Written August 2018.
Andrea is passionate, opinionated, has lived in five communities ranging is size from 6 to 50, and has a unique perspective - in other words, she's the perfect interview subject. In particular, I loved her nuanced thoughts on diversity, and her exhortation to have a high bar in recruiting.
- "There has to be a heart to the house. Community is harder when you don't have one - where you can go into the house, do all your things, and not run into anyone else."
- "I would not start a house where everyone wasn't required to pay into food - that's how critical I consider sharing food to be for house culture."
- "The benefits of being internally focused is that it feels really nice... but as someone with more of a diverse identity: I honestly couldn't really relate to that. It feels like a super hippie thing to be so inner-facing. As someone who's spent parts of her life at various socioeconomic statuses: to limit our impact to ourselves feels not great to me."
- "Take diversity only if people can actually hold space for it... Always offering to pay for shit for the one low-income person in the house eventually will make them feel like shit and creates a weird power dynamic. No one wants to be the house's charity person. So are people genuinely going to be cool with not always going out to eat?"
- "Once someone feels unengaged, and like they haven't been participating, they feel guilty. So they pull away more, and then they spiral out."
- and yet: "Everyone should still check Slack. Spend literally five minutes to like, keep decision making going. That makes a gigantic difference. It's when people go silent, silence like fucks with everyone."
- "Strong gates, soft center. You'll have a lot less rules if you're really strict on who gets in"
All house names other than the Embassy and the Archive have been omitted.
Table of contents
- Table of contents
- A house needs a heart
- Scaling up to 50
- Dividing labor
- Distributed decisionmaking requires participation
- Community wellness
- Impact-oriented houses vs inward-oriented houses
- When a housemate is disengaged
- Distributed leadership best practices
- Have a high bar for recruiting
A house needs a heart
You've grown too much when you can no longer host all the people at the same time in the heart of the home. And for your house, the fact that all the kitchens are divided... like, there has to be a heart to the house. At [a past house], when you walk in: it's the kitchen. Here, it's the dining room. It's harder when you don't have one - where you can go into the house, do all your things, and not run into everyone on all the other floors.
Why isn't the heart of [that past house] the backyard?
Well, I think it's both. But it's the fact that it's really hard to go about your day without going through the kitchen. You can go your whole day without being in the backyard unless you live in the cottage. But no one's gonna not go through the kitchen.]
We don't really have that. That's why Embassy has the porch, isn't it.
That's part of rationale. And that's why we're so meticulous about cleaning the common areas. So that's my #1 tip: be careful that as you grow you have a place where everyone can fit.
Right. For us, that's the backyard.
So I would dope out that backyard. Like, buy heaters... and create a house culture where people don't have their dinners in their rooms all the time. Make sure they eat and meet in the backyard.
Where have you lived?
[5 past houses]
What did you like best about living at [a large, fun past house]?
I was actively looking for a place like that for behavior change... like I didn't want to be a workaholic all the time like I was in college. I wouldn't have been able to stay there and have a career, or a relationship. Just maintaining friendships outside of that house is really difficult.
Scaling up to 50
[One of her college houses had 50 residents.] How close were you with other housemates?
Pretty close, but everyone was in college together... so by life stage we were pretty similar. There were some people who were MIA. Like they'd go in through the backyard, have headphones in, go to their room. I would argue that there are some people who are missing from [the Embassy]. And you really feel those people.
You can just tell when someone's checked out. It makes you less excited about the community. I think a major decision point for you is that as you grow, there's going to be more labor that goes into the house. The Archive has cleaners, fantastic. Food ordering and recruitment are the other two big ones. And at 30 you should have someone doing onboarding (which kind of goes with recruitment). And maybe someone doing events -- like, community wellness.
When you're that big, the people who take up a lot of time putting in - either you pay those people, and that sucks, because then people feel entitled to their time and I kinda don't recommend it - that's how Mission home ended up in financial problems, and I've never seen the dynamics work out very well. I really recommend not having paid labor exchanges between housemates. We do ti here only for guest ops, where what they're being paid to do doens't relate to housemates. Like I'm doing food here, and I'm not getting paid to do it, I just feel passionate about it. So then the doocracy documents help a lot. But if I for instance am coordinating food, and putting in a ton of hours, and then the proportion of people who do absolutely nothing, who just show up and don't even want to have a conversation with me goes up to much, then you're just kinda like - oh, I'm curating an experience that you don't contribute to.
What proportions have you personally experienced, and how did each of those feel?
Well, this and [a past house] were the only houses where we didn't exchange money for that, and at [a past house] we recruited well so it never became a problem. We once had 60 applicants for 1 spot. Strong gates, soft center. You'll have a lot less rules if you're really strict on who gets in. I went through a co-op that went through a strike by those who did the jobs, and that was the worst. It was just awful.
Here, sometimes it comes up - like, why doesn't this person contribute? It tends to be gendered. The guys here are really good about cleaning up after themselves, but especially the guests - the people staying in the hostel beds - the guys, on average, tend to just leave their shit in the sink and the women don't. I've never lived in a house where there wasn't a gender dynamic around house labor. and that is a tension point especially if it tends to be (and this isn't necessarily always true) male-identified people that are like "my job is too important for me to be cooking with someone or cleaning or helping or doing stuff". If it starts to disproportionately fall on the women, then that's a quick way to end up with a male-saturated house.
What have you tried to fix that problem?
[A past house] didn't have cleaners, so there we tried a job system, where you had chores, and if you didn't do it, you had to pay someone else to do it. We had lower-income people, and they were down.
If you have people who work from home - the Day Crew - then that's another huge source of conflict. If I go to work, and I come back, and I'm exhausted, I'm like - well fuck it, I'm too tired to clean up. If I'm a freelancer or WFH or unemployed and have to look at the disgusting sink from people who left "too busy" to clean up their dish... well, I can either be pissed about it all day or I can clean it. We had to put a name to it at [a past house], and here that's been a source of people burning out. People who work from home do disproportionately more. Even dumb things, like the packages that gets delivered, the food that gets delivered, random people that come to the door, the repair person who comes over...
How much did you pay those people? How did you arrange that?
It was an experiment, really, and I'm surprised that they've kept it and not iterated on it. It's $15, because each task wasn't meant to be longer than 30 minutes, and if no one volunteered then we just called a TaskRabbit. We also logged who consistently didn't do it, and after a while we'd have a conversation about whether you were a good fit for the community. Because after a while, if you're going to be unable to contribute -- even if you're paying for it -- it's like somebody else volunteered to do their community contributions. But I wouldn't want that. If you commodify my time and community contributions... then it would just ruin it. Then I'm gonna compare it to everything else that I do that's monetized.
Distributed decisionmaking requires participation
Is there a good ratio between the doers and the people who are in the ebb of their community energy?
I think it's more about the energy than the ratio. It's part of the reason I left [a past house]. I started to not feel super stoked when new people moved in, I just didn't have the energy.
If you're not excited to do it, then you should like back down, you know, like, they should never feel like resentment. That requires being really honest about when there's too much burden and brainstorming as a community. Just like there's ebbs and flows of people's energies... The problem is that the most difficult times require the most energy. And that's where you need some people that can really keep people motivated.
Conflict is a big one. And then it might be useful to already have a plan for that, like, do we need someone the community to find a mediator to guide us through this? You can request one from alternative justice for free, for example. If not, well, that's what takes a ton of work. Emotional labor is a huge one.
The other thing is, if you're in an ebb phase, the other way to not burn out, is to just support the people who are doing stuff by staying active online. Cheering people on. Everyone should still check Slack. And just at least say, like, awesome, I'm so glad that you're taking that on. Or spending literally five minutes to like, keep decision making going. That makes a gigantic difference. It's when people go silent, silence like fucks with everyone.
Tell me more about your decisionmaking and Slack.
We have an #input-required channel and a #private channel that's for very important things. #input-required is like: you should want to have input on this. Like, "I'm going to invite someone to say my room for two weeks", or "The roof is leaking, I'm callling a plumber." Some people still tap out of those, though. We reserve Loomio for: we're voting on a new housemate; things that would result in a house meeting otherwise because they're so important. #input-required is like: "I'm thinking of changing the couch." And if no one writes anything on Slack, then it just gets done.
We use Loomio maybe once every two weeks, and it's things like new housemates, changing the monthly dues.
How do you do monthly dues? We have people with different willingness to pay and different abilities, different resources
$375. Rent is pretty reasonable, like $1500/month, and it's the cleaners, the food ($2800/month), and the shared alcohol ($400/month).
The food here was super good.
Yeah. I would not start a house where everyone wasn't required to pay into food - that's how critical I consider sharing food to be for house culture.
We have like a shared Thursday dinner, where it's BYO, but they're haphazardly attended.
If people are so busy, why do they want to grocery shop for themselves?
Well, they don't - we have chefs, they eat Soylent.
Well, another thing you can do is camping trips and retreats. [Past house] did a camping trip every two months. I think hanging out together outside of the house is more important than hanging out together inside the house.
That makes sense. We'll do a camping trip ASAP after people start living here. What are the house values of the Embassy?
Doocracy, impact, and experimentation. Experimentation in particular - you can feel it. People are really into testing things. [Past house] was like love, acceptance, gratitude, and sustainability.
How does experimentation manifest?
If you propose anything here, like, "What if all this furniture was on one side of the room?" No one's going to stop you, it's like - yeah, let's see what happens. We also tested governance structures. We tried doocracy, dictatorship, having a CEO, and we tried a matriarchy.
Whoa! How'd the matriarchy experiment go?
My understanding is that it's good that we survived that process. But it's written online.
Impact-oriented houses vs inward-oriented houses
Why do you want to maximize that number of people that come through the hostel?
To increase the Cobudget money, so the money goes towards like community. Part of impact of the Embassy and the reason we want it to look nice is so that people from non-communal living situations see that this is a possibility for them.
I totally worked on me! And here I am, a year and a half later. I came away from my month here so invigorated and inspired.
That's really awesome - it's an Embassy success story!
The Embassy is very outward-facing.
It's funny, though, because I could never see that happening at [two other houses] - those two houses are just too inward-facing for the projects we do. Which is beautiful. And I love being there. Because you're just surrounded by love and hugs.
What impact does it have in house to have an inward-facing vs outward-facing orientation? What are the pros and cons?
I feel like I've been in both, and I think you need both. I kind of came here thinking that part of my contribution to this house would be internal community building, as much as external.
The benefits of being internally focused is that it feels really nice. It feels great to come home to a super strong, huggy community. The problems that I see, is that as someone with more of a diverse identity: I honestly couldn't really relate to that. It feels like a super hippie thing to be so inner-facing. As an immigrant and someone who's spent parts of her life at various socioeconomic statuses: to limit our impact to ourselves feels not great to me, especially when our community tends to not be very diverse.
It also makes conflict way worse, and makes people moving out way worse. You just got caught up! I mean, like at [other house] we'd start fights about where to put the toaster. Every two weeks we'd have a two hour meeting. And when you think about it, that house didn't have any impact. Unlike here: we never have meetings and there's an entire Embassy Network with five houses around the world.
That being said, you need to come home and feel safe and comfortable. I love coming home and sharing a meal with somone. For me, cooking with people and talking in the kitchen is really important. You will burn out of a house if you can't come home after a crappy day and talk to someone.
Part of being able to like co-create something big outside of the house is being in a place where you want to collaborate with people. So I think you need both. But I think you get more diversity when you're at least partially outward facing.
What are the pros and cons of diversity in ideology?
One con is that it can be emotionally exhausting. I couldn't live with a Trump supporter. [Other house] is actually less progressive than this house in terms of political views, and that impacts diversity. I've known friends who would have lived there, but they were like, "Oh, I'm gonna be misgendered the entire time I live there". Or people who don't have the best understanding of mental health. Like people with depression tended to move out because others required that everyone be super excited and high energy all the time and they just didn't have the emotional intelligence to hold space for people with depression or introverts quite as well. So it's hard. Especially because once you start to go down a slope, no one wants to be that token person. And whoever leads recruiting can end up perpetuating things.
I think age diversity is really fucking important. You need young people, because they're energetic, and you need old people, because they help you realize that the world isn't going to end like every five minutes. [Laughing] it's true! Diversity in jobs can go either way. If you're all the same, it can be really cool because everyone nerds out about stuff. If you're super diverse, it's really fun.
Take diversity only if people can actually hold space for it. And that takes people like checking in with themselves: "Will I actually enjoy coming home if we have both introverts and extroverts? Or does this space always have to be party?"
How about diversity of socioeconomic background?
Hmm. Important, and difficult. It's difficult because I think income to some degree is kind of cultured. It affects what you eat, it affects what you wear, it affects how you speak sometimes; it affects a lot of things - where you went to school, etc. A lot of times people don't realize that when they say, like "fuck processed food," that someone of a lower-income background might never have had access to anything but processed food, and that you're shitting on their childhood. It's tough to navigate. It can't come from a place of pity, either.
Let's say one of your low-income friends says "I can't go to that party because the tickets are expensive". And there's two ways to be inclusive and respond to that friend. There's an "I'll pay for your ticket", and then there's "Cool, what can you afford to do, and I'll go with you." If you always have people doing the first, it's very mild fuck you. It's like - I'm going to stay on what I have access to, and not take any of the discomforts, and I'm just gonna bring you into my culture and my experience as opposed to like: "to have this friendship, I know that sometimes I'm gonna have to experience your life experience, which is different and means sometimes not going to stuff." Always offering to pay for shit for the one low-income person in the house eventually will make them feel like shit and creates a weird power dynamic. No one wants to be the house's charity person. So are people genuinely going to be cool with not always going out to eat not always ordering expensive food and sometimes cooking? You have to be willing to partake in this person's lived experiences!
Are there other nonintuitive cases in which holding space for a kind of diversity might be a different experience than you'd expect? What's it like for a straight person to hold space for LGBTQ person?
I think that staying on an emotional level on these topics can be hard. Something that hit me recently was that Supreme Court change. It can feel really isolating to have people be like "why is that so awful, don't worry, it's gonna be fine". People taking an experience to an intellectual level is really hard when you just want to like feel upset. Microaggressions don't feel rational, because it's not really about that thing - it's about like a whole other giant thing. It's also hard, because people are curious, too. They're like - "Oh, yes: tell me more about that...", for example, people wanted to debrief and talk to me on an intellectual level about the Orlando shooting. Like I grew up in Florida, and it was a shooting against Hispanic queer people. I just wanted to be upset, not be the explainer person.
On that topic. We have like these casual book recommendations for newcomers - Nonviolent Communication and Crucial Conversations.
Oh, oh - Conflict Is Not Abuse! It's a really good book. Really good book on the role of community and managing conflict. I read it after our shenanigans about kicking someone out of a past community.
By the way, I want communities to start thinking about relationships. So let's say someone has a relationship in your community, and then they break up: like, two people break up, well - who stays in community and who doesn't. So I'm writing community level agreements about what to expect from my community should two people day and go through a breakup.
When a housemate is disengaged
I want to ask you about governance. What are the pros and cons of doocracy, in your experience?
Well - [other house] did not execute it well, and so I used to think, it just didn't work [laughing]. In retrospect, the number one source of difficulty in a big house or in a doocracy is if the disparity of knowledge between people gets too large. Let's say you've been in a house for two years; you've now gone through a discussion about cleaning bathrooms three times over. And then a new person walks in full of ideas and with no experience.
You can burn two types of people out. You can burn out the doers with differences in knowledge, which it's a really bad cycle when someone goes down. Once someone feels unengaged, and like they haven't been participating, they feel guilty. So they pull away more, and then they spiral out.
How do you bring people back in when they're disengaged?
Exactly. A really earnest conversation with those people that isn't shaming. If you go down the path of shaming, which I've seen communities do, then they disengage more and more and then they move out.
What's a good way to frame that conversation?
Ask, "Hey - what's going on in your life"? Like, sometimes people aren't contributing because they have so much other shit going on. Like: "We really love when you show up in the space in these ways; the other night, I shared a dinner with you. And it just made me so happy when you did that. Here's what we know you're capable of what you could do more of. How do we help you with that?" Not passive aggressive sticky notes. I've seen like, three different houses go through a leaving notes phase.
Tlling the person that we really appreciate when they show up in this way, and looping them in. And this is where I think it's really bad: if, if someone needs to take a break, they should still stay on Slack and stay engaged in what's happening. Because if not, when they want to jump back in, they're gonna be like, "Cool! I took a three week break. Now, I'm ready to jump back in", and people are gonna be like, "Oh, we talked about that last week." And then they're gonna be like... OK, I should stay out.
What do you do if they don't participate even after such a conversation?
After a while there should be a conversation on whether this house meeting their needs. Are we cocreating something? There's an opportunity cost of living in community - like, you're taking the spot from someone else. You kind of have to choose there.
Distributed leadership best practices
The other thing that can happen, which really blows, which is why I like that Loomio has a set amount of time for proposals, is that the doers can't work siloed without a set amount of transparency. Let's say I don't tell anyone that I'm thinking of painting the room. And then I go off and buy the paint, do the research, find out what's non-toxic, do all this stuff. And I come back to paint this room, super stoked. And someone raises her hand and goes, "Hey, what about latex paint?" I'm gonna be like, look, I've already bought this, we're not opening that can of worms again. Yeah. And they're gonna be like: "What? Why are you being a dictator?" And I'll be like "you're underestimating that I already put five hours of work into this". So while it's really amazing that people are doing work, you need to let people know what you're doing and give them time to weigh in. Setting a timeframe is amazing. Like, "If you want to join this or have an opinion on this, you have 48 hours to weigh in". And that's when doocracy works well. And it's not 48 hours to shit on it. It's like: 48 hours to decide if you want to be part of the solution.
At [other house] sometimes people would just go rogue. And there wasn't a clear distinction on what needed community consensus and what didn't. Here, if it's reversible, then just do it and we'll test it for two weeks. And then we'll reverse it we don't like it and the doer has to put the energy into reversing it. [At that past house] it was a fuzzy line on which things needed consent - like do we have a family meeting to throw a party, or do you just post about a party on Slack? The line was way too blurry on what was or wasn't reversible.
A lot of things are reversible with enough effort. So anything that you're willing to put in the effort to reverse is considered reversible?
Yeah, exactly. Essentially what's not reversible is a new housemate or property damage.
Have a high bar for recruiting
How do you decide when to let someone in?
Ugh... recruiting is the quickest way to ruin friendships. OK. You have to be super transparent with the people you're recruiting and give rejections in person, if it's someone you know, and honestly. Don't lie to people. I've seen so many people be like - oh it's just like not a good time for us, we're like we're just not accepting more [specific house] people. I had someone do this to my friend: they told him we're just not accepting more [other house] people now and then like three weeks later they did accept another person, and he's like - now I know you lied to me.
How do you decide between this person who seems pretty great but you and you have a lot of information, you could do a vote, but there's only one spot - and then there's someone way earlier the pipeline, on whom we have no information, but they seem amazing.
I think you should only accept fuck yeses. What we do here is that everyone has to be yes and there have to be more "fuck yes, I'm so stoked" than yeses. And as soon as your bar is met you send an offer. Don't wait for someone else in the pipeline because that's a quick way to end up not filling spot. So just like set the bar high and then be grateful that you found one. And that bar's really high.
And you can tell people that! Tell them that the Archive has this arduous recruiting process, but one of the beautiful things about this place is that once you move in you know that everyone in this house was a yes and most were a fuck yes.
How long does your recruiting take? What interviews do you do?
Well, here it's been long because people here travel so much. At [a past house] it wasn't that long. It also depends on how often you're recruiting. It gets harder to get people super stoked to do recruiting when you're doing it all the time, and that's gonna be one of the growing pains. So have a really good written application and don't give everyone an interview - definitely have one or two people filter. And have a champion to each application who's super stoked, who can say "you have to meet this person" - a champion. If you allow every Craigslist person to come over for dinner then you're gonna have people stop wanting to have dinner at the house.
Don't waste your time on people who didn't even take their time on the application. And post it on the Haight St Commons page. Most people who ended up being amazing knew someone else. Yeah, so someone championing the person and then maybe like two or three rounds of dinners, or of coming over and meeting a few people, and if one person is a veto after the first one, then that's it! Just cut the person. And if someone comes over it's okay for someone to say I'm still undecided. I really believe that the person should come over at least twice.
When you interview people, are you looking for different things than in your application? Do you all different requirements?
I think I think everyone's looking for something slightly different. I think it's really good for people to be aligned on what they're looking for. Also for people to be in the mindset of "we're showing off our house and trying to win someone" instead of "I'll see if you're good enough to live here" cuz then a fuck yes does come through and then you scare them off. So becoming good at interviewing and set the person up for success.
I think everyone at least writing down what they're looking for and what questions they want to ask - that will help. Some big ones for me are "How much time do you think you'll be at home? What would be a contribution that you may really excited to do or what's a project you've taken on? What brings you energy?"
Sounds like the Archive would get along well with the Embassy.