Awakin.org

Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

Awakin Calls » Sarah Van Gelder » Blog


Sarah Van Gelder: Unity in Diversity

--Bela Shah, on Oct 17, 2014

As an eight year-old foreigner living in India, Sarah Van Gelder was keenly aware of a heart breaking paradox - the privileged life that she was born into and the unjust levels of poverty that surrounded her. She didn’t understand why she would be taken care of and other children her age would suffer. None of it made sense. Her experience in India planted the seeds for a life-long journey to answer one question: What creates poverty and suffering and what could she do about it?

An evolving and earnest exploration of this question eventually inspired Sarah to reframe the world’s biggest challenges in terms of their solutions through a thought provoking publication called YES! Magazine.

“I looked for answers to questions in many different places and I come back to the notion that our whole society is in a period of transformation. The injustices that create this suffering are unnecessary and we can create a different world.”

As the founder and Editor-in-Chief of YES! Magazine, Sarah has interviewed and shared the incredible stories of individuals from all walks of life that not only believe in a better world, but that are passionately working to make it happen.

In this introspective Global Awakin Call, Sarah openly shares about her compelling journey to YES! Magazine, fueled by her unwavering commitment to social responsibility and her core belief for why a better world is possible.

The Formative Years
Sarah’s parents had a huge role to play on her understanding of what it means to be human. As Quakers, they brought her up to believe that the divine exists in each person and there was this sense of deep respect that each human being is entitled to. This upbringing is what inspired Sarah’s commitment to nonviolence. As she logically expressed, you can’t be violent to people you respect.

When she learned that her country was at war in Vietnam, Sarah remembers being appalled at the violence that she saw her country perpetrating on another people. She felt like she had a responsibility to step up because things were being done in her name that she found to be wrong.

“I felt a deep sense of responsibility. You don’t get to pretend that it’s not happening. It would just be irresponsible to not take some kind of stand or action. So then I had to ask myself, “What is the most effective response? What makes a difference?”

Sarah came out of college wanting to create a different kind of system, but through on the ground experimentation, had a profound realization.

Some of this hands-on experimentation involved learning about international aid in Guatemala. The idea of sharing the wealth in the U.S. by sending money abroad through development efforts seemed like a good one, until she saw first hand why it wasn’t. On one end, there was an international NGO that was trying to build a health clinic for a small village, while on the other end, there was a war being waged against the indigenous Mayan community that Sarah knew the U.S. government was helping to support.

Sarah went back to her original question, “What are the underlying dynamics that create poverty?”

“I realized that the way to make a change was changing the conditions and the systems that we help to create. This is the different way. It’s more ecologically sustainable, it’s more fair, it has room for everyone, and it isn’t all about turning resources and people into commodities. People are at the center of the solution. This design involves the natural world is protecting the natural world.”

YES! Magazine was created to tell these stories of transformation. The actions that people take that are violent and destructive get reinforced and amplified in the media all the time and the actions that people are taking to build a better world, these stories don’t get told enough. For Sarah, it is important to tell these stories and see what they weave together to create a different kind of a world.

“I believe we are up against huge challenges, particularly with the climate and inequality crisis as well as the disintegration of democracy around the world. To me if we can turn to each other and work together, we can take on these problems and anything is possible. But if we fail to come together, we probably can’t do anything about these problems.”

Sustainable Happiness: Live Simply, Live Well, Make a Difference
Coming together to begin finding solutions is also one way to feel happier in your life. “Sustainable Happiness: Live Simply, Live Well, Make a Difference” is Sarah’s new book that explains how happiness far less related to what you own and far more related to the quality of your relationships, having meaningful work and meaningful ways to make a contribution, and choosing to approach life with a sense of gratitude instead of scarcity.

“There are a lot self-help books about creating a happier life for oneself. While that’s important, we also believe to get real about happiness, you have to get real about our well being as a community and as a society because it’s all intertwined."

What is striking is realizing how much wealth there is in the community when we turn it loose by allowing people to find each other and connect to each other and appreciate one another and experience that appreciation.”


“Sustainable Happiness” looks at happiness on many levels. As individuals what does it mean to be happier? In terms of our relationship to our community, what does it mean to be happier? How do we measure this happiness? How do we look at gross national happiness instead of gross national product?

Stories of Transformation: The Suquamish Tribe
After founding YES! Magazine, Sarah moved with her family to the Port Madison Reservation in Washington, where many other non-natives lived. As a busy mom and editor of the magazine, it was never her intention to help protect the Native community. However, one day when a neighbor knocked on her door and said, “The tribe is trying to build housing down the street and we have to stop them,” Sarah realized that she couldn’t stay uninvolved.

At a subsequent meeting, Sarah quietly listened, as one person after another expressed how they didn’t want natives as their neighbors. After an hour and a half, she stood up and said, “Of course they have the right to build homes for their families and their elders and we can welcome them just as they welcomed the settlers into this country not so long ago.” Then she walked out. But someone followed her and thanked her for standing up. That was a tribal elder named Ted George.

Because Ted saw that Sarah was willing to step up to that kind of antagonistic group, this built the foundation of a trusting relationship over ten years ago.

Sarah remembers something Ted shared that has always stayed with her: “There are so many people that point out the flaws in our community, but what we need to do is celebrate the heroes, the people that are strengthening our community.”

They started small by holding yearly potlucks to celebrate individuals that were transforming their communities. Over time, they formed the Suquamish Olalla Neighbors in order to respond to the continued antagonism from non-natives.

“In the beginning, we did what the tribe asked us to do. But after some time, I was confused about what steps to take next because informally I was getting the signal from tribal members that there were a lot of white do-gooders that came through and we should probably just go away.”

Sarah actually thought they had a good point but Ted said there was more work to do. Since they didn’t know what else to do, they held potlucks until a couple of years later some of the tribal leaders reached out to Sarah. The state government was signaling that they were ready to turn over the land that once belonged to Chief Seattle and was now a state park. Each time this had come up in the past, the same non-natives that opposed the tribe would fight back and the state would back off.

This time, Sarah and her allies thought they could help make it happen. It seemed so important to do this because this place has extraordinary history. It spans from 600 to 900 feet long, there were hundreds of people that lived there over a period of time, it was where Chief Seattle had lived his whole life, and it was also the center of the Suquamish nation.

What was unique about the Suquamish Olalla Neighbors’ approach was that it was inclusive. They wanted their non-native neighbors to realize that the park would be a place that they could continue to enjoy and that they wouldn’t be excluded. The organization held a session where they invited everyone to share his or her vision for the park. Normally, these kinds of input processes involve a panel of people sitting in the front and an opportunity from people in the audience to voice their opinions and questions. However the organization decided to do this differently to avoid racism and narrow mindedness from having a platform to discourage unity.

The organization divided everyone into small groups on different topics with elders at each table and they invited everyone to share and write their concerns on sticky notes that were posted on a front board for everyone to read. The result was that everybody was heard and for the first time, an informal exchange had taken place. All of the concerns when into a database that was fed into a management plan. This plan was shared with everybody to comment on. Creating a platform for deep listening was one of the steps to begin the healing. Even though the opposition continued, there numbers didn’t grow and after we were finally successful in getting a unanimous decision to return the land, there wasn’t a big backlash.

How Do We Make it Right?
Partly inspired by how much violence we have seen this summer ranging from Ferguson and to Syria, the upcoming issue of Yes! Magazine explores this question, “How do we make old wrongs and new wrongs right?” How do we look at the historic traumas that keep us divided?

“In the U.S. we have a lot of historic trauma that society has refused to look at, particularly slavery. We allow a lot of dissonance that continues to surface. How can we take a restorative justice approach to that and say that if we want healing, we have to acknowledge what was wrong and look at some form of restitution? Only then can we can start a really meaningful healing process.“

For example, Fania Davis works on restorative justice with Oakland Youth. She wrote a story recently about a young man that was almost suspended from school. However, instead of punishing him, the restorative justice model allowed people to look deeper. In this case, the boy’s mother relapsed into drug addiction so he was taking care of his younger brother and sister all by himself, causing him to show up to class hungry, tired, and stressed out. Instead of suspending him, the principal decided to honor him with a medal and held a restorative justice circle to allowed everyone involved to speak his or her peace. The young man had a chance to explain what was going on in his personal life, the teacher that he had threatened was given a chance to express that she was on the brink of quitting her job, and the mom had a chance to hear and realize the effect of her actions on other people, leading her to make a new commitment to rehabilitation. Also, the teacher didn’t quit her job.

“Instead of perpetuating the vicious cycle by punishing him, the community came together to work it out. Our response to so many things is about punishing the bad person, , whether it’s the police officer that pulled the trigger in Ferguson, MO or something else. It’s important to hold people accountable but there is so much more we need to do to bring rightness back into our world.”

Protecting Planet Earth
When we talk about violence, one of the greatest forms of violence that we as humanity are contributing to is the violence that is happening to Planet Earth.

“This climate crisis is an existential crisis and in the coming decades the questions is, “Will we even have a civilization or even a human species?” We have to take that very seriously. Even if it’s only a 10% chance of human extinction, is that ok to allow this to continue? “

It means a level of shifts in how we do things that’s not politically feasible right now because politicians are too answerable to the oil and gas and coal companies who feel they are entitled to do what they are doing.

Ultimately, we’re going to have to take matters into our own hands. We will have to say, “No we will not allow the increased extraction of fossil fuels.” Part of it is becoming an activist, which doesn’t necessarily suit all of us. Yet that’s part of what we’re called to do. Another part of it is connecting whatever work we’re doing right now to this climate crisis. Racial justice and the new economy have to be connected to this crisis.

As individuals, whatever we do has to come from our heart and very few people can do it alone. Either start with the people you are already working with or find two or three people who share what’s calling your heart and talk about how to take the next step to make a difference. I believe that very small groups of people who have that level of concern and tenacity to make things change can make a difference.”