The LA Fort: Where members pay, play, and make decisions together.

Excuse the double hitter of The LA Fort posts between last week and this week, but they are pretty awesome. (They’re also in the running to receive $100,000 in LA 2050– vote for them before September 16th here.) Back in August, I sat down with Matt Himes, Cameron Rath and Carmen Morales to talk about their membership structure.

Click on through!

Matt, Carmen and Cameron in the LA Fort.

Matt, Carmen and Cameron in the LA Fort.

And their membership structure is so cool! Here’s the deal: to join, you commit $20 and 10 hours of involvement per month. From there, you participate in monthly General Meetings to discuss everything from events to day-to-day operations of this all-ages experimental art space. You get to vote about what happens. And their Bill of Rights and Commitments are deeply tied to everything the Fort is about. Here’s a sample from their Bill of Commitments:

● To mentor new members.
● To hold The Fort in the best possible light through personal actions.
● To act with mutual respect and courteousness toward their fellow members and address issues as they arrive.
● To educate oneself about the Fort’s governance structure.
● To educate oneself about the Fort’s operations and business.
● To ask for help when needed or wanted.
● Our common welfare should come first; The Fort’s success depends upon unity as a whole.

It is really exciting to me to think about membership as an opportunity to create buy-in among the people that care about your space. This buy-in doesn’t only exist via their membership dues, but also through time. Through their timebank hOurworld, members exchange favors and hours with other members of the Fort. What do you think about this model versus other loosely structured, non-monetary alternatives? Read on for an awesome interview.

I want to talk to you guys about your membership structure. How did you develop this? I feel like at least in museums and those kinds of institutions, memberships are so much more geared towards the benefits and not tied into responsibilities as well. It seems like you guys meshed together a couple different ideas for structure.

Matt Himes: We were heavily inspired by The Vera Project in Seattle. They made In Every Town: An All-Ages Manualfesto. We were really inspired by that book. We saw that they’ve been doing their thing for a long time, which is something very rare in the DIY scene to actually have physical space for as long as they’ve had it.

Cameron Rath: That’s where we first read about DIT (Do it Together) too, and that idea of membership. America was built on small-scale communism. A lot of communist communities in the 1800’s, a lot of anarchist communities…

MH: They didn’t call it that back then, but essentially that’s what they were doing.

CR: Josiah Warren for me is a huge inspiration. He’s commonly referred to as the first American anarchist, and developed timebanking which we use. Our membership structure has changed a lot since we first started. There’s a lot of trial-and-error. If there’s one thing that we know for sure it’s that we don’t have all of the answers. So we always try things for a while, and some things stick and others don’t. Something that’s big for us is always assessing what we’re doing and figuring out what parts of this aren’t working, and what we can do to improve them.

What is that assessment like for you? Is it mostly anecdotal?

MH: We actually have three regular membership meetings for general members. There are about four of us who take up the most responsibility. When it comes down to it, us four do a lot of the back work behind the Fort, so the ones that choose to do all of that meet every Monday and we just check in with each other. The biggest thing we’ve learned is how important constant communication is. I talk to Cameron almost every single day and we live on opposite sides of the town. Carmen, too– we’re constantly e-mailing and calling each other.

CR: And originally when we first started, we tried to have it be that everyone’s voice was equal…

Like, non-hierarchical?

CR: Yeah, but it is very difficult when it’s quite obvious that some people are putting in a lot less effort but their voice has the same weight. There were points when we’d make a decision around something that needed to happen in the space, and when that day came it was just the 4 of us who showed up to do it.

MH: We have hierarchical systems now. But it’s only hierarchy out of the amount of participation. So if you wanted to do administrative responsibility stuff more, there’s no one telling you that you can’t. You don’t have to ask permission, or anything like that. It’s more of a question of: You want to be more active? Then be more active. If you don’t, okay, but we still have rent to pay and things to do so we have to move on. So that’s when we developed the meetings we have now. Every first Monday, we have our Production/Operations meeting which deals with any live music or art events (that includes in-house and out-of-house), and Operations which is pretty much the fancy term for all of the business paperwork crap that no one wants to do but it has to be done to pay our rent on time. And then the second Tuesday of the month is our Programs and Services meeting: programs are non-live music events like yoga, craft night, poetry night, silkscreen– anything that involves in-house programming. And then our third Wednesday of each month is just the General Member Meeting where we check in with each other and have a little mixer afterwards with food and drink to get to know each other better.

CR: And that’s a good one for people who aren’t necessarily members yet, but are interested in poking around.

MH: All three meetings are open to the public and to members. Our biggest thing is that you reap what you sow. You’re going to get out how much you put in. There’s no one telling you that you can or can’t do something. You want to do something? Okay, let’s figure out if this is financially feasible– that’s the only real thing that you have to plan out. Just get your budget in order and let’s figure out how to get it done. There aren’t really any real restrictions on taste or aesthetic or anything on that level whatsoever.

Members of The LA Fort

Members of The LA Fort

Since those meetings aren’t exclusive, is there ever any tension between people who have paid to be there, paid for their voice to have weight?

MH: Well the non-members who can come to the General Meetings can come but they don’t get a vote or anything. They can participate and gauge for themselves.

CR: And then there’s a point at the end where we ask if anyone has any feedback– that part’s open to the public. But mainly it’s for non-members to come and listen. And then at the end, you can talk to people or voice your opinion.

Does that happen?

CR: Yes!

MH: Yeah. And ninety-percent of the time those people end up becoming members.

Yeah, I was going to say that it’s a really phenomenal way to give them a very real taste of what their experience would actually be like.

MH: Exactly.

CR: Sometimes people will come and it’s not exactly the picture we want to paint for people. You know?

In what way?

CR: Like there will be a dispute, or there are hard questions that come up during the meeting that are normal things that happen in an organization, but the public wouldn’t normally see. And that’s always an interesting situation. We have to just be like, okay, well we’re dealing with this specific issue in this meeting and there’s like, five people here who have nothing to do with our organization right now and all we can do is talk honestly about it. And it’s funny because it usually ends up being that they become members anyway, even though it’s not necessarily the picture we want to be painting.

MH: Most of the time if they disagree with a dispute happening, we encourage them to become a member so they can change it. There’s no one telling them they can’t.

How do you structure these meetings? Are you guys facilitating?

MH: Yeah, the three of us — me, Cameron and Carmen– facilitate each meeting. I handle all the Production/Operations here. Carmen does the Programs and Services as well as our finances. And then Cameron handles our PR, general membership and marketing– any of that kind of stuff. So the three of us are kinda heads of those departments (We only call it that because that’s what it’s called in traditional business.)

CR: We have a private members section online and in those we create an event for each meeting. Everyone is welcome to bring up agenda items so if someone has an event that they want to bring to the Fort or have an idea for programming, everyone’s more than encouraged to put that on the agenda and talk about it and present it.

Is that a Facebook group?

CR: Uh huh. We have a Facebook group that we’re trying to not use that much anymore because Facebook is terrible for organizing. But we have this timebank (hOurworld) we use a lot for organizing our world.

I wanna do a piece about communication within organizations and how people do that.

MH: I would love to hear that, because we’ve tried a lot of things and for now we mostly rely upon the timebank where we send out announcements to everybody, and we still do Facebook because some people might see it just for consistency’s sake. But we send out a weekly e-mail every Sunday and people do read it. It’s mostly just abot actively participating in each other’s lives and getting to know each other. Our meetings are pretty much structured to start with an introduction, followed by any announcements the administrators might have for the people, and then we just do the agenda items that anybody can propose. We have a limit of six agenda items so we don’t end up talking for a while. And we have before, which resulted in a four hour meeting.

CR: And everyone hated themselves by the end.

MH: Yeah, so we try to limit our meetings to an hour, or hour-and-a-half at the most. That way, each agenda item can be properly discussed and then if there’s an emergency item or something– say someone wants to do something next week, and it’s the only opportunity for us to do it in the next six months, we’ll make an exception and try to work within those confines as fast as possible. Last Saturday we did a show at this place in Silverlake in a giant, 25-foot-tall birdcage and we only got hit up a week and a half beforehand to be asked if we could curate and book this. And we were like, ummm, okay, let’s do this. And we got it done.

So when the heated topics you mention come up, what are some of those like?

MH: Mostly it comes down to how to fund our programming when there’s limited access to funding. That seems to be a heated topic. That’s probably our biggest problem here is lack of funds.

CR: Also where everybody’s members dues go, that was a big thing.

MH: Yeah that was a big one. General members (people who don’t rent out a specific space that pay 20 bucks a month) were wondering where that money goes. So that was a heated topic because at the time, we had no chart. So we made a chart to show where our money goes: to buy toilet paper, and coffee, and pay the electricity, and five percent of your money will go towards our monthly mixer meeting to buy food and booze for everybody. Eventually during our General Meeting, people could choose to vote to allocate that money towards a specific program if they wanted to as a no-interest loan to that program. We do stuff like that.

How is all of this information presented to members?

MH: Now it’s part of our welcome packet. It’s like the bible now. I know it’s intimidating to some people but it’s literally like 15 pages worth of information.

And what’s in it?

Our bylaws, ways to participate in membership, how to schedule stage use, what our timebank is, rules of conduct, a no drug and sexual harassment clause, and a bunch of legal jargon. And it’s still not done.

CR: It’ll probably never be done.

Yeah, honestly.

CR: But it’s flexible enough where if we have a new experience, we get to say “Oh shit, that needs to be in the members packet!”

MH: Other things we have in there are application forms to do events, programs, to have an art show, to do construction in the building. For example, Celine had to fill out an application for these art pieces right here. That was a little piece of paper that I developed six months ago because people were just hanging stuff up, and one day something went missing and got damaged and someone got upset. So now people fill out this little form that keeps track of where it is, and the location, and a liability release, and I have it on file at all times. So a lot of it comes out of experience and necessity because mistakes happen and pop up and we want to fix it.

To an extent, you have to be reactionary in the first phase of things. You’re experiencing so much for the first time. To be preemptive in that could be responded to poorly, you know? Whereas now you can say “No, this thing actually happened, so this is why we came up with this response.”

MH: Definitely. Before this, me and Cameron didn’t have that much experience in actually running the day-to-day business of an actual physical location. We’ve had experiences running a day event or running a whole three day music festival. We can do that with our eyes closed. None of us have a business background. I mean, what’s your degree in?

CR: Urban communication.

MH: And I have a degree in Biology and Philosophy. So we don’t have Business backgrounds–

CR: And my minor’s in Creative Writing!

MH: *Laughs* Carmen’s the most professional out of all of us– she’s an archival librarian. So it’s like you said, there are a lot of reactionary responses.

Studio spaces at the Fort

Studio spaces at the Fort

At the museum, we joke that we’re constantly in Beta phase, which I think is actually important for new spaces to try anything once. If it fucks up, we’ll make a change. You know?

MH: Just barely in the past three weeks we’re kind of starting to phase out of that ‘Beta phase’ as you call it. We’re starting to hone in what we’re doing, getting into a routine of our membership and how to check people in here, and all the paperwork, and now there’s a routine of how people can participate in our events. because all of our events we do in-house and out-of-house we end up hiring our members to run that event for us.

And paying them?

MH: Some of them. It’s not very much right now. When we start doing in-house events we’ll be able to start facilitating that. We won’t be able to provide full on careers or jobs for people, but once or twice a month if they can walk out with an extra hundred bucks…

CR: That’s definitely our goal, is to be able to pay people.

So what qualities define the average type of member at the Fort?

MH: Well I think the people who have been here the longest are the people who maybe don’t have it all completely worked out, but have a vision for themselves. Or have ambition for themselves. And really have a big imagination, and capacity to see the future and not be so shortsighted. Not that the members who haven’t had that haven’t been able to participate and do the thing and grow from it– they certainly have. But the people who have been here the longest are the ones who know what they want, and don’t necessarily know 100% how they’re going to get there. But they imagine a light or at the end of their tunnel, and want to be able to get through it and are willing to do the work to get to it. I mean, to be a successful musician or artist takes a lot of work. It’s just like any other career. It seems like the people who get that are the ones who have lasted the longest here. Or have had a higher level of participation.

And does the Fort play into that vision for them as well?

MH: Yes, exactly. For myself, I’m a musician, I’m a sound engineer. And even this past week, I just got a job for the next 8 weeks every Saturday doing sound because of this place. There’s a good chance I wouldn’t have gotten that otherwise. But the people who’ve hired us know who we are, know what we’ve done in the past, and know the level of quality we’ve brought.

CR: And there are people who were members who are still involved in the community and it’s kindof this weird thing where we know you’re going to be back at some point, and you know you’re going to be back at some point. Like Camay and Lawrence– Camay runs a fashion zine and Lawrence runs a noise label. He used to have a space upstairs and then they had money troubles so they left. But they still come through and are some of our biggest supporters for sure. So it’s an interesting thing that membership, although it’s definitely the most official way to be involved, doesn’t necessarily mean that those are the people who are the most involved.

Beyond membership, do you have volunteer roles carved out?

CR: Not right now, just because we’re not doing events here. We’ve thought about it a lot, and I think Vera Project has a really great model for that. but for us it doesn’t really make much sense right now.

MH: And for the members who are here right now, we have more than enough of a solid team. When we do events they come out and they work it for us. They don’t have to get volunteers. The members here are techincally volunteers, but then they get hours through our timebank for participating in those events until we get to a point where we can pay them off pretty much. But we’re not in that place quite yet. We’re getting there, but it’s a big goal for us to pay people what they deserve because so often– especially in the DIY community– we see people so insecure with themselves. They feel better if they’re making money from their art and music– Oh, this is Carmen she is our Financial Director and in charge of all of our programs.

CR: The nice thing about the timebank too is it’s a way to value each other’s time as assets.

MH: Yeah, I think a big thing is trying to get confidence into the DIY scene, because I don’t necessarily see it as selling out or anything; it’s a confidence issue that they don’t think they’re good enough or that art’s good enough to get paid for. And we’re here to encourage them that they’re an amazing artist, and they do great work, and you deserve to get paid a couple hundred dollars for what you just did to encourage you to go even further and go to the next step to push yourself beyond the boundaries you’re already putting on yourself.

CR: Even if someone’s just working the door at an event, it can be a pretty thankless job. There’s a lot of people who come to shows and make you feel like shit for asking for money to support the bands and the production of the event. So I think even just showing that “yes, we value your time” by through this timebank, through giving you these credits. Even though it’s not money, it’s still giving you value as an asset to what they’re doing.

Carmen Morales: Especially because you can exchange the hours. Say me, as a member I can give Matthew or Cameron hours. So if I need a ride or if I needed to go purchase a bunch of stuff, we give a member hours for that. I think it’s really awesome because it gives people an opportunity to connect also, you know?

That’s a really good point. It just seems like there’s a lot of interchange within all these systems. It’s part staff/volunteer/membership and also the way members receive value for their time is through an exchange, but also it’s a networking opportunity for themselves which is really cool.

 

MH: Yeah and we think they deserve the value, but I don’t think that validation even needs to come from us; I think that needs to come from within so any way we can encourage them to put value on themselves is a huge goal.

And so what would you say the average life cycle or a path of a person who becomes involved in the Fort is? is someone like “Hey guys, I want to be involved” and you push them straight to a membership?

MH: We have had mistakes where we push people directly and they go headfirst into it on their own terms and maybe from us pushing it, but we also had other people who are slowly but surely creeping into it. So it depends on the individual really.

CR: And how much they want to get involved.

MH: Some people want to be able to jump in head first. That’s what the three of us did; we jumped in head first and then were like “Let’s just do it! Alright! Hardcore!” and then we had to deal with the consequences…but also the benefits. There are also some members who are slowly getting involved. It’s on a case by case, individual basis depending on what they want and where they are in their life allows them to do so.

CM: But it’s kinda like the more you put in, the more you get out of it. I’ll use Hannah for example; she’s a fairly new member but she kinda just like dove in and she’s able to network a lot more. She moved here from Maryland, so it’s sort of a great way to meet new people and network.

And kinda on like the least intense level, how would you involve someone here? Let’s say they aren’t willing to dive in head first, and they’re not even able to dedicate a basic slow committment to membership?

MH: Come and hang out at our events and meetings. Just hanging out. Being an observer at the bare minimum. Having some sort of presence there– you don’t necessarily have to be working it or anything, but just showing up to this specific event or meeting or whatever– coming to hang out and talk. Not even talking business or talking shop, just hanging out and talking about how is your week going, how’s your parents, how’s your sister. Just being friends, really. Being active participants in the community.

CR: We’ve had some people who have regularly come by for the past two years and never became members. So really we’re happy to have people involved however we make sense for their lives. Me as the Membership Coordinator a lot of times I’ll have to talk to people about it and say “Hey, I notied you’re not really participating. I wanted to see what’s going on with your Membership status” and just allow people to know that if membership doesn’t make sense for you right now, that’s okay. You don’t have to feel guilty for not being able to commit that, just be real about where your situation is. You can still come to other events, you’re always welcome back. I had to do that earlier today with a few people. Any level that makes sense for someone’s life is the right level.

And did you have to part ways with those members out because they weren’t showing up to meetings?

CR: Yeah, and not paying their dues. It’s not like any of us think any less of them, it’s just about what makes sense for their lives at the moment. And we’ve had people who were members who left and came back again too. So what we always encourage is for people to do what is healthiest for them as an individual. We always say you can’t help anyone else if you don’t have your own house in order. So we try to help people figure out where they are in their lives.

CM: In my experience too, even if some people are too busy in their life to really commit actual time, they’ll donate either a lot of goods or money and just be like “Yeah, I’m working, here is a couple hundred dollars. I want to see this project really come forward but I really don’t have the time for it.”

CR: And for us it’s all about the exchange. As long as there’s a real exchange happening….

CM: Some kind of energy exchange, you know?

MH: And honestly we’re kindof the median age– we have members from 18 all the way to 62. So we’re kindof in the middle ground and that’s where most of our members surround– mid 20s to early 30s. At least I feel in my experience I’m running this huge transititin period in my life where I’m straddling from being this amateur to being this professional. All of us are straddling this area right now, so it’s not too much sooner that we’ll be pushed over to the other side and start to truly give back to people. Because honestly I didn’t have this space when I was 18 years old, and I could have learned a lot from it.

CR: Which is funny, because as we — when we first started our member age range was like 16-25.

MH: As time has gone on it’s gotten bigger and older.

CR: And I think that has to do with not having a very clear vision of where we were going and how to articulate it.

I was going to ask that too– is the vision for the membership model sustainable? Are you going to have this until the day the sun explodes?

CM: We hope to!

CR: We’ll always have some form of membership. Whether it will stay the way it is right now or not….only time can tell that. And I think that will probably change again a little bit once we start having regular events here because then we can introduce volunteers into the system. And that helps our membership process too because those who are volunteering a lot should be members. And anyone’s welcome to participate. It opens it up more that way.

A thing I struggle with a lot is the identity between engagement and development. I struggle that most people don’t even know what memberships are. It can be really jargony, and something people only connect with a gym membership. And even beyond that don’t consider membership in a situation where they’re going to a meeting monthly. So how do you coordinate that messaging?

MH: When people ask questions in our members meeting, Cameron goes over briefly what it means to be a member. We have a bill of rights, and a bill of commitment that’s posted in the kitchen. And part of our wecome packet has a limited list (the list could be pages long) of the benefits to being a member. Our biggest problem is getting people in the building. But once they’re in the building and we get to go to talk to them, everything’s all gravy. They get it. They understand what’s going on and want to participate. We’re still trying to figure out better ways to communicate that to the public, face-to-face.

CM: I think its also a lot about the community and really building that. And then you realize you have the community to rely on and work with. I grew up in communities and it’s very beautiful to be part of something. And I think a lot of people strive to be part of something; they have sororities in college, fraternities. Stuff like that. I know that sounds lame, but a lot of people strive to be part of something bigger than themselves.

One of the only other questions I had was the structure of those conversation during those members meetings. I know you have some language in your bill of commitment about this being a safer space. How do you enact those values? Do people feel comfortable speaking here? Is it kind of intuitive?

MH: It’s a mix of both for me, at least. Sometimes we’ve had to remind people that this is a free, open space where no one is going to oppress your ideals or freedoms or what you want to do, and that you are able to actively express your ideas, although we don’t ever say that there won’t be anybody to argue against your ideals. We want to be that much of a free space where if you disagree with somebody you can voice that. Me and Cameron disagree all the time, and that’s okay. Actually, I feel that’s a good thing…

CR: It helps both of us grow.

 

MH: It builds character and growth and reaffirms your beliefs. If you truly believe in what you believe, yu’re not going to let somebody easily change your opinion. You’ll stand your ground or at least be able to develop that confidence.

CR: And I think a lot of that comes from outside of the meetings too. Talking to members individually and asking what it is that they’re doing, and what they want to be doing. Hearing their ideas outside of the meeting and saying “Man, you should really bring this up in the meeting. You should talk about this. People are really going to be excited about this!” And giving them the confidence before we go into the meeting that this is something that’s valid. Often if people are walking into a meeting blind, they feel like their idea is stupid. Or don’t even realize that they have an idea.

It seems like there’s enough personal connection that you can have that one-on-one connection and it’s significant. How many members do you have right now?

MH: 30.

Awesome, do you feel like you have capacity to have it grow?

MH: We’re at capacity with the spaces that can be physically rented out every month. But we do have 3-4 of those people who don’t physically have a space who are active in our programs, and that gives them more share of the space. We’re open to it. Our membership is open to the public; it’s one little application sheet that you have to fill out and it’s mostly asking who you are as an artist, where you see yourself ten years from now. It’s not this extensive job interview process. They’re just simple questions so we can get to know you better as an artist and a person, and also so they can ask those questions of themselves. Sometimes people don’t even have those answers for themselves, and this can help spark that conversation in their heads.

Do they have to identify as an artist to be a member?

MH: Not necessarily. For us, art is a very loose term. There is no specific medium; you don’t need to paint to be an artist. You don’t need to be a musician. To me, an artist is someone who actively and whollly puts themselves in a creative manner. It can be in any subject matter. It could be just from being on a soapbox and talking about it.

CR: You archiving this information…that’s an art form. Anything that’s true to you being a person…

MH: And sharing it. That’s what I think an artist is. Someone who is passionate about something and wants to share that with someone else. We say ‘artist’ in its loosest sense.

CM: But we also use the word ‘person’ a lot.

CR: I’d say for where we are right now, there’s a lot more incentive for people who want to become members to have this specific idea of what they want to have out of this space because we’re not really doing public music events right now. You can see from the background we’ve all come from, it’s like I understand how that event system works really well. It’s really simple. And I know I can involve myself in these specific ways. At the Fort it’s like well, if you have an idea let’s do it. And that’s scary for a lot of people. That can be intimidating– unintentionally for us, but that’s the way it is.

CM: But also a lot of people have been able to do things they wouldn’t normally do on their own. Including myself. There are a lot of great qualities about me that I didn’t even realize were there until I was part of a larger community and got to say “Okay, no one’s doing that. I might as well learn how.” And then realizing that I LOVED it. And realizing that i was really good at it. Even the word ‘artist’– I never considered myself an artist until I was working here and was like “Oh fuck, I am an artist! I do a lot of creative stuff! Why wouldn’t I consider myself an ‘artist’? Because I didn’t go to art school? That’s ridiculous.”

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