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Building Community: Interview with Sage & Richard

Richard, Sage, Elsbeth & Catherine in Wyoming

In the almost five years that I’ve gotten to know Richard and Sage, who are Nubi co-founders and neighbors, I’ve often heard them refer to the Nubi project with both exasperation and love. I finally got a chance to ask them to reflect at more length on a recent winter’s morning when we sat and talked about their experiences and perspective on creating a cohousing community. Here are highlights from our conversation. —Johanna

What initially brought you to this project? What were your goals?

Sage: The project was about creating a community, a farm, and taking advantage of the opportunity we were given to live our values. We came across a book about cohousing in the early 90s, and it made so much sense to us. Cohousing seemed to offer an answer to challenges we had experienced, like disconnection from neighbors, and a lack of resource sharing. We had worked to change those things in our previous neighborhood. We bought and shared a snow blower with two neighbors. But we wanted to make that happen on a larger scale—to have it be part of the culture of our community.

When our kids were young, I just intuitively wanted them to see people doing real work, like gardening and carpentry. They would see us only at computers; not employing practical skills. I’m not inspired to sew or fix a car. I can think and research. What happens if the world changes dramatically? These skills do not position me very well. So being part of a larger community, being able to share resources and skills, having the sum of our community be greater than the parts—that really speaks to me.

Governor's House and site after demolition of inn buildings and site clearing

In 2003, Shelley Goguen Hulbert and Robin Hulbert first approached us with the idea of developing a cohousing community on an abandoned inn site in West Peterborough. Their energetic leadership and experience, especially in the first phases of the project, provided us the window to work our way gradually into the project. And early on, a committed group of people joined us. Their willingness gave us the courage to break ground.

Richard: We knew this was not a money maker, or a sure thing. We went into it for other returns, hoping to break even financially. We wanted to create community and to invest locally, and by “invest,” I don’t just mean in a narrow financial sense. We wanted to invest in the town where we live.

I’ve heard you refer to the vertical learning curve you experienced when you began the project. Can you reflect on some of the things you’ve learned?

Sage: The Nubi project was so beyond anything we’d done before; it really challenged us to stretch. Fortunately we learned that Richard and I work really well together. Not so much in the kitchen, but when it came to the project! Our styles and skills are complementary. We had to divide and conquer, so I managed our family life and focused on big picture issues like finances, and Richard managed the rest, focusing especially on the day-to-day issues of the project. I think I’m just coming to fully understand this opportunity now, but Richard was front and center when he took over construction management. He got the opportunity to grow, to dive into legal documents, to learn contractor and people management, etc.

Richard: I was surprised that it brought out strengths I wasn’t aware I had. People would say things to me like, “You are so calm and reasonable in tense situations.” Or, “Gee, you have such patience for and understanding of these legal documents, you should go for the bar.” It surprised me.

Sage & Richard tour buildings under construction

Sage: Early on in the process I learned to trust my intuition. I’ve always based decisions on intuition, but more cautiously; now I give it my full attention.

Richard: A deceptively simple thing I learned working with people on the project is that what they say matters. I’ve always been pretty good at picking up on people’s emotions and it can sometimes distract me from what they are saying. I started writing down their exact words to become a better listener. I learned that there is something important in what they are saying, even their choice of a particular word. In a meeting early on in the project, I remember I was able to write down one person’s exact words, and even when I was having an emotional reaction, I was able to understand him. I didn’t agree with him, but I could understand his perspective. Before I was preoccupied with trying to convince him of my position, but when I listened I finally understood, even if I disagreed.

I’ve also learned that we all don’t see the world in the same way. When I am walking people around the neighborhood I know they are picturing something in their minds—and it is not the same thing that I’m picturing! They are filling in the blanks. I don’t think it is a bad thing or a good thing, but something that is useful to know. This is one reason why it is really important to communicate your vision well.

In many ways the Nubi project seems risky, not just in a financial sense, but more broadly. What enabled you or inspired you to take that risk?

Richard: We went into the project knowing that we didn’t know what we were doing, so I wasn’t surprised when things occasionally got tough.

Sage: We established a basic level of financial protection for ourselves, and then talked through the pros and cons, our values and what our hearts said. All signs pointed to going ahead with it.

Kids and mud during construction

Richard: I think the project is about getting people to think differently, trying to model how one might develop land and farming in concert. We didn’t do it alone. I have to emphasize that when we went into it we were able to begin slowly and learn lots because our partners were initially the ‘hands on’ partners while we were on the periphery. Then as time went on we became more involved until we were solo.

Sage: I think it’s important to remember there are risks no matter what you do. I believe that wherever you live, you are making a choice, and that choice has pros and cons. Our culture has embedded in all of us a certain view of choices, so we don’t notice what we’ve given up. Living in suburbia, you may have a dream house, but you are giving up the ability to walk to town, or perhaps to have meaningful connections with neighbors.

What do you think leads people to examine their choices and assumptions and develop new ones?

Sage: Experiences like the market crash of 2008! I’ve been learning about that financial meltdown. It has reinforced for me that we need to take full responsibility for our lives in all ways. Ultimately, our choices rest with us. We must do the research, thinking, evaluation, and seeking opinions to make our own choices. In my personal experience I have found I can’t rely solely on the advice of professionals; these aren’t decisions that I want to fully hand over. If the financial crisis is teaching us anything, it’s that there is nobody out there making sure everything is okay, or some entity creating safe boundaries, so we need to take more responsibility. It’s an empowering thing.

Governor's House and site under construction

Richard: I have a very specific neighborhood example of assumptions people have that can be startling. Often people visit Nubi and comment, “You heat only with wood pellets, what is your back up?” I want to say to them, “You heat only with oil, what is your back up?” Our fuel comes from a factory 8 miles away, where does your oil come from?

Sage: A profound influence in my life is the Story of Stuff Project. Annie Leonard does a good job of laying out how you can not run a linear system with finite resources. Bill McKibben’s is another powerful voice. These voices inspire me. People start paying attention and getting curious. No matter where you are in the socio-economic system, there is risk and change that you can take. “No Impact Man” is an example of someone waking up to the reality of our situation and exploring, asking, what can I do?

How does this relate to financial decision-making?

Sage: A lot of what we’re currently doing on financial planning is identifying and naming our assumptions. So, for example, in traditional investing one of the key assumptions is about asset classes. We are coming to believe that these assumptions are putting the cart before the horse. Instead we’d like to start by thinking about our intentions.

Richard: Our current economy is based on the assumption of unlimited growth, which just isn’t sustainable or rational. We are relying on other parts of the world to make up the deficit. Mining in Africa to supply metals to make our iPads will run out eventually. Importing something like 60% of fruits and vegetables into the country using fossil fuels will not continue forever. So it is a smart investment to build up the local foods system. Becky Tarbottom, the late Executive Director of the Rainforest Action Network, said, “We are talking about re-embedding the economy within the limits of nature.”

Sage: Ask us again in a year! We are just tapping into resources and starting our research. I’ve found a group of like-minded women and we’re working together to explore these issues. An article that has been inspiring to us is “A New Foundation for Portfolio Management.”

Returning to Nubi, do you have advice for people embarking on a similar project?

Sage: Don’t do it! Buy from an existing cohousing community. But I do understand that people are often connected to particular land or a region.

Richard: Spend some time visiting other communities, and possibly living in one for some time before you embark on your own. When people dream about building a community they often forget that it is in the future. Between now and then is a lot of time, children get older, times change, etc. It may not be worth waiting 8 years to live in that imagined community when there are so many great choices out there today.

And what are the sweetest moments for you?

Sage: When I sit down at breakfast with the girls in summer and realize that everything we are eating is grown here. And pausing and reflecting on the enormous amount of work neighbors are pouring into the neighborhood—it’s humbling. And seeing how much we all have learned in the process—our meetings are well run now!

Richard: I really like the wide range of friendships I have both within and outside the community. I really look forward to seeing them and the kids at community meals and sharing work, like trail building, and play, like hiking and water battles, with them. I like how whenever new neighbors move in there is always a subtle change to the community; we are not static like a club, there is always change.

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