I recently visited the intentional community “Camphill Village Minnesota” and I spent about a week out there living & working with them. It was a wonderful experience for me and it reminded me a lot of what I love about Camphill communities and the valuable things that I have gotten from these experiences.
Foremost what I would like to talk about now is the method through which Camphill communities (focused on serving adults) are organized, which is a little-known philosophy/practice that is called “Social Therapy”. Based upon Rudolph Steiner’s “Anthroposophy”, Social Therapy is a way for adults with developmental disabilities to live, work and be supported in a village-like community environment. Although coming from this particular background, no specific religious, spiritual or philosophical affiliation is necessary in order to live and work there. The community is comprised of both residential homes and general community-use buildings, forests and fields, domestic and farm animals, crops and ornamental plants, and people.
An emphasis is placed on life resembling pre-industrial patterns as much as possible, with the work areas being agricultural and crafts-based instead of mechanical and computer-based. Food consumption is also moderated, and an emphasis is placed on having healthy organic foods, particularly foods that are grown on-site. Given that most of what one needs is located on the property itself, walking and bicycles are common modes of transportation.
The people who are supporting those with developmental disabilities, and who are ensuring that the community as a whole is functioning smoothly, are called “coworkers”. The coworkers are given the task of being very attentive to and aware of everything that is taking place with those who have developmental disabilities (who are called “villagers”). There is usually a one-to-one ratio between coworkers and villagers, and oftentimes there are more coworkers than villagers. The coworkers are encouraged to have as much unconditional love, care and warmth as possible towards the villagers, to see their positive potential and unrealized abilities and to provide the space for the villagers to grow and contribute at their own pace.
The primary social unit within these communities is that of the household. Each house resembles that of a family home, with each person having their own bed-room, and common space for the kitchen, dining room, living rooms, etc. Both coworkers and villagers live in the houses, and often-times actual biological families of the coworkers, pets and gardens surrounding the house live there as well. Each house has its own financial budget and has relative autonomy for determining its own systems for life inside the house. Over time and through continued shared experiences a distinct sense of “family” evolves among those who are living in each house.
Structure and rhythm is provided for the life in the community on a daily, weekly and yearly basis. This is done with an eye towards supporting the healthy psychic/physical lives of individuals, as well as to coordinate the activities of the various people within the community as a whole. Much attention is given to the different seasons of the year, both for the sake of coordinating the agricultural work that needs to be done, as well as for organizing public community festivals to celebrate the various seasonal holidays throughout the year.
A particular focus is given to the spiritual life of people, with space given for reflection and gratitude before each meal, quiet contemplation weekly on Saturday nights, as well as occasional Sunday services. There are also events to mark weddings, deaths and the spiritual significance of seasonal change. The act of cleaning is itself considered to be somewhat of a psycho-spiritual act, in the sense that it is viewed as being an outward expression of and correlating force for one’s internal sense of orderliness and openness to spiritual experience.
While visiting Camphill Village Minnesota I at one point got to see some of the big farmlands that are nearby the intentional community, surrounding it. These are massive mono-crop tracts of land. The coworker showing this to me then told me some about biodynamic and organic methods of agriculture, including a bit about how the land could be more productive in bearing crops when it is smaller pieces of land that are given more care and attention. This strikes me as being a general principle for effective healing in general, for both people and land: have smaller units with more direct care and attention given to everyone and everything there. The trend in mainstream society is to have massive institutions with the crops being protected and kept fertile by pesticides and chemical fertilizers and the people kept preoccupied by electronic devices and pacified by medications. Social Therapy seems to offer an alternative out of this path.
This is my over-all abbreviated summary of Social Therapy and life in Camphill communities. It is only upon leaving Camphill for a while and experiencing life some more in “normal” mainstream society that I have come to see how unique this form of social organization is. I have also come to appreciate the healthfulness of such systems, particularly in regards to supporting those who have developmental disabilities.
Now that I am living in a big city, and I walk around and see all these people on the streets who are homeless or who have some kind of mental illness. I also think about all of the people out there who suffer from some kind of addiction, all of the “at-risk youth” and “juvenile delinquents”, people stuck in cycles of abuse, and people whose lives get out of control and who wind up in prison. I think to myself: “what about these people? Are they to be left on their own, continuing down whatever hellish path they are on?” There has to be something better than the various cold heartless institutions that governments and corporations have relegated for these people.
My dream is to have the Camphill idea and practice of Social Therapy become something that is broader in scope and more widely implemented in society. Sometimes I have heard Camphill described as focusing on supporting “people in need of special care”, and not just people who have developmental disabilities. I like this phrasing, because to me this opens the door to applying the Camphill model to all of these different kinds of people that I mentioned previously.
Throughout my life experiences I have experienced other non-Camphill social environments that I would also call “social therapy” as well. In particular I am thinking about multi-day Nonviolent Communication residential intensives and ten-day Vipassana Meditation courses. With both of these cases, special care is put into preparing and maintaining a very therapeutic, healing and overall healthy environment for people to be in. A lot of good stuff comes out of these places. The problem is that it is all very temporary. People come, get the benefits, and then leave. While there is often talk among some folks there about establishing on-going intentional communities that are like that, usually this talk does not turn into action. And often the model that is thought about is that of creating a retreat center for workshops and seminars that the community members live at and maintain.
The retreat center model does not appeal to me, because in my eyes this assumes a certain kind of class back-ground for everyone involved. For the “people in need of special care” that I mentioned above, they would not be able to afford or get to a retreat center to reside there indefinitely. That kind of situation would only work for those who come from an upper or middle class background.
This all then brings to mind another kind of intentional community model – the Catholic Workers. These people do actively reach out to and serve the homeless, the addicted, the abused, and those with problems with the law. The Catholic Workers, however, do not have a particular therapeutic model in mind, and the level of attention to detail in creating a healing environment is generally not present there like it is in Camphill places.
So my ideal is to have a mix of both – to expand the means and methods of getting Social Therapy out into the world. And, similar to the Catholic Workers, to see this work as being integral to radical social change work itself. Reconstructing society, in other words, would be going hand-in-hand with personal and inter-personal healing. And this would be for all people regardless of ability or class back-ground.
Yesterday while walking around Minneapolis I came upon a big beautiful old mansion house that is for sale. I looked at it and visualized what it would be like to have that be a big family-style Camphill house, in conjunction with a vacant lot that could be used for urban agriculture. A space could be created here for intentionally supporting people in need of special care and creating a healing social environment for them and everyone involved. And I imagined that same place as also having space available for radical activist projects, an open anarchist social center. The same space, integrated. Social therapy supporting social change supporting social revolution. This is a vision of what Social Therapy could be.