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Ann Whitney Sanford

Department of Religion
2015 Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship

Ann Whitney Sanford, an Associate Professor in the Department of Religion, used her 2015 Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship to conduct ethnographic fieldwork with intentional communities to complete a book project titled Be the Change: Food, Community and Sustainability in America. Intentional communities translate the values of non-violence, voluntary simplicity, and equity into alternative and sustainable forms of social and economic organization. Whether it is the ecovillage or an urban co-op, each intentional community embraces ecological responsibility. But these are not stereotypical “hippie” communes. Rather, intentional communities often use innovative engineering and other types of expertise to translate values into action.

Intentional communities take different forms in rural and urban settings, but tend to share the values of simplicity and ecological responsibility. The Possibility Alliance for instance, an eighty acre homestead in Missouri, functions completely without electricity or petroleum. The homestead offers training in horticultural and agricultural techniques and challenges its members to become entirely self-sufficient. In attempting to cultivate joy from simplicity and rural self-sufficiency, intentional communities mostly attract millennials and baby-boomers from the upper middle class. In Missouri for example, the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage uses the skills of college-educated, middle-class initiates to build alternative housing like a straw-bale houses constructed to code.

Intentional communities in urban settings are less focused on self-sufficiency and instead address specific social problems. The Catholic Worker Movement founded during the Great Depression by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin focuses on issues associated with urban life, especially urban poverty. There is no hierarchy and the entire Catholic Worker community decides how it should be governed and what issues should be addressed. In Los Angeles, Catholic Workers offer a “Shower Mission” that provides access to showers and clean, decent clothes. Without these services the homeless or the poor would have little chance of improving their situation. Other intentional communities like the Los Angeles Ecovillage attempt to reinvent life in an urban setting. The point is not to go completely off the grid, but to transform a traditional space of consumption into something ecologically sustainable by restructuring the urban economy; strategies include initiating environmentally conscious business start-ups, practicing urban farming, and utilizing alternative forms of transportation like biking. Urban intentional communities like the Catholic Workers or the Los Angeles Ecovillage translate the values of simplicity and ecological responsibility more pragmatically than their rural counterparts because the setting demands a different response. Nevertheless, urban and rural intentional communities are united in their attempt to translate the values of simplicity, equity, and ecological responsibility into sustainable economic models.

The Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship allowed Sanford to explore how intentional communities translate abstract values into practice as well as explore who is interested in undergoing such a process. Sanford found that in resisting consumption and acquisition – two sicknesses of modern life – intentional communities appeal to an educated but alienated middle class.

However, Sanford’s research reveals that intentional communities do not want to turn back the clock. And the reason is that translating the values of sustainability and simplicity into alternative social and economic models requires technological skills and social expertise. Consequently, intentional communities are not necessarily anti-modern, but embody the possibility of an alternative model for modern living. Rethinking modern life does not mean rejecting it entirely, but transforming it through the process of translating different values into new practices. Seen in this way, intentional communities are the experimental test-cases for how we can use new innovations to embrace sustainability more holistically.