It's midnight on Saturday, May 20, in the parking lot of a natural-foods supermarket on the Eastside, and two of the members of the Emma Goldman Finishing School (egfs.org), a 10-year-old, 10-member commune on Beacon Hill, are doing their weekly food shopping. Emma's Sasha Berkman (not his real name), 32, who co-founded and works for a nonprofit computer collective, is inside the supermarket Dumpster methodically going through the bags of garbage. An intensely skinny man who suffers from Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammation of the intestinal tract, Berkman is wearing gloves with blue rubber palms and cotton backing and carries a non-battery-operated flashlight that requires frequent noisy cranking to work. The Dumpster stinks. As Berkman sorts through the garbage, the sound of glass breaking reverberates off of the Dumpster's metallic walls. He starts handing out treasures to another of Emma's members, Thea Schnase, 25, and a houseguest from Canada, who are standing next to the Dumpster dressed in beat-up work clothes. First he passes out jars of curry sauce. Next comes cooked butternut squash in a microwaveable bag, then a plastic container of muffins, apples, and pints of organic strawberries. "Ooooh! Smoothies!" says Schnase enthusiastically.
There is a lot of noise and activity from the store's maintenance area, which is behind a chain-link fence next to the parking lot. "What are these people doing working at midnight on a Saturday? We should protest!" says Berkman. "If they come out, you can leave me."
Shortly, three supermarket workers—two young men and a young woman—walk out carrying more bags of garbage. Berkman disappears into the back of the Dumpster and stops moving. Schnase tries to act casually and greets the supermarket workers with a friendly hello.
The young female worker seems genuinely confused. "May I ask what you are doing?" she asks.
The Canadian houseguest answers in a timid voice, "Dumpstering."
One of the young male workers gets upset. "You are not supposed to be doing this. It's not particularly legal."
The young woman says, "There is broken glass!"
Schnase, who deals with lots of explosive situations at her job at a social service agency, puts on a very reassuring tone. "We are being very careful," she says.
Apparently satisfied, the workers toss their garbage bags into the Dumpster and return to the supermarket. The three Dumpster divers finish up quickly and get back into Emma's 1992 biodiesel VW Jetta.
"That Dumpster is usually a lot more productive," complains Berkman. He counsels the others on how to deal with supermarket workers: "In the future, we should say we are graduate students conducting a study on waste."
Commune members gather for their weekly house meeting. Coming to consensus can be hard work.
The Dumpster revolution will not be televised. Unlike Seattle in 1999, there will be no dramatic shots of young people in black, their faces hidden by bandanas, heaving newspaper boxes through Starbucks' windows while the secretary of state seethes in her hotel room unable to get through the tear gas to meetings of the World Trade Organization. Instead, Emma's members are organizing their daily lives to provide a rebuke and an alternative to current American cultural norms. The most colorful aspect of this experiment is Dumpster diving, but to them it's probably the least important. Much more of their time and energy is spent in hours of meetings where they carefully construct consensus about many aspects of their communal existence. Berkman, whose work involves supporting radical movements in Third World countries where death threats are not uncommon, and who therefore asked Seattle Weekly to use a pseudonym, explains the idea behind the commune's practice. "The theory is: Revolution is not the moment that you seize power. The revolution is the building of day-to-day alternative systems and structures."
This approach to revolution is not new. The 19th century was filled with utopian communities that sought alternatives to the emergence of industrial capitalism. More recently, the commune movement of the 1960s experimented with different living and working arrangements as a "counterculture" to mainstream society.
While Emma's members are respectful of the past, they're trying to learn from its failures. For instance, Berkman believes that the debauched life of heavy drug use and casual sex associated with the '60s contributed to the movement's downfall. This gives Emma's a puritanical feel. The ironically named "finishing school" forbids the use of illegal drugs, for instance. And let's get a common misconception out of the way: There's no "free love" at Emma's house. The members are in fact somewhat conventional in personal terms; the commune consists of three long-term, monogamous, heterosexual couples and four single people.
What distinguishes Emma's commune is, first of all, location, location, location—most places like Emma's in America are rural (see the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, thefec.org). Emma's is literally a stone's throw from the head- quarters of Amazon.com on Beacon Hill. The two institutions represent polar- opposite approaches to the dilemmas of the 21st century. Amazon.com is the latest manifestation of capitalism's revolutionary nature, where vast computer networks carry consumer-based society to new heights. Emma's is a tiny grassroots revolution that refuses to die; it has survived for 10 years and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. While millions click and buy, Emma's stubbornly and quietly advocates an entirely different way of life. Emma's is dedicated to the creation of a society free of capitalism, patriarchy, atomized individualism, and hierarchy.
It's no coincidence that the commune's namesake, Emma Goldman (1860–1940), is America's best-known anarchist, famed for her courageous advocacy of free speech, workers' rights, sexual liberation, and feminism. The commune is fleshing out the ideals of that most misunderstood political philosophy: anarchism. This form of libertarian socialism is not about creating chaos but about building a world based on agreements that are collectively worked out by ordinary people of their own free will, not bureaucrats of the state or the CEOs of large corporations. Anarchist practice reached its high-water mark during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), when collectives carried out a revolution in Republican Spain that involved running much of the country in accordance with their libertarian principles before being crushed by the twin terrors of Joseph Stalin's authoritarian statism and Francisco Franco's militaristic fascism. At Emma's house, the revolution means constructing a lot of rules that you all have to agree to live by.
Rules for Radicals
Emma's members are white, middle-class, college-educated, dedicated nonviolent revolutionaries, currently between the ages of 23 and 40
If you live at Emma's, you do not have to work at a paying job, but you can't spend more than $15,000 a year, no matter how much you earn. You cannot own a car, but for four hours of labor a week, you can join Emma's car co-op with three vehicles, all equally decrepit. There are home-cooked vegetarian meals most nights, though you have to be willing to eat food partially harvested from Dumpsters (somewhere between 10 percent and 20 percent of the community's food is scavenged). Illegal drugs aren't allowed, but the commune home brews its own beer. All decisions are made by consensus. Every week there is a three-hour house meeting where all the final decisions for the commune are made. You can't be lazy and live at Emma's, and it helps if you have a good sense of humor. Emma's members are white, middle-class, college-educated, dedicated nonviolent revolutionaries, currently between the ages of 23 and 40, trying to concretely realize their utopian vision in the middle of a dystopian world of war, famine, disease, and ecological devastation. Berkman explains what they are doing by quoting an old anarchist adage: We are building the new society in the shell of the old.
Emma's is the brainchild of Sheldon Cooper, 38, the executive director of the Homestead Community Land Trust (www.homesteadclt.org), a nonprofit housing group that acquires land for residential purposes. Cooper does not talk or look like a revolutionary. A tall, thin man with a very gentle manner, smiling brown eyes, and well-groomed, dark-brown short hair and beard, he favors bright button-down shirts and khakis on workdays. In 1995, Cooper, who at the time was a kayak instructor and political activist, self-published a pamphlet titled "Against Better Judgment: A Proposal for a Resistance Community in Seattle." In the pamphlet, Cooper, sketched out his vision for a residential urban community dedicated to income sharing, nonviolence, egalitarian self-governance, revolution, voluntary simplicity, vegetarianism, and ecological sustainability. The next year, his friend Bob Kubiniec, a housing activist, heard about a condemned apartment building on Beacon Hill that had been uninhabited for around three years.
The place was a wreck, but Cooper, Kubiniec, and three others ended up buying it in August 1996 for $141,850. In keeping with their egalitarian ethos, people contributed what they could to the down payment of $11,850—two paid several thousand, while one paid only $100. Emma's is housed in a four-story, 5,500-square-foot building with 12 small bedrooms, a small kitchen, four bathrooms, and lots of common space. The building was once a single-family home, was then converted into apartments, and now has been converted into an incubator for a radical experiment. Cooper recalls Emma's origins. "A group fell together around the house," he says. "We took this document I had written and tweaked it a lot. The basic values were what people were buying into. The implementation was more up for debate."
Cooper is the only person who has been part of Emma's for all of the last 10 years. In that time, 18 people have come and gone for a variety of reasons, personal and political.
What sets Emma's apart from other alternative communities in Seattle and its suburbs (see Northwest Intentional Communities Association, www.ic.org/nica, for a good list of other communes) is also what attracts new members and ultimately drives many of them away: income sharing and voluntary simplicity.
Share and Share Alike
All the residents, including Jamie Lee Northern (seated) and Katie Howenstine, owe the community 118 hours of work per month.
Emma's has adopted a modified form of income sharing called labor sharing. The fundamental principle is that an hour of anyone's time is equal to an hour of anyone else's time. In the community, and in the world its members envision, an hour that Cooper spends as executive director of a nonprofit is equal to the hour that Berkman spends taking garbage out of a Dumpster. As Cooper wrote, "Sharing income, resources, and property is a direct affront to our capitalistic ideology of the individual, and thus is a scary idea to entertain."
The labor-sharing system is also set up to honor domestic labor, which in our society has been mostly performed by women and has been grossly undervalued.
Katie Howenstine, 32, is a science- fiction writer who works part time in a group home for mentally ill adults and has been a member of Emma's for five years. "I'm one of the few people who loves the fact that we write our labor down to the exact 15 minutes. It's a feminist act," says Howenstine. She believes that careful tracking of household labor—cleaning, cooking, gardening, and shopping—eliminates the invisibility of women's domestic work. Says Howenstine, "When it's loose, a lot of the labor falls on women." At Emma's, Howenstine finds a balance in her life that is incredibly rewarding. "I work part time. I do work around the house that I love: social justice work, cooking, and gardening. It's very fulfilling. Then I have a lot of time to write. It has a nice holistic sense. It's composing a life."
Currently, each of Emma's members owes the community 118 hours a month. Those can be worked entirely inside the house—at the moment, two members have chosen that option—or nearly entirely outside the house at a paying job. The exception is that everyone must help clean the common areas.
People who receive income from paying jobs turn over all of their wages to the commune. In exchange for their income and household labor, members receive food, shelter, health insurance, transportation (bus passes and car co-op), a modest retirement savings, and educational expenses, including payments on student loans. Members also receive a small personal allowance, currently maxed out at $417 a month, for clothing, entertainment, hobbies, and the like. The living expenses for each member add up to around $15,000 annually, which puts them in the lowest 10 percent of income for individuals in Seattle. For Emma's members, their voluntary poverty is a living critique of capitalist consumerism.
Any money that the community receives over and above expenses and allowances is loaned to a "social justice fund" (members who leave are reimbursed over time for their financial contributions). Currently at around $100,000, the fund is part of the group's plans to help like-minded people start revolutionary projects in Seattle. "We have a distinctly expansionist strategy," says Parke Burgess, 40, a member for the last three and a half years. Burgess explains that Emma's members hope to help jump-start dozens of residential communities and worker-run collectives in the area. "Hopefully, there will be a meat-eating commune or one where they all smoke cigarettes. Our hope is to create a microcosm of Seattle in these many communities. They could be residential or a food distribution system or a zero-interest bank or risk pools instead of conventional insurance. That's a huge focus of our hope and dreams for this institution." At the moment, though, Emma's is the only local example of the world its members envision.
The Drab Reality
"There is intense emotional energy; oftentimes it's positive, sometimes it's not. There is not a lot of hippie energy here."
So, what does the revolution look like on an everyday basis?
From a physical standpoint, it's pretty drab. Even after 10 years and countless hours of labor, Emma's house looks like a dump. Three of the sides are covered with a hideous green asbestos siding that needs a paint job (one member reportedly moved out when the group refused to paint the house). The back of the house has prettier wood siding, but it's painted different colors as if someone had started a paint job but never bothered to finish it. The most prominent feature of the front yard is a Plexiglas cover for a pickup truck that lays molding next to the stairs. The stairs themselves are rotten enough that their replacement seems like a safety concern. Inside, most individuals' rooms have personality and life, but the common spaces are mostly barren: There is little decoration on the walls, and the furniture looks like a collection of mismatched items from Goodwill.
Early on, the group decided not to invest money in renovating the house but to rely on sweat equity. That was the breaking point for Jan Munger, an original member who stayed just a year. Says Munger, "We could have gotten loans. The mortgage was pretty small. Take on a larger debt and extend it over 30 years." The group felt that incurring more debt for a nicer home would interfere with the goal of building up the social justice fund.
Kristen Walsh, who moved out last fall, says the unaesthetic surroundings influenced her decision to relocate. "I want more say in my surroundings. I would want to spend $100 on a nicer couch instead of living with the one we have."
Material things just don't seem to concern Cooper. After 10 years, the walls of his room are bare except for a tacked up map of Puget Sound. "One of my lenses that I look through a lot: There are a lot of people who have a way lower standard of living than we do," says Cooper. "Our standard of living in this country is not something that can be sustained for the whole world."
A Spreadsheet Commune
On a personal level, Emma's revolution isn't particularly warm. It is not a family-style commune. Addy Adwell, 25, who works with formerly homeless women and has lived at Emma's for nearly two years, says, "We have very sarcastically referred to ourselves as a 'spreadsheet commune.' We have a spreadsheet for everything."
While Emma's members see that as a joke, it actually is a pretty apt way of describing the way that they organize their home life.
As former member Munger puts it, "It's like a group marriage without the sex." She also notes that one other early member moved out when he decided that he wanted to learn how to play bass guitar. Says Munger, "It didn't fit into the spreadsheet."
It isn't that Emma's members don't care about one another, but it's more that they don't form the emotionally intimate bonds that we associate with family members or close friends. Monica Fisk, 25, a graduate student and landscaper, says Adwell, whom she knew before moving into the house, is her best friend. "I'm not really close with anyone else in the house."
The community does not exchange much physical affection. Says Burgess, "We are not a family-style community where everyone hugs and kisses. We are all fairly private in terms of our personal lives. A certain intimacy develops—there is intense emotional energy; oftentimes it's positive, sometimes it's not. There is not a lot of hippie energy here."
In fact, the members joke about other "intentional" communities where things are more warm and fuzzy: "It's time for lunch: Let's all hold hands and sing a song about Mother Earth!"
Not surprisingly, there currently are no children in the house. However, Berkman and Howenstine, partners for 12 years, and Cooper and his partner of 10 years, Johanna Hulick, 38, a registered nurse and Emma member for seven years, are considering having children.
"I would like to have one kid . . . maybe," says Howenstine. "I really don't want a nuclear family. It seems like potential for all kinds of trouble. It would be better for me as a parent, and better for a kid," to parent in a community.
Cooper says, "Child care is a totally undervalued thing. Our system would value that like any other labor. It would make parenting be supported by the house." He sees pluses and minuses to having children in a communal setting. On the positive side, there would be lots of people to help out with child care and lots of opportunities for a child to form relationships with adults other than their parents and children other than their siblings. On the downside, the lack of stability among the commune's population could be very difficult emotionally for a child.
Cooper recognizes that the character of the community would undergo a drastic change with the introduction of children. "The house will be noisier and messier, and kids will be there." He also notes that the voluntary poverty is harder for parents to maintain than for childless adults. That proved decisive for Kristen Walsh, 38, who was a member for three years, and her husband, Brandon Faloona, who moved out before the birth of their son, Azure. They now own their own home in a co-housing community. Says Walsh, "Ultimately, I do believe property is theft, yet I want some security for myself and my child."
Original member Kubiniec, who left five years ago after five years of residence, now has three children and a stepdaughter. "You want to be generous with your kids. That austere an arrangement would interfere with that. I'm not comfortable making my children suffer for my deviant political beliefs," says Kubiniec.
Emma's members are determined to find a way to have children be part of their commune. Says Adwell, "Having children is something people do. It's like eating. It has to be something that we figure out."
Maynard G. Gandhi?
While the commune members ponder the integration of children into their midst, they still are figuring out how to make their system work with the members they already have. Consider the case of Mitchell Johnson, 23, a member of Emma's for four months.
Johnson looks like a blond, grungier version of the 1960s TV beatnik Maynard G. Krebs. He has a fringe of short, unkempt hair that seemingly grows all the way around his head from his chin to his pate. He likes to go barefoot, and his feet are frequently filthy. Thin and freckled, he favors old slacks with the chain of his pocket watch peeking out.
Johnson combines the impressive knowledge of a science, math, and computer geek, the philosophical earnestness of a young man determined to live out his ideals, and the uncertainty of a youth who is trying to get comfortable in his own skin.
After Johnson quit his job as a computer programmer for the United States Forest Service, he immersed himself more deeply in an alternative life. Says Johnson, "I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't work for money anymore. I don't have to have money to live." He and his partner, Jamie Lee Northern, had known about Emma's for years and decided to become members. He takes Mahatma Gandhi as his model, "'Be the change you want to see in the world.' Try to be a good person first; make your community good, then your city, then your state. There's definitely a huge need and place for large-scale social movements, but I'm into the lifestyle politics thing."
Johnson opted to work entirely within the community rather than take another paying job. The problem is, it is hard to imagine Johnson spending 118 hours a month on anything other than what he feels like doing without some kind of external authority. Some days he will be inclined to do hard physical labor, and some days he might be more inclined toward contemplation.
This produces a little bit of tension with other members. One of the main tasks that Johnson is supposed to perform is the construction of concrete walls in the backyard. Of course, Emma's is relying on scavenged materials—free surplus broken-up concrete from Craigslist—that make the task more difficult. One or two members check Craigslist postings, another couple of people drive out in Emma's truck to pick up the concrete, and Johnson is supposed to lead the construction of the wall.
Good Walls Make Good Neighbors
Emma's first work party for the wall was scheduled for Monday, May 8, at 2 p.m. When it first came up over dinner the night before, Johnson looked positively panicked. "I don't know," he said. "If it's raining, it's canceled."
Other members bristled. Cooper said, "Really? There are lots of different levels of rain. Light rain shouldn't slow things down."
Monday afternoon is clear and finds Johnson in the backyard looking stressed out in front of a large pile of jagged pieces of concrete. Northern is weeding the garden vigorously. Johnson is trying to break a large piece of concrete in two by scoring a line across it and dropping another piece on top of it. He talks about the task with confidence, "I did stone sculpture for awhile. It's a ruthless discipline." His body language and pained facial expression reveal mostly insecurity, however. He drops one piece of concrete on top of the other to no effect other than an ear-shattering thud and a cloud of dust. He tries again, looking more worried. Again no success. The third time, however, the concrete breaks perfectly along his line. Clearly relieved, Johnson talks about the purpose of the wall. "The neighbors run over our garden with their big SUVs," says Johnson. "We don't want to exclude people, but we don't want them to be destructive." Northern chimes in, "Keeping SUVs out of the garden is a revolutionary activity."
While the work party continues, Latino men in huge SUVs drive in and out of the parking spaces for the apartment building directly across the alley from Emma's. They don't respond to the friendly greetings from Emma's members. A gray-haired Asian-American man wearing long pink rubber gloves methodically goes through the apartment building's Dumpsters, sorting out all the recyclables.
There is a strong smell of urine in the air. "One of the neighbors dumps their kitty litter back here," says Johnson. He hacks at the ground with a broken pickax; the ax itself is only loosely attached to the handle that is broken in half. Oil stains darken the soil. "This is our own little backyard superfund site," says Johnson.
After a couple hours, the wall begins to take shape as Johnson smooths out the ground and tentatively piles pieces of concrete on top of one another.
Two other house members, Burgess and Adwell, join the work party. Howenstine brings down snacks: sunflower seeds toasted with tamari, roasted almond butter, carrot sticks, a huge Dumpstered jar of chocolate candies, grape juice, beer, and wine.
An intense debate ensues over how high the wall should be. Burgess and Northern want the wall to be 3 feet high, Johnson is worried that it is too unstable and will fall down. "It's hard and in many cases not possible," he insists.
The debate goes round and round for quite a while.
Finally, Burgess says with frustration, "When do we reach the point of diminishing returns in terms of analysis? How about just building the damn thing."
Northern takes over the wall building. She is marvelous at it. She heaves the concrete around confidently, finding the right pieces to stack on top of one another. "I'm loving it because it's like a puzzle," she says. The wall starts climbing higher quickly.
Fulfill Your Quota
Another commune member: a 17-year-old box turtle named Stan.
Three weeks later, the wall is still unfinished, and the lack of progress comes up again in a house meeting.
Emma's members are gathered in their living room for their weekly three-hour, consensus-based meeting. Berkman sprawls out on a couch. Adwell, Fisk, and Northern sit on the floor doing dance stretches. Howenstine sits alone on a rocking chair, moving back and forth gently. Johnson is sitting on a couch running the meeting and looking uncomfortable. Members have put their items on an agenda and are painstakingly working their way through a long list. The tension in the room sparks and flashes. Finishing the construction of the backyard walls has been designated the house's highest priority, but very little has happened since the first work party.
Adwell articulates the group's frustration with Johnson. "I'm gone at work all day. I come home and it looks like nothing is happening, like nothing is being done around here."
Howenstine says, "I am very concerned about major projects being left undone or half done."
Johnson gives a vague reply.
"Could you address my concern about what I said?" demands Howenstine.
Johnson shrinks and speaks as if from the bottom of a well. "Some things are really straightforward, and I can just do it. Other things just languish."
Berkman raises himself up on his elbow. "Since I stopped getting concrete, it hasn't been happening. It's our number one priority, and it's not happening."
Burgess looks intently at Johnson. "We did agree to do these three wall work parties [last week]. I was the only one who showed up. The work party was a complete bomb. I don't know where you were, Mitchell, all week."
Berkman brings up a solution that the group has considered previously about how Johnson can be forced to fulfill his "quota" of 118 hours a month. "We talked about imposing a work schedule—having the in-house quota be more like a job," he says.
Adwell says, "I liked the idea of imposing a work schedule."
Johnson says he has a schedule already. "Fixed schedules are a great idea. Mine are Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday. All day—from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m."
The group gripes a little more, but Johnson has outmaneuvered them for the moment by making a claim that no one can refute.
Ten days later, on my final visit to the commune, the cement wall in the backyard still isn't completed, but Johnson is excited about a handheld crane that he has constructed to help him build the wall.
At the beginning of May, Amazon.com reported that its net sales had increased 20 percent to $2.28 billion for the first quarter of 2006. The revolution next door is moving much more slowly. Burgess just announced he is joining Emma's largest constituency—former members—by moving to Tacoma to live with his girlfriend. It's almost certain that most of the current members will likewise depart because of love or money. Joining Emma's is like joining a monastery; it is a choice freely made to severely limit your personal freedom in order to pursue a higher purpose. Given all the temptations of postindustrial capitalism Seattle-style, there aren't that many people who will stick with it. Yet after 10 years and so much turnover, Cooper is not discouraged; "We try not to get worried about the glacial pace of progress. Social change isn't easy." He smiles. "I'm just wired as a hyper-optimistic person."