I Saw the Revolution in So Many of the Small Places We Call Home

The real change we need to stop the social and ecological unraveling can be found in the neighborhoods and cities, where we encounter each other every day.
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YES! editor at large Sarah van Gelder traveled 12,000 miles in her 12-year-old pick-up truck. Photo by Sarah van Gelder.

The following is an excerpt from The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000 Mile Journey Through a New America.

On August 15, 2015, I climbed into a 12-year-old, four-cylinder pickup truck and began an 18-week journey.

I drove 12,000 miles, starting at home, in Suquamish, Washington, an Indian reservation just west of Seattle, and visited 18 states, five Indian reservations, five industrial cities, and a smattering of small towns.
 I camped on a mountaintop in the Kentucky coalfields and stopped in at the renowned Highlander Center in New Market, Tennessee, where Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. came to talk strategy, and where Pete Seeger co-wrote “We Shall Overcome.” I visited Native American pueblos of northern New Mexico; I camped on a ranch in Montana, by Lake Erie in Ohio, and in a canyon outside Amarillo, Texas. People invited me to sleep in their spare rooms, and when I got snowed in, I stayed in a cheap hotel on the Idaho border with Oregon.

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People I met on the road, YES! Magazine readers and people who followed my blog, tipped me off to good stories, and introduced me to extraordinary people.

The reason for the trip? I wanted to find out what people are doing about poverty and inequality in their communities, the climate crisis, and racism. I especially wanted to find out if the places at the margins of society might have answers, and if those answers were early signs of a new society.

These are tough times. Fully half of Americans are poor, while virtually all the economic gains since the 2008 economic crash have gone to a tiny elite. Isolation is making people depressed, sick, and powerless. The climate crisis is jeopardizing our future, and opportunistic politicians are whipping up racism and hate to win over voters angry about being locked out of the prosperity that others seem to enjoy.

The media keep us distracted with celebrity gossip and trivia, but they ignore the really big stories that will determine the sort of future we have.

I co-founded YES! Magazine 20 years ago to explore underreported stories that matter, particularly the stories that show how people are taking on some of the big crises of our time. If our current systems are failing—and I believe they are—then I wanted to look for evidence that people are creating a different sort of world.

We found lots of evidence as we researched the stories and issue themes, from the spread of the local food movement to the national movement against mass incarceration. People around the United States and around the world are creating worker-owned cooperatives, urban farms, time banks, land trusts, and restorative justice circles. As they do that, they are also creating and finding more satisfying ways to live and leaving behind consumer values for things that matter more.

But is all this good work enough?

In spite of well-crafted critiques, social movements, public opinion, and lots of hard work, inequality continues to grow; racism remains embedded in American culture; and there seems to be no way to stop big corporations from outsourcing our jobs, contaminating our water, soil, and air, and flooding media channels with distraction and lies. Especially worrisome is that we are running out of time to slow the heating of the globe, which is happening even more rapidly than scientists feared.

I left on my road trip to find out if there is still hope. Are there solutions that are up to the challenges of our time, and if so, what forms do they take?

I traveled through Montana and North Dakota, where I found Native and ranching communities that have shut down fracking and mining—and are developing a restorative vision for their region. In the Rust Belt cities of the Midwest, I found people resisting home foreclosures and working to build a locally rooted economy with room for everyone. On the East Coast, I found people grappling with the nation’s legacy of racism and taking steps to heal and bring justice. Throughout the country, I found people creating worker-owned enterprises, building bridges across race lines, regenerating the soil, and developing their own place-based economies.

In difficult times, strongman leaders often arise who offer an outlet for anger and fear disguised as nationalism.

On the left, too, revolutions often have larger-than-life leaders who mobilize millions. Those who are hungry for change may be excited by these powerful movements, even though they tend to spawn authoritarian systems. And we have seen the disasters associated with patriarchal, top-down change.

The revolution I discovered is decentralized, far less flashy, and better able to include everyone, especially those now excluded from wealth and power. It doesn’t rely on self-important leaders. It undercuts the values that have driven our consumer-based culture, the isolation that sickens the soul, the racism, and the greed that fuels Wall Street and corrupts its collaborators in government. Instead, it is about reclaiming our rights to what really matters—community, life, the healing of each person, and the vitality and restoration of the natural world, including the threatened species with whom we share this Earth.

I came back from my travels believing that this sort of revolution is our only real hope in the face of ecological and social unraveling.

The only way such a big revolution can happen is, ironically, at a small scale.

Only where we live, in the neighborhoods and cities and towns where we encounter each other and know each other, can the transformation be deep enough. Only in community can we reconnect to each other, to the natural world, and to our own deepest values. That reconnection is our source of power and hope.

No charismatic leader or top-down revolution can bring about the needed change. Only by working together in the places we call home can we overcome isolation, embrace our differences, confront the extractive economy, and create the sort of world that will work for all of us.