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The news typically shows us stories about the national government being stuck in a gridlock on most of the big, important issues. Sarah Van Gelder, co-founder of Yes! Magazine, went on a trip across America to see how change is being made at the local level and found inspirational stories and examples of community involvement solving big problems while paving the way for a better future. She shares these anecdotes and helpful hints for others out there hoping to make a difference in their area.

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  • Sarah Van Gelder, co-founder of YES! Magazine, author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America

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Empowering Your Community to Create Change

Marty Peterson: When the divisiveness and closed-mindedness throughout the country feels overwhelming, it can help for us to take a time-out to gain perspective. The first step of uniting and empowering our communities, is recognizing the similarities we share with those around us. So says Sarah Van Gelder, a co founder of YES! Magazine, and author of The Revolution Where You Live.

Sarah Van Gelder: There’s things that as human beings we all want. We all want a good life for our children, we want communities where they can thrive, we want air that’s clean and water that’s clean to drink, and we want a sense of connection, that was one of the things that came through that was so clear is that we want to feel connected to something larger than ourselves.

Peterson: Van Gelder has become a bit of an expert on how some Americans are connecting, after her 12,000 mile trip across America. She made 24 stops in places big and small, from Chicago and Detroit, to Warm Springs, Oregon, and Billings, Montana.

Van Gelder: I think we have an illusion if we’re on social media, we have a lot of Facebook friends or something, we have an illusion we’re connected. But it really takes face-to-face contact with other human beings to actually feel connected, to actually feel our own power. And I think that’s something that’s universal, we all need that.

Peterson: Van Gelder says oftentimes residents don’t recognize their own sense of place and ability to make change, until their community begins to unify.

Van Gelder: When I was in Newark, New Jersey, visiting some communities that were targeted for revitalization, communities that had been neglected for many years, where there is a lot of poverty and a lot of unemployment, I found on one of the murals that had been painted there, that had been commissioned by the mayor to help bring the community a sense of spirit and a sense of its own strength, I saw the quote, “We the people love this place. In fact, we the people call this place our home.” And I remember just having this feeling, you know, this is a neighborhood that is really troubled, and if I had just wandered into it without thinking about it, I might’ve felt like this is a place people would want to leave, but instead people are saying, “No, this is our home, this is where we raised our children, this is where we hope our children will raise their children, and we want this place to work, we love it, we have wonderful memories here.”

Peterson: Once common ground is found, connectivity is established, and a need to improve conditions is recognized. Many areas find an outpouring of empathy. One instance that stuck with Van Gelder of a community showing deep compassion, came in a small town in Appalachia. The town had a traditional radio station that, one night a week, played a Hip Hop show.

Van Gelder: It’s called “Hip Hop from the Hilltop.” One of the reasons they have that show is because their radio station reaches a listening audience that includes seven penitentiaries and jails. Those are people who are predominantly from African-American neighborhoods in cities that are quite far away, but are there in Kentucky because that was part of the Kentucky economic development strategy, if you will, was to bring in a bunch of prisons. So here they are, these people, in prison, in Kentucky. This one show is kind of a way of reaching out and saying, “Hello, we see that you’re there.”

Peterson: But that’s not where this story ends. Van Gelder says that eventually this Hip Hop show became even more than a symbol of recognition: it became a vital form of communication.

Van Gelder: At one point they got a phone call from someone in one of those cities, saying, you know, “We’re trying to reach this particular person in one of these prisons, could you please convey this message?” So they did, and they realized there was a real need for that, so they started broadcasting a whole series of messages. People would call in on Mondays for a two-hour period of time, they spliced all the messages together, and now every Monday night they have an hour that’s just messages from people to the people inside the penitentiary. And a lot of the people in the neighborhood were saying, “Well, so why are you doing this, why is this so important?” but part of the reason it’s so important is for people to open their minds and hearts to who else is sharing their county, their state with them, and understand that those are human beings too, they’re not just people behind bars, they’re human beings.

Peterson: Once this kind of solidarity takes root, many areas of the country are able to mobilize and act on big issues. Van Gelder says these examples of locally-made solutions are endless.

Van Gelder: In every case, it wasn’t that I found this silver bullet, and that I just feel like, okay, everything’s going to be great, what I found was possibilities. And I think those possibilities are ones that can spread and they’re ones that really can make a difference and really can move the needle on all three of those issues.

Peterson: Van Gelder paid particular attention to how communities are dealing with certain issues, one being their ability to protect the environment. She recalls one Montana rancher she met with a passion for environmental sustainability.

Van Gelder: We normally assume ranchers are sort of on the anti-environmental side of the spectrum, and this person proved how wrong I was about that stereotype. He’s somebody who cares deeply about the grasslands that he manages in order to raise cattle. He does what’s called restorative grazing, which uses practices that enhance the quality of the soil. But he’s interested in taking that to another whole level, because he’s come to realize that soil can be a major sink for carbon, it can absorb carbon out of the atmosphere, which is a huge help for climate change, if it’s managed well. So he’s on fire about how can he manage his soil to rebuild the complex ecosystems that, in native prairie land, would be pulling carbon out of the soil, and making the soil more resilient, because it can hold water. So when water gets scarce, as the droughts of climate change roll through the West, that kind of soil will do better, will hold the water and be able to continue to produce grass.

Peterson: She says she also saw communities uniting to encourage diversity and promote dialogue about racial understanding.
Van Gelder: In Ithaca, New York, it’s a predominantly white town, and yet they have issues of race as well, and one of the things that a small civic theater group is doing, it’s called a civic ensemble, they hold story circles for people to tell their stories of their experience with race or racism. And out of those story circles they create plays. So in one case they created a play about a young African-American man who was walking through a neighborhood that was predominantly white, he’d missed the school bus, so he was walking in an unfamiliar area, and someone called the police on him, just for being out in a street that was predominantly white. So the play is about what happens when the police officer arrives, and fortunately in real life, the police officer realized what the problem was and called the young man’s mother and got permission to take him to school. In the play, though, the two of them have this long dialogue about the history of Ithaca, New York, but the broader history as well of the United States, and how did we get to the place where the races are still so divided.

Peterson: When she set out on her trip, Van Gelder was wondering if Americans had solutions for the divisive issues that are plaguing our discourse. In the end, she found her answer, loud and clear.

Van Gelder: There are solutions, and they take many, many different forms. They are as diverse as our communities are diverse. I think what I particularly found inspiring was how many of them are doable at the local level, and how many of them are not subject to the national gridlock between Red and Blue. Because at the local level, what really matters is whether our community is working, and that means getting along with people who are different than we are. It means that our water and our air is clean, and that our kids have a good place to get educated and so forth. And those are things that we have more power over than we realize. I think a lot of people are frustrated and feel powerless when they look at the big global issues and the big national issues, but at the local level, we, when we get together with our neighbors and even people across town, we have the right and the power as we the people to make changes in our communities, and also to hold our elected officials accountable to bringing those changes to the country as a whole.

Peterson: And if any listeners are hoping for some tips on empowering their own community to overcome its shortcomings, Van Gelder has plenty of them.

Van Gelder: The last part of the book is 101 ways to reclaim local power, and one of the reasons I chose to put so many in there is because I think different communities are in different places with what the next step is for them, and also different communities have different capacities. In some cases, the suggestion on that list is as simple as: walk outside and say hello to people as you walk by, and help break the isolation that so many feel. In other cases, it may be a far more ambitious kind of an enterprise like: form a business incubator to help the local entrepreneurs or would-be entrepreneurs in your community get started in business.

Peterson: And her final piece of advice is to be open-minded to the struggles and ideas of others.

Van Gelder: Reconnect with where you live, and that means reaching out to people who are different than yourself, reaching out especially to people who are vulnerable. So reach out to the people who are Muslim, religious minorities, reach out to immigrants, reach out to women’s health centers, and reach out just to other people in your community who may be isolated. And find ways to get together, could be as simple as a potluck, can be as simple as bringing in some speakers at the library and having conversations together about things that matter. We are a diverse society and our future depends on us learning to get along with one another and learning to respect one another. So I would say anyone we encounter, if they seem different from us, instead of being put off or even fearful, try doing the opposite, try being curious, and see what you can learn about somebody else, and sharing some things about what’s important to you, and see if that doesn’t change things.

Peterson: Sarah Van Gelder’s book, The Revolution Where You Live, with more examples of community power and additional tips on how to get engaged yourself, is available now. For more information about all of our guests, visit viewpointsonline.net. Our show was written and produced by Evan Rook. Our executive producer is Reed Pence. Our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Marty Peterson.