Sarah Van Gelder talks community and cooperation in struggling parts of America

Author and journalist Sarah Van Gelder traveled 12,000 miles across the country in a truck and camper to see how average Americans are reconciling with economic hardship, racism and isolation from their community.

Gelder, who is co-founder and editor at large for Yes! Magazine, wanted to see how some of the most disenfranchised groups in America address these issues.

“I needed to talk to people and not go in there with preconceived ideas of what the stories were,” Gelder said. “Just ask them questions about their lives, and find out what they’re doing about those issues.”

Gelder’s journey was spurred by Yes! Magazine, which focuses on social and environmental issues, turning 20 years old. This led her to consider what the magazine has accomplished in regards to big questions such as wealth inequality, climate change and racism.

Choosing to practice what she called “slow journalism,” Gelder took her time with the individuals she encountered.

“I wasn’t trying to just parachute in, get somebody’s story having made up my mind what the storyline was, and then leave,” Gelder said. “I was going there to spend time and really hear people out.”

The sense of empowerment people gained by creating a close-knit community in places ranging Detroit to ranches in Montana struck Gelder. She saw how different people from different generations came together to heal whatever problems ailed them. Gelder noted that isolation in communities was common, however, and referred to studies which show people don’t often have others they can trust.

“Research shows that that kind of isolation is as toxic as cigarette smoking, so this real poverty of spirit is completely unnecessary because when we reconnect, we can heal all those kinds of things,” Gelder said.

An instance of community reconnection Gelder saw was an empty lot in Detroit transformed into a community garden by residents, which brought people together and allowed access to fresh, healthy food. Gelder saw this type of reconnection often on her travels.

“One of the things I was looking for and finding all over the country were people who were reclaiming their economy in various ways, including worker co-ops,” Gelder said.

Food security was not just an issue in struggling cities such as Detroit, however. In her time in Kentucky, Gelder saw that obesity and lack of access to fresh food hurt those in the Appalachian region just as much.

Unlike other journalists who visited Appalachian towns prior to the election, Gelder did not focus on politics in her conversations with local people. When the election concluded, Gelder was at Standing Rock Indian Reservation, reporting on the protests for Yes! Magazine. Although she’d already turned in a column, Gelder told her colleagues that she needed to write on the election results.

“It was basically to say that this is like a disaster, and when a disaster strikes, we need to reach out to each other, we need to find out who’s most vulnerable, who’s most likely to get hurt, and make sure that they know we’re there,” Gelder said.

This brought Gelder to the intersecting world of community and protest.

“We have to show up for each other in person, and that’s when we can really create that sense of community and that sense of safety, and also break out of that toxic isolation, which is an issue regardless,” Gelder said.

Although she overall saw communities making positive changes to improve their quality of life and self-agency, Gelder noticed many people had lost hope that they could turn around the financial struggle brought on by the 2008 recession.

In some cases, attempts to revitalize a struggling community backfired. In one low-income area in Wash., Gelder said that after a resident built a community garden, it increased the demand for housing in the area by wealthier people, gentrifying the area and making it even harder for longtime residents to afford to stay.

“There was just no sense things were going to get any better,” Gelder said. “And there were large areas of the country where I had that feeling from people.”

Understanding this hopelessness allowed Gelder to empathize with people who voted for Donald Trump.

“[It’s] almost like throwing a bomb into the middle of it with a ‘Let’s see what happens.’ ”

Despite the desperation for change among those Gelder spoke with, she remained positive about the opportunities offered through community-building.

Gelder offered her thoughts on the state of journalism, and where it needs to improve.

“Local journalism where ordinary people, not just the power-holders, are the ones that get their story out there, that’s really important,” Gelder said. “We need to understand better who we are as a diverse, interesting, creative group of folks—not just who we are in response to the Trump administration.”

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