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  • Writer's pictureAl Parrish

Salsa & Sustainability

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

Sustainability and salsa dancing may not normally pop into your mind in the same moment. But that is exactly the wonderful thing about cohousing: you don’t always get what you were expecting to get.

Monday, December 3rd, Wendy and I were invited to the first screening of a documentary on cohousing, created by Environmental Studies grad students, at the University of Waterloo. The professor had divided the class into seven groups of three people. Each was given free rein to design a project and presentation which spoke to the thrust of the course curriculum which is sustainability. This day, all the groups would take a turn presenting their work to the class and the professor, to enlighten, to be graded, and to finish the term.

A couple of weeks earlier, the three women in the documentary group had come to sit in on a meeting of the Waterloo Region Cohousing Project because we were to be the subject of their documentary project. They had paper, pens, pencils, and a video recorder in their hands; they had sustainability on their minds. We all introduced ourselves, heard a little about the course and their objectives for this particular project, and after confirming that no one was camera-shy, and that they had found Gary’s “better side”, they began work in earnest.

The WRCP agenda for the day included an ‘Empowered Learning Circle’ seminar led, on video, by Ted Rau of the organization ‘Sociocracy for All’. An important part of any cohousing project is good, inclusive decision making and effective self-governance. The system we have chosen is Sociocracy, because it gives us both of these. This training is critical so that we may all become familiar with, or be reminded of the tenets and practices of Sociocracy. Some of us had taken this training before but, whether it was fresh or a review, this series of seminars is really helpful.

First though, we had some business items to hear about and discuss. This led to some clarifications being reached, and some (sociocratic) decisions being made.Next, we launched into the day’s ELC lesson.

Two of the documentary makers observed, took notes, and formulated questions while the third, remarkably unobtrusively, shot video of everyone at the meeting. This included our discussion and debate, flip-chart note taking, proposals being put forward and decisions being made, handholding, group singing, and lots of laughter (I didn’t realize how much we laugh and smile).

After the meeting, the documentarists spoke with several individuals in our group, gathering comments, opinions, and shooting more video as they did so. Then they took a couple of chairs and placed them for favourable camera angles (I have a “better side” too... though I’m not sure they were able to capture it fully). With these properly located, Wendy and I sat down to face the music.

We told them about our dreams for this new community, the impetus for it, the group's history, our own previous cohousing experience, the upsides and downsides of cohousing, and about the decision-making processes we’ve been exposed to. They had good questions tying in the sustainability piece. It felt like everyone was having fun and then, we were done.

In the finished documentary, we sometimes hear the voices of our community members while they are on camera, other times we see the action with voice-over narration. There are some pictures of existing co-housing communities alongside the points the documentarians wanted to make about the ways cohousing and sustainability go hand in hand.

According to WRCP’s mission, vision, and discussions, sustainability is a key to success. The documentary notes that smaller footprint homes, created with green technology and building practices, shared resources, and efficient energy generation/use will lead to economic and environmental sustainability while sociocratic decision-making and governance will create social sustainability.

After the screening at Waterloo, other members of the Environmental Studies class had some comments on the presentation including, “That was great. I want to live in cohousing”. Once the whole thing was done, I had a chance to talk to the professor. We discussed the economic, environmental, and social benefits of smaller homes and a big shared common house to be used for community meetings, shared meals, business, music, dance, whatever...

We discussed how a diverse community can lead to social sustainability. There are all sorts of skills and interests that people have and may want to share. Unlike a conventional suburban neighbourhood where we may not know their neighbours’ names or professions, let alone their side interests, in a cohousing community, it is very likely we will know. Individuals are more likely to share more about themselves.

In fact, the professor said, “I’d like to live in cohousing and teach people to salsa dance. Yes! I know how to do that.” So...

Every month we have business meetings because we want to get shovels in the ground. And every month we also have social gatherings because we think it’s important to know the guy who is standing behind you with a big, heavy, steel shovel in his hand. Maybe for one of our social events, we

should bring in the professor to talk a bit about sustainability and then teach us to salsa dance.

Left foot, forward and back, right foot back...


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