Intentional Community

Staten Island, New York

One of Ganas original members Michael Johnson 

Ganas Community started in 1980 with the intention of figuring out ways to establish effective communication with one another. As membership evolves, so does learning ways of cooperation, caring for one another, and sharing resources. Their purpose is to bring reason and emotion together in daily problem solving in order to create their world, with love, the way they want it to be. 

June 12, 2020

Cooperative Journal

What inspired the development of Ganas community?

Michael Johnson

Well the Ganas community, located in Staten Island, New York got started in 1980 and we weren't thinking in terms of starting an intentional community. In fact, hardly any of the original six or seven people even knew that entity called "intentional community." That happened later on.

Basically everyone of that original group had been concerned in various kinds of ways, through various kinds of experiences, with the fact that people who really want to do something special and they want to be in it together, constantly run into the problems that anyone is going to run into when they work together or try to create something together. Far more often than not, they wouldn't really be able to deal with those problems right at a certain point. What usually happens when they get to that point is, if the project continued, it fell back into the old pattern of decisions being made behind closed doors, and the bitching and moaning happening out by the water-cooler, symbolically speaking.

We were wanting to come together, work and live together, and the objective was to kind of be a laboratory in which we were both guinea pigs and the lab coats, because we knew if we started doing something together, the problems would come up. Why is it so difficult to talk to each other about what's going on, and what's wanted, and what we can do to make things work better?

One of us was a longtime psychotherapist and a group therapist. She had started a private school to develop a trend called Human Relations Educator and eventually evolved a thing called feedback learning. That was basically: what can we do to learn how to be available to receive information about my own performance, how I'm impacting other people in the group or in the situation, or whatever? How am I impacting myself that's frustrating me from getting the things that I want in my life? To be able to be more open to that kind of information, and to learn how to give that information as well as possible.

That's how it all started. A group of people that wanted to engage in that project.


Two out of the seven residential buildings

How well do you guys do with open communication?

If you and I are in some kind of a real strong disagreement, my way of respecting you and your way of respecting me involves hearing me. If I'm not willing to hear you, I'm not respecting you. I think that people really want to respect each other, but when somebody has something to say that really threatens me because I do have my identity, there's a certain fixedness to it. My basic security is anchored in many ways to who I think I am. Whether that's logical or not logical.

The conflict comes when there's something about what you're saying to me that's disturbing me. So the question is, how can you say that, because that's what's going on for you. That's your truth, your reality. How can I become able to accept and receive your reality, so I can then evaluate it? I can't evaluate it unless I really get it because I don't know what I'm evaluating unless I get it. I don't have to agree with you. My respect for you is giving you this place to get your point, your experience, through to me. You're respecting me  to respect the struggle that I might have in doing that. We have a group of people with us who are all contributing and helping to do that.

I would rapidly add "if we can," because sometimes we don't. I think that we've all embedded and embodied cultures of our previous situations that are full of unresolved conflicts because we don't know how to get to them in a constructive way.

That was the whole point of the project. I've been learning more and more about how complicated and challenging it is. The experiment has worked enormously well in terms of, "that's involved, too? That's another part of it? That's another piece?" Then that opens up more questions. You know, it isn't that we've come up, "Ahh, here is the way." It's just like we're trying to do it as well as we can and we've been able to do that for 40 years. That's rather substantial, I think.

 How much property does Ganas own   and how did you acquire it?

At the present time we have seven residential buildings and five commercial buildings. We have one combination residential-commercial building that is being leased by another group so that's no longer part of the community. 

The question, how did we acquire it really opens up into a major part of the whole culture. The original group, very soon after we got together, made a very clear decision that this is probably going to be a lifelong project and we would like to be part of it. So we decided to pool all our resources. Money, skills, heart, everything, as much as possible. Out of that original group, there was one who worked on Wall Street and one who was a medical doctor and hospital administrator. They were making rather large salaries and all of this was being pooled.

One of the guiding principles from the very beginning also was that everyone's work engaged in this project is of equal value. There isn't anything that's more important than what the other person is doing so all of that sharing was valued as an equal. We've included inheritance in that pooling to some extent. There's so much stuff we have and it's been kind of, a flexible item.

It is through the income sharing that was part of this, sharing everything that we accumulated the capital, so that when more people came we would buy another house. We decided to open up a retail business and we had the capital to buy the building. Prices at that time were much more realistic than they are now. Over a period of about 10, 12 years, we went from owning one house to owning ten and five commercial buildings. When we decided to step back from the intense focus of the research project, we started also to reduce the size of the community, to bring the scope of work down to a more manageable level. Since then, instead of having ten residentials we had seven.

Thrift store that is ran by Gana

Did you notice that there still wasn't a sort of hierarchy, despite having people that had higher societal status in terms of income versus those that didn't and what they contributed?

Well, I'm going to have to step back a little bit to give more context. When we started the project, we found people who were attracted to the project in various kinds of ways. Most of the people that were attracted to it, and joined with us were not interested in pooling their resources, as we were. 

We had people who were living here, who were very interested in the project but in a more limited way, and over the years that expanded. We had people who were really interested in living here because it was a really cool place to live, but they were not that interested in the project. So they didn't become part of the project, but they were within the culture that embraced the whole community. The people involved in the project were really the ones generating and developing the culture that we developed.

That's probably one of the key things, at least for me, that I've learned is that you create a way of life by creating a culture. You generate the structures to serve the way of life you want. The culture has a much more primary role than the structures, because if the structures aren't serving the way you want to work, you change them. The structures impact the way of life so it's a reciprocal thing but the really dynamic force of an organization or a community, is the culture.

A lot of the people who came who weren't really interested in the project, that kind of covered a whole range of people who were just there. It's very affordable and that's served a very strong purpose. Many people have come because they had a project, a short term project, or something, in New York City and they found this to be a very convenient way to live on a temporary six month, eight month basis, whatever. We've had people who come to spend a month just visiting New York City. We've had people who just say, "you know, this is really cool, I like it and I just just want to be here. And I don't necessarily want to be part of anything in any kind of major way." So we've always had this range of people within the life of the community.

Do you think that having different tiers for people that are involved in the community can help it be more long lasting?

 I don't know how much, you know, that plays into the factor of long-lasting. We're definitely not an egalitarian community, our decision-making rests with the core group and an extended group of people who want to be active in the management of the community.

Five days a week, in the morning, we have a meeting called the planning session. This is where we try to deal with whatever needs to be dealt with in the operations of the community in terms of relationships, policies, pragmatic, all the logistics, whatever it is involved. This is where feedback learning and being open to communication and the whole idea of wanting to hear the other person, what they're thinking, is sustained and practiced.

We found that if there is a conflict, and the people can move into a space where they will want to hear the others, then we can think together and then we can resolve the conflict. We don't always do that, you know, but we have a lot of substantial success in doing that, and that's really been the key piece -- from my perspective the key piece that's fed the longevity of the community and also the balance that we have.

Rather than prevent conflict, we allow it. That's part of life, we do our best in working with it and making the most of it, because it also brings real opportunity. It opens up your mind to different ways of thinking.

Really trying to get a sense of what this means to the other, and what it means to the people who are being impacted so that everyone is getting more information about the full scope and dynamics underlying the issue. A lot of times the conflict isn't with the actual strategic, policy, or practical implementations. It's about there's something else going on between you and me that's not working here, that's what we need to get to. I think it's one of the major shortcomings in the overall society that people just don't know how to deal with those things effectively.

90% of intentional communities fail within the first year, how have you sustained Ganas for 40 years and how will it continue?

We've sustained it by being able to stick to trying to live it. We've been able to develop enough skills, caring, concern, connection with each other, and to value what it is that we've been learning while appreciating everyone's efforts to incorporate this so that we can have a richer and fuller life. As well as trying to help people who come in who are like, "Oh my God, what are you doing?" to understand what we're doing.

The key to sustaining is we're primarily interested in listening and understanding. From there we can start to think together and work out what needs to be worked out. I think many things fail, not because the original purpose is off, not because the desire for it to work is off, or a lot of times the necessary physical and financial resources are adequate enough to get going. It is that we just simply can't deal with this stuff that we have to deal with between us, without it turning into something more negative than it was before.

How has being in New York City been a challenge for being a community?

Well, there's an assumption that it's a challenge because it's New York City. I think almost all of us would say, "God it's wonderful!" Most of those six or seven people who started it were out in San Francisco when they made the decision that they wanted to do this.

I said, "Well look, I mean, New York City is the best place to do it. You can really be crazy in New York City where you can't be so crazy in other places." So the choice was to do it in New York City. There's just fascinating resources in New York City and New York City exists because it's able to manage an enormous amount of diversity. New York City, definitely for me, it has been a major asset for doing this.

 What is the process of becoming a   member of Ganas?

Right now, given the pandemic, everything is stopped in terms of new people coming in. The basic way it has been is, "hey, you sound like you have an interesting thing going on. I want to come and live there, or come and check it out so I can see if it's really something I want to do." "All right, come. Come and find out what it works for you." You will have to have enough money to cover the monthly dues, which is basically $920, and then a deposit of $920. That cost covers everything you get living here, which is  five cooked dinners a week, toilet paper, toothpaste, and a stocked kitchen. Each house has its own kitchen that is stocked five days a week. Internet, social life, you know, the whole nine yards -- or the whole nine hundred twenty yards. A lot of people say, "I can't do that and I need to have work." Well, we can't provide work. We can only provide the work that we actually have. We have two stores now and then we have staff that does the maintenance work, housekeeping, books, etc. for the community. There has to be an opening within that range for us to say we can offer you some kind of work.

 What is the process of becoming a   member of Ganas?

I'll answer that from the perspective of an individual. Here I am. I'm a member of this community. What is the best thing I can do consistently to nurture the community?  I would answer that question by an idea that we've been really good with from very early on, and that is, say "yes" if something is requested of you, unless there is a good reason to say "no."

Let your first response be "yes." You want that? What can I do to help you with getting it? That simple practice means people are constantly engaged in mutual benefit, mutuality. I mean, there's many more answers, many more pieces to it, but just to give a very simple, succinct answer, I would go back to that one and this has played a big role in the success of our community.

What is the greatest benefit in nurturing an intentional community?

The other day in the planning session, we were talking about a very major decision, and it had a lot of complex pieces to it. I really didn't know how to get a hold of it or how I thought about it or to really get an adequate understanding, until we had just a 45 minute go-round in which everyone was saying whatever it was that was really prominent for them in that moment.

It was just like I got clearer and clearer about the problem, what's all involved in it. I became more and more able to think about it. After it was over, I just said, "Hey, you guys, I just want to say this, because I’m sensing this at this moment, I really like being part of this group, because I can think so much better than I can by myself."

I think I can also say that I would never have been in the three businesses that we started unless there were people who wanted to do those businesses. I would have never been engaged in this project unless there were people who wanted to do it and we came together to do it and it's just been such a rich experience for me.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you have given yourself when you first started the community?

 "Dude, if you really want to do this. Strap yourself in. It's gonna be one hell of a trip."


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