Women’s Leadership in Regenerative Intentional Communities – CFF session marking International Women’s Day

The CFF session on Women’s leadership in regenerative intentional communities took place on Zoom on the 7th of March, anticipating the International Women’s Day and celebrating March as the month of ongoing struggle for women’s rights. The invited speakers, regenerative communities (co)founders and women leaders from across Europe, were Mauge Cañada (Arterra Bizimodu ecovillage, Spain), Manja Vrenko (Sunny Hills of Istria eco-project, Slovenia) and Mieke Elzenga (LiberTerra eco-community, Netherlands). The event counted with the presence of an engaged public who interacted with the speakers and asked relevant questions about terminology, origin of gendered power dynamics and the logistics of establishing an intentional community, which the discussants were eager to respond to in helpful ways.

 

Inspirational life stories

Manja, Mieke and Mauge shared illuminating and relatable stories about the paths which led them to choose living in intentional regenerative communities in their different personal, national and historical contexts. 

Mieke shared her experience of social entrepreneurship in the Czech Republic and founding an eco-community in the Netherlands. She sees her personal mission in guiding people who are looking for new lifestyles, having worked mainly with young people, especially young women, to inspire them to take a position in their life and to make the change. The reason Mieke chose to live in a community and support communities is that, for her, this is the way that we can cooperate to make the world a better place and face current challenges.

Manja discussed her journey from city life to co-founding an eco-project in a rural area – her dream as a permaculturist being to live self-sufficiently and sustainably. The timing of her lifestyle change was related to her son becoming an autonomous young adult. After being inspired by beautiful videos regarding permaculture and sustainable living, and getting familiar with the theory, she created the community together with friends in order to test this in action, through their everyday practices. 

Coming from Basque Country in Northern Spain, Mauge was born in a family of artists and raised in an industrial city during the right-wing dictatorship. While very young, she became aware of the reality of being a woman in a patriarchal system, which led her to recognize social patterns and domination systems. During the period of transition to democracy, she became involved in the anti-militarist and peace movement, participating for 20 years in an (ongoing) intentional community which occupied and revived an abandoned village in the 80s.  Navigating rural life, self-sufficiency, community building, and building female empowerment and solidarity was a transformative journey for her.

 

Establishing a Regenerative Community Project: Visions, Leadership and Logistics

Mieke, Mauge and Manja shared their experiences initiating a community project, highlighting the challenges of enacting regenerative power dynamics. Manja and Mauge emphasised the rewards and challenges of building community, with a focus on personal growth and the importance of diverse thought and inclusive community dynamics and governance. Mieke emphasised the necessity of financial contribution from members and negotiating with authorities, while Manja underscored the importance of personal investment before seeking external funding. Mauge stressed the importance of clear intentions when initiating a community project.

Having learned and experimented with different leadership models in the first intentional community that was her home, Mauge faced the big challenge of deciding to leave one community and start another, while also stepping into a leadership position. Together with a group of 20 people, she co-founded the ecovillage of Arterra Bizimodu in 2014, implementing sociocracy as a self-governance and decision-making model. 

LiberTerra, the community Mieke co-founded in 2020 in the Netherlands, is based on the “eco-community” concept – using entrepreneurship in order to assist and cooperate with authorities aiming to achieve the global sustainable development goals and climate goals. The 22 members of the community live in tiny homes, raise children, grow food, enact alternative economy practices, have social activities in their community centre, engage with their neighbours, and inspire people to live a sustainable lifestyle. 

Sunny Hills of Istria, the community Manja co-founded, is located in a very remote and very rural area of Slovenia. All members of the community share a big community house as living space, meaning the relationships are very intense, due in part to having less privacy.

A common aspect which shapes how the community takes form is access to land/property – all three communities were established in rural areas, however their access to this type of resource was very different due to the diverse national contexts and varying intentions fuelling the projects. Regardless of their differences, the relationship between the available land/property and the community project is a determining factor in the process of establishing new communities: in the case of Arterra, the place was found right in the beginning of the process, shaping the development of the community; for Sunny Hills, the process of establishing the community had started prior to finding the land, land which in turn changed the initial vision for the community; and for LiberTerra, finding the suitable land was a challenge surpassed with the help of local authorities. 

In terms of the duration of the process of establishing an intentional community, the guests shared that a very relevant factor is if the process of community formation (defining the vision, mission, objectives of the community and building group cohesion) is concomitant to the process of materially establishing the territory of the community. Concerning the latter, the timespan depends significantly on regional/national contexts and the bureaucracy concerning obtaining the land and necessary approvals from authorities. In all three case, the duration of this process was atypically short, spanning from less than 6 months in Mauge’s situation, a little over one year in Manja’s example, and two years and three months in Mieke’s case from starting the search for a suitable place and beginning to live there together as a community.

The importance of shared leadership and responsibility in community projects, notwithstanding challenges like conflicts related to leadership and power dynamics, is perceived by the guest speakers as both an opportunity to establish socially regenerative practices, as well as challenging from the perspective of deconstructing existing systemic patterns, including gender roles. The guests acknowledged the potential impact of these projects towards holistic regeneration, but also the risk of failure of the community projects due to internal conflicts and material/logistic limitations, such as lack of funding. Describing this experience, Manja shared that:

When the project takes over and it starts to happen, then you run after it. It’s like riding a horse, but the horse is going its own way and you are trying to stay in the saddle somehow. It’s interesting that certain dynamics between people in the communities are so common, no matter if we talk about a community of 10 or 100 people, and the basics are usually very, very similar. 

And I would also like to say how hard it is. It’s also so sweet to build community and to grow together with a group of people. And I don’t know a better personal growth workshop than living together with a group of people – nothing can compare to it.

Power dynamics are in human nature – it’s not so good if we are all thinking the same, but of course having opposite opinions brings some sort of tension. Personal growth happens when you learn to accept this and to see this as an opportunity to grow and to create something new. This is an ongoing process: we probably always aim for harmonious situations around us, but life is dynamic and nature is dynamic, so when you create the perfect harmony, the next step will be again, the lack of harmony, no? Change is always there. So when everything is perfect, the next thing will be imperfection.”

 

Women, Leadership, Community, and Personal Growth

One of the key questions we asked our guests was regarding opportunities and challenges encountered as women during the process of establishing intentional communities, either in their interactions with other co-founders, neighbours in the village where the community is located or from local administration.

Manja reflected on her experience as a co-founder in Slovenia, highlighting the balanced gender dynamics within her group but encountering cultural differences upon moving to a rural area. While the group had no internal gender issues, they faced challenges from local authorities and societal norms, despite the socialist Yugoslav legacy of gender equality. Regardless of her election to the local council, Manja noted the persistence of gender imbalances within local administration, leading her and another woman to focus on empowering women within the community for future change.

Mieke started her intervention by recognizing Manja’s experience and sharing similar past experiences of gender discrimination in business, dealing with authorities and society more widely – she overcame these challenges by finding male allies who supported her. Despite encountering biases in the past, she noted a shift towards more female leadership over the past decades and a focus on women driving sustainability and community. She highlighted the role of women in initiating change, particularly in adopting regenerative farming practices, emphasising a holistic approach to environmental care originating in an intertwining of care for the future of the next generations and taking care of the planet. Mieke considers she challenges stereotypes, advocating for a balance of feminine and masculine qualities in both men and women. Reflecting on her experience as community co-founder, Mieke shared that:

“I always say the concept of LiberTerra is 64 years Mieke. I’m now 64 so it’s a process with all my experiences in life and I realised after I founded the community that I had some skills I was not aware of, but which were really crucial. And when you talk about, there’s a big difference in creating the community and holding the community – the experience of many intentional communities is that most of them don’t survive the first 5 years due to inner conflicts on leadership and power. 

When you really want to be a part of the community, it really takes something, because everybody around you is your mirror – so when you’re living in a community, you have to face your mirror everyday. Otherwise, you can’t cooperate. And that’s not always easy but you really grow together and inspire each other, it’s really the best school of life.”

Mauge reflected on her challenging journey into leadership within Arterra Bizimodu, acknowledging the personal and professional hurdles she faced. Despite initial hesitation due to age and personal choices, she eventually embraced her role, drawing on her facilitation skills and professional competence for support and grounding her leadership approach. Mauge navigated gender dynamics, particularly facing “cook fights,” where men challenged her leadership. Using a sociocratic governance structure allowed her and the community to address power dynamics and gender issues openly, avoiding unnecessary conflicts. Her journey underscores the importance of patience, commitment to the project’s vision, and strategic avoidance of divisive games, ultimately paving the way for effective leadership within the community.

 

Exploring Gendered Power Dynamics: Power Competition in Intentional Regenerative Communities and Strategies for Transformation

The public issued an invitation to reflect on the factors contributing to power competition within intentional communities and explore strategies for mitigating it.

Mauge reflected on the challenges of power dynamics within their community, noting the complexity of integrating newcomers and addressing power issues. She emphasised the importance of empowering individuals without inciting conflict and highlighted the value of decision-making through the consent system that sociocracy proposes. Mauge suggested desensitising the perception of power struggles, viewing them as natural processes of growth and transformation rather than dramatic conflicts. She stressed the need for a collaborative approach to community living, embracing challenges collectively and prioritising intentions towards a more collaborative system over dominance.

Mieke elaborated on the unique process of community formation within their group, emphasising the collective beginning and shared values that underpinned their cooperative ethos. As a founder, she spearheaded the establishment of the community, focusing on securing land and licences alongside a core group of like-minded individuals. The community’s cohesion stemmed from a heartfelt connection to its values, driving members to contribute passionately to various aspects such as sustainable living, food production, and childcare. Mieke also underscored the importance of transitioning from individualism to a collective mindset, where each member’s unique skills and passions were valued and utilised appropriately, fostering a sense of teamwork and camaraderie. She acknowledged the significant social investment required in community-building, highlighting the gradual evolution towards a cohesive and collaborative group dynamic.

Manja expanded on Mieke’s reflection, focusing on the ongoing effort required to maintain community relationships. She emphasised the importance of participatory processes and shared leadership, highlighting that true leadership entails responsibility rather than power. Manja underscored the weight of leadership roles, acknowledging the significant impact they can have on individuals’ lives and the accompanying burden of accountability. She noted that both Mieke and Mauge resonated with her perspective, affirming the shared understanding within the group.

The three guest speakers agreed that power and leadership dynamics are gendered not on grounds of the gender of the involved individuals, but rather on the perceived feminine or masculine leadership practices. Mauge emphasised the transformative potential of feminine leadership – grounded on collaboration rather than competition, highlighting its systemic impact beyond the community itself. She stressed the importance of challenging traditional systems and gender roles, inviting both women and men to embrace this form of leadership. In contrast, Manja echoed Mauge’s sentiment, asserting that gender does not determine leadership style; rather, it’s defined by personality and values. Mieke concured with this perspective, aligning with Mauge and Manja’s views on the importance of individual traits and values in leadership rather than gender.

 

Conclusion: Transforming the Future through Regenerative Social Change and Women’s Empowerment

The guest speakers asserted that intentional communities play a crucial role in building a more just and inclusive society. A pending need identified from the perspective of women as leaders in relation to gender inequality in communities and beyond was that of an educational process for the society to see women in more diverse roles in the public space and to have more women occupying such positions. This was highlighted as a process complementary to that of self-empowerment allowing women to envision themselves as leaders. 

A call for future collaborations and the need to find sources of inspiration and self-empowerment for women was made by those present, stressing the importance of networks like GEN Europe, Iberian Ecovillage Network and ECOLISE in scaling up and out social regeneration and leveraging with policymakers in order to advance systemic transformation. Touching upon the consequences of the domination system and the need for alternative lifestyles that focus on developing regenerative communities, Mauge highlighted the importance of learning from feminism in bringing about social change and the need for women to embody empowerment and change in their communities and beyond:

“When we think about and experience the roots of the domination system, particularly gender inequality and related issues, it’s not merely a mental exercise, but also about understanding in an embodied way this systemic injustice: climate injustice and our environmental domination. We’re increasingly confronted with the consequences of the domination system, witnessing more wars and more people suffering violence. I don’t want to close my eyes to this, but rather keep it in my hands, in my mind and in my heart that this reality is asking me everyday: what are you doing with your life now and what do you want to build for the future now?

We, as communities, function as social laboratories for transformation, developing and experimenting with tools in order to manage all these interconnected world issues in our life, in our community, and enact other ways to deal with inequalities, war and violence  – this is our way of putting our energy in the service of life. It is important to learn how feminists change the world through their power to embody change. While social struggles and political demands play essential roles, it is through personal transformation and empowerment that profound change is catalysed. 

Much like how women, feminists embody this empowerment, embody the change, we strive to embody alternative ways of living within our regenerative communities. In essence, our journey involves not only advocating for change but actively embodying it. It’s a process of continuous self-reflection and commitment to living out the principles we espouse. Through this, we contribute to a broader movement towards a more equitable and sustainable world.”

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