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Who We Are: An Exploration of What “Intentional Community” Means

Knowledgebase > Who We Are: An Exploration of What "Intentional Community" Means

Dan Questenberry has compiled responses from communitarians everywhere on the nature and description of intentional community. By describing ourselves, we clarify our group objectives — at home and as a movement. Twenty-six communitarians express visions, observations, distinctions, confusions, longings. Some descriptions were fashioned out of long debate. Most of them were submitted along with the Community Listings published in the Directory.

More than 8,000 people, including over 2,000 children, live in 186 of the more established North American intentional communities and extended family groups listing in the first edition of the Directory of Intentional Communities (1990). One hundred forty -two of those groups are rural, or have both urban and rural sites; 113 (80 percent) of the rural groups reported common holdings totalling more than 34,000 acres. Forty-four urban communities and extended families listed common holdings of 98 apartments and 46 group houses, plus additional group houses containing 113 more bedrooms. Of course, these 186 communities represent just a small fraction of the North American communities movement.

Eighty-four more communities of three or more members were listed in the Directory and provided some data, but didn’t provide complete demographics. Over 700 more intentional communities in FIC address files have declined to provide public listings for the Directory. There are thousands more residing in traditional monastic enclaves or service groups, tens of thousands living in Hutterite colonies, and millions of indigenous Americans living communally. So the information in this Directory describes just a small portion of the cooperative lifestyles practiced in North America.

With any discussion of community demographics, a common description of intentional community is assumed — an assumption that prompts the question:


“What is — how do we describe — an intentional community?”

Join us in an expanding continent-wide brainstorm about the meanings of intentional community. Please send your thoughts on this word puzzle to FIC Headquarters. Aim for an inclusive description that uniquely defines the inspiring diversity of the communities movement. Test your description in discussions with other community members, and provide a copy of your tested description to the Fellowship as a contribution to this challenging dialogue.

Some of the following descriptions of intentional community may stimulate your creativity. The first descriptions were published in the Foundation for Intentional Community Newsletter, Fall ’91, Winter ’93. Other descriptions were sent in by communitarians from across the continent along with their listings for this Directory. Many of these descriptions illustrate the challenges of drawing a distinct boundary around a concept so inclusive as intentional community.


Harvey Baker, of Dunmire Hollow, has lived in his Tennessee community since 1974. Harvey described intentional community quite soulfully: 
An “intentional community” is a group of people dedicated with intent, purpose, and commitment to a mutual concern. Generally the group shares land or housing, or is otherwise close enough geographically to be in continuous active fellowship so that it can effectively carry out the purposes to which it is dedicated. 
Geoph Kozeny, a ten-year resident of Stardance in San Francisco (since renamed Purple Rose), has been traveling among and photographing North American intentional communities since 1988. A full-time networker, he has worked and presented slide show/lectures in hundreds of communities and worker cooperatives over the years. Geoph describes intentional community in another feature article here in this Directory: 
An “intentional community” is a group of people who have chosen to live together with a common purpose, working cooperatively to create a lifestyle that reflects their shared core values. The people may live together on a piece of rural land, a suburban home, or in an urban neighborhood, and they may share a single residence or live in a cluster of dwellings. 
Lisa Paulson, Windwatch newsletter editor at High Wind in Wisconsin, has lived in that community for over 14 years. She reports how their ecovillage has described intentional community: 
…a group of people who come together deliberately in a residential situation around a specific vision, agenda or shared values. Certainly there are communities that adhere to the latter criteria whose members do not live together; however, when we think of intentional communities, it seems to imply being residential. 
Within the term intentional community, we make two distinctions: “public” or “homesteading.” Public intentional communities are dedicated to public service, outreach, educational programs, events, and networking. Such groups are broad, even global, in scope. Because interfacing with mainstream society is an essential counterpoint to experimenting with a more ideal way to live, at least some members of public communities must be in dialogue with visitors, researchers, and media representatives. 
“Homesteading” communities coalesce with perhaps the same vision of living together with real caring for each other as in the public groups. However, homesteaders are not so open to visitors and have no public programs. They want, perhaps, to create a small Utopia, protected and isolated from mainstream society. 
Kat Kinkade, a founding member of Twin Oaks (VA), East Wind (MO), and Acorn (VA), just wrote a new book about her community experiences. Is It Utopia Yet? (published by Twin Oaks) begins with a definition: 
“Intentional community”…(has) its own clear borders and membership. Some people call it a “utopian” community. The essential element in any intentional community, ours included, is that people who want to live in it will have to join, be accepted by those who already live there, and go by its rules and norms, which may in some ways differ from those in society at large. 
Allen Butcher, a former member of East Wind and Twin Oaks, is a long-time student of intentional community economics. He defines community as follows: 
Intentional community is an association displaying two primary characteristics. First, the members of the group maintain some level of common agreements, such as choosing a name for themselves and a system of governance. Second, the group carries on some collective actions, for example sharing a common residential property and usually other material assets. Essentially, any association may call itself an “intentional community” by common agreement. The lack of such an agreement results in an association being termed a “circumstantial community,” which is similar to nations, cities, towns, or neighborhoods where individuals live in proximity by chance, and may or may not actively choose to be a part of the association imposed upon them. Both intentional and circumstantial communities can at times function as the other, depending upon their degree of common agreement and community action. (A. Allen Butcher, Community Tools: A “Virtual Library” of Com-munity Development Resources, 1994, Fourth World Services, P.O. Box 1666, Denver, CO 80201-1666.)I like a description that distinguishes intentional communities from other social, religious, or business organizations — a description useful for demographic studies of the communities movement:An “intentional community” is a group of people living cooperatively, dedicated by intent and commitment to specific communal values and goals. Life inside each community is managed using established decision-making processes. Generally, intentional communities place high value on the shared ownership or lease of common facilities — housing, land, commercial buildings — which often serves to demonstrate communal values and goals to the wider society.

A “group house,” or “extended family,” is a smaller intentional community with members residing in a single-family dwelling, and often using casual decision-making processes, especially in the smallest groups.


David Spangler, one of the early members of Findhorn, has written and lectured about intentional community for decades. He describes community in these words: 
When this was a small gathering of people it was very easy for us to experience community here; everyone worked with everybody else, we knew everyone’s first name, we were together through the day and we had sanctuary all together. As the community grew, jobs became more specialized and people worked further afield, and being together became more difficult. Then the quality that makes community had to arise from something more than just physical proximity and daily encounter. …Community is not something that is created when people come together and live together, rather it is something that is preexistent and we can awaken to it. There is never a time when we are not in community, and our practice is to awaken to that experience of communion.  

Communities Describe Community

The following descriptions were among the many submitted by groups with their listing information for creating this Directory.Matt Bojanovich, Adirondack Herbs 
Broadalbin, New York


…a group of cooperating nonrelated humans, living by their own choice on one piece of land or in one house, for reasons which go beyond mere convenience — for at least some of the members. 10/30/92 
Linda Woodrow, Black Horse Creek 
Kyogle, Australia 
This may seem like a frivolous answer, but I think it works as a definition. When I try to think what all “communities” — intentional, traditional, tribal, neighborhood…have in common, the only one I can put a finger on is gossip — in a positive sense ….Communities are groups of people who care enough about each other to constantly monitor each other’s lives, find them interesting, want to know and help and support. 10/1/93 
R.G. Faithfull, Braziers Park School of Integrative Social Research 
Oxon, England 
We define a community as a group of people who live together and eat together and plan their future together. 2/5/93 
Rodolfo Rosase, Comunidad Arcoiris 
Mexico D.F., Mexico 
Implicit in the term is an area or territory, a certain ideological, racial, economic, and/or political characteristic that separates it from other neighboring groups; and a higher degree of interpersonal contact and relationship between members. A community is a distinct social, economic, and political organism. 7/16/92 
Forest, Earth Re-Leaf 
Naalehu, Hawaii 
A small group of close friends living close together with common agreements and goals. 11/25/92 
Suresvara Dasa, Gita Nagari Village 
Port Royal, Pennsylvania 
A community is a group of people who cooperate to serve God with work, worship, and love. At Gita Nagari, we try to show the natural sweet relationship between the land, the animals, humanity, and God. We milk cows, work oxen, school our children, and try to live life in the spirit of Krishna’s Bhagavad Gita, India’s Song of God. 5/9/92 
Tony Nenninger, Goodwater Community 
Bourbon, Missouri 
Community is a shared intention. We are a community because we share our intentions to nurture and protect water with others of like intent. The core of our community is defined by the ethos we choose to achieve our goals. 1/1/93 
Bob Brown, Kidstown 
Middletown, California 
Community isn’t a place. It is a feeling among people of wanting to be together. 7/27/92 
Dieter Bensmann, Kommune Niederkaufungen 
Kaufungen, Germany 
Living and working together cooperatively, making decisions by consensus, common economy. 4/9/92 
Jeff Moore, L’Arche — Homefires 
Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada 
People who have commitment to live and work together for larger social purpose. (Generally we do — but with a lot of transient people.) 7/10/93 
Kathy Moody, Laurel Hill Plantation 
Natchez, Mississippi 
Communities are replacements for extended families for people who have lost touch with their biological extended families or whose families cannot offer a loving environment. 12/11/92 
Patrick Kimmons, Moonshadow 
Whitwell, Tennessee 
Any group of animals that interact toward a specific or nonspecific goal — similar orientation in time and space — communication — deliberate social survival ethics. 3/7/93 
Niche (a common definition by the group) 
Tucson, Arizona 
Community, like love, is so craved, adored, and over-used, it seems to have lost meaning, except as a kind of political/new-age slogan. We’re becoming interested in more specific words, such as cooperative business, support group, neighborhood, and even commune. 12/14/92 
Mariah Wentworth, Rainbow Hearth Sanctuary 
Burnet, Texas 
An interdependent, cooperative grouping of aligned humans, animals, plants, earth energies, and benevolent multidimensional beings who together comprise a sensitive, sustainable ecosystem. (We’re working on it!) 10/5/93 
Marein Whitman, ReJenneration 
Jenner, California 
A group of people who share values, goals, commitments, and hopefully living space and food. A group of mutual respect and support. 5/5/92 
John Burke, S.E.A.D.S. of Truth 
Harrington, Maine 
A group of people working together for a shared goal — housing, employment, food, energy, etc. — on a common land area. 8/17/92 
Sky Jasper, The Sky Jahnna 
Idyllwild, California 
A true community, in my view, has many of the elements of the archetypal community — the family. Thus a community has clear relationships, commitment, physical proximity, common values, and a goal of goals that unite them. At least. The first three are b asic. 7/17/93 
Deborah Altus, Sunflower House 
Lawrence, Kansas 
We don’t have a working definition of community. 4/21/92 
John H. Affolter, Teramanto 
Renton, Washington 
“Intentional community” means a group of people of similar or like attitudes, goals, outlook, and worldview that is comprehensive in its functions, including residential or housing provision and work opportunities actually utilized by members for subsistence production of at least some of their necessities. The group’s decision-making process is considered as important as its goals and is open to all members. 7/20/92

 Intentional Community: The Origin of the Name

Amazingly, the term “intentional community” can be traced directly to a point of origin. Al Andersen, President of the Fellowship of Intentional Com-munities in 1960 (The Fellowship was reincorporated in its present form in 1986, with a name change to the more expansive Foundation for Intentional Community.) wrote this in 1993, as part of a eulogy for Griscom Morgan:

…in his book, The Small Community…Arthur Morgan explains that he considered the small community to be the “seedbed of society,” a seedbed that has been permitted largely to go into decay because of neglect and lack of appreciation for its value….It is clear that both Griscom and his father were not only interested in reviving and energizing “community” in more conventional society, but also in the experimental frontiers represented by the various intentional communities which sprang up during and immediately after World War II, though they were initially called “cooperative communities.”

In order to promote interest in (small) community, Arthur Morgan founded Community Service, Inc., in 1940. By the mid-’40s…(he founded) the annual Small Community Conference. It was in the course of working at Community Service that I became aware of… Celo (NC) and other cooperative communities (Macedonia-GA, Bruderhof-NY, Bryn Gweled-PA, Tanguy-PA)….I immediately approached Griscom with the idea of inviting members of these various cooperative communities to a gathering of their own, perhaps immediately following the next Small Community Conference. That must have been about 1948, or possibly 1949…

Individuals did come, from Celo, Macedonia and other groups. Art Wiser from Macedonia (now a leader in the Rifton, NY, Bruderhof Community) showed exceptional interest. So much so that he assumed leadership of the new organization of cooperative communities initiated at that time.

…the cooperative community movement had…(a pioneering) role in the larger society….It was the role of establishing…a new global society, from the ground up. Accordingly, the new organization was initially called the Inter-Community Exchange. It soon became apparent, however, that the thing that the various cooperative communities had to exchange, and that others needed, was primarily fellowship. Almost simultaneously, the concept of “intentionality” came into play. Thus, the name of these groups was changed from “cooperative communities” to “intentional communities.” The combination of these two changes led to the name change to Fellowship of Intentional Communities. As far as we know, that is the first appearance of the term.

About the Author

Dan Questenberry has been the FIC Newsletter Editor and Directory Articles Editor. One of the incorporators of the Foundation for Intentional Community in 1986, he’s an FIC administrative committee member, as well as a former treasurer of School of Living Land Trust and Deer Rock, a new community near Shannon Farm. His interest in other intentional communities and movement demographics started simply, with visitor work at Shannon Farm beginning when he first joined in 1976. Dan is the owner-operator of an independent insurance agency, and enjoys participating in Fellowship volunteer work, meetings, and other alternative culture gatherings.

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