Communing at Twin Oaks

The house where we spent a week at Lake Anna happens to be fairly close to Twin Oaks, one of the longest-running communes in the U.S. (Last summer the community celebrated its 50th anniversary). I’ve been intrigued by this ongoing experiment in communal living since high school, when I read founder Kat Kinkade’s book about Twin Oaks. There is a three-hour guided tour every Saturday during the warmer months of the year, and I was glad to finally have the opportunity to visit the 450-acre compound in person.IMG_6047 2


Entrance to Twin Oaks Community

Established in 1967, Twin Oaks was originally inspired by and modeled after B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two. Its behaviorist roots can still be seen in its polity and system of labor. Every effort is made to disperse power, so that no one person gains too much control. Planners and Managers are voted into office to make decisions for the collective. Three planners take staggered rotating shifts of 18 months. They make larger decisions for the community with input from members. In the main dining hall, we saw a wall of clipboards outlining various proposals. Members are encouraged to write down their thoughts and opinions on the issues they care about. Dozens of managers for different areas make the more granular day to day decisions. Over the years the community has largely moved away from its original behaviorist foundation. Initially, for example, children were raised not by their own parents, but by the community in a special house for children. Today, parents mostly raise their own children with the help of special mentors or “primaries,” who sometimes share in the task.

Now, the two basic guiding principles of the Twin Oaks “eco-village” or “intentional community” are equality and personal freedom. The labor system is a good illustration of how these abstract concepts play out in real life. All members are required to work 42 hours a week. Each week, members fill out a labor sheet with their work preferences. The labor manager reviews the sheets and makes adjustments if needed to make sure all shifts are filled. Members can mostly do whatever suits them – and rather than doing just one thing – most choose to do multiple jobs. The one thing that everyone must do is a two hour kitchen cleaning shift. Lots of things that wouldn’t typically be considered work on the outside, earn labor credits at Twin Oaks. Doing laundry or childcare for example, earns just as many credits as milking cows or working in the tofu factory. Being sick can count as work hours. The time it takes to visit a doctor or dentist can count as work hours. The elderly might fulfill their work obligation in the comfort of one of the few air-conditioned spaces at Twin Oaks, sorting seeds for one of the community’s cottage industries.

What doesn’t count as labor? From the Twin Oaks Policy manual:

Anyone may take credit for teaching anything to anyone, as long as the learner wants to learn it. Normal uses for teaching credits include teaching a language, a musical instrument, a recreational skill or academic subject. The situation becomes borderline when one person teaches cos* favorite friend to recognize forest flora, and they end up making love among the wild violets. Use your judgment and your conscience about how much of that to take credit for.

*”co” is a pronoun that replaces s/he at Twin Oaks

IMG_6039The only people who are not required to work at all are children below the age of 7, those who have applied to retire because of infirmity, or those who have aged out of the requirement. At the age of 50, the number of work hours required begins to go down by an hour for every year. (41 hours at the age of 50, 40 hours at the age of 49, etc.). Vacation credits are earned for every hour of labor, and typically add up to about 2 – 3 weeks for each member. It’s possible to earn even more vacation by working more than the 42 hours a week. Our guide told us that the typical Twin Oaks vacation lasts 2 1/2 months. Not bad!

IMG_6043In exchange for 42 hours of labor, every member is provided with all basic necessities including a room in one of the residences buildings, each of which house 10-12 people, food, clothing (from the “Commie Clothes”-I-don’t-think-I’ve-ever-seen-as-much-tie-dye-in-one-location-closet )!, and perhaps most significantly: health care. Upon joining, members are not required to bring in any assets. In fact, those who have any are strongly encouraged to give them away or park them elsewhere so that they are available for them when and if they decide to leave. (According to our guide, the typical length of stay is about ten years, though at times there have been as many as three generations of Twin Oakers in residence at once). The community shares a fleet of vehicles, including cars and racks of bicycles. For my mother’s sake, I was very relieved to discover that Twin Oaks also had a couple of golf carts. My parents must have been extremely bored in Bumpass, because they insisted on coming on the tour, despite my repeated warnings that it would involve three hours of walking:


Our lovely and gracious host gave my mom a lift while guiding us around Twin Oaks.

For things beyond the necessities, each member from the age of 10 years on, receives an allowance of $100/month. Children under 10 receive half that amount.


Washcloths outside the bathroom in the communal dining hall.

There are no TVs allowed at Twin Oaks, but there are communal computers, and members are allowed to have personal laptops. There is wifi all over the community, though – as for many of us on the outside – it’s not always 100% reliable!

According to our guide, there are “two big stories” at Twin Oaks these days. Hammocks used to account for 75% of the community’s revenue.


Testing out the hammocks…

Around seven years ago, their most important customer Pier 1 Imports called to say they would no longer be selling hammocks in their stores. The community plunged into a serious economic crisis. Twin Oaks had always had multiple small-scale cottage industries, from book indexing to making tofu, but hammocks had been keeping the commune in the green. The  community decided to concentrate their efforts (and more than a million dollars of their resources) into the tofu business. Although they still seem to be in the process of recovering their economic equilibrium, Twin Oaks tofu is now being sold at Whole Foods and other stores, and gets rave reviews.


The “state-of-the-art” Tofu Factory

The other big story is the way in which the community has been expanding. Multiple smaller sister communities have sprung up around Twin Oaks. Members of these groups socialize with each other and exchange labor and other resources. Ex-Twin Oaks members often settle in Mineral, Virginia and stay involved in the life of the community.

At Twin Oaks itself, there are 105 beds for approximately 90 adults and 15 children, and there is almost always a waiting list to become a member. For those interested in joining, there is a mandatory three-week visitor program. After taking part in the life of Twin Oaks, potential members are required to spend a month away to reflect on the decision, and to give the community a chance to decide whether to accept them. If accepted, (and most are), after an initial 6-month trial period, applicants become full-fledged members with all accorded benefits. Members are free to leave whenever they’d like. It’s possible for those who need to be away to care for aging parents, etc. to freeze their membership for the time they are away and to take a sort of sabbatical.

Our guide told us that a common reason people leave the community is because of interpersonal conflicts. A “Process Team” is sometimes called upon to help parties try to work through these issues. Members of this team are simply people who are interested in performing this role. This also holds true for people who wish to be healers. No special training is required, though some may choose to study for their roles by reading or watching videos. It is important to note, however, that members who wish to receive traditional medical or dental treatment can go to UVA Hospital or other designated outside providers and have the cost of non-elective treatment fully covered by Twin Oaks.

One of the last places we visited on our tour was the care facility, designed for the sick and the elderly. It is one of the only air-conditioned spaces at Twin Oaks and has remote controls and handrails everywhere. Like everything at Twin Oaks, it was designed thoughtfully and with a spirit of generosity. Members of the community make sure to stock the refrigerator in the kitchen with food so that residents of the care facility can feel like they are hosting the visitors who come to see them. I read that Kat Kinkade, after leaving Twin Oaks, returned to the community and was taken care of by its members until her death – even though this went against the policy she herself had helped to write. The day we visited, the one resident of the care facility was also an ex-Twin Oaks member. He was taken in by the community even though he had left years ago, because he had no family and nowhere else to turn for help. The community is taking care of him in his final days.

This act of charity, or grace reflects the ethos of radical acceptance at Twin Oaks. The community does not espouse any one religion or religion period. Neither does it make it its business to define what constitutes a family unit. Instead, what unites the members are their values of “cooperation, sharing, nonviolence, equality, and ecology.”

Visiting Twin Oaks inspired all sorts of discussions and interesting conversations within our family. Although none of us could see ourselves living at Twin Oaks, we could all see its appeal for the right type of person. It also gave us the opportunity to share our lives with one young Twin Oaks member in particular. It just so happens that our host’s son is going to start studying at UVA this fall. When our guide learned that my husband is a professor there, he asked if his son could contact him. The very next week, they got together at a coffeehouse to discuss life at UVA.


Outside the dining hall.

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