Life on a Commune

Most adolescents only see one path to adulthood, but communes offer a unique alternate route.

Life+on+a+commune+requires+a+lot+of+cooperative+effort+and+hard+work%2C+but+it+pays+off.

photo courtesy of Elena

Life on a commune requires a lot of cooperative effort and hard work, but it pays off.

By Quinn Volpe, North Allegheny Senior High School

High school students are traditionally conditioned to work towards one common goal: pursuing some sort of higher education and moving on to a career that will sustain them until retirement. What many don’t seem to realize is that this is not the only option. 

Elena, who asked that The Uproar not include her last name for her privacy, is a college student who took a semester off and sought out an opportunity that is different from what others may consider normal. Through a program called Workaway, she discovered communities, sometimes called communes, that offered to welcome people for free in exchange for their work.

Because the term “commune” may carry connotation of cults or communism, many of the groups involved with Workaway have decided to use terms like “ecovillage” or “intentional community” to avoid the negative stigma. Nevertheless, on her TikTok account, Elena created a video to explain her life in the communities, and she referred to them as communes.

After compiling a list of communities that seemed to fit what she was looking for, Elena reached out to them. Ultimately, her decision depended on which ones were truly suitable to her and the communities’ circumstances.

“Actually picking them came down to whether they seemed like the right fit for me and if it would logistically work for me to get there when they wanted me to,” she explained.

photo courtesy of Elena

Throughout the semester that she took off, Elena stayed in two communities. Although some communes may be more strict when it comes to core principles, values, or beliefs, the only rule in the groups that Elena stayed with was to care about the community and not directly interfere with its wellbeing.

There was very little that community members could be reprimanded for, as long as they were contributing to the group.

“Basically the only thing you could get in trouble for would be not showing up for work or being mean to someone,” Elena said. “Nobody cared about spiritual beliefs, what you wore, or what you ate.”

Elena’s diet, on and off the commune, is made up of mostly plant-based foods. While she stayed with the groups, her diet consisted of what food was in season at any given time and whatever bulk grains the group had. She also noted that the groups purchased what they were not able to grow themselves and that they got water from standpipes on the land.

Communes aim to be as self-sufficient as possible, but it can be difficult to get to a point where they don’t need to interact with the outside economy at all. Because of this, such communities often need money. There are a few ways that the groups obtain needed funds.

“The first is that the person who founded it puts a bunch of money in upfront to have a fund for necessities that they can’t produce,” Elena said. “The second is that they will sell or trade goods or services to people outside the community. For example, they can sell excess produce that they grow or allow people to pay to stay on the land as a sort of retreat without having to work with everyone else.”

The chores on the commune consist of cooking, cleaning, watering plants, feeding animals, gardening, and working on construction projects. The responsibilities of the members change on a regular basis depending on what the commune is working on. The groups meet periodically to discuss and assign their work, and the two communes that Elena stayed with went about this process in similar ways. 

“At both communities I’ve stayed with, we had a meeting at the beginning of each week where we discussed our goals and who would be working on which projects and chores,” she said.

The only hierarchical aspect of the communities, from Elena’s perspective, was that people who were skilled in specific areas like gardening or construction would lead projects based on their area of skill. At the communes that she stayed with, there was no single leader who ran everything or made decisions for the group.

Elena uses social media to speak out about the other misconceptions regarding communes.

Nobody cared about spiritual beliefs, what you wore, or what you ate.”

— Elena, commune resident

One stereotype is that individuals don’t have enough privacy while living in a commune. In reality, while staying on the two communes, Elena had her own room and always had some free time to herself. However, she preferred to spend her time talking to other people because the community itself was a big part of her experience.

Another common misconception is the association between communes and cults. This is one of the main topics that Elena has received in the comments on her platforms.

People make this association because communes can serve to cut people off from the world. The main reason that this assertion is untrue is that, at least on the communes that Elena stayed with, members are able to come and go as they please. They are not separated from their friends and family, and on one of the communes she stayed with, Elena even had access to WiFi. 

But because there is a risk that some cults may disguise themselves as communes, she has made a multitude of videos on her TikTok about how people can safely find their ideal community.

Elena’s experiences with communes have been positive, and overall, extremely educational. She pursued something entirely new to her and stands as a reminder that, sometimes, the road less taken can be incredibly rewarding.

“These are amazing communities that will welcome you for free in exchange for your work,” she concluded. “It’s the perfect set up for me because I get to work outside every day and become really close with people I never would have met otherwise.”

This story was originally published on The Uproar on January 14, 2021.