Dancing Rabbit Interview - Tony (complete)

Interview with Tony Sirna, co-founder of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage.
Recorded May 7, 2006 at Dancing Rabbit, in Skyhouse.

NOTE: Questions/answers preceded by a * do not appear in the abridged version of the interview.

* BB: You’ve been here since the beginning – 1996. How big was the group?

* TS: There were essentially 6 of us that moved from California to Missouri. There was a couple with a baby shortly after, so there were 7 of us.

BB: I know that you guys started thinking about the project when you were in school in California. What were some of the original goals that you had when starting Dancing Rabbit?

TS: In the early 90’s, there was a lot of stuff going on in the ecological movement. Global warming was really becoming apparent to those willing to accept it. It was real and it was going to be a problem and we wanted to do something about it. We wanted to do something radical. We wanted to do something that was a fundamental change as opposed to just sort of band-aid solutions. We didn’t really want to do protest work; we wanted to do something as a positive alternative. We were living in a coop, so we had this sense of cooperating in community. We had this vision - sort of like a New-England small town - as the model. The idea was that we could create this model town that was all focused on sustainability and that that would be an example that people could draw from. Making an ecological change was the first motivation and in some ways community and cooperation were sort of just an assumption because we were already living that way.

BB: How do you think you’ve done so far in terms of those goals that you set out?

TS: A lot of times people ask “Is Dancing Rabbit what you envisioned?” I would say that it’s pretty much going according to plan, except that it’s much slower than we expected. In our youthful naivety, we were like “Great, we’ll move out to the land with 20 people and then we’ll be 100 people in 5 years.” We had all these very quick goals. Both between the time it takes to integrate people socially and the time it takes to build buildings, things have progressed more slowly. Given our slow growth, in some ways I think our impact has been significant within the communities movement. A lot of people know about Dancing Rabbit. It’s not a household name yet, but in the right circles, a lot of people have heard of us. We’re getting tons of [visiting] classes and the 30 days TV show [helped]. It’s minuscule compared to the broader, wider culture, but in terms of inspiring people who are looking for an alternative, I think we are making an impact. But we haven’t yet brought down unsustainable consumer society.

* BB: What do you guys do in terms of outreach, education and spreading the word, apart from the connections that you make in order to continue daily life?

* TS: Well, our website obviously gives information about us, but it’s definitely a big vehicle for us to share information. We publish a newsletter. We speak at classes at high schools and colleges. In the visitor program we get 50 or 60 people a year who come through and learn about us that way and then they tell all their friends, so there’s a lot of word of mouth. We are trying to get articles in publications. It’s easy for us to get into things like Communities magazine but we want to try to get into more mainstream publications. We’ve been in Mother Earth News.

We’ve always wanted to do more workshops and specific educational programs and it’s an area that hasn’t taken off for us. I think some of it is our location. We’re sort of remote; it’s harder for people to get to us. But also we’ve been so focused on building our infrastructure, there aren’t that many people here with that sort of organizational energy that it takes to advertise and prepare for a class and then put a workshop on. We certainly have the skills to share. I think it would be easy to find the teachers, if there were someone who was willing to do the recruitment of students.

* BB: How do you think that the rural location of Dancing Rabbit has a negative impact on those attempts?

* TS: You make a certain choice in terms of how you’re going to impact the world. You can impact a lot of people if you’re in a city, so you have more access to people, and they have more access to you. But it’s harder to take radical steps, both because of logistical things with zoning and building codes as well as just cultural things. Whereas here we’re able to take more radical steps, but we have an impact on a fewer number of people. When people come out here for three weeks or when people come for a tour, sometimes I think the impact is greater than if they just happened to stop by in the city.

BB: What would you say that you have lost by living at Dancing Rabbit rather than where you were living before?

TS: By not being in or near a major metropolitan area, you lose access to certain cultural things - whether it’s live music or dance clubs or bars or whatever. I mean, I don’t really care about bars and dance clubs but I do enjoy live music. We make some of our own here, so it’s not a complete loss. There’s a certain cultural diversity that you get in the city, just because there’s always something going on, like “I want to go see this poetry reading by this transgender disability activist.” You don’t get that in Scotland county. So it’s those kinds of cultural things that I miss out on by being in a rural location. As far as by choosing to live in community and living an ecological lifestyle, certainly I don’t go jet-setting around the world as much, but I’m pretty content here. When people are like, “what do you miss, what do you not have, or what did you give up?” I could say sometimes I wish I could play on a real ultimate team or I wish I could travel more or it was easier to see my family. The truth is if I lived in the city and I worked a mainstream job and I only got 2 weeks vacation, would I do those things? If I worked 40 hours a week? There’s other alternatives. I could make simple living choices in the city and get some of the benefits of both. But then again you’re in the city and there’s lots of concrete and here I can sit out on my front porch and see 15 different species of birds flying around just in the elm tree outside.

BB: What are some of the negative things you think you’ve avoided?

TS: It’s really nice not being embedded in consumer culture. When I go back to the city, there’s some parts where it’s like “oh, this is exciting.” But also it’s dirty; it’s smelly; you see the stuff in the shops and people spend money on the craziest things. There’s some level where I get to avoid the craziness of our wider culture. Not having a mainstream job and those pulls of - you need more money, but to make more money then you need a car, and now you need more money to pay for the car. You’ve got to keep up with the neighbors. I don’t think I would have done that necessarily, but I see that in friends who seem stuck in the system. When I see people who are making $100,000 a year and can’t make ends meet, it’s like “Wow. I make $9,000 a year and I have no trouble.” That whole dynamic - being able to choose what work I do for the most part, be my own boss, have a variety of different work - inside and outside, computer work and physical work, and having my work feel meaningful - makes a big difference. I don’t have to work for a corporation that I don’t really care about. That’s probably the nicest thing to avoid - having to work for the man.

* BB: What have been some of the hardest challenges, both for you personally, and (your perception of) for Dancing Rabbit?

* TS: The hardest challenge was early on. While I was willing to endure it because I really believed in this project and I was dedicated to it, Rachel was not so into it and was not very happy here. We endured the first five years we were out here. She was here part of the time and then I would visit her in California. It was very hard dealing with relationship stuff and dealing with the question of “do I want to do this thing in the world or do I want to maintain this relationship with this person.” Luckily it ended up that I was able to do both, but that was not clear [at the time].

There was a time when I got tendonitis in my arm doing a combination of construction work and computer work, and that was very challenging. For almost two years I was unable to use my arms to do all the things that I wanted to do without causing them pain and potentially causing further damage. That was pretty frustrating.

It’s hard when people come and go who you really like; they live here for a while and then they leave and that’s sad. But I’ve sort of known from the beginning that that’s sort of the way life is in community, but it’s still a challenge. There has definitely been a learning curve - recognizing that in some ways what it took to start Dancing Rabbit was an irrational belief that we could do whatever the hell we wanted to, and no matter what, we could succeed - this tenacious optimism. I’d say that certainly I’ve had some of that blunted and gotten a little more jaded over the years, just realizing that I can’t do everything in the world. I was like OK, we’re going to build this house and we’re going to be done in a few years and it’s like, we’re not done. I probably could have pushed and pushed to get it done but it wasn’t worth it. Realizing that you can make mistakes and you can’t do more than you’re really capable of - those are a lot of the personal challenges that I’ve faced here.

As far as community challenges - when you talk about starting a community or an eco-village, everyone wants to talk about solar panels and windmills, and the biggest challenge is always interpersonal stuff. We’ve had some very challenging members who were just very difficult to get along with. There’s often conflict and challenge in personalities throughout, and that’s not something that goes away; it’s something you’re always dealing with. Any community that tells you they don’t have [interpersonal conflict] is probably in denial or lying or they’ll have it next week. You sometimes go through periods of it being better or worse. I think that in some ways, just the rustic conditions here keep us from growing very quickly. Being a small group, there’s a lot of people who came to Dancing Rabbit and were really drawn by this vision of being a village and that’s taken a long time to develop. We’re getting more and more of that feeling of a village, but we’re still only like 30 people or something, and so it’s still a very small village. For a while people were like “things will be better when we’re larger,” and a lot of things are and some things aren’t. There’s things that we really miss that were lost - we don’t all eat together. Dancing Rabbit is sort of in constant flux and constant growing pains, if every year we’re growing by 10-30% then every year is different from the last. There is a big difference between 25, and if you add a third, then it’s going to be 33. Then next year, it’s going to be 44; 44 is pretty different from 33. Eleven people is a lot of people to integrate in one year. All those are challenges to constant growth.

* BB: Do you feel like there is a struggle between the desire for rapid growth to fulfill that goal of having a village, and at the same time maintaining closer community ties?

* TS: There is. I think there’s two dynamics: there’s fast vs slow, but both in favor of growth. Some people think like we’re going to do a lot better if we add a few good people per year or are really careful in how we choose or we just take the time to integrate them really well, and then they’ll stay. Rather than throwing 10 people into the mix and 5 of them end up leaving because they weren’t really getting the energy that they needed. While some people join at any time because of the vision, they’re also joining whatever it is right then. There’s a lot of people that join and they like Dancing Rabbit the way it is right now, or they just think it’s always been this way. It’s like, no, you just happened to show up today. It wasn’t like that yesterday and it won’t be like that tomorrow. That’s how they think it is, and then as it grows and changes they’re think it isn’t as good, or they miss certain things. A lot of these conflicts that I’m describing, it’s not necessarily between person A and B, sometimes it’s within the same person, or different times in different people or in the same person around different things. There are days where I like the way it is now, *and* I want it to grow. I want it to grow slow, and fast. That is definitely a challenge. We want to listen to both sides, to balance it.

BB: I’m curious about vision and re-vision, how often it’s revisited, how often it’s shared, how often people get to participate in that process.

TS: I think we did a good job early on in clarifying the few very key points of the vision of the community. We decided that we were going to be rural and we wanted to be a village. We set a certain standard for how ecological we wanted to be, and those things stay pretty constant. There’s a momentum behind those. We’re supposed to be the radical eco-village. How we manifest that when it’s about *your* driving or *your* concrete or whatever, that’s where sometimes it gets tricky. Every year we do a retreat and we do some visioning work in terms of what we are going to try to do in the next few years. What are we trying to accomplish? When we’re designing town center or in terms of land use planning, everyone gets a say in that. But we don’t debate the basic covenants. If someone wanted to bring that up, it would be very surprising. We were debating - do we want to extend the covenants [which exclude fossil fuel use] to include home heating, water heating and cooking, and people weren’t ready for it to be cooking because we didn’t feel like we had a good alternative to propane for cooking. The end result is that there is a clarity of vision on core principles while still allowing new people to feel not like you just have to buy into this whole system. You have to buy into these principles, and then you get to decide a lot of how that manifests. You get to be part of that process, especially in terms of cultural things. We’re constantly redefining DR culture.

BB: In what ways and how much do you think that Dancing Rabbit is integrated with the surrounding community in terms of Rutledge, as well as Scotland County?

TS: In some ways, very little - in the sense of day-to-day, we primarily see each other [within DR]. In some ways a lot. I think that we have very good relations with people in Rutledge. We go to a lot of social and civic events. We help out with things. We volunteer here and there. I think we’re well respected and people appreciate us. They use our business services, whether its websites and computer fix-its to fiddle lessons or whatever. So I think we have a pretty good reputation. We get a lot of local tours when we have our open house every year we get a couple hundred people come each year. You figure - the county’s only got 5,000 people. I’d say half of them have been on a tour of Dancing Rabbit - seems like it. People bring their relatives when their relatives come in from out of town. There are still some people who I think are either afraid of us because they think that we’re weird or that there are people who are against what we’re doing. But we don’t try and make the local people change in any sort of in-their-face kind of way. I think we are discreet enough about some of the ways that we are weird. I’m sure everyone knows that we have different social norms about clothing and we’re not all married. But there’s a lot of live-and-let-live attitude around here so we don’t put it in their face and don’t tell them that they’re not farming right, so they don’t come and tell us what they think we’re not doing right. There’s a lot of good attitude that way.

* BB: In terms of trade and economy - are you guys integrated with the local economy?

* TS: Yeah, I think so. I don’t know how much of our income comes from local stuff, but we certainly buy vegetables from some of the local Mennonites; we shop at the local general store. We try to buy things locally as much as possible, and we don’t buy a lot of stuff, but I bet we put 10’s if not over 100 thousand dollars, maybe a couple hundred thousand dollars of money through the local [economy]. We don’t buy lumber, but we still buy other stuff at the lumber yard and from the hardware stores and things like that. There’s people who buy milk from the dairy up the road and we buy straw-bales and grain. So there’s lots of that kind of stuff. A lot of our outside expenses are things like medical care and travel and so I’d say as a percentage of our outflows, a lot of our money quickly goes out of the town. But anything that we can keep in the town or in the Kirksville area, we do.

* BB: Do you have a typical day here and what would it be like?

* TS: No. But, I would say if I tried to paint a picture - I often do a little bit of computer work, working on the FIC’s website [Federation of Intentional Communities]. Not every day but many days, I’ll have some sort of committee meeting, whether it’s the land-use planning committee or the visitor team or a Skyhouse meeting or whatever. In a given week I’ll have 2 or 3 meetings. During the summer months, there will be some period when I’m doing a lot more physical work whether it’s gardening or planting trees or construction stuff. Once a week I’ll cook. I play ultimate 2 or 3 times a week. There are some days where I will spend 8 hours at the computer or even 10 hours or 12 hours because I’m focused. On other days I’ll spend 8 hours in the garden. But more often than not it’s very challenging to spend 8 hours doing anything around here. I’ll spend 2 hours or 3 hours in the morning and then I’ll have a meeting and after lunch there’s a thing going on so it’s very hard sometimes to get focus time. You can grab it here and there. Lunch and dinner always with the coop. Breakfast is with Rachel, and after dinner sometimes there will be a social event and if not sometimes I’ll hang out with Rachel or go out. Go to sleep by 10. Get up the next morning. Sometimes it’s 7:00 and you’re out in the garden. Sometimes it’s 7:00 and it’s like, well, might as well be on the computer and start working. Other times when you do it it’s like - sleep in until 9. Day to day it’s different. Hard to say “typical” because each day is so different from the next

BB: Where do you see Dancing Rabbit in the “big picture?”

TS: Sometimes I see it as the most important thing in the world. My vision of the big picture is that our culture is going to change and we can be an example for inspiration and/or knowledge about how to do things differently. I don’t think we can prevent some sort of ecological/societal collapse. Dancing Rabbit can help cushion that or help people who are looking for an alternative to make that change. When the shit hits the fan, it’s going to come down on the underprivileged - the poor people - more than the rich people, and not just in the U.S., but in the rest of the world. In some ways, part of averting collapse is also hopefully averting oppression. It’s also tied in with social justice. For me it’s both for ecology in the sense of preserving ecosystems in their own right and it’s also about easing the path of society’s downfall so that it doesn’t fall on the little people so hard, hopefully giving people a voluntary alternative. When people get to change slowly, they’re OK with that. When people have to change very quickly, people don’t like that. So, if we can turn people onto the concept earlier, then they’ll feel less forced into change. That’s my theory.

BB: If you could have one thing for Dancing Rabbit - what would your fantasy next step or next acquisition be?

TS: Two things come to mind. One is having one or more people come who actually have some experience and skill and willingness to organize and lead projects. Currently there are a lot of people here who are willing to work on projects or would actually hire people to do projects but what we lack sometimes is people to be the coordinator and the organizer of a project. The other thing that came to mind was that we always envision this idea that it wouldn’t just be people coming here one at a time, that we could get a group of 6 people who all want to create a community together, people who already wanted to cooperate together. They could create another whole little cluster or whole little co-housing thing or whatever. I think that would really be a great way to grow – not one at a time, but growing by a chunk.

* BB: What do you think has been most important to the continuation and success of Dancing Rabbit?

* TS: I think we did a good job of learning from other communities - one, just basic stuff like don’t do this, don’t do that - some things like that, but your most important thing is interpersonal process. I think, on average, we’ve had pretty good process; that’s important. We’ve also been lucky in terms of having some people with good basic skills in building, accounting, gardening, things like that, but who also had good people skills. It’s the people skills that really provide a glue for the community. That’s probably a big part of our success, that and having an inspiring vision. I think that in some ways what draws people to Dancing Rabbit is the inspiring vision of a radical sustainable eco-village. What will keep them here is when they come and they’re like wow, these people actually get along OK and are really functional and seem to get shit done; it’s actually what it says it is on the website. You can be completely functional but not have an inspiring vision and then why would anyone come to join your very functional boring scene?  We were able to articulate that vision, and it does draw people in.