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Our Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Lots to Learn!

Thoughts from Cohousing ABQ member Kel West

It turns out that building a community, especially from scratch, is harder work than many of us imagined. There are myriad pieces to think about, discuss, plan for. Finding people who are interested in joining the initial effort, drafting values and goals to make sure everyone is aligned on the fundamentals of what the community will be, finding the land, finding money to purchase the land, planning the outline of the buildings and gardens, endless (yes, truly endless) discussions about interior spaces, finding a builder and/or developer, securing financing, finding enough additional people that it becomes financially possible to proceed…

The exciting news is, we are so, so close! We have land, we have 20 households who have financially bought in, we have a developer and builder, and we have a social construct on how to make decisions together. We have been through conflicts, and come out stronger on the other side.

However, there is one big elephant in the zoom room. And that is that in spite of our stated commitment to diversity, while we at Cohousing ABQ represent a range of ages, cultural and religious backgrounds, and have varying cognitive and physical abilities, we have much less economic diversity and gender diversity, and no racial diversity. We are now entirely white and have only one LBGTQ member – and, to state the obvious, with our costs having risen 30% during the pandemic and sources of outside funding for low-income housing unavailable, we won’t be in a position to offer any units to families near the poverty line either.

Cohousers gather for the beloved monthly ritual of brunch at Bike-In Coffee

As we have contemplated what to do, it has become clear that we are just at the beginning of our journey in understanding all of this. When we asked some of those former members who are BIPOC to review our updated messaging about welcoming diversity, we found some woeful gaps in our own understanding and perspective. These members were very willing to help us work through those gaps. (In fact they had known that at some point they would have to! They had considered this when committing to the project, and only left because we were taking too long to build the darned thing.) We see that in order to do this well, we would have needed to bake in a strategy and education for ourselves around diversity, equity, and inclusion much earlier in the process. And our conversations with our former members make it clear that it would potentially be harmful to create a strategy around this quickly, without taking the time necessary to truly understand how to build this culture as a community.

We have done well on age diversity, with lots of children, something some cohousing communities struggle with, tending to trend more gray-haired. One reason for this, I think, is that our founding family had children. No one wants to be the first and possibly only family with children.

Similarly, it would be a leap of faith for many to be the first person of color or the sole representative of a minority. It could be exhausting if the community has not done work up front to make sure that it is truly welcoming and will not put the burden on minority members to educate other members.

Art activities have been a hit with the kids when the weather is too cold to spend the whole day outside

It is true that lack of diversity in cohousing is a widespread concern—not just in the U.S. but in Canada and Europe too. People in intentional communities tend to be educated and have a good bit of privilege. In fact, 95 percent of cohousing members are white and 66 percent hold a graduate degree, according to a 2011 study conducted by Angela Sanguinetti, a researcher at the University of California, Davis. The reasons for this are complex.

So where do we go from here?

We know there is not a fast or easy one-stop method to creating a community that is inclusive of diversity, and we know the process must be sensitively navigated. What is also belatedly becoming clear is that there is already a considerable body of knowledge available to draw on.

I’d like to share a personal example here to illustrate how we learn from people who have been doing the work for many years.

In the summer of 2020, I decided to go on a 6-day river rafting trip. A friend recommended a company in Utah and to my delight I discovered that they were offering their first ever LBGTQ+ trip. (Shout out to Holiday River Expeditions!). The trip was co-sponsored by The Venture Out Project, which leads wilderness trips for the queer and transgender community. I am a cis-gendered lesbian, and while I have had trans acquaintances, been an ally for trans coworkers, and have paid attention to trans issues, it was eye-opening to experience expert facilitation in how to navigate gender issues and be a better ally. I learned, for example, how much smoother it is to include pronouns as part of a round of introductions, and how to more skillfully navigate incidences of misgendering, whether it is my own mistake or someone else’s that happens in my presence. (We also had a number of BIPOC folks on that trip and discussed the lack of opportunities for safe and comfortable wilderness experiences for

Intergenerational learning in cohousing takes many forms, including quilting

the BIPOC community, which resulted in Holiday River adding a BIPOC affinity trip to their offerings). It was a transformative trip for many of us (one of us even got a tattoo to commemorate). Being in a safe and supported social environment is a special experience.

My point being, that while I actually have no experience with being trans, I can learn from others how to help create and hold a safer space. Different marginalized groups have different experiences, so it can feel like a lot to take on. However, there are specific learnings, strategies, and existing experts who can serve as guides.

So while we are late to the game, we remain committed and recognize that laying the proper groundwork in our community will require seeking out these voices to help us do the work. For example:

  • Crystal Byrd Farmer is a diversity consultant who was interviewed on the Inside Community Podcast. She is also offering upcoming workshops with the Cohousing Institute which we are encouraging all community members to attend. We plan to discuss our takeaways at a community meeting afterward.

  • The Token: Common Sense Ideas for Increasing Diversity in Your Organization by Crystal Bird Farmer is a pithy, funny and to-the-point introduction to issues, which we will discuss in a future meeting of our book club.

  • We will participate in being the first audience for a workshop on neurodiversity with Meghan Bonde of Team Neurodivergent, which she will present at the 2024 National Cohousing Conference being held in Denver August 1-4, 2024.

  • Several members already attended a training on Transgender Cultural Fluency presented by Adrien Lawyer with the Transgender Resource Center of NM (see one member’s reaction below!).

An immediate action we will take is to give priority for our few remaining units to families (inclusive of nontraditional families) with children, and also to people from historically under-represented groups (QTBIPOC).

We will continue the work of how to make our cohousing community more inclusive, and how we can be allies in the diverse communities of Albuquerque. If you feel moved to offer support or resources, please reach out!

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