Sister Claireï¿½s Green Habit
Dominican nun and founder of New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future, Sister Claire McGowan educates Washington County residents on how to put sustainability efforts into practice while helping shape a better economy and a healthier Kentucky
Stepping into Claire McGowan's Springfield City Hall office, you find the two missions nearest
and dearest to her heart hanging in twin frames above her desk: one displays a detailed map of Washington County; the other, a photo of planet Earth. McGowan believes that a truly sustainable Washington County is possible, and that transformation on the local level can have a significant global impact. She has founded and for seven years directed perhaps Kentuckyï¿½s only rural sustainability officeï¿½a community-based, nonprofit organization, New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future, with the tagline ï¿½creating hopeï¿½one rural county at a time.ï¿½
Claire McGowan is a Dominican Sister answering a challenging call, and she will be the first to tell you that she is by no means doing so alone. Sharing in community efforts has long defined her life. This time she has cast her net wider than ever before.
ï¿½Itï¿½s important to understand that New Pioneers works systemically,ï¿½ McGowan explains. ï¿½We work with all of the communityï¿½s systems at the very same time.ï¿½ That means business, education, development, the environment, agriculture, social services, and more.
Partnering with everyone from schoolchildren to prison inmates, New Pioneers now boasts almost seven years of achievements, including: a curbside pickup recycling program for Springfield; an ongoing green homes campaign supported by more than 950 participating households (see Green Pioneer Homes below); regular seminars and study groups for community members; a documentary film exploring local sustainability issues; and a countywide discussion forum that produced Vision 2025ï¿½an outline of community goals for the future addressing the preservation of farmland and agricultural heritage, protection of natural resources, enhancement of local economy, and integration of educational resources from kindergarten through college.
In February, Sister Claire McGowan was honored by the Springfield-Washington County Chamber of Commerce as the Citizen of the Year for her work.
Sister Claire knew from the beginning that organizing a sustainability office in rural Kentucky would offer a challenge, but she had faced tough jobs before. In the late 1980s, as war raged throughout Central America, McGowan actively worked there as a counselor, facilitator of conflict resolution, and communication skills trainer.
Now, she faces a very different sort of struggle: helping people understand that living sustainably represents more than the beliefs of special interest groups, and that it embraces a practical concern for widespread economic security.
In her work, McGowan draws inspiration from Kentuckyï¿½s pioneer roots, especially those of her Dominican order. While Dominican congregations from Europe brought their culture and world-view with them to this new frontier, McGowan explains that the groups of Catholic sisters that grew out of Kentucky enjoyed more freedom, and were less burdened by stereotypes of nuns from the old country. That freedom, and the necessities of survival, called for a lot of creative thinking.
In helping Washington County to pioneer the new community systems that will support a more sustainable future, McGowan has needed to think creatively from the organizationï¿½s first project: developing a curbside recycling program, perhaps the only one of its kind for a city the size of Springfield that totals fewer than 3,000 residents.
The original recycling vehicle was simply a farm wagon attached to a pickup truck. Industrial-size cardboard boxes were arranged on the wagon, and the recycling was sorted along the way into labeled bins. Inmates from the nearby Marion County Correctional Institute were hired by the Washington County Regional Recycling Center as the supervised work force. The project was and continues to be a partnership with the County Solid Waste Department. They now use a large truck to collect recyclables.
ï¿½Educate, demonstrate, advocateï¿½ is the game plan New Pioneers has followed from the beginning. Their many efforts, like the recycling program, the recycled rain barrels, and their new push for a stronger local food system, pull together in innovative partnerships the various organizations and individuals that already exist as valuable resources throughout the community. New Pioneers teaches about community sustainability even while putting it into practice, demonstrating its viability while advocating for a stronger, healthier Kentucky.
As a child, McGowan was fascinated by living systems. She recalls catching a tadpole one summer and being transfixed by the creatureï¿½s transformation from fish to frog. On another occasion she was so amazed by a sprouted onion that she carried it to school to show her teacher. This same passion is reflected in McGowanï¿½s determination to keep Washington Countyï¿½s many living systems alive and well far into the future.
Professor Lori Garkovich of the University of Kentuckyï¿½s Department of Community and Leadership Development describes New Pioneers as ï¿½unique in Kentucky.ï¿½
ï¿½What makes it so unique,ï¿½ says Garkovich, ï¿½is that it has been a citizen-based effort to educate residents about the principles of sustainability, but always linked to an understanding that such an effort must be economically viable. New Pioneers has always been inclusiveï¿½reaching out to the agricultural sector, those interested in tourism, small businesses, and the industries in the community.ï¿½ Garkovich believes there is ï¿½great potential for replicationï¿½ of New Pioneersï¿½ work in other rural communities.
McGowan was born and raised in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, but many of her teachers hailed from St. Catharine Motherhouse in Washington County, Kentucky. She was herself led to St. Catharineï¿½s in 1959, just before the Civil Rights Movement and womenï¿½s liberation were beginning to blossom.
ï¿½I cut my teeth on the old religion,ï¿½ explains McGowan. ï¿½I wore the long white habit and we were not even allowed to spend the night in our familiesï¿½ homes.ï¿½ When Vatican II brought changes to the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s, she was young enough to become what she saw as ï¿½a kind of bridgeï¿½ between an older way of life and a new vision for the future. She recalls that the ï¿½new way of thinking about religion and its active role in the world just made so much sense to me.ï¿½
As the sustainability movement has gained strength globally in recent years, Sister Claire has once again found the opportunity to bridge past and future ways of living. Concerned about the daunting ï¿½planetary crisisï¿½ï¿½and wishing to face its challenges with direct actionï¿½she pursued a degree in Earth literacy at St. Maryï¿½s of the Woods College near Terre Haute, Indiana. Her new studies introduced her to ecological and evolutionary science, economic theory, and an important focus on how justice and change occur in society.
McGowan focused her thesis project on Washington County. She explains: ï¿½Only 2 percent of the land in Washington County has been developed, leaving the community open to wonderful opportunities for farmland preservation, a local food economy, and economic growth linked to sustainable development and agritourism. We are also blessed with a strong community fabric intact over many generations, and an ingrained work ethic born of frontier values.
ï¿½The discipline for me,ï¿½ says McGowan, ï¿½is to remember that this is the universeï¿½s work, not just mine and ours. The same overarching energy and intelligence that has invented and sustained Earthï¿½s evolution for 4-1/2 billion years will carry us where we need to go. We just need to bring our best creativity and generosity to the endeavor, enjoy our work together, and trust that powerful mystery to do the rest!ï¿½
REVIVING A CULTURE OF LOCAL FOOD AND CRAFTS
Washington County poultry, pork, and lamb producer Shannon Young of Stone Run Farms explains that New Pioneers helped her and her husband, Steve, hone their marketing skills, develop a resilient budget, expand their distribution channels, and set realistic, sustainable goals for their multigeneration family farm.
ï¿½They sent out e-mails to potential customers for us,ï¿½ Shannon explains, ï¿½and even invited us to an annual membersï¿½ meeting to give away eggs as free samples.ï¿½
McGowan strongly believes that, ï¿½If we want healthy small farms, a strong local economy, a vibrant community, and a reduction in our use of fossil fuels, we need to support a culture of local foods and crafts.ï¿½
New Pioneers also supports a ï¿½shop local firstï¿½ campaign. ï¿½The closer you spend your money to home,ï¿½ explains Springfield contractor and business owner Joe Pat Haydon, ï¿½the faster it finds its way back to you, and the better it strengthens the infrastructure of your community.ï¿½
New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future
127 West Main Street
Springfield, KY 40069-1226
To learn more about the New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future, see their five-year history book, Planting a Sustainable Community. The book can be purchased for $5 at the New Pioneers office.
GREEN PIONEER HOMES
In addition to programs for curbside recycling, promoting local foods and crafts, farmersï¿½ market, rain barrel use, farmland preservation, and sustainability study groups, the New Pioneers also created the Green Pioneer Homes campaign, offering a list of 16 practices for people to make their homes more sustainable.
If a Washington County family commits to doing eight or more practices, they receive a free, bright green decal for their mailbox proclaiming, ï¿½Weï¿½re proud to be a Green Pioneer Home.ï¿½ So far more than 950 homes in the county are participating.
Anyone outside of Washington County can participate too, and receive the decal for $3. McGowan hopes what they are doing in Washington County will spread to all of Kentucky.
ï¿½ Recycle plastics, metals, paper
ï¿½ Use CFL bulbs in five most-used lights
ï¿½ Stop buying bottled water
ï¿½ Reuse grocery bags
ï¿½ Reduce kitchen paper products
ï¿½ Cook healthy meals two times a week
ï¿½ Shop locally for food, etc.
ï¿½ Grow some of your own food
ï¿½ Compost food and yard waste
ï¿½ Use natural cleaning products
ï¿½ Limit lawn fertilizer and weed killers
ï¿½ Plant native plants/trees
ï¿½ Use rain barrels to save water
ï¿½ Unplug electric appliances
ï¿½ Reduce heat and air conditioning
ï¿½ Give car a Sabbath (donï¿½t drive one day a week)
ï¿½ You name it: ________________________________
For a copy of the form to participate, go online to www.newpioneersfsf.org, click on Programs on left, then the ï¿½Green Pioneer Homesï¿½ link.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: PEACE AND SUSTAINABILITY
To learn more about the Sisters of St. Catharine, the Dominican nunsï¿½ sustainability efforts dating back to the 1800s, and about St. Catharine joining seven other congregations to become the Dominican Sisters of Peace, go to ï¿½sustainable sistersï¿½.