The Eclectic Collective Known As Groundswell

Behind a nondescript storefront, a vibrant community center takes shape

The U.N. General Assembly has marked 2012 the Year of Cooperatives, a fact I read on the side of my Three Rivers Market disposable soup cup the other day. As a member of the Three Rivers food co-op and the Knoxville Housing Co-op, I took interest when, just recently, two curious groups emerged on the scene. Groundswell Collective and the Bike Collective look like cooperatives, but call themselves "collectives." The members of the Bike Collective call their rented space "the co-op," and the people who run it "the collective." Groundswell rejects the term "co-op" all together.

Like the Bike Collective, Groundswell took a more definite form when they leased a space in which to gather, host activities, and call their own. The nondescript concrete-block building at 1215 Magnolia Ave. still smells a little like the doggie day care it was before becoming home to Groundswell Collective in December. The building includes a living room with comfortable old sofas, a music room, a reading room with a computer lab and lending library, a kitchen where Food Not Bombs operates, and a yard where they have plotted out a few garden patches and installed a multiple-bin compost system.

At Groundswell all work is divided according to members' interests, all decisions are made by consensus. According to Emily Lovelace, a spokesperson for the group, about 10 core members consistently come to meetings and work days.

On Facebook, Groundswell is labeled a club, and the colorful interior walls and checkerboard floor do give its building a playhouse feel. But it's not an exclusive club. The collective holds their meetings every Monday at 6 p.m., open to everyone.

The activities at Groundswell are pretty diverse. In March they held a yard sale, field day, home-brew workshop, and Linux-installing party. Currently, they make most of their money by renting out band-practice space and hosting shows that, by all accounts, are raucous events. Some of the members of Groundswell used to live at The Poison Lawn, a house and music venue in South Knoxville where they got their experience booking bands.

On the Tuesday I visited the Groundswell Collective, the dimly-lit living room was comfortable and quiet. Lovelace was teaching a Felties workshop. She gave me a book of patterns and a box of felt and I made a little panda.

"How did you choose the name ‘Groundswell Collective'?" I ask.

Everyone chuckles. Making almost any decision by consensus is an ordeal, and it took at least a month of meetings to settle on a name.

"‘Groundswell' is a mass upwelling of public feeling," Kyle McDonald says. "We looked it up."

One person liked the organic connotations of the word, the grassrootsy feel of it. Another mentioned the Occupy movement.

At a Monday evening general meeting, 10 people sit on couches drinking beer, making notes, and hashing out issues—from the placement of a problematic shelf to how to pay rent this month. Tasks are carried out by self-appointed work groups. One group works on the garden, another on the computer lab, another on band-bookings. It feels a lot like a Housing Co-op meeting.

"Why ‘collective' and not ‘co-op'?" I ask.

"I like the term ‘collective' because it implies a gathering of people getting together to accomplish a task," says Jim Sheffield.

For Emily Brewer, "collective" indicates a "flow and sharing of resources."

"A co-op is a business model" in which everyone owns shares, Michael McMahon says. Groundswell is a collection of people, "without the business."

Business-like or not, they want their group to be taken seriously. Members express concern about liability issues and their image. Plans to install a skate-ramp are vetoed.

"I see this [skate ramp] as our most visible vulnerability," someone says.

Sitting in on their meeting is like watching a group of people build the social and institutional infrastructure of a miniature city from scratch.

After a bit of discussion they settle on an ad-hoc mission statement: "Groundswell Collective fosters community through a DIY philosophy that uses resources and education to cultivate social justice."

Both the mission statement and the collective are works in progress, subject to morph as the Groundswell members experiment with what they wish to strive for, and what they hope to achieve.