Howard Adelman visits Toad Lane

[this post also appears at http://themehouseawarenessproject.wordpress.com/]

Last Thursday, Toad Lane‘s weekly pot luck was graced by the presence of renowned scholar and former CCRI summer manager Howard Adelman. Adelman is an interesting character: he is personally responsible for helping found almost every student co-op in Ontario, as well as numerous other co-ops here and around the world.  His insights into the co-operative structure are vast, although sometimes potentially outdated since he changed his research focus away from co-operatives many years ago. Currently his main concern is violence, so he spends most of his time working on how to reduce conflicts in Africa. He’s been instrumental in setting up an Early Warning System (an interview about this can be read here) which led to the arrest of Charles Taylor.

Adelman’s approach very progressive, but unlike the majority of the left it is characterized by not being anti-capitalist. Rather than “smash capitalism”, Adelman emphasizes the sense in which capitalism is a game, is fun, is a system which you can figure out and move in it the right way. (Although I didn’t ask him, his approach might be similar to the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze). He is able to operate “freely” in capitalism by rejecting many everyday truisms which effectively control people, prevent them from using capitalism in their own favour. One of these is the idea that we can’t afford things. Adelman rejects the idea that anyone “doesn’t have money”, and that getting money is simply a matter of figuring out what assets you have, how you can leverage them, and how you can get the stream of income to cover the cost of the debt.

This approach, which grasps money as a vector or flow rather than as a static entity which you have or do not have, is incredibly enabling if you are skilled enough to practice it effectively. Adelman did exactly this when CCRI hired him as a summer manager in 1957 – at this point the co-op had paid of its debts, but was running continual deficits – without a new plan CCRI might have failed in only a few more years. Adelman raised CCRI’s debt to GDP ratio from almost nil to over 70%, and in the process acquired many new houses. In short order, the co-op grew from 5 houses to 30. Money was also used to renovate the houses – which were still using ice boxes in 1957!

This state of the co-op: under debted, and under renovated, stuck in the past, is incredibly similar to the situation we find ourselves in today. We have very little debt, but we are unwilling to spend money to increase our revenue stream – instead the logic employed is first we must find ways to increase our revenue stream, and then that money can be used to borrow money. This is simply insane, because it forces one to ignore the increased revenue stream which spending the money itself can bring in. In other words, we are being too conservative.

Adelman actually believes that conservatism is an inherent problem in the co-operative model, and maybe in any genuine democracy: because everyone’s viewpoint must be considered, there is a tendency against change. This is certainly a problem we run into currently: for instance, when my committee recommended that 84 Lowther be converted into a graduate theme house, the board rejected the proposal because it is not an organic, member driven decision – and it would require moving 3 people from 84 Lowther into a different house. However, in order to preserve the benefit of allowing the 3 members to live in the house next year, CCRI is giving up the possibility to attract many graduate students who would live in CCRI through the summer – which could significantly combat our main demon right now – summer vacancy loss. This kind of failure of foresight is depressing. This is where another virtue of Adelman’s approach becomes clear: his incessant positivity. He insists that debating is fun, that life is fun, and that you should get on with it.

I think there is some truth in Adelman’s critique of the sense of difficulty we have about everything. This sense is itself a major obstacle to success – re-inventing CCRI is not hard, we just need to get on with it. Rather than telling people what they should like about the co-op, we need to find out what people like about it, and what they don’t, and spend money to give them more of what they like and less of what they don’t.

Perhaps the most radical (and true) idea that Adelman expressed was that no one moves into co-op because it is a co-op – selling the co-op on cooperative values (i.e. the Rochedale principles) is simply a bad idea. People move into co-op because it’s a desirable place to live, and because it’s a communal living situation – this is what we should emphasize, not the democratic structure. I think he’s right about this – the board tends to criticize other members for not being as involved as them, but this actually a bad idea – we should take people as they are, and if they decide to involve themselves in the democratic structure, that’s great. And, they will do it on their own if they see it as involving their own interests.

Adelman has offered to speak at both CCRI’s 75th anniversary next year, and at the upcoming OSCA conference. I think his presence, his “it’s not so difficult, get on with it” attitude is a breath of fresh air in a stifled system which comes to see everything as an unfathomable disaster.

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8 thoughts on “Howard Adelman visits Toad Lane

  1. I’m glad to hear you’ve crossed paths with Adelman. I’ve thought how different your York experience might have been with Adelman as the resident Hegelian. He was the Absolute Lord as far as I was concerned when I arrived in 1998.

    One thing I would add about his attitude of taking people as they are–this is true, yet he also takes people as he wants them to be; not idealizing them, but making them be that way. True, you can’t expect everyone, or practically anyone, to be involved, but–in my experience–any particular individual he encounters he will expect to be involved and engage with them in such a way that they find themselves involved (though for most it probably won’t stick).

  2. I agree with you on a number of these points, the first being that we need to spend money to make money. Investing in the long- and short-term desirability of the co-op houses through projects like capital repairs, cosmetic renovations and soft assets like built-in internet access costs would go a long way in shoring up our place in the student housing market.

    However, I do think the current thinking around CCRI can be flawed, especially when we devalue the importance of community and overvalue the importance of the bottom line and of the physical state of the houses.

    For example, I wasn’t in favour of converting 84 into a theme house because it doesn’t seem to address the needs of the people who would actually live in that house. 84 is a large house in a meal plan division – two things that potential grad-student residents might resist. Furthermore, it contravenes the existing theme house policy, which asks that theme houses are directed by the membership. That policy grew out of CCRI’s experiences with Toad Lane. To say it doesn’t work might be true, but it was set in place for a reason: we need to either work harder to follow the protocol, or recognize that lightning of the 429 theme house variety won’t strike twice, and jettison the policy altogether/rework it significantly. To have something on the books that gets ignored is irritating and sets a bad example for the membership at large.

    When I moved into co-op, I came for the chance to live communally in a place where I had agency. House meetings where I had a vote – a vote! – were an eye-opening change from the benevolent dictatorship of family and residence life. It’s important to note that, while people come to co-operative living for a variety of reasons, the chance to have an actual, meaningful opinion can be a powerful experience. Reminding people that they set the tone of the co-op, through words and action (especially voting) might be the first step in initiating changes of the Adelman variety.

  3. I should note that I sit on the board of directors at CCRI, but I act as chair – I only get to vote on issues if there is a tie.

    I should also mention that being on the board (or working closely with us, as Tristan does) can skew your opinion of what really matters to people in co-operative living. I would contend that most of our members are interested in safety, having a working dynamic between them and their housemates, food (for those who live in meal plan divisions), low costs, and the freedom to do what they like, as long as they’re not stepping on other folks’ toes.

    While those issues are largely left up to the individual members and houses to reconcile, the board occasionally fails to take them into account when considering policy or making motions. Instead, we focus on the bottom line and are often heavily influenced by staff recommendations, which can both be very alien to what is actually best or most feasible for the people who live in the co-op.

  4. ” That policy grew out of CCRI’s experiences with Toad Lane. To say it doesn’t work might be true, but it was set in place for a reason: we need to either work harder to follow the protocol, or recognize that lightning of the 429 theme house variety won’t strike twice, and jettison the policy altogether/rework it significantly.”

    This is false. The existing theme house policy in no way allows the replication of the formation of Toad Lane. Toad Lane was formed when a new house was purchased, and a group of people decided in advance to all live together in that house with a theme in mind.

    The current theme house policy demands members who already happen to live together to come up with a theme which appeals to the majority of members staying-through. Despite numerous attempts, this has never happened.

    The appropriate form of theme house policy would be one which replicates the conditions under which toad lane was formed – i.e. deciding in advance to clear out a house at a specific date in the future, and allow groups to apply to move into that house with a theme in mind.

  5. The re-invention of CCRI will demand stepping on a few toes. We tend to over-value our duty to serve the existing members of CCRI – we are just as bound to serve future members. Sometimes the best way to serve future members is to compromise some rights of existing members, specifically the right to live in the same house year after year.

  6. There are many houses in Toronto similar to the theme house, which are not part of co-operatives (either they are privately owned, or rented). Studying how these communal living situations (usually around a focal principle, i.e. the “no plastic house” at 5XX Brunswick) began is, I think, a good place to start for re-inventing our theme house policy.

  7. I disagree with the idea, that CCRI’s obligations lie with future and not current members. If we have a policy in place – like, for example, the theme house policy, or the guest policy, or any number of policies that are not enforceable or enactable in any meaningful way – then we have a responsibility to change that policy, for the good of the co-op’s members: past, present and future.

    I believe that the way co-ops are governed an run, especially CCRI, can lead to a large amount of blame mongering and finger pointing. “They” do something, “we” want something else: it becomes hard to remember that all us board members are also members of the co-op at large, and that we are also affected by policy and protocol. We were voted in to serve the co-op’s larger interests, and draft and implement workable policy. I think trying thing willy-nilly is the mark of a lost and impotent board that is trying to appease its members; I hope CCRI’s board has not and does not become that.

  8. I agree we have responsibilities to change our policies when they do not benefit current and future members. I agree having policies we do not follow on the books is bad for everyone.

    One thing we need is consistency in the distribution of policy – I consistently have been supplied with “drafts” of the theme house policy – this is a significant problem because Astrid’s drafts are often very different from the final version.

    I also think history is important – it’s important to know that the existing theme house policy has spawned zero (not one) theme houses. It’s also important to know that challenges we face now are not so different from challenges we’ve faced in the past, i.e. in the 50s and in the 70s and 80s.

    I don’t think voting to create a grad house at 84 Lowther was acting “willy nilly”, I think it’s the best decision from a strategic perspective at the current moment.

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