Workparties: Many Hands Make Light Work

Philipp Muessig
Minnesota Sustainable Communities Network

Each month, like a roving band of grain threshers or barn raisers, my family of four and two other households descend upon one of our homes to paint, build, garden and clean, and to eat, drink and be merry.

This is our work cooperative, still going strong after a dozen years. In my mind the origins of our work party are obscure, lost in the passing of years and the raising of children. I do remember, however, Prentiss glibly announcing one day that we should get together to work on each other’s houses. One of those great ideas, I recall thinking. But an infant, a toddler and hardly any time to visit – let alone work – with my friends seemed the kiss of death to such disciplined intentionality. And yet, all three households had purchased new houses within the previous year. We lived in Minneapolis, in houses under 2,000 square feet, and had very modest home repair skills.

Prentiss and Amy’s house seemed to need a lot of work – until Laura and I bought ours! Thank goodness Diane and Allan’s house was in better shape. Perhaps it was the innocence and absurdity of my saying, “yes, we’ll fix up one room each month (!)” that caused Prentiss to roll his eyes and suggest the co-op. Or maybe it was Diane’s expertise and experience as a community organizer that actually led to scheduling our first work party.

Once launched, the work parties have continued almost without fail, every month, for a few reasons:

  • All six adults were friends and are cooperatively minded, having lived in cooperative households, shopped and volunteered in food co-ops, and worked for socially progressive causes.
  • Three households, with four children among them, seems to be just the right size party to schedule.
  • Our aims have always been modest: three hours of work each month
  • We always share food before we work and a meal after our work is done.

As the years roll on, we’ve come to focus less on accomplishing an ambitious agenda of tasks, and more on having fun. We meet Saturday or Sunday, at 9am or 2pm, and settle into drinks, a snack and conversation. Sometimes we don’t start work for almost an hour. Sometimes the kids can’t make it, or an adult has to shuttle kids to events or is even absent altogether. And for a year Prentiss and Amy lived in Chicago and missed our parties. In all these cases we don’t complete as many house/garden tasks, but we don’t worry the way we did in the beginning years.

Those early years found us digging new gardens and hauling rocks for three hours, stripping wallpaper and repairing concrete steps. At recent parties we’ve planted window boxes and trimmed raspberry bushes. The kids help out, and we all learn some new skills. Most importantly, our children are experiencing an old model of cooperation updated into a workable, simple form for our modern, urban age.

Cooperative Childcare

Here’s how someone is helping their community ease childcare costs:

Our babysitting co-op in Milwaukee, Wisconsin has been inexistence for almost 15 years. These structures and rules have served us well. You can adapt them to set up a babysitting co-op in your community. Here’s how ours works:

  • Membership is limited to 20 families.
  • Members must live within specified boundaries to allow for convenient transportation of children.
  • To cover postage, office supplies and copying costs, new members pay $2 to join and all members pay $2-4 a year, depending on the co-ops needs. Each member gives one hour of babysitting a month to the group secretary for handing administration tasks.
  • Members arrange their own sitting times with members.
  • Sitter and user agree on hours to be reported at the end of each sit. Each member reports sitting and using hours to the secretary at the end of the month.

From: How to Organize a Babysitting Cooperative and Get Some Free Time Away from the Kids, Carol Terwilliger, Myers-Carousel Press (P.O. Box 6061, Albany, CA, 94706)

Dinner Co-ops: Recipe for Success

by Karin Chenoweth

Day after day, dinner time arrives and you are left with the problem of planning, shopping, preparing and serving food, whether you live alone or in a large household. Why not start a dinner co-op? It not only takes the day-after-day drudgery out of dinner, but it builds a real neighborly bond. Nothing could be more luxurious and wonderful than sitting on the front porch at 6 in the evening wondering what dinner will be, and then having it show up at the door.

Our system is that one evening a week a family brings over a complete dinner to each of the other two families. We don’t bring appetizers or desserts, but we provide a complete dinner with some kind of protein, a starch and a vegetable. We don’t consult beforehand about menus, and we don’t do any kind of financial planning. We each pay for what we serve. Financially, it seems to work out fairly well.

The easiest are meals that do not require cooking right before delivering. Casseroles, stews, beans and rice, lasagna, soups, and pasta salads can all be made as much as three days in advance, which makes this system on that can be used by those who have relatively long workdays. If you can cook one evening a week or on one weekend day, you can make one big dinner, pack it up in casserole dishes, and you’ve taken care of dinner for as many dinners as you’ve got set up in your co-op.


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