Membership decisions are consistently one of the hardest aspects of living at Acorn. We can disagree about how much money to spend on a goat fence, or where to put a building, but when you’re talking about people, and the friendships formed, or the other social dynamics that develop, the stakes are much higher. After a string of difficult membership decisions that strained the social fabric of the community, we concluded that our old membership process was not serving us well.
The old process was that visitors would come for three weeks, do a round of clearnesses, which involved having a conversation with every member on the farm, and then we would try to come to consensus about whether to make the person a provisional member or not. If we made them a provisional member, there would be a year long period where they did more rounds of clearnesses and we would come to consensus about making them a full member.
When I first showed up in 2013, there was a stated norm that “if it wasn’t a clear yes, it was a no.” But in my experience, this was only a thing people said, and didn’t actually reflect how the decisions were being made. Probably this was true at one time, but as membership turns over, and the culture shifts, this norm fell by the wayside. Members could “stand aside” from a decision, indicating that they were not excited about a potential member but would be willing to live with them, but there was confusion about what that actually meant, and how many it took to be “not a clear yes.” Any full member could block the decision, rejecting the visitor’s membership, but since it only took one member to do that, there was no incentive for other members who also had reservations to “throw their social capital onto the fire,” which led to members feeling unsupported in saying “no”.
There were other problems too. The short amount of time to get to know someone well enough to make a decision was causing us stress. Even though a provisional member is “provisional,” a year is a long time, long enough for real connections , friendships, and romantic relationships to form. It became very difficult to say “no” at that point, and so we ended up feeling a lot of pressure to be confident in our initial decision, before we had enough experience with a person to actually feel that confidence. Clearnesses and the processing of emotions that leads up to them can be emotionally intense and taxing. The frequency with which we were going through that with the steady stream of new visitors was leaving us raw and without enough emotional energy to maintain our own relationships. To complicate things even further, over the years we had glommed on different mechanisms like the “Delta Maneuver,” which allowed visitors to stick around as interns until a membership slot opened up, which provided us flexibility to achieve the outcomes we wanted, but that was clunky and confusing.
So over the summer of 2017, we had a bunch of meetings where we talked about what a new membership process could look like. Most of us liked the sentiment of “if it’s not a clear yes, it’s a no,” but we needed a clearer implementation. A significant portion of the membership wanted to feel less rushed in their decisions, and like a provisional decision was actually provisional. We liked the function of clearnesses, but recognized that it was overloading us. So we wrote a bunch of words down and came to consensus on it, with the understanding that it will need to be re-consented on next summer after we evaluate how it is working for us.
One of the biggest changes is the actual decision making mechanism. Instead of consensus, we came up with something we called a “test for excitement.” In a test for excitement, every member present is asked to answer either “excited”, “accept”, or “have reservations”. A “have reservations” answer cancels out one “excited” answer, and if there are at least 50% “excited” answers, then the decision is passed. This gives people some room to express concerns without feeling like they are solely responsible for saying “no,” and it ensures that there is actually enough enthusiasm to constitute a clear yes. Any one member can still block the decision, so underneath it still functions like consensus decision making.
We also made the length of the visitor period flexible, up to six months. This lets us get to know people better, and even for them to get to know us better and make their own decision on if they want to live here. We put a test for excitement at one and three months, so there is a less emotionally intensive path to take when it becomes clear someone is not working out. Any time during the first five months of a visitor period, the visitor can ask to be considered for membership. We do a test for excitement here, which is really a decision to commit our emotional energy to doing a round of clearnesses with this person. This insulates us a bit from the emotional processing with people who there is a good chance aren’t going to work out anyways. If we invite someone to be a membership candidate, then they have the rest of their visitor period to do their clearnesses, after which we do another test for excitement to make them a provisional member. If that sounds confusing, don’t worry, we have flow charts.
We’ll see how this works over the next year. It’s likely we’ll want to make some tweaks, and it’s possible it will crash and burn and we’ll have to come up with something else entirely. We still have a list of people we know already that want to do visitor periods, so we’re not accepting applications from the internet at the moment. Following is a graphical representation and the text of the policy.
Our membership decision making mechanism will be termed a “test for excitement” and will consist of members answering either “excited”, “accept”, or “have reservations” about a particular decision. A threshold of 50% of the members who were asked need to have answered “excited” for the decision to pass. An answer of “have reservations” will cancel out one “excited” answer. Any one member can also block the decision. In membership decisions where clearnessses are required, a block or “have reservations” answer will not count if the clearness did not happen and the member is at fault for not getting clear. The member is not at fault if they scheduled and showed up for two clearnesses. Blocks and answers of “excited” or “have reservations” will only be accepted from members who have attended all discussions. If a member is not able to attend a meeting but has a strong desire to block or have their answer counted, they can request that the discussion be delayed for up to two weeks until they return. The answers of individual members are confidential and should not be shared with the person who the decision is about, or any other non-members.
The discussions about membership decisions should at minimum consist of a go-around where everyone present at the meeting has a chance to speak. Space should be made for popcorn discussion to process anything that might have come up in the go around. If no one feels that there are any unresolved issues, then the test for excitement will be held. As long as anyone feels that something is unresolved, discussion will continue for up to one hour after the go-around. For visitor period extension and invitation decisions, the test for excitement will be held at the end of this discussion, regardless of whether there are still unresolved issues. For provisional and full member decisions, if there are still unresolved issues at the end of the one hour period, the discussion will be tabled until the next meeting, where another go-around and discussion will be held. Regardless of whether there are still unresolved issues, the test for excitement will be held at the end of this second discussion, which can go for a maximum of two hours.
Visitors can stay for up to six months. At one month and three months, the membership will evaluate how the visitor period is going and decide if we would like to extend it. At these points, the visitor’s process shepherd should put their visitor period as a topic for the member meeting. After a discussion, a test for excitement should be conducted with the members present. If we decline to extend a visitor period, the visitor will have some amount of time to get their next move figured out before they have to leave. During their first month, they will have one week to leave, and any time after that they will have two weeks. This time is not guaranteed and can be shortened by the group if there are concerns for safety or discomfort. Members are encouraged to give feedback to people whose visits have been cut short, but they are not obligated to do so.
Any time up to five months into their visitor period, the visitor can make a request to be considered a membership candidate by writing it on the member meeting agenda. The process shepherd should print out the interview questions to give to the visitor, to be filled out and put in the file folder with the rest of the member interviews before the meeting. At the next member meeting, there will be a discussion and a test for excitement among the members present on whether to invite that visitor to be a membership candidate. If we do not invite them, they will have two weeks to leave. This time is can be shortened or extended by the group. If they are invited, the membership candidate will then have until the end of their visitor period to complete a round of clearnesses. After the clearnesses are complete, the process shepherd should put the membership discussion on the member meeting agenda. At the meeting, there will be a discussion of what came up in the clearnesses and how people feel about making the visitor a provisional member. A test for excitement should be held at the end of the meeting, or be tabled for the next meeting if there are unresolved issues.
Provisional members can apply for full membership no less than a year after being invited to be a membership candidate (and after having been a provisional member for at least six months), and no more than two years after becoming a provisional member. Time off the farm such as for LEX or family emergencies will not count towards these time limits. During provisional membership, a round of clearnesses should be conducted every six months on the farm. The member should discuss their intention to apply for full membership in the clearness preceding their application. After they have completed their clearnesses, they should put their full membership discussion as a topic on the member meeting agenda. At the meeting, there will be a discussion of what came up in the clearnesses and how people feel about making them a full member. A test for excitement should be held at the end of the meeting, or be tabled for the next meeting if there are unresolved issues.
If the provisional member has not completed a round of clearnesses after one year, or two years has passed without applying for full membership, a test for excitement will be conducted and a decision made regardless.