrevocable equality between the genders, races, classes, abilities and more. Already, several small communities all across the world are experimenting with creating a new kind of world. The Common Fire Foundation is one of the pioneers in intentional cooperative housing that attempts to provide a safe space for people where their multiple identities can fully engage with each other in the community environment. Common Fire aims to “support cultural transformation by helping create intentional communities where people are committed to leading lives that are joyful, just, and sustainable, from the ground up and the inside out, and to their communities being catalysts for change in the broader society.” The organization is founded on “The Four Essential Characteristics” which focus on: personal growth, engaging diversity, believing the mission statement, and connecting the community to the world.
The workshop not only informed the participants about how communities such as those supported by Common Fire are built, but also engaged the audience around the conflicts that arise from building a community that in essence opposes the status quo. Co-founder Kavitha Rao extensively spoke about the process of setting up the community in New York. The founding members of the Common Fire community started off as strangers who decided to live together, sharing both resources and beliefs. It took almost two years just to negotiate the mission of the organization and its function. Even though Common Fire works against classism, negotiating finances proved to be one of the toughest challenges of setting up the community. The Mission Statement, too, had to be reiterated regularly to ensure all members had a common goal. Despite these hurdles Common Fire expanded its communities across the Unites States and is paving the way for many more cooperative living structures like itself.
I was intrigued by the possibility of living in a sort of Utopia in this day and age of vast inequalities and a strong patriarchal hierarchy. To have a place where one is free from any sort of discrimination, and has as much access to resources as his neighbor – with distribution not based on race, gender, or sexuality – offers a chance to restructure the social landscape, and by transforming one community at a time, truly makes a difference.
Nevertheless, I appreciated the challenges Rao faced while setting up the Common Fire cooperative. It is very difficult to create a community like Common Fire without reducing it to an isolated bubble! One of the ‘Four Essential Characteristics’ is ‘Connecting the Community to the World’– and for that, one has to engage with the outside world on a larger scale. Negotiating one’s desires for Utopia with lived reality is crucial for a community like Common Fire to succeed.
Furthermore, Rao’s trouble with financing Common Fire prove that even Utopia needs some structure. What this structure is can be shaped by the beliefs of the community members, in this case a structure that is non-discriminating, and open to all. And yet, any structure has a site of power that allows one group to dominate another. Is it possible to be truly free of hierarchy, whether you reside in the real world or in Utopia? The workshop left me with questions, and truly opened my mind to the possibility of another, freer world.
Damini Mohan is a sophomore at Barnard College and a Research Assistant at the Barnard Center for Research on Women.