Telling a Different Story About What’s Going on and What’s Possible
A conversation with YES! founding editor Sarah van Gelder.
When YES! founding editor Sarah van Gelder left the magazine, she continued the work of building a better world. She took a road trip through the heartland of the United States visiting cities and small towns where people were taking on issues of economic justice, racial justice, and climate justice. The result was the book, The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey to a New America (Berrett Koehler, 2017). She went on to launch PeoplesHub, an online training program for community changemakers, inspired by the people she met on the road. Then in 2019, she joined the staff of the Suquamish Tribe, the people of Chief Seattle, where she leads communications strategy.
Sarah and I recently spoke at length about the work she’s doing now with the Tribe, her road trip, and her journey as co-founder of YES! Magazine. YES! is reporting on solutions to the same problems that initiated its founding 25 years ago. I asked Sarah, “What’s different now?” She responded, “We understand much more about how much is possible!”
—Zenobia Jeffries Warfield
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: It’s good to see you again, Sarah. A lot has happened in this last year since we saw each other, in February 2020. … Let’s talk a little now about your travels in The Revolution Where You Live. You set out on your journey in 2015. And this is right when Trump was ramping up, right before the election. You went to North Dakota, Montana, my hometown Detroit, Cleveland, small towns in Appalachia, all these other places. What was that like?
Sarah van Gelder: My road trip took place just before Trump came on the scene, so the election, thankfully, wasn’t front and center. I was exploring what was going on in people’s lives and in people’s communities. The thing that was most stark to me is just how devastated so much of the country is. I had expected to see major areas of poverty and abandonment, but I didn’t expect it to be the norm, which is really what I saw in most of the Midwest and most of Appalachia, and an awful lot of the country.
I’d see some exceptions, like in college towns. But, in Cleveland, for example, there’s a big clinic, the Cleveland Clinic, which creates a little island of prosperity in a sea of poverty. And that’s what I kept seeing. And within the places left out, there was a sense of hopelessness. This system that we’re seeing on television and we’re being told is working, it isn’t working for us. We’re left out. And so there’s a deep alienation. A sense that there is just no future. A lot of places turned into sacrifice zones where the only jobs you can have are ones that are going to be terrible for your environment and health, where you’re going to have to be breathing refinery smoke or coal dust.
That was the atmosphere I saw. And so I could see why people were so alienated that anybody who seemed to represent the status quo was just going to evoke anger.
Warfield: Having witnessed what you describe as much of the same conditions in urban and rural areas and then hearing media coverage creating these narratives of divides and our institutions using media to further create them, what have some of your thoughts been about that? If you were writing now what would you say?
van Gelder: So if I was to be writing about this at this moment, what I’d be curious about is what happens after the pandemic. COVID, as devastating as it was, created some new spaces. What will that make possible?
Here’s one example. The Biden/Harris administration is infusing a lot of money into our economy, and there are a lot of people planning to spend money they couldn’t spend when businesses were shuttered. The question I’d be asking right now is, “Who’s going to benefit from that economic infusion?” Not only who’s going to benefit in the moment, but who’s going to be building the new economy and the new infrastructure in the long term? And how could that new economic activity build equity and greater ecological sustainability?
After the Great Recession, people of color, especially, were the ones who lost their homes and lost all their financial equity as a result, and many of them have not recovered. Well, we don’t have to allow that to happen again. We can choose in our own communities, choose as a matter of policy, choose in all sorts of ways to make this a different sort of recovery. What would that look like, and what models can we lift up?
Warfield: YES! is celebrating 25 years this year. And I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about, from your perspective, what in the struggle for a better world is different now?
van Gelder: I see hopeful trends getting stronger and stronger every day, but also the most destructive and most frightening things are getting stronger. The alienation we were talking about earlier, as manifested by enthusiasm for White supremacy and also the embrace of authoritarianism. It’s very frightening. And I don’t think we’re over that violent White supremacy, especially if the alienation isn’t addressed.
On the other side, I would say there’s much greater awareness of White supremacy, the dangers of ecological collapse, and the destruction caused by lopsided corporate power. There is growing awareness of how important it is for ordinary people at the grassroots to have power and to own their own economies.
We’re up against some very, very powerful forces, who are clinging to power and content to see wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and to put the life of this planet in peril. We are seeing violence, authoritarianism, and the spread of lies used to hold on to power, and that’s no small thing. But I still believe in the power of an awakened, energized, creative people. I believe they are our best hope, and YES! was founded to support those people.
From the start, we were telling stories about what was going wrong and what was possible—both. Our theory was that if a world isn’t working for a lot of people—and we believed it was not—there would be people out there working on creating a different kind of world. And so as journalists, we wanted to tell the stories of what those people were saying and doing—what they were creating, how they were voting with their hands and feet to create something new. Because once those stories become visible, once that possibility for a different world becomes tangible, it becomes a lot easier for other people to join in and say, “This is what I’ve been wanting for my family and my community. And now I know it’s possible.” These stories can inspire other people to take up their roles as people who are more than victims of an unjust society—they have the agency and the right and the creativity to be creators of a better future. So that was our theory of change.
Warfield: In a piece you wrote while at YES!, “Resist, Reconnect, Renew,” you said that as the resistance has gotten stronger, so have the efforts to oppress, the efforts to exploit, the devastation and the destruction. But talk a little more about that reconnect and renew part.
van Gelder: Yeah, I liked what you said earlier about how so much change starts with ourselves individually. But I also think a lot of it comes from culture. It comes from our relationships. As I’ve learned about Indigenous cultures I’ve learned about ways cultures encourage people to do the right thing.
So for example, there’s the Potlatch, in which people give away a lot during the ceremony, which increases their status in the community and redistributes wealth at the same time. So a culture can form its own practices and values that are deeply wise, and that don’t rely on each individual person being enlightened.
We now understand even more vividly that the isolation that is too often celebrated in American culture makes our lives frightening because when we are alone, we don’t have security. Much of our spending is an effort to buy security or love. Our lives are sadder, because what gives life meaning comes out of connection.
During COVID, many people spoke of their renewed desire for authentic connection, which nourishes our souls. Capitalism tends to isolate us. It’s all about you getting yours, and to heck with everybody else—a very isolating way of life. And then when you feel lonely and empty, the advertising says, “Oh, you can feel better by buying all this stuff.” And that actually doesn’t work.
I think one of the contributions of YES! was to continually invite people to be part of a creative process, to see themselves as the builders of a new world. This new world wasn’t going to be something that we at YES! were going to make up and it wasn’t going to be something that a global elite was going to decide and then tell us about in books and speeches. The renewal you asked about is what happens when we reimagine and create together, and then share what we imagined and keep on iterating and growing and learning.
Warfield: Lovely. Thank you, Sarah.
Thank you, Sarah van Gelder, for your passion, guidance, and devotion to our organization and especially for sharing your vision of a better world.
Your YES! family
If you’d like to send your own thank-you note to Sarah, email [email protected].