Monday, September 29, 2014

The hate crime that is a fish finger sandwich

It’s hard being a blogger in an intentional community. Hundreds of fascinating things happen, half of them inspiring, half of them infuriating, and you think about what a good blog post most of them would make. But is it ok to write about them?

I watched 20,000 Days on Earth last week, where Nick Cave talked about cannibalising his relationship with his wife for his songwriting. Presumably, she’s all right about that, and hey, she gets to be married to Nick Cave. I write about M sometimes, and generally assume that he doesn’t mind. I write about events long ago or far away, and generally assume that the distance is sufficient for it to be safe. And I’ve written about people who will never know, and I generally assume that they wouldn’t care.

But the space in the middle is a bit grey. If it’s something lovely, or about someone lovely, I tend to go ahead, though I might not use real names. If it’s something highly personal about me, but featuring other people, I tend to do the same. In the next circle out, I might change any identifying details, or be generally more oblique. If I have something I want to say, I try and find a way to say it, but I walk a delicate line. I had to retrospectively sanitise a few posts about NGO X once they introduced a blogging policy, but the policy itself was quite helpful. There’s a social media policy as well now, which says you can say that you work for NGO X, but you should include the statement “all views expressed are personal”.

And I’ve not written much about my (still fairly new) neighbours, because it’s hard to know where the boundary is between what’s my story and what’s someone else’s, so intertwined are they. And we all live in a yellow submarine, so the whole anonymity thing gets a bit challenging, and I don’t want to piss anyone off unduly.

But I figure once you’ve been accused of a hate crime, all bets are off.

So here we go. It's quite long. All views expressed are personal.

Over in Ecoville, we have a Communal Meals Policy. It was written in 2006, and it states that we wish to provide “a vegetarian and vegan friendly environment, whilst recognising that many members may also wish to eat meat from time to time”. The person who wrote it was vegan. She never actually moved into Ecoville, but I have heard various interpretations of this policy from people who were around at the time, ranging from “Y never wanted a vegan-only environment, that’s not the kind of community she wanted to live in”, to “if you didn’t want to live in a vegan community, you should have started your own”, via “the first three meals every week will be vegan”.

The person asserting this last, henceforth to be known as Z (for ZOMG!), told me this first on a visit to another cohousing project, a long time before we, or indeed anyone, moved into Ecoville, but several months after we’d parted with a large sum of money and put our house on the market.

It was news to me, and was the first thing that started my (then Ocado pescatarian, currently locavore omnivore, if you're asking) alarm bells ringing, because I Am Not Vegan*. Z was convinced this had been agreed at some point, and I'm not saying it hadn't, but unfortunately no one had seen fit to put it in the meals policy, the decision log, or the minutes of any meeting for which minutes exist. So it can’t reasonably be said to be something we’d “signed up for”... indeed, if it had been called Veganville, we’d never have got on the bus.

As we got closer to move-in date, M and I joined the team looking at how our meals would actually work, which process quickly revealed itself to be Extremely Hard Work. By the time what has become known as the August Agreement was finally hammered out, the Meals Team had to have their meetings mediated by the Process Team. (Not a joke, not even a little one).

And I think it’s a terrible agreement. I didn’t agree with substantial chunks of it at the time, though didn’t get to register that on the day except by proxy, as it was passed at one of the very few General Meetings I wasn’t able to attend. Its worst bit is the Plate Apartheid... if, in the limited set of circumstances when it is not verboten, one chooses to consume something non-vegetarian in the Common House, one must carry it in on a separate plate, use separate cutlery and serving utensils, and carry it all home again dirty afterwards. If you think this is overkill for a sausage roll, imagine how annoying it is when you drop your fork and have to go home to get another one because you can’t use one that’s already there and you can’t wash the one you already have.

The Plate Apartheid rules are, in my personal view, insane in the membrane. They mean that visiting friends and family, who we sometimes take in there to eat as we no longer have a large dining table at home (having donated it to the Common House because one of the things about cohousing is you don't need to have a big table in your house, or indeed a big house, because when you have guests, you can use the communal ones), think we live with a bunch of freaks and weirdos. They mean that you end up walking down the street with sharp knives sticking out at dangerous angles because you’re also trying to carry eight plates and eight sets of cutlery. They mean you are called over by one of your neighbours and asked to explain to his six year old son why he has to eat his pie off a different kind of plate, and you can’t give a reason that a six year old can understand, because there isn’t one. They mean that you have to gesticulate wildly at people who are about to pick up the wrong kind of plate, or stop them taking your wrong kind of plate away to put it in the dishwasher. And they mean that any shared eating experience that is conducted in this way, and they are few and far between because of all the other rules, starts with a good 20 minutes of talking about how insane in the membrane it all is. In no way do they promote peace, love and understanding, and quite often people break them, even when they’re trying hard not to, like when you turn on the light even though you know there’s a power cut.

So how's this all working out for us? Well, meals have happened, and do happen, and while I think they tend towards being brown, bland or bizarre (and sometimes all three), some of the people think they're great and some of the other people think they're fine... although they are not happening nearly as often as the seven times a week they are supposed to. In practice, it's averaged around four, because hardly anyone signs up to cook as often as they have in theory agreed to. Not much else happens in the Common House on other evenings, because there in theory *should* be a meal, so at any moment there *could* be a meal, so it's pretty difficult to organise anything else. So many nights, it sits dark and empty, and on some of those nights small groups sit in atomised small living spaces eating spare ribs off their laps and bitching about the August Agreement. Meanwhile, those who thought the AA was a great thing sit around bitching about the lazy arses who aren't pulling their weight / are shirking / are taking the piss / etc.

Why have we carried on like this? Well, another of the agreements that pre-dated our arrival on the scene, catalysed, so far as I know, by earlier challenges to the food policy, was that all policies and associated agreements would stay in force until six months after the last household had moved in. I can see the sense in that, you can't be going around moving goalposts while you're also trying to build and sell houses, but in practice the whole moving in phase lasted over a year, so the last person's six months was the first person's getting on 20.

But eventually, the requisite number of months had passed and the Meals could be Reviewed. We agreed that the Meals Review Team should be elected rather than made up of volunteers, and we were all invited to nominate people. I didn't nominate myself, because I had such a shitty experience the first time around. Let some other fool do loads of work and then get shouted at, I thought. I'm not stupid.

But then I got more nominations than anyone else. Which did genuinely surprise me, as I have largely been avoiding communal meals (which I have described elsewhere as food I don't want to eat, at a time I don't want to eat, in an environment I don't want to eat in), and I haven't made any secret of how much I dislike the Food Rules. I thought people would choose calm, kind, gentle souls to do this job. But I talked to a few people, and I thought no, there was definitely a reason people nominated me, so I stood, making my position as clear as I could in the process. And four people were duly elected, including me.

That was in February. Since then we've met nearly every Monday morning. We've had 1-1 conversations with every single person who lives here, we've recorded what they've said about what's working and not working for them and what they'd like to see done differently, we've sorted those (thousands of) comments into themes, we've held 'listening circles' to hear people's views on inclusion, integrity, and the purpose of meals, we've provided regular progress updates to our monthly General Meetings, the last of which, in July, said we would be bringing proposals to the September meeting. Which. We. Did... in the form of a draft new agreement, accompanying guidelines, and an evidence document explaining our findings and workings.

We followed the agreed process in submitting the agenda item, and we turned up on the day to present it. We knew that there would be some vegan resistance to some of the things we were proposing, and that there would doubtless be more work needed on these areas - around bringing meat and fish in from home (we weren't proposing that it should be cooked or even offered as part of communal meals), keeping it warm, and the whole Plates Situation - but we put them in because lots of people felt excluded by the current set of rules, and we wanted to propose softer boundaries and explore where these might be acceptable.

And then thirteen people -- most of the current Meals Team, most of the vegans, and a few of what I have come to think of as the Old Guard -- refused to agree the meeting agenda. They did not want this proposal presented, because they didn't like what was in it. No one's ever blocked a meeting item before, as far as I know. Nobody knew what to do. So we spent half an hour of a four hour meeting talking about whether we should be allowed to go ahead or not.

The whole thing was a deliberate and orchestrated attempt to derail things, and the fall out has been enormous. Nasty little emails have circulated with accusations about "some people's intentions", and anonymous pass-agg things have been stuck up on noticeboards in the night. We're now in the process of reviewing the process of the Meals Review. It's like living in a cross between Heathers and Brazil, with a bit of Life of Brian thrown in for good measure.

And it's exhausting. The best thing for me, personally, would be no communal meals at all, and a space we can use to do what we want in. Want to eat some brown pasta with some lentils (seriously, what is it about brown pasta?) Be my guest. But me, over here, I’m having a pint and an organic pork pie. But I wouldn't get close to proposing that, because I am an adult and I know I have to live with other people. And equally, if everyone else thought that meals were just awesomely excellent for them, I’d have backed off and worked out what to do next for myself, rather than proposing changes to a functioning system. But that’s not what happened.

This was a fair proposal, in that it took into consideration the views of the whole community, not just those who have the loudest voices or those who have been here the longest. I have no doubt that it would need to be modified before it could be agreed, but to say that it can’t be heard is... illuminating. There’s a reason we haven’t been able to debate this before now, and it’s because there are people who are scared of having the dominant orthodoxies challenged, in case they don't remain dominant. We don't want to talk about this, and we were here first, so *you* can't talk about it. It’s not been a fun couple of weeks.

We would never have deliberately moved to a hotbed of vegan zealotry**, trust me... though I do wonder if we should have asked, at our first communal meal, which was pretty awful, food-wise, if this is what people had in mind. We just assumed it was because everyone was tired after a full day of meetings and they couldn’t find the butter or the cheese, or, for that matter, the salt, the lemon juice, the Tabasco or the salad dressing. It's possible that if we had asked, and they'd said yes, we are happy to eat like this all the time, we wouldn't be here. This is no place for an Ocado pescatarian.

But we are here. And 'here' is a place where M says hello to Z in the street, in the interests of neighbourly living (he is a gentler soul than I, I am still burning with fury at being silenced after having done a job I was elected to do, which involved a fuckload of work), and was subjected to a rant about the obscenity of us proposing something that Z once nearly did himself***, that was in line with a definition of ‘vegan friendly’ that he put forward himself****, and how our proposal generally amounts to a “white collar hate crime”.

That’s a serious accusation. And, seriously, Z and his separatist mung bean manifesto can fuck right off. I give slightly less of a shit about how he feels than I did before I spent two years getting treated like a menstruating Bangladeshi peasant woman for wanting anchovies on my pizza, it’s true, but I’m still not the one around here doing the hating.


*I have had some awesome vegan meals, truly, but they have been awesome because they’ve been awesome, not because they’ve been vegan. Most vegan meals are at the ‘this might be ok if it had some cheese on it’ end of things, in my experience. And you don't persuade people of the merits of veganism by making them cook food they don't want to eat, or eat food they wouldn't want to cook. 

** Not all the vegans are zealots. One of them is on the review team, and I now actively want to cook him dinner. 

*** One Friday night there was no meal arranged and another neighbour, let's call her X, suggested a chippy run. Our local fish and chip shop also does veggie burgers, which are vegan, so everyone had an option that was better than 'just chips', and Z went along with X to pick it up. They brought it back to the Common House, where Z suggested putting it all in the oven to keep warm... until (pescatarian) X pointed out that this is verboten under the August Agreement. Yet proposed use of the hob and oven for the keeping warm of non-vegetarian food is one of the things that is now 'obscene'. 

**** This comes from the 'Fellowship for Intentional Community' -- there are levels 0 (we kill vegans) to 10 (a vegan world) and v7 ("All dishes, including desserts, if not vegan, have sumptuous vegan equivalents; everything is well-labeled, and non-vegans don't consider it a hassle or burden to provide vegan food") is the level that was proposed by the vegans who live here. We thought that was fair and achievable, apart from the bit that describes how people should feel. You can't tell people that they won't find meeting your needs a pain in the arse, especially if you accuse them of hate crimes while they're attempting to find an inclusive way of doing just that.

Labels: , ,


Anonymous Kate said...

Wow Jo - I think you and M must indeed be saints. That is one hell of a situation to be in. Must make anything vaguely confrontational that happens at NGO X seem like a walk in the park. Am guessing you will turn down the nomination next time! Just to say though that I eat wholemeal spaghetti, so might have just a teensy weensy bit in common with Z.

6:02 pm  
Blogger Jeremy Day said...

Food proscriptions sounds a lot more like you're being treated like tenants than equal shares to me, which would suggest that a main financial interest in the community believes it should be vegan, and that some residents are more equal than others. If this is literally financially true, then seeking support from other more significant investors may help. An alternative would be to set up a youth club (a fancy shed should do the trick) where there are no dietary restrictions and relabel all or part of the communal space as the vegan communal space.

11:52 pm  
Blogger Jeremy Day said...

One more thought - I'm basing my suggestions on things done by community restorative actions, housing committees etc. round here, but there will be local and national housing advice available near you, too. Take it. You've been mandated by the tenants for a reason, and you owe it to them to take this further.

11:59 pm  
Blogger Spine said...


I'm sure you are already pondering and parsing this section of your Articles of Association...

"b) Decisions to dispense with the holding of Annual General Meetings, to dispense with the laying of accounts and reports before General Meetings, and/or to dispense with the appointment of auditors annually shall be made by an Elective Resolution. An Elective Resolution is defined as one passed by a unanimous vote of all those entitled to attend and vote at a General Meeting."

Sympathies. Love to M.

6:30 am  
Blogger Jo said...

Kate, we're not saints! As Bruce Springsteen didn't quite say, it's hard to be a saint in the country. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a) getting material for my novel or b) learning things I am already putting into practice at NGO X. So, you know, swings and roundabouts. On the brown pasta front, don't tell anyone but I do have a great recipe that requires wholemeal spaghetti. But here it's mostly penne. Penne is the most disappointing of all the pasta shapes. It has no joy to it. And brown penne is even worse. It disintegrates into depressing grainy shards and generally saps my will to live.
Jeremy, this is excellent information, and thank you. Should it come to it, it would be interesting to test whether the main financial interest in the community believes it should be vegan. I don't think that's the case, it's more of a loyalty issue right now, and that does make some of us feel less equal, but were it to be pushed, I don't think it would play out as literally financially true. We do have a fancy shed, as it goes, and discussions around how it might be used are ongoing... the challenge there is that we have an obligation to cook and clear up communal meals, but I think, if push came to shove, they could be redefined. Sort of hoping we'll meet halfway, but if there are interesting places where we can have Omnivore Club, that would do me as a fallback, certainly. I'm not invested in a space I currently find joyless, though I'd kind of have an eye on moving the lovely table if there was a friendlier place for it...
Spine, you should come join the Governance Team. H would love it here! :-/

10:51 pm  
Blogger Neil Lawrence said...

This springs to mind

This makes me laugh;
"We aim for our community to be built on trust, respect, friendship and understanding rather than rules and regulations."

7:53 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home