The Dancing Rabbit news this week is full of birthday shenanigans and our annual Retreat, the latter of which finished up on Saturday (the onslaught of birthdays continues for a while yet). Tereza here, thinking back on fun celebrations, and the four days we spent coming together as a community at retreat: sharing information, reviewing the past year and looking forward to the one ahead, and connecting with each other.

Birthdays, birthdays, birthdays! Mae asked folks to come to song circle to celebrate with her. It was a particularly fun and rousing circle, with some old favorites being resurrected for the occasion, and a few new ones taught. Mae and Althea’s rendition of “Little Foxes” (to the tune of “Little Boxes”) was precious and I wish I could remember it better. Something along the lines of: “Little foxes/on the hillside/little foxes/hear their tummies growl/little foxes/watching ducky duckies/and they want to eat some birds”. I’ll make sure to request it this week so I can learn it for real.

Dee hosted a “Bring Your Own Accent” party at Ironweed kitchen for her birthday. I was glad I wasn’t the only one to constantly switch accents depending on who I was talking to; by the end of the party I’d pretty much defaulted to just talking like a Muppet whenever I got too confused.

SunGee requested a sushi and ice cream themed potluck for her birthday (yum! who knew vegan alphabet soup sushi would be so tasty?), and spent the day in a lovely outfit, including the most stunning birthday cape DR has yet seen. (If you don’t know, the birthday cape is a DR tradition where you can choose to wear a cape on your special day so that everyone remembers and can offer you birthday greetings.) She hosted a hilarious game afterwards, during which a number of us laughed so hard that we were almost unable to keep playing– falling off our chairs, unable to breathe, couldn’t hear each other because I was cackling too loudly, and so on. Great fun!

And now (drum roll, please): Retreat 2014! There have been a number of significant changes at DR in the last few years, and this was the first retreat to reflect them so strongly. At past retreats we spent a great deal of time (no, really, a TON of time) making decisions both for the village as a whole and on behalf of our non-profit outreach and education arm, called Dancing Rabbit, Inc. The village and the non-profit overlap in important ways, but in the last few years we’ve been teasing these two entities apart.

Not quite sure where to put this very important tidbit, so I’ll just say it here: when “we” ask for financial donations, they are for Dancing Rabbit, Inc, the non-profit that does outreach and education about the sustainable demonstration project that is Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. Money that is given to the non-profit does not pay for our food, or housing, etc etc — we pay for those things ourselves — but for the education we provide to others about the ways we live that are better for the earth.

The non-profit now has its own Executive Director (ED), and has hired a number of staff people to ensure that it is achieving its mission. As its mission is promoting the work of Dancing Rabbit the village, and since most people who live in the village are members of the non-profit, you can imagine how it can be tricky separating things out. But we’ve been working on the disentangling, and now the ED, staff, and board make decisions for the non-profit (usually with input from the village) while the village makes decisions that are specifically focused on the village (while keeping in mind the health of the non-profit).

Now if you’ve been reading for the last few years, you know that the whole village no longer makes all the village-wide decisions, as we recently switched to a new form of governance where we elect a Village Council (VC) to make decisions on our behalf. And just to make sure you’ve been paying attention, or to let you know if you’re a new reader (if you are, welcome!), we already had small groups making some decisions on behalf of the whole group, namely committees. (What would Dancing Rabbit be without committees, I ask you? A bunch of people who spend more time in long meetings than you can possibly imagine, that’s what.)

Committees have a clear scope of work they do with varying levels of approval they need to get from the community (and yes, now that often means the Village Council in lieu of the whole village). So some decisions a committee might be fuilly empowered to make without telling anyone (though in theory these go in their meeting notes which anyone can access), while other decisions can only be made after informing the whole community (or the VC) and giving folks a chance to express concerns. There’s a whole ‘nother layer that includes different Power Levels and such, but I want at least a few folks to keep reading so I’ll stop there.

OK, back to retreat. These recent changes mean that this was the first year we had a retreat whose primary business was informing the community of what’s been going on with all the various committees, the non-profit, and the village as a whole, without having to actually make any of those decisions in full group. The other piece we agreed to focus on was helping us feel more connected. One benefit of all those hours of (sometimes tortuous) full group meetings was the sense of really knowing and understanding each other, and that can be harder to access these days. Now it’s possible to go for weeks without seeing some of the folks we live with, and while in some cases that might be fine, even preferable, generally it detracts from community cohesion. So there was a lot of effort put into making retreat fun and connecting, while still providing useful information. I think it balanced those factors really well, and truly appreciate all the work Nathan, Amanda and Bri, aka the Retreat Planning Committee, put into this experience.

What did we actually do at retreat? Here’s a sampling of some sessions I recall.

Check ins — When we were a much smaller group, we began every meeting with a check in, sharing anything that was new in our lives since the last meeting, or how we were doing emotionally, or if there was something up for us on the topic at hand we thought folks should know before the meeting happened. I always enjoyed check ins, as a place to share what was going on for me of course, but mostly as a way to better know and understand the folks I live with. Obviously once you have 40 people in the room, checking in at every meeting becomes pretty much impossible– there’s simply isn’t enough time. But it means we now often don’t know what’s going on for all our neighbors. Enter Deep Check ins. Occurring just once a year at retreat, it’s a time to tell folks what’s been good and hard in the last year, what you want to do in the coming year, and anything that might be up for you that you want folks to know.

State of the Village has historically been a session led by the Oversight Team (OT), the committee tasked with making sure all the other committees are doing their work, in which the OT reviews key happenings from the past year and shares where it thinks the Village is at. This year some of the important happenings (new baby, new buildings, member comings and goings, etc) were presented in the form of a game, where audience members answered questions about the past year in order to solve a pictogram puzzle Bear created. (This description does not in any way express the humor and hijinks in play… I wish I could remember even one of the hilarious comments made by Bear in his game host mode, or by enthusiastic audience members, but you will just have to take my word for it that it was super fun.) After the questions were over the whole group brainstormed more events and accomplishments to add to the very long list.

The Year in Preview (YIP) was very different from previous years. The YIP is where we look at all the tasks and committees and figure out who will staff them. Using a new-to-us process called Getting the Work Done, we came up with time estimates for everything we do for the non-profit and the village, and had folks mark every task Red, Green, or Yellow, depending on their personal interest/willingness to do those tasks. The idea is to eventually refine the system to where we can budget our time more effectively, have people doing tasks they feel good about, and get a better sense of what each villager’s “fair share” of the labor is.  The process is now in the hands of the OT, and we hope to come out of it with all responsibilities filled, or the knowledge that no one wants to do certain tasks, and a better sense of what it takes to make this amazing place happen.

Another session was called “Enrolling New Members” and had two parts: one was a Q&A where we sat in order of how long we’ve been at DR. Newer members got to ask anything they wanted, and could get a visual sense of how someone’s answer might differ depending on how long they’ve been around. I had a blast and I hope it was useful for the newer folks– I’d like to do more of these outside of retreat, and where we get to ask new folks questions too! The other section was super fun and funny, as it was done Jeopardy-style, with a game board, a handsome host named Katherex Trebek (Katherine with a mustache), a lovely assistant named Danna White (Dan with hair extensions and a gown), answers (don’t forget to phrase them in the form of a question!) and fabulous prizes (popcorn balls, tossed through the air to whoever answered correctly, in both form and content).

One of the more intense sessions was a diversity training which focused on difficult childhood experiences, as well as what resources were available to us emotionally as we were growing up. It was hard for quite a few of us, but I think most of us felt it was worthwhile learning more about this aspect of diversity in our midst.

The Committee reports session was, for me, a highlight of retreat. How, you ask, can committees (boring!) offering reports (more boring!) on their doings and plans (ZZZZZZZ…) be a highlight? When they’re done Dancing Rabbit style, that’s how! Several committees chose to do skits, there was one puppet show, and the remainder were done in Pecha Kucha format. This is where the presenter chooses 20 slides and has 20 seconds to talk about each of them. It’s an effective and fun way to get a lot of information across in a short time, and some of the commentary was priceless. (I would like to get some of Ben’s slides out of my mind, but I fear the effort will be in vain…) Amanda, who organized the session, inserted some surprise slides, many of them pictures of adorable bunnies doing Rabbit-like (rather than rabbit-like) things. The one of the li’l glasses-wearing bunny sitting at a li’l computer was too much! Thank you to all the reporters, as well as Amanda (and the Internet), for so much amusement and info in so little time!

The last day of retreat was done using Open Space Technology, which is a method where whoever is there talks about whatever is exciting to them in that moment, and the whole process is entirely voluntary. It might sound like it wouldn’t be too productive but it was! Folks letting their passion and creativity shine encourages others to do the same, and a sense of excitement and possibility was palpable in several sessions I attended. The theme was “Eco + Village: How Do We Really Fulfill our Mission While Keeping Our Community Connected?” and topics discussed included affordability, building fun infrastructure (treehouses and ziplines, oh my!),  strategic planning, creating a culture of connection, creating/sustaining more beauty in the village, member retention, Spiral Dynamics, how we relate to rules, and creating a school. Having a section where we reported back to the group at the end was key, as it meant that even though no one could attend all the sessions, we could all learn about all of them.

Many folks pitched in to help make Retreat 2014 a success. Besides all the work of the Retreat Planners, staff and committees prepped sessions and reports, there were excellent facilitators and notetakers, folks provided wonderful snacks, and many of our lovely neighbors from Rutledge, Memphis, Red Earth and Sandhill made tasty meals for us, provided child care, and smiled at us when the meetings grew long and we grew weary. Thanks to everyone for all their contributions!

As a final note, I offer the semi-obligatory weather report: there was a lot of snow and it was super cold, then it got warmer and we had rain and mud. As I write it is cold and grey and brown, but hope springs eternal, as the days are getting longer and spring is definitely in the air! May your seasonal shifts go well for you, wherever you are.

Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage is an educational nonprofit and intentional community in Rutledge, practicing and experimenting in ecologically sustainable living. Village tours start again in April; in the meantime you can learn more about the village at www.dancingrabbit.org, or give us a call at (660) 883-5511.