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Perspectives: 4th Edition

Perspectives | 4th Edition

Written by Carl Mellor

On-the-road narratives are typically written by people falling into two camps: those looking for escape and those looking for something or someone. Sarah van Gelder, author of “The Revolution Where You Live,” clearly is a seeker.

On August 15, 2015, driving a 12-year-old pick-up truck, she left her home in Suquamish, Washington and began a journey that covered more than 12,000 miles. Along the way, she visited La Minga, a small-farm cooperative in Prospect, Kentucky; Steve Charter, a Montana rancher; Nicolle Gonzalez, a Navajo nurse/midwife living at San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico; Victor Garcia, a pediatric surgeon who both practices medicine in Cincinnati, Ohio and works to build community.

Van Gelder, a co-founder of Yes! Magazine and long-time editor at that publication, tells stories of grassroots America where everyday people deal with unemployment, threats to the environment, youth violence and much more. For the people she interviews, solutions don’t come from experts or mainstream politicians.

Instead, people work together and solve problems on a local level. For example, the New Era Windows Cooperative, in Chicago, employs 23 worker-owners. It began when employees at a for-profit company were told the factory was going to close. They resisted lay-offs and eventually bought out the manufacturing operation. Working World, a progressive financial institution, helped with the purchase.

In Whitesboro, Kentucky, Appalshop operates a cultural center, showcasing locally created music, quilts, and visual art. It rejects stereotypes of people living in Appalachia and searches for alternatives to a coal-based regional economy.

And in Ithaca, members of the Civic Ensemble use story circles to initiate conversations about race and other subjects. Those talks generate material for the group’s theater productions.

Van Gelder also chronicles opposition to building a railroad from Montana, the potential site for a coal mine, to the Washington State coast, the proposed location for the Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal which would have shipped coal to the Far East.

In Washington, the Lummi Tribe opposed construction of the terminal because it would have encroached on their lands. In Montana, a coalition of Native people, ranchers and environmentalists voiced its disapproval. Ultimately, Arch Coal abandoned its plans. The mine wasn’t opened, and the railroad stayed in the planning stage.

That outcome, the author emphasizes, came only after community groups interacted with each other and developed a common agenda. Then they spent many months lobbying against the proposal. Put simply, powerful interests don’t back down easily.

Similarly, van Gelder says that social change is an intensive process; there are no utopias. In describing her visit to Detroit, she acknowledges a loss of jobs due to factories closing, a murder rate ten times the national average, and a wave of mortgage foreclosures. At the same time, she finds community projects inspiring hope: the work of the  Center for Community Based Enterprise, efforts to forestall evictions, a coffee shop opened not by a chain but by two local women. Once again, she focuses on change coming up from the bottom.

Elsewhere, “The Revolution Where You Live” discusses other community-based programs. In Chicago, Growing Power provides healthy food for inner-city neighborhoods and employs youth. Examples of cultural work range from Appalshop to murals in Newark, New Jersey, from the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina to the Moab Multicultural Center in Utah.

Most importantly, van Gelder, throughout the book, not only writes about local groups but also accesses pivotal issues. She touches on climate change and its implications, on the financial crisis of 2008 and the havoc it caused for millions of Americans, on racism, on basic concepts of community economics. She doesn’t spend 20 pages in a row discussing an issue; rather, she integrates bits of information into the chapters. That information mixes with profiles of ordinary citizens.

At the same time, the author explains key ideas clearly. Community development can’t happen without financial support, and van Gelder focuses on alternatives such as credit unions and Working World. She bemoans an all too common occurrence: everyday Americans having savings and checking accounts with banks owned by international corporations. There’s a similar problem with public pension funds that rarely invest in locally owned enterprises.

Finally, van Gelder offers 101 suggestions for reclaiming local power. They include some of the following: get to know young people, find out where your drinking water comes from, hold open mics, form urban-rural alliances for food exchanges and other purposes, lift up and praise peacemakers, healers and worker bees.   

Those suggestions reinforce a basic thread of “The Revolution Where You Live”—humans’ basic need to connect with each other. In the book, people work together, share meals, enjoy music, revisit traditional birthing practices. Cooperation is the norm, not isolation or a social ladder.  

And van Gelder isn’t advancing pie-in-the-sky proposals. Again and again, she presents concrete examples of how people, in various communities, are already working cooperatively and on a successful basis. In a time of economic and political upheaval, “The Revolution Where You Live” communicates lots of positive energy. It’s well worth reading.