Hager Homestead Case Study

Jun 14, 2021

About Hager Homestead

Hager Homestead is a community in Littleton, Massachusetts (United States) working to form the first 55+ cohousing community in New England. They anticipate construction to begin in 2021, with move-in planned for 2022. Their Vision and Values statement says,

“We are a community of active older adults committed to living sustainably on the earth, creating a beautiful place to live, and nourishing the body and soul. We embrace diversity as vital to a flourishing community. We value lifelong learning and personal growth. We care about and support one another, balancing independence and mutual concern. We strive to be compassionate and respectful in our relationships. We look for opportunities to celebrate, engage with the world, and have fun!”

Beginning with Sociocracy

Inspired and mentored by Elizabeth Locke, one of the cofounders of neighboring Cornerstone Village Cohousing in Cambridge, Hager Homestead members made a commitment to Sociocracy as their form of governance from the inception of their community in 2016. Ironically, one of Elizabeth’s reasons for recommending Sociocracy was out of her frustration that her own community did not adopt it as their governance process.

As one of the cofounders of Hager Homestead, Mayhew shared his story of how the community started using Sociocracy: “Although we explored using sociocratic methods even at our earliest meetings, we really began to adopt it as our form of governance when we got up to a core group of five people serious enough to call themselves members. At that time, we ran our first ELC (Sociocratic Basics Empowered Learning Circle) training in June 2018 and this is when we really began to function as a sociocratic organization.

In September 2018 we were beginning to grow strongly in terms of membership and by that time had connected with Jerry Koch-Gonzalez of SoFA. Eleven of our members participated in an all day training with Jerry at the Northeast regional cohousing conference in Amherst; that gave us a solid grounding in Sociocracy.

The next month, we formed the ‘Process Circle’; in our organization that is where the sociocratic practice resides. We assembled a circle of six members who created the aims and domain for that circle. The Process Circle came up with the training plan for the community which includes the many ELC training sessions we have held over time. Almost every member has completed that training; only one person hasn’t had the training, but that’s fine – it is like vaccination – you do not need 100% for it to work.”

How a new member learns to participate in the community using Sociocracy

”When a prospective member joins the Hager Homestead cohousing community, they are an Explorer for the first three months. This gives them the ability to fully participate in meetings, other than in consent rounds. And even then, they are asked the question ‘if you had consent rights, what would you say?’ — to give them the experience of consent and objection.

The new member’s orientation package includes the organizational circle chart, the mission, aims and domains of circles, and a capsule overview of Sociocracy. Explorers are encouraged to take the next available ELC training, which often turns out to be a really good community building experience for them.”

Benefits of using Sociocracy

Mayhew’s sharing reflected on fairness.

“‘Every voice is heard’ – that hugely increases the universe of ideas available when we are making decisions and policies — that makes better process, better decisions. Take an example of when we did a proposal forming the last time; there were two or three very different approaches to what we were talking about. I was facilitating, and I ended up proposing something that most of the circle members had expressed being in favor of, but one person hadn’t. And so in order for that to feel more fair I said, ‘Well, can you agree to this for a three month term?’ something like a change in the term can really go a long way towards making everybody feel that they were heard and that their thoughts were taken into consideration.”

Another member, Diane, referenced efficiency and connection.

“In general, our meetings are remarkably efficient. We learned that to keep to our time and our agenda, the efficiency and the distribution of decision-making is really key because there is no way that we would get as much done as we do. Another thing that I really like in Sociocracy, because all voices are heard and because of the way the groups work, we get to know other people in a deeper way. This is what started and continues to connect the community.”

“In Sociocracy we get to know other people in a deeper way”

Mayhew added and Diane agreed, “Sociocracy became a major recruitment tool. A lot of people are wary of joining a community that does not have a good process and they seem really relieved when they discover Sociocracy. They feel, ‘This is a safe place where I can participate and my voice will be heard.’”

Challenges of using Sociocracy

Diane noted, “In a growing community, bringing people into the circles is very difficult when we have so much history. It is a challenge to get everybody to be active and participating. And for people to realize that everyone needs to participate in order for this to work. That’s true for both new and old members.

  “Everyone needs to participate in order for this to work.” 

Mayhew observed, “I would say that sociocracy depends very heavily on good facilitation — that seems to be a weak link. I know that there are a lot of good strategies for dealing with objections but nothing is 100% and ultimately it comes down to the skill of the facilitator to work with people to address what their unmet needs are. In fact we recently ran a weekend facilitation training with Ted Rau for the entire community and almost all of the members participated. People not only need to know how to facilitate, but also know how to be facilitated and why good facilitation is important.

“Sociocracy depends very heavily on good facilitation. People not only need to know how to facilitate, but also know how to be facilitated and why good facilitation is important.”

What are the Hidden Powers of Sociocracy?

Mayhew notes the benefits to introverts.

“I’d say that one of the hidden powers of Sociocracy is that it empowers introverts. Sociocracy is the perfect operating system for introverts because it gives us a chance to be heard and a voice in planning and decision making… It’s like giving a voice to 70% of the population!”

Diane cites compassionate meetings.

“My career as a product manager required frequent meetings with people, none of whom worked for me, and I had to get them to all work together! I ran meetings with an agenda and everyone talked over each other, and the person with the loudest voice was the one whose voice was heard and idea was adopted. But as soon as I experienced my first sociocratic meetings, I took a breath and realized, aaahh, these are meetings with compassion! Compassion and caring for each other while getting work done seems like the way it’s supposed to be. That’s why I love sociocracy and completed the SoLT training. To be listening while you are fully present creates a connection with people.”

This interview has been edited for clarity. Images courtesy of Hager Homestead.

 

Check out these case studies to learn about more communities and organizations practicing sociocracy.

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The key promise of sociocracy is that all voices matter. In reality our current sociocracy practices are not enough to overcome the way society systemically oppresses the voices of people from poor, non-white, transgender, disabled, et cetera, backgrounds. In this article I define equity, make an argument for why combining equity and sociocracy is so powerful, and share five strategies for embedding equity into sociocratic governance.

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