Academic journal article Communal Societies

Being the Change: Food, Nonviolence, and Self-Sufficiency in Contemporary Intentional Communities

Academic journal article Communal Societies

Being the Change: Food, Nonviolence, and Self-Sufficiency in Contemporary Intentional Communities

Article excerpt

Be the change, a phrase commonly attributed to Mohandas K. Gandhi, has become ubiquitous for communities and individuals seeking social change. Almost a century ago, he prescribed a paradigm for democracy that bundled concepts such nonviolence, self-sufficiency, equity, and voluntary simplicity, and his social thought foretold contemporary debates about food, governance, and sustainability in the early years of the twenty-first century. (1) Today, intentional communities that practice these bundled values exemplify the saying be the change you want to see in the world, and in my visits to a variety of communities, I frequently saw this phrase painted on walls or written in promotional literature. It is virtually certain that Gandhi never said those exact words and that no one knows the exact source of this saying. (2) Nonetheless, be the change has achieved mantra status for those seeking social change and alternate ways of living. For some groups, this phrase means creating and inhabiting a world in which nonviolence, self-sufficiency, equity, and voluntary simplicity function as guiding paradigms, but the practical implications of translating these abstract values into specific practices of food production and consumption warrants examination.

Several years ago, I began visiting intentional communities to answer two related questions: first, how do these communities perform Gandhi's bundled values in their food practices, including what they eat, grow, purchase, and gather. Second, what can we learn about the processes and trade-offs of practicing these values. To address these questions, I sought intentional communities that either explicitly or implicitly draw upon Gandhi's social thought; that understand themselves to be experimental communities; and, importantly, that enact change in their larger communities. Defined broadly, intentional communities are residential communities with a shared vision. (3) I have spent at least two weeks, in some cases more, with each community, participating in and observing their daily activities, including bread labor (i.e., work that contributes to meeting basic needs), group meetings, and prayer services. My participation in work and leisure activities, supplemented by unstructured interviews, helped me understand how members of these communities consider these bundled values in the context of their daily lives.

Although the communities I studied focus on issues beyond food and agriculture, exploring what they eat and how they produce their food reveals much about how members understand and practice these values. Each of these communities, in theory and practice, critiques contemporary industrial agriculture, and, like Gandhi's, their food practices are rooted in larger experiments regarding governance, social equity, and voluntary simplicity. (4) Yet, translating values such as these into practice requires choices and trade-offs, and members of these communities must decide how to interpret and enact their values in the context of their geographic, cultural, and ethical frameworks.

None of these groups identify as Gandhian, nor would they--or I--venture to make claims regarding the authenticity of their translation of Gandhian thought. Further, community members also drew upon a range of other influences, such as Wendell Berry, Jesus, Dorothy Day, and Peter Maurin. However, as I have visited with intentional communities in the United States, I have seen a raft of values associated with Gandhi that provide a framework to create and assess food practices. The comprehensive nature of his social thought and bundled values, however, combined with his pragmatism and attitude of experimentation has resonated profoundly with intentional communities that also focus on environmental and social justice.

Gandhi established intentional communities, or ashrams, in India and Africa that experimented with alternate forms of governance, food, and social relations, and I chose communities that conducted similar experiments, but in the context of contemporary U. …

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