As several young men push a big-wheeled circus wagon up the driveway of a small house in South Salt Lake, smiles and applause break out among the gathered political activists. They hurry to open its two shutters. Slogans are painted on each one: “Corporations are not people,” reads one, “Money is not speech” the other.
A passing skateboarder gliding down the street with a friend that early June 2012 evening is unimpressed. “That’s hideous,” he shouts with a sneer.
In a frilly, black flapper outfit, Ashley Sanders smiles tolerantly at the naysayers as they roll by. She and the dozen activists-cum-performers, members of Move to Amend, are premiering a 15-minute mix of skits and puppetry that night at a block party in the Granary District in Salt Lake City. Move To Amend’s national signature campaign, she explains, has two goals: “Pass an amendment to the Constitution that corporations are not people, that money is not speech, and create a democracy movement in the United States.” The street-theater production, where activists play corporate villains, a vain politician and unctuous lobbyists, is Sanders’ brainchild, and despite the chaotic comings and goings of the group, she is very much in charge.
“When she has a vision, she gets people involved and makes sure you’re staying on track,” says Occupy Salt Lake’s Seth Neily, dressed in a Tweedledum-style pair of orange and red trousers.
But even 30-year-old Sanders’ steely will and organizational skills cannot forestall the wagon, pulled by three activists riding bicycles, from breaking down just two blocks from the house where they were rehearsing. As the male performers lift up the wagon and work on the broken axle, Sanders, driving a large SUV, watches at the corner, gritting her teeth. “Fun times,” she says, as her fellow activists gingerly pull the repaired wagon along the streets.
Sanders is one of a small group of “rising lights” from Salt Lake City—others include the co-founders of Peaceful Uprising, Tim De Christopher and Ashley Anderson, and its national organizer, Henia Belalia—who have achieved prominence among those driving social change nationally, says David Cobb, 2004 Green Party U.S. presidential candidate and Move to Amend national spokesman. If the 1960s protest movement was activism 1.0 and the 1980s Anti-Apartheid Movement activism 2.0, then Sanders, he says, represents activism 3.0, “the post-modern, engaged citizen activist.”
In Sanders’ world, where earnest truth-telling sits beside a love for costumes, parties, personality tests and “junior high school crush games,” she says that “justice is the baseline, not the end. The end is to perpetually create beautiful communities.” Her dream is communities designed “for everyone, so everybody has beauty in their lives, with houses and gardens. I think I’m an artist who accidentally became an activist.”
While capable of eloquently expounding at great length on politics and activism, she says the day-to-day matters of e-mails, returning telephone calls and keeping budgets elude her. Though perpetually broke—“She’s not quite able to have what would be typically termed a job,” says friend and fellow activist Kate Savage—and currently residing with her parents, Sanders has undoubtedly crammed much into her 30 years.
At Brigham Young University, she not only radicalized both herself and many students uncomfortable with the college’s rigid hierarchy and politics, but was also a driving force in the 2007 headline-grabbing alternative-commencement ceremony, organized in response to Dick Cheney being the speaker at that year’s BYU’s official commencement. She worked in high-profile positions for both Ralph Nader and, briefly, Rocky Anderson’s nonprofit, High Roads for Human Rights. Then, after an eight-month stint at a Californian activist collective, she returned to Salt Lake City as a member of Peaceful Uprising and, now, Move to Amend.
It’s been a painful struggle, in both her personal and political life, to combine her aesthetics and her political principles into a life-changing force. In politics, she found many activist groups to be hypocritical. “They say they’re feminist, but they’re not, because men are in charge. They say they’re egalitarian, but they’re not. Someone is in charge, but they don’t say that, and that makes it dangerous.”
She’s also struggled to come to terms with herself as an ex-Mormon who still loves many of the traditions of her former church and faith. “Mormonism is the thing that most informed who I am, all of my activism—but it’s also been one of the most major sources of heartache for me,” she says.
Sanders’ commitment to truth-telling—“I do not feel like a fully alive human being unless I’m speaking and articulating ideas to people,” she says—inevitably leads her to a fundamental contradiction: “If you speak your truth, you face losing your audience. But if you keep your audience, you can lose your truth.”
Some veteran members of the activist community, as much as they admire Sanders’ energy and eloquent zeal, question whether she’s making enough of an impact. “Ashley, in my dealings with her, struck me as being a little more radical than the whole MTA thing,” says longtime Utah activist Diana Lee Hirschi. She recalls with fondness Sanders’ and Savage’s colorful staging of The People’s Bribe at the 2009 Utah Legislature, where fellow activists dressed up as lobbyists for environmental causes—one activist was a Lorax, representing trees—and gave a “bribe” to a fake politician. But Hirschi shakes her head at Move to Amend. “You get a whole lot of people running around gathering petitions, thinking they’re making a difference, and they’re not.” While Sanders is “a wonderful, creative person, she’s not getting her hands dirty.”
Kate Savage sees the often painfully self-aware Sanders as carrying many of the same contradictions that Utah carries, “in the sense that she is at home here, yet never comfortable. In Utah, there are incredibly warm people who are profoundly racist. The deep complexities of Utah, that’s the ocean she swims in.” She says that Sanders is at a transition point. “She’s trying to figure out whether to have a decent life or keep fighting, create her own beautiful private life or destroy her peace of mind in trying to make things better for everybody.”
LOVE IS NOT ENOUGH
Sanders is one of six children born to devout Mormon parents, her father a dermatologist, her mother a homemaker. “The people close to me are excellent examples of Mormons and Christians,” she says about her family. “In a very real way, my whole life has been a riff on Mormonism, rebelling against my parents, yet rebelling with what I inherited from them,” she says. That inheritance, in essence, was that Mormonism “teaches you tell the truth all the time, teaches you that it doesn’t matter what other people think. It matters that you’re true and in that state of authenticity—you’ll move people.”
As a teenager, her passion for activism was rooted in environmental concerns, be they urban sprawl, big-box stores or the pollution-laden Salt Lake City skies. Stuck in a winter traffic jam on Interstate 15, she had an epiphany. “Why feel powerless?” she thought. So she and her boyfriend walked to nearby idling cars, knocked on windows and asked drivers to turn off their engines.
After Sanders graduated from East High, she attended a semester at the University of Utah, but found herself wanting “something different.” Her father suggested she try the LDS Church-owned BYU in Provo. “I had the typical Salt Lake City sass about BYU. It was so white-bread Mormon. I thought it was where the fun people went to die.” Despite such insights, she nevertheless attended and has been rehearsing answers to the question “Why?” she adds ruefully, for the past 10 years.
She describes herself back then as a “default Republican” who voted for George Bush in 2000 and “knew nothing about politics.” Fellow students would play Mormon music full blast on a Sunday, and every Thursday afternoon, a siren from a male campus dorm would summon “the beautiful people,” as she calls them, for “Thirsty Thursday” root-beer parties. At 5:30 p.m. every day, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was broadcast across campus. “If you didn’t stop, hand on heart, you got the dirtiest, withering looks. People were very nice, even while they were judging you hard.”
Much of that judgment takes its root in the honor code—moral, behavioral and grooming standards by which students are expected to police themselves and one another. Sanders recalls, “Most people protest sweatshop labor. We protested to let us live our lives.”
Kate Savage met Sanders at BYU when the former was a 20-year-old, already-married “Molly Mormon.” That friendship proved a turning point. “I realized how much I did not want the life set out for me,” she says. “Ash has the genius of providing for personal transformation the people she interacts with.”
Now an ex-Mormon and divorced, Savage lives in Nashville, Tenn., with “my anarchist scamp of a lover,” from where they go to Guatemala to support indigenous tribes’ battles to keep their homes in the face of violent landowners, among other causes.
Sanders set up “discussion night”—originally called “virtues night”—for people like her who didn’t quite fit at BYU. “It would feel like all the mutts in Sunday school who were left with their hand up at the end of class getting together to discuss what matters to them,” she says.
She sought out people who challenged the orthodoxy of BYU, of the Mormon faith, be they a now-former BYU adjunct professor like Chris Foster—who riled many in Utah when he published a paper, citing Mormon scripture, that killing animals unless for survival, was wrong—or Steven Jones, whom she invited to speak at one of her discussion nights about his 9/11 conspiracy theories.
Being raised Mormon, Sanders says, means “you take ideas more seriously, because they’re life and death, not just ideas. They affect your ethical behavior in the world.” Those discussion nights, she says, “melted and reshaped my brain.”
During Sanders’ time, Foster says, “there were whole subcultures of people who knew about her and were motivated by her, whose undergraduate experience was completely altered because of knowing Ashley. She was this icon of free thought and free life and fun life and fun thought.”
Sanders organized protests against the firing of liberal teachers. She edited an alternative BYU magazine, but a piece she wrote on the honor code, she recalls, led to the Collegiate Post being shut down.
In May 2007, after six years and 200-plus credits, Sanders was graduating with English and philosophy degrees, only to learn the college had invited President George W. Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney—the “arch-nemesis of all nemeses,” Sanders says—to give the commencement speech.
“It wasn’t if we were going to do something, it was what,” she says. That “what” eventually became renting, at the last minute, the McKay Events center at Utah Valley University and bringing political activist, author, attorney and then five-time independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader to give the keynote speech. “I like people who speak to me from a full throat, raining down whatever they’ve got to say,” she says.
She and other members of what became known as the BYU 25 had to raise $25,000 in several weeks to pay for the hall and Nader’s fee. After the liberal news website Daily Kos wrote about Sanders taking part in paid medical tests to raise cash, she says, donations flooded in.
Sanders says the speech she gave “felt so good and right, it felt like a victory in my body.” The alternative commencement “was a good way to leave BYU, with a beautiful, a very strong sense of community.”
Sanders’ fragile relationship with her Mormon faith finally disintegrated post-graduation, following her reading Michael J. Quinn’s secular LDS Church history, The Mormon Hierarchy, which included an assessment of the church’s fight against the Equal Rights Amendment. It was the final straw, she says, after years of listening to church elders lecturing young women on chastity and what they could and couldn’t do with their bodies.
In March 2008, Sanders worked as an intern at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign. She says Nader “has more integrity than almost anybody I know.” She describes him as a curmudgeonly Luddite who still uses a typewriter and can’t figure out his intercom system. While she chafes at his “old-school, very top-down, ‘Hey, I’m in charge’ ” approach, she praises his relentless truth-telling.
Nader asked her to be his national youth spokeswoman. “Going around the country and talking to people about what I passionately believe” was her dream job, she says, but it had a dark side.
Promoting Nader “was like signing up to be crucified. People thought that Obama was the messiah,” she says. She was yelled at, exiled from groups, spit at by liberal protestors. “My shaping as a political organizer was in this very hostile place.”
The night Obama won the election, Washington D.C., dissolved into a “madhouse” of celebration, she recalls. In the face of such political rejection and embrace of a new president she viewed as Bush-lite, she couldn’t understand why “humans are crawling over each other to give away their power all the time.”
Sanders returned to Salt Lake City with her confidence battered after the Nader campaign. She nevertheless took on a demanding full-time position for former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson at his nonprofit High Road For Human Rights. “She was very committed to the point of being quite intense, and obviously very bright,” Anderson says.
Yet it was not a comfortable fit. “She was obviously really interested in doing a lot of other really local work on certain causes,” he says.
Sanders says she felt ill at ease with the nonprofit. “I didn’t want to be part of a glossy, non-governmental organization about one charismatic person,” she says.
Anderson, now running as a third-party candidate for U.S. president, rejects her characterization of his since-closed nonprofit. “It was about grass-roots organizing, about lining people up nationally to put pressure on our government so it would never turn a blind eye to human-rights abuses.”
In late February 2009, Anderson took Sanders to Washington, D.C., to promote High Road at Power Shift, a conference on climate change. After a meeting during which an activist was hawking diamond-encrusted windmill pins to sell to celebrities to help fund activism, Sanders realized she couldn’t continue.
Anderson doesn’t recall that meeting. He says that she spent her time in Washington, D.C., with her boyfriend and sister rather than promoting High Road.
On their return to Salt Lake City, tensions between Anderson and Sanders escalated to the point that she abruptly walked out during a mass-mailing project after Anderson took her to task for not meeting her responsibilities. Anderson pursued her into the street, he says, wanting to talk to her and effect “a smoother transition.” Sanders says she hid behind a Dumpster and called her mother to pick her up.
A NEW BRAIN
In her waning days at High Road, Sanders discovered Democracy Unlimited, “a group that made sense” to her. According to longtime key member David Cobb, the Humboldt County, Calif.-based DU is a “non-hierarchical, horizontal, workers’ organizing collective,” which, among other successes, has passed an ordinance to cap the number of big-box stores allowed to open in the county.
She was hired as an intern in August 2009 and drove to Humboldt County to find two coastal towns, Eureka and Arcata, “so cute they make your teeth ache.” Sanders moved into a Eureka house with three other interns and five members of DU’s steering committee. Surrounded by redwoods and mountains, in a misty, rain-drenched, lush landscape, here was an “uber-hippie town,” where “awesome, cool organizers and activist people” lived alongside unimpressed loggers.
Cobb, himself the grandchild of a Southern Baptist preacher, recognized the spiritual base of her devotion to truth. “She is relentlessly authentic and really demands it of others.” She introduced political street theater to DU, organized costume parties, events “that helped draw a new type of person into the movement,” Cobb says. “She’s particularly adept at the intersection of art and activism.”
Even as Sanders learned so much, she recalls, about “real organizing for the first time in my life, strategizing and thinking,” she also struggled with how DU members viewed her Mormon past.
Cobb says that while her political values dovetailed with DU, what he learned about the Mormon faith came from watching South Park. “I was actually shocked that that parody was real,” he says. Nevertheless, the “Mormon notion of community and organized structure, that’s brilliant,” he says, and he and Sanders discussed how to mesh a Mormon style of organizing with DU’s structure.
“Activism is a constant dance, where you’re trying to care without destroying yourself,” Sanders says. While Democracy Unlimited was one of the best experiences of her life, she says it was also “a place of extreme mental and emotional duress.” Like many Mormons she has talked to, she found that her late 20s, rather than her teens, were her “coming of age,” she says. “It was like I was re-engineering my brain. I didn’t know what parts to choose and which parts to discard.”
She was in love with an activist, but the relationship ended badly. “I was having an awful time emotionally, experiencing burnout. I felt so confused about who I was, insecure, so depressed, so sad. I felt there was no hope in ever simplifying things.”
Walking on the beach with a co-worker as he criticized Mormons for being racist and sexist, she felt so torn. “I agreed, but I also knew it was far more complex than that, it wasn’t that easy.” She realized that after months of struggling to reconcile her former faith, her politics and the attitudes of DU members, “my brain was maxed out.” She turned on the bath tap, and for 10 minutes held her head under the gushing water. “It was too much for me; it was too much of the new for me. I had no idea what to do. I was trying to flush my brain; I wanted a new brain.”
After eight months, Sanders left Democracy Unlimited for Salt Lake City. On a road trip back from Humboldt County with her friends, Sanders celebrated her birthday. She raised her glass for a toast. “Here’s to my 28th. It can’t be as bad as the 27th.”
While out in the city preparing a scavenger hunt for her mother’s birthday, she met someone she describes as a tattooed ex-Mormon, with whom she eventually had a short relationship that resulted in an unplanned pregnancy. She knew she couldn’t raise a child herself. “I’d be a great co-mom,” she thought. “But making three meals a day, figuring out clothes to wear—I can’t even do that for myself.”
She decided to look for adoptive parents. She wanted the adoption to be open, effectively breaking down the idea of the nuclear family by merging herself and the child with another family. That meant she would get to know on a personal level each of the couples she short-listed. “I did it the hard, messy way I always do it.” Her list came down to two. One was a woman very much like herself, the other a North Carolina couple, Emily and Jon, who are devout Mormons.
She chose the orthodox LDS family, a decision that left her confused. “They were the right people, it was the right decision, yet I was opening up a door in my life I’d thought I’d closed,” she says. She describes them as “sweet angels,” demonstrating a kind of love-centric Mormonism that reminded her of her own mother.
Just one month after Sanders decided that Emily and Jon would adopt her baby, her water broke three weeks early. In the peaceful chaos of her parents’ home, her brother inflated the plastic birthing tub, while others heated up pots of water. Sanders gave birth at 4 p.m. after four hours of labor.
Sanders took five days to be with her baby before she handed her over to Emily and Jon. “For those days, my only focus was being with the people I loved, meeting my emotional needs, feeding and caring for a baby.” Where once her to-do list was “to end capitalism, those days it was to hug this person, to give this person food.” She felt truly content. “It was a brand-new feeling for me.”
Minutes before the hand-over, she wept in the shower. She didn’t know how to walk out of the bedroom and “hand this being over to another person.” All she could do was brace herself. When the co-parents left with her baby, “I was terrified for my life, afraid of the harshness, of going back to face all these unslayable dragons.”
Sanders had grown very close to her midwife through the pregnancy and birth. She had long sought a champion, and in Brianna Blackwelder she found that person. But four months after the birth, Blackwelder was killed in a car crash. Sanders was devastated. “It just really made all my plans go ‘poof’ for a while.” At the funeral, she read out an eloquent farewell: “You taught me this: that life is learning to believe what we say to other people, and to have the bravery to admit when we don’t.”
She quickly faced her first challenge as a co-parent when Emily and Jon told her they wanted to name the baby Asha Elizabeth, Asha being both Sanskrit for hope and an echo of Sanders’ first name.
But Sanders had already named their baby. “I named her Scout for an important reason,” Sanders says. “I wanted her to be an intrepid spirit, a trailblazer. Her name came out of the sorrow of that experience.” It was, she acknowledges, “the first test of making a decision as a weird kind of family.”
In the end, they agreed on Asha Scout. “To me it represents a cool collaboration. We’re doing what people said was impossible.”
In the run-up to activist Tim DeChristopher’s federal-court sentencing on July 26, 2011, on two felonies related to his false bidding on oil and gas leases in a Bureau of Land Management auction, Sanders stepped up her involvement with Peaceful Uprising, which had begun in 2009. DeChristopher, she says, “was a spark that lit a fire in a lot of people that we had never seen before.” He demonstrated, she says, that activists should have “an almost unbearable level of self-trust.”
After DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in prison, Sanders was among 26 protesters arrested for blocking the downtown TRAX light-rail transportation system.
Rocky Anderson questions the effectiveness and results of such actions. “I especially think we should try not to alienate those who ought to be on our same side and with whom we share fundamental values,” he says. Blocking the light rail, he argues, didn’t endear “many people to the cause.”
On Sept. 17, 2011, Occupy Wall Street burst onto the front pages when it took over Zuccotti Park in New York City. “I’d been waiting my whole life an as activist, and then this explosion,” she recalls. “Yes!” Sanders and Ashley Anderson, on behalf of Peaceful Uprising, went to the Washington, D.C., Occupy gathering in Freedom Plaza.
Sanders was in charge of street theater, she says, “doing creative action stuff,” like having a truth-telling tent where people could vent about their lives on the record. She also organized an all-night dance party, where participants “were sweating, whooping and hollering.” It was just one of those moments, she says she thought, “This is what I do this for.”
“A GORGEOUS WORLD”
In a speech Sanders gave on the steps of the Salt Lake City & County building in May 2012, the Move to Amend national executive committee member and Salt Lake City founder and coordinator told the press that she had a rare victory to inform them of, namely that in 60 days, 150 volunteers had secured 11,140 signatures for a petition calling for the end of corporations being given personhood status in the U.S. Constitution. To celebrate, she organized a giant roller-skating party. “Old people, young people and kids were roller-skating for four hours. I know we just barely started, but we had actually succeeded. It was such a great feeling to have a concrete success.”
But such success, however, proved somewhat muted when Salt Lake City Attorney Ed Rutan questioned the legality of their petition’s form. The Salt Lake City Council plans to review in July whether the resolution makes it onto the November ballot.
Whatever the fate of the ballot initiative, on the personal front, Sanders has found happiness with a girlfriend with whom she runs Move to Amend’s street theater program. “I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life,” she says about the relationship. “It’s so much more equal.”
That activist collaboration came to a head that early June night when Move to Amend premiered its wagon-borne street theater. As the small convoy bracketing the group of people in costumes running alongside the wagon makes its way through the dusk-blushed streets to the Granary District, children stop and wave, people honk their horns, adults smile.
Sanders is in her element, dancing, overacting, sharing, along with her troupe, her critique of corporate rule with a crowd of 50 or so, many of whom seem already in agreement. “Our wagon broke on the way over, but we’re fine now,” she says. Here, it seems, is the distillation of her universe, bringing politics and theater, costumes and fun, and Sander’s unique talents together, she says, “to make a gorgeous world.”