Sarah Van Gelder reminds me of myself when she starts her book, The Revolution Where You Live: Stories From A 12,000 Mile Journey Through A New America. When she was seven, her father took his family along on exchange to a university at Andra Prades, India. While there, she formulated some questions that I also pondered in my early years: “Why do we tolerate so much suffering? We humans are creative, brilliant and inventive — why do we allow poverty?” In her case, these questions arose when on a family picnic, “a small crowd of children gathered... All were thin, wearing very little; all, we assumed, were hungry... Their steady gaze was impossible to ignore. The hard-boiled egg dried up in my mouth.” For me, the nightly news was enough. By the time I was seven, the Vietnam conflict was broadcast in full color by a press that had not yet bowed to the dictates of our government. That summer also featured reports of rioting in inner cities, hippies in revolt, assassinations and dictatorships around the globe, poverty in Appalachia. The sixties was an eye-opening decade for a child to grow up with the comforts that somehow eluded people who shared his skin color; people in my own family.
Gelder grew up in the same period and left her family home in the Hudson Valley for the west coast. After working with food co-ops in Portland, she traveled to Guatemala where she learned of how United Fruit and our government had brutally reversed the reforms that would aid local people to farm their own land. Back in Washington state, she and her family successfully struggled to create one of the first cohousing communities in the US. In 1996, the community started YES! Magazine to promote stories that would encourage the end of poverty, inequality, violence, and pollution; solutions for building “a world that works for all pueople and all life.”
She now lives opposite Seattle on the Port Madison Indian Reservation across Puget Sound. There, she joined the struggle to keep native Americans on the island despite the efforts of wealthier white residents who sought to develop the land privately. Thanks to a grass roots struggle that found non-native allies who followed the indigenous tribe’s lead, the Parks Commission returned the land to the tribe. Of course, this is just the start of the tale she weaves, a tale that concerns us all. Although the Suquamish are able to support efforts outside their community, the effects of climate change have caused all the starfish around the island to disappear. What’s more, the proposed Gateway Pacific coal terminal would be the largest export facility on the continent designed to send 54 million metric tons of coal to Asia each year. A hundred miles north of Seattle on the land of the Lummi people, much of the coal would arrive from Montana’s Otter Creek Valley. While Van Gelder’s years of activism, research and reporting had already given her the seeds of a theory for progressive solutions, she saw that community-based organizing still faced the threat of the vast reach of the corporate-government combine they challenged. That, in a nutshell, is what sent Sarah van Gelder on a five month journey through 18 states, five native American reservations, as many industrial cities, and a “smattering of small towns” to learn what folks are doing to answer the questions we shared as kids and more, “if those answers were early signs of a new society.”
Once in Otter Creek, Montana, where big eastern coal companies had their sights set on strip mining more than a billion tons of coal which she learned would contribute 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the author encountered a resistance movement that goes back to the 70s. Back then, mining companies offered buyouts to ranchers, informing them that their neighbors had already sold. This, of course, turned out to be a lie and the ranchers formed the Northern Plains Resource Council to counter this effort. By reaching out to Appalachian conservationists, hippies, and early ecologists, the companies not only retreated, but the state passed laws in 1972 that would force mining companies to restore any land they mined. Forty years later, with the companies back for a rematch, the Council along with the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, the Washington Lummi and the local Cheyenne Reservation successfully opposed Arch Coal, which withdrew its mining bid. The Army Corps of Engineers then refused to grant permits for the Gateway Pacific terminal, citing the Lummi treaty fishing rights. In the course of reporting on the politics involved, van Gelder focuses on her encounters with people engaged in the fight and the ways that they address their roles as stewards of the land spiritually, communally, and practically. She provides clear information not only on the causes and effects of climate change, but also on how ranchers have found ways to actually reverse carbon depletion by enriching the soil with intelligent grazing.
Leaving Montana, the tale takes a darker turn as she arrives in North Dakota where oil extraction increased twelvefold in the last decade to over a million barrels each day. Meeting with members of the Chippewa and Arikara tribes living in and around the Fort Berthold Reservation, the litany of ills that accompanied the oil boom is disheartening. Sex trafficking and rapes, drugs and organized crime and violent crime statistics are up nearly 125% in just a half dozen years according to the FBI. And the drop in prices over the past few years has cut down on services to both the locals and the flood of once new workers now stranded here as hiring froze. Fortunately, the author’s next stop is at the Turtle Mountain Reservation, also in North Dakota. There, the tribe’s women — traditional protectors of water —rejected the fracking offers that meant to exploit the 77,000 acres of land they hold. Instead, the tribe has erected a windmill to power its community college and is seeking to expand its reliance on wind and solar power.
Before continuing her story eastward, van Gelder pauses to reflect on statistics that not only point out the short term economic gains of exploiting the American west, she also cites polls that reveal over sixty percent of our fellow citizens favor increased energy costs if they came with increased dependence on alternative and renewable sources. Her recap of her western experience stresses much of what she’s already discussed, but it somehow comes across without seeming repetitive. After all, the solutions she’s finding are not part of the mainstream media, which have no problem repeating the same few headlines for hours and days on end to the exclusion of stories like those she tells.
Pro athlete Will Allen in 1993 set up Growing Power urban farm in Milwaukee. His daughter Erika runs the Chicago operation, training 300 kids each year. She covers the Growing Food and Justice For All conference and a tour of the farm led by teen Tyres Walker. Leaving town, she stops at the New Era Windows manufacturing cooperative and details the story of how the once private company’s shutdown turned into a three-year touch and go fight that relied on alliances with the United Electrical Workers, Occupy, Barack Obama and a tour of worker-owned factories in Argentina facilitated by The Working World. While only twenty-five people comprise the workforce and a streamlined output, the energy efficient windows and doors they produce are customized to client needs. I wish I’d known of these guys while I was rebuilding homes in Detroit!
Detroit is next on her itinerary, of course, and she encounters more urban farmers whose goals parallel those of their counterparts in other cities: youth training, healthy eating, and low-cost or free food distribution. Van Gelder tells the story of Detroit’s decline and of Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs, whose protegée Julia Putnam started an elementary school with a uniquely imaginative curriculum. She also spends a good deal of time with Halima Cassells, a young single black mother of two girls who was actually among the first activists I met in Detroit. The author spends a good deal of time with Halima and many in the city will sing her praises unbidden. Although she doesn’t elaborate, Van Gelder hints at Detroit’s uphill battle: “No single venture alone was transformative, but together they showed that people were creating the city and the world they wanted to live in.”
I won’t go into everyone Van Gelder encountered in Cincinnati, Newark, Louisville, Greensboro, Ithaca, Dallas, Amarillo, Moab and San Ildefonso, NM. If anything struck me, it’s the fact that the most galvanizing work performed by activists involves the production of food and the protection of land. From foraging in the Dakotas to the many urban farm projects, people — especially the young — seem to unite around good community meals and the raising of what goes into those meals. This is true in Kentucky and Texas, as well as the northeast. In the west, and the more rural south, issues of defending the land against corporate exploitation are high on activist agendas. In all these cases, racial injustice appears more as a historical legacy than one that has a lot of contemporary juice. Although there is a police captain in the Harrisonburg, VA, whose remarks are disarmingly honest as far as pinpointing the source of his own racism — as well as that of his fellow officers. Another region challenged by a historic legacy of injustice is the coal mining regions of Appalachia, where poverty and corporate greed have set the bar rather high for local people to reverse. Van Gelder’s conclusion supports her initial theory, that local communities are the driving force for change; communities that reach out to each other without turning over their sovereignty to larger, outside forces. She reiterates the argument throughout the book with comparative charts that pit A Culture of Connection against An Economy of Extraction, and concludes with 101 Ways to Reclaim Local Power to spark the reader’s imagination.
Of course, Van Gelder’s examples are merely examples, and nothing here suggests her book is a step-by-step DIY how-to change the world primer. It’s a very contemporary account that concludes just before the election campaign of 2016 begins. Early on, she warns “In difficult times, strong-man leaders often arise who offer an outlet for anger and fear disguised as nationalism.” Fortunately, she spares us much of the negative information we’re used to digesting, without avoiding the historic, political and economic circumstances that contribute to the sense of uncertainty that characterizes our current era. These are ultimately chapters in an ongoing story that mainly instruct us that the many small efforts of humble individuals in communities of shared responsibility may well be all we need to go forth into that bright future which awaits us. Indeed, Van Gelder’s tales reveal that the very future we await is upon us, and that we are the ones who’ve already intuited the means with which to steward and inherit a healthier body, a saner community, and a sense of purpose. Food and shelter, health and education, creative and strengthened relationships: these essential ingredients underpin each of the efforts she explores. What more could we ask than to involve ourselves with the understanding of a shared sense of place and ultimately, of self?