Brittany stops by my cabin for a few moments of intimate talk before dinner. (Brittany came here at age 27 as a work exchanger, and lived with us over six months, and was thinking of being a member). As she and I listen to the melodious birdsong resonating through the rainforest, she gazes out the window and asks, “Do you think it is worth it having work exchangers? Wouldn’t it be easier to just do the work ourselves?”
It’s a valid question. At La’akea, our intentional community on the “Big Island” of Hawaii, we invite folks to live and work here in exchange for a place to stay and sharing community life. Today two work exchangers left, and Brittany feels lighter, like a burden was lifted.
La’akea was a permaculture demonstration and educational center for 12 years when our group purchased the site in 2005. Our 8 members and 1 trial member include teachers, healers, administrators, facilitators, co-counselors, permaculturists, tropical gardeners, carpenters, coconut palm-climbers, and long-term communitarians. We embrace sustainability in our relationships and in our interactions with the Earth, and attempt to produce most of our food on the land. Although the tasks necessary to grow food and keep our home and retreat center functioning are immense, our lives flow with nature and with each other. Life is abundant and good! Why then, do we invite people we don’t know to live here?
It began when, shortly after our arrival, various people began asking that they live with us in exchange for labor, and we agreed. While we called these folks ‘work exchangers,’ we soon realized they were much more than that. We’re are such a small and intimate enough group that even short-term residents become woven into the fabric of our community and our individual lives. They not only work alongside us, but participate in our heartshare meetings and morning check-ins, cook with us, eat with us, play with us, and sometimes even bathe with us. We want to support them and we want them to support us in return. Actually, I would like more than that: I would like to open my heart to them and love them. I prefer that people who live here become long-term friends, extended community members, or even core community members. These temporary residents come from all walks of life. They are of varied ages (more younger than older), and are of varied ethnic, educational, and socio-economic backgrounds. They find us in assorted ways: from our exhibit at a local Earth Day celebration, the WWOOFER catalog (“Worldwide Workers on Organic Farms”), our larger Network for New Culture community, our website, or by word of mouth in our local community here on the Big Island. Some arrive penniless and with no transportation. Most have never lived off the grid or lived in an intentional community.
Over the past 18 months, some of the most amazing work exchangers have shared our lives. Their creativity, intelligence, enthusiasm, and joy have enriched us. With the help of these new friends we have planted hundreds of trees, started a mushroom project, and planned and completed a kitchen garden. They have enthusiastically kept the ever-encroaching rainforest jungle at bay with machetes and saws. They have also surfed, held kava kava parties (with kava roots harvested from our land), built bonfires, played guitar, written new songs, and danced wildly at our marimba concerts.
At the same time, hosting work exchangers has sometimes burdened us with additional work and emotional turmoil, especially when we attract people who don’t share our values of openness, realness, and transparency in communication. We have learned to understand and conserve our own resources of emotional energy. We cannot be available to minister to the emotional needs of work exchangers having difficulties, for example, when our own energies are depleted. The delicate balance of keeping ourselves nourished while nourishing others is not easy. In a community as intimate as ours, maintaining this energy balance is both a personal and a community challenge.
Over time, we have improved our work exchange application process. Our application form now includes questions about a potential work exchanger’s specific physical and personal growth skills. We’ve learned to recognize “red flags,” such as when someone requests a work-exchange position because, “I need a place to stay tomorrow.” Such inquiries now get more investigation. We’re learning when to accept work exchangers, or when, for their sakes as well as ours, to turn them down.
Because living in community and living off the grid is very different from how people in mainstream culture live, we have compassion and offer support for the transition folks must go through when they first arrive here. Each work exchanger is assigned a community mentor or liaison. The liaison checks in frequently with the work exchanger and tries to resolve any problems that arise as soon as possible. We encourage ourselves to address any irritations and conflicts with work exchangers sooner rather than later, since suppressing such issues allows them to get bigger and drain our group’s energy. Liaisons also check the work hours that work exchangers record during their first two weeks here, until they and we establish trust about their number of hours worked. The whole community reviews each work exchanger’s progress two weeks after their arrival. We ask for and guarantee only one month’s stay. As much as we want to be inclusive, if the fit is wrong, we give a work exchanger two weeks notice to leave.
We try to communicate clearly ahead of time what it will be like to live off the grid in a tropical rain forest, doing manual labor. Mosquitoes, noisy coqui frogs, taking only short showers, and mildewed clothes can be part of one’s experience here. Because of the problems we’ve experienced when newcomers lacked knowledge about our systems (battery banks, gray water treatment) or tropical plants (for example, hacking down with machetes our largest passion fruit vine and a rare exotic Himalayan Damaru tree, we take time for an extensive orientation process to our way of life, a process we’re continually fine-tuning.
We request that work exchangers do 14 hours of labor a week. Some people are either unable or unwilling to complete this work. When that happens it’s crucial that we get at the truth, which may mean that the work exchanger is not supporting our community, or that we cannot meet their needs. It’s becoming easier to address this situation as early as possible when it arises.
Integrating work exchangers into our daily community life has been a work in progress, especially in terms of food, domestic skills, and communication style. One of the first decisions we reached as a new community was to not financially subsidize the food work exchangers consume. We grow about half our own food, and buy the rest, mostly from local farmer’s markets and health food stores (expensive in Hawaii). We buy organic foods, and continue to buy seeds, plants, and organic additives for our gardens. Our food is varied, exotic, delicious, and nutritious. (I consider myself a world-traveled gourmet, and have never eaten fresher, purer, or tastier food than at La’akea). Our work exchangers currently pay $12 a day for food and incidentals. We ask that work exchangers help cook the evening meals and attend our weekly clean-up party. Sharing cooking skills and encouraging novices can be rewarding. Yet frustrations can arise when cleaning up after someone takes more time than doing the task in the first place, or when a newcomer wastes expensive ingredients, such as the time a work exchanger insisted they could handle a recipe for corn bread but put salt in twice instead of sugar. And most work exchangers are not versed in the Nonviolent Communication process or Co-Counseling skills. When conflicts arise, remaining present and resolving them may be difficult. While it’s rewarding to share our communication skills and to help resolve conflicts, there has to be time and the work exchanger has to be willing to learn,
Last but certainly not least, issues of sexuality arise in our relations with work exchangers. Our community values sexuality as an important part of an individual’s life and a powerful energy that nourishes ourselves and our group. Although we support individual choices in sexual relationships, and do not elevate one sexual relationship model, such as monogamy, polyamory, serial monogamy, celibacy, etc., over another, we are aware of the power differential between members and work exchangers and how this plays out in the sexual arena. As stated earlier, we are also aware of the transitions a work exchanger must go through upon arrival at La’akea. We have asked new work exchangers how we can support their safety in sexual endeavors. Our current agreement is to focus on non-sexual ways of relating and connecting with work exchangers for at least two weeks after their arrival. We encourage work exchangers to develop multiple friendships in the community, and with members of both sexes. The work exchanger’s liaison is a member of the same gender as the work exchanger if they are heterosexual, and of the opposite gender if they are gay. The liaison is responsible for informing the work exchanger of our sexual mores, and for finding out if the work exchanger has clear boundaries about relationships and if he or she can easily communicate about these boundaries. We also make sure the work exchanger feels comfortable asking for support if they experience any uncomfortable feelings regarding sexual energies. After two weeks, if one of our community members is having a sexual attraction to a work exchanger, he or she is asked to consult at least two other community members, preferably including the work exchanger’s liaison, and get an OK to express and move on the attraction. As with all our endeavors at La’akea, our sexual policies regarding new people is a work in progress and subject to change.
So, back to Brittany’s question. Are work exchangers worth the effort? Living in community these past 20 months, which includes interacting with our many short-term residents, I have learned more about myself than I did in 31 years as an allopathic medical provider and 25 years as a mother in a nuclear family. My ability to be less judgmental, to be in touch with my truth, and to communicate my needs is constantly improving. I am especially challenged when my truth involves saying “No.” I am still not always able to do this, but the great thing is that work exchangers keep coming and I get renewed chances to learn over and over again. I am more aware when I have feelings of anger, and when I feel angry I try to get in touch with which needs are not being met, communicate my feelings in a non-blaming way, and take responsibility for meeting my needs. There are lots of self-growth opportunities here!
Looking over our guestbook of visitors and work exchangers who’ve lived here, I recall the life-enhancing experiences our community has provided them. Yes, work exchangers are worth the effort! They are part of La’akea’s community vision, which is to spread a more loving, conscious, sustainable, heart-centered culture.
When I remember individual work exchangers who I grew to love, and who contributed and learned about life, love and community at La’akea, I feel intensely alive and motivated to keep going.
Dona Willoughby is a founding member of La’akea Intentional Community. After 31 years in allopathic medicine, her passion now lies in the healing found in community and the creation of a more sustainable lifestyle.
Comments from Some of our Work Exchangers
“I truly believe I have been able to redirect my path to a more focused, humanitarian based, life mission with your loving support.”
“I love you all and am so excited about what you are building and growing here.”
“The plant spirits rejoice in your laughter and song, keep it up.”
“I can’t begin to explain everything I have learned and how I have grown during my two-month stay at La’akea.”
“How beautiful the land, how beautiful your hearts, how beautiful the desire to open your home, your life and this wonderful La’akea family to me. Thank you from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head to the center of my heart.”
“I gorged myself on the bountiful nectars of life while at La’akea.”
“The kindness and generosity from La’akea community has changed my life. You people make it possible to live off the land. What I value as most important from being here is to give more love to everyone and everything that makes us human beings.”
“Besides the beauty of nature and nobility of sustainable endeavors, my experience is about heartfelt expression and openness in psychological, emotional, and physical areas. La’akea is like a deep beautiful pool in which I choose to experience levels and aspects of Self that are often overlooked, untouched, or completely denied in conventional living.”