Building Sustainable Community
Written by Ampersand 2014 Intern, Kelly Hardin
When I graduated this past May, I found the world wide open and full of possibilities but I also faced big, difficult questions: What does it really mean to live in sustainable community? Where can I find it? What can I do to foster it?
I majored in International Studies, where I studied global phenomena from different angles and disciplines. I found that the more I studied the “global,” the more I realized how vital it is to foster the “local”—especially local communities that are both socially and environmentally sustainable, addressing both human needs and the needs of an imperiled planet.
My search for answers was a large part of what led me to Ampersand. As a Sustainable Living Intern I spent the past two months learning how to live in tandem with the land in a more sustainable, holistic way. In one sense, this meant learning concrete skills such as mud plastering, biodynamic gardening, and rockwork for land restoration. In a less tangible sense, it meant examining how and why Ampersand functions a sustainable community. While I still have much to think about, here are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned about sustainable community during my time here:
- Fundamentally, sustainable community is about relationships that include and transcend people.
Ampersand sees sustainability as “an approach to life, which includes our relationships to everything—our resources, our waste, our interactions with the earth and fellow humans.” This idea is built into everyday actions and projects at Ampersand. I saw how water was harvested through rain catchment, used by people, then reused to nourish plants; how my waste got turned into compost to nourish the food I ate; how the sun cooked nourishment for my body in the solar ovens; how the dirt and sand below my feet became part of the walls I built. Slowly, I learned more about these systems and came to understand where I fit in. Because we live in a culture of convenience—one where we outsource labor, where we don’t need to venture beyond a local grocery store for food, and where water and waste seems to simply go down the drain and disappear—we oftentimes forget that we are part of ecosystems, too. I realized that in order to live sustainably, I need to put intention not only into my relationships with other humans but also into my relationships with the rest of my local environment.
- The way in which physical spaces are designed has a huge impact on how a sustainable community functions.
Before coming to Ampersand, I never noticed how explicitly physical space plays a role in how people interact with each other and their environments. As previously mentioned, a large part of the Ampersand experience is gaining an understanding of one’s connection to resource use through permaculture design. Moreover, spaces should be intentionally created for people to foster relationships. During the internship, our gathering place was the outdoor kitchen, where we would eat together, have morning meetings, and simply hang out and relax. Having this kind of physical space was vital for getting to know each other and those just passing through.
- Sustainable community works best when people have both purpose and opportunities to grow.
This means three things: First, it means having shared purpose in coming together. At Ampersand this is embodied by Ampersand’s Community Agreements that provide a framework of values for community interactions. Second, it means continued purpose in living and working together. This was manifested through sharing everyday tasks and chores while also working together on projects. Each person’s contributions were valued and we felt like we were really making a difference through the work we did. Third, it means allowing room for individual purpose to grow and change; for people to continue to learn together. I wouldn’t have found the internship experience nearly as rewarding if I didn’t have the space to grow. I learned new skills but also stretched my intellect and perceptions of the world through assigned readings and reflections. Having the room to express my thoughts and feelings and hearing the thoughts and feelings of others as I experienced growth has been hugely important in helping me shape my path forward.
- Creativity, whimsy, and celebration are vital in sustainable communities.
One day, I turned to Amanda while mud plastering the shop and said, “You know what I just realized? Building and construction is pretty much like one huge art project!” While that statement may seem obvious to some (my architect relatives come to mind), for me it was a huge epiphany. All of the work that we did at Ampersand was practical but also held creative components. There was something about helping plants grow or arranging rocks into zuni bowls in the arroyo, for example, that held the same kind of meditative quality for me that I find when drawing. This kind of creative, regenerative energy behind permaculture projects (or any sustainability or social justice work) is extremely important in maintaining motivation when it feels like all that remains to be done to change the world is never-ending. It’s also important to celebrate and to give thanks for all that exists and has been accomplished. We did this through a summer solstice celebration, an end-of-internship celebration, and taking time to simply laugh and be present with one another on a daily basis. The world is full of tragedy. It would be nearly as tragic not to celebrate all that is good.
- Sustainable community isn’t about an outcome. It’s about the process, and it’s never done.
I recently realized that I’ve been searching for that one definitive, perfect model of sustainable community. While there are wonderful models out there like Ampersand, none of them are perfect and none are ever complete. The land changes, people come and go, and there are always more projects to work on. At the beginning of this internship, I may have found that idea daunting and discouraging, interpreting it as something along the lines of, “We will never be able to do enough to create a just and sustainable world.” Today, I am hopeful. Yes, we live in a rapidly changing world, but while change can bring negative consequences, it also bears great potential for adaptability and flexibility—and hopefully more room for education and awareness about the greatest environmental challenges of our time. Moreover, the fact that there is no one, definitive “right” way to go about building a better world is really quite exciting! It allows room for growth and creativity in the kinds of communities that we imagine and create.
So what are we waiting for?