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Living their values cooperatively

The Lucy Stone Cooperative is rooted in the UU values of its young adult founders.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
Summer 2011 5.15.11

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It’s a cold March night in Boston. But inside the Lucy Stone house, there’s a feeling of Thanksgiving in the air. Chairs of assorted sizes, stools, and even a tall drum are crowded around two dining room tables pushed together to form a T. Tapered candles and a flaming chalice cast a warm glow over the mismatched glasses, mugs, and place settings for sixteen.

In the kitchen, three cooks are chopping, mixing, and heaping food into platters and bowls. “Five minutes to supper,” someone shouts up the curving staircase of the once-grand Victorian home. Cooks begin to carry serving dishes to a sideboard: mung bean patties in coconut sauce, vegetarian terrine, ruby cabbage cold slaw, beer-battered tofu, rice, and a steaming pot of vegetable gumbo.

It is Sunday night dinner at the Lucy Stone Cooperative, a recently opened shared living space in the Dudley Square neighborhood of Boston. Twelve adults live communally in this co-op-with-a-mission: to create an intentional community living the values and traditions of Unitarian Universalism and focused on sustainability, spiritual practice, and social change.

The group moved into the house February 1, 2011, but plans have been in the works since the fall of 2008. That’s when a few young adults began exploring the idea of creating a UU co-op together. One of them was Matt Meyer, 29, a UU performer, educator, and worship leader. He started meeting with fundraisers, UU leaders, and co-op founders to learn how to start a co-op community from scratch and how to create a collective vision for what it would look like. “We were interested in cooperative living as a way of living our values and a way of expanding Unitarian Universalism,” says Meyer.

Since their first talks, members of the planning board have been thinking big. On the one hand, they wanted to create a UU co-op that provided affordable housing and an intentional, values-driven community. But on the other hand, they also wanted to raise larger questions about how they could affect the co-op movement and Unitarian Universalism. “It was clear from the beginning that this was not just about twelve people living together,” says Meyer. “We want to challenge the co-op movement to deepen itself through faith-based living and challenge Unitarian Universalism to get bigger by building a co-operative movement.”

UU churches have long scratched their heads about how to appeal to more young adults. The co-op model may be one answer. “We are a UU young adult ministry,” says Hilary Lake, 27, a member of the Lucy Stone Co-op board and a student at Harvard Divinity School, where she’s planning a career in community ministry aimed at organizing people into co-ops and other small communities.

UU young adults may not be well represented in Sunday morning congregational life, but they are gathering in smaller, non-church settings with a passion for community and for social change. The Lucy Stone house has grown out of that energy. “We wanted to look at how UUs can go deeper into our faith,” Meyer says. “We wondered, what does it look like to be a UU community every day, not just on Sundays?”

Though co-operative living may have a certain appeal to young adults, the Lucy Stone house seeks to be neither an exclusively young adult community nor a community of only UUs. The intention has always been to draw in people from a range of ages, faiths, races, and sexual orientations and identities.

The age of residents ranges from 23 to 43. In the future, the group hopes to include residents with children, too. The house welcomes a diversity of genders and gender expressions, and house members describe themselves like this: “We are one person who identifies as a genderqueer, seven who identify as women, one who identifies as a transgender man, and three who identify as men.” Some are UUs who belong to area congregations. Others are UUs who do not. And there is a Jew, a Buddhist, a member of the United Church of Christ, and an atheist. Ten housemates are white Americans, one is African American, and one is Israeli.

They all share the 5,000-square-foot, eleven-bedroom yellow Victorian that is the Lucy Stone Cooperative. Meyer and his partner, Barbara Seidl, share a room on the second floor. The others have their own bedrooms, spread among the sprawling home’s three floors.

The housemates sign up to share chores, shopping, and cooking. Communal vegetarian dinners are served five nights a week. A whiteboard sitting on the floor of the downstairs hall holds the house to-do list—a hodgepodge of renovation chores, including, “Hang this white board up there.”

The house sits on a quarter-acre corner lot in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. The planning committee stipulated that they find a lot with outdoor gardening space and that it be accessible to public transportation. It’s a gritty neighborhood. Once grand, the area has fallen victim to urban blight, with its crime and unemployment rates among the city’s highest and its household income among the lowest. Next door to the Lucy Stone house is a boarded-up three-story mansion, which has been abandoned for decades.

The group’s real estate committee looked at more than 100 homes in several Boston neighborhoods before settling on the current site. In December, the nonprofit Lucy Stone Community Cooperatives (LSCC) corporation bought the home for $375,000. The total budget for the purchase was $485,000. The additional money was allocated for repairs and renovations, particularly to the building’s plumbing and electrical systems and the roof.

The LSCC owns the building. Residents pay a $500 share to become a member, and monthly rent ranges from $440 to $515, depending on the size of the bedroom. The board is seeking 501(c)3- nonprofit status as an affordable housing complex and is trying to meet the Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines. The LSCC has a $300,000 mortgage from the Cooperative Fund of New England, a revolving loan fund serving co-ops and community organizations, based in Amherst, Massachusetts.

The board raised $20,000 in cash donations, primarily from two fundraising parties it held in 2009 and 2010. The remainder of their funding, including the cash for their down payment, closing costs, and renovations, comes from “allied lenders.” Those are individuals and organizations that loan LSCC money for a five-year term at a fixed rate of 3 percent. Allied lenders—which include the Unitarian Universalist Association and Unity Temple, the Chicago-area congregation where Meyer was raised, as well as eleven individuals—receive an annual check for interest on the loan. And at the end of five years, they can choose to recoup their money or renew the contract.

It’s a “group equity” model that ensures that no individuals or investors gain equity in the property as loans are paid off. Instead, equity is accrued by the nonprofit corporation. The board hopes that over time that will allow them to refinance the property to start another co-op house.

Rowan Van Ness, 25, a member of the original planning team and a board member of the house, knows the demand is there. The board interviewed eighteen applicants for six available spots in the house. Van Ness hopes existing demand will increase as they spread the word about co-op living and how it enables people to live in harmony with their core values. Part of the house’s mission is to hold events that will promote their values in the neighborhood and wider community.

That mission is in keeping with the namesake of the co-op, Lucy Stone. She was a nineteenth-century Unitarian organizer, abolitionist, and suffragist. The UU Funding Panel has granted LSCC nearly $20,000 to put on community programs and to publicize the house. LSCC has held an antiracism training for residents of area co-ops and a leadership development training workshop for social justice organizers.

“I’ve learned and grown so much being involved in this process,” says Van Ness, who works as a program associate of the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth. “I always keep questions in my mind, not just about how can we learn and grow as twelve people in a house together, but also in the neighborhood or community or in the co-op movement.”

With Sunday dinner drawing to a close, more chairs are drawn around the table in the dining room of the Lucy Stone house as latecomers arrive. Plates are cleared, replaced by platters of fruit and nuts, steaming pots of herbal tea, and stacks of hymnals.

“How about ‘Amazing Grace’?” suggests Greg Buckland, 28, board member, housemate, and lifelong UU. People smile and nod, and Greg begins to hum. “How’s that key?” The group begins to sing, strong and loud, harmonizing through all the verses. A somber mood falls upon the room, and someone emits a heartfelt sigh.

Quickly, an up-tempo hymn lifts the mood. “Gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside.” There’s drumming, clapping, and laughter. The house settles in for a warm night of singing, chasing away the cold and dark at the end of the Boston winter outside.

Photograph: Matt Meyer, Amy Concannon, Heather Concannon, and Rowan Van Ness take part in a sing-along after dinner at the Lucy Stone Cooperative in Boston in March 2011 (© Ilene Perlman). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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