Justice Activist, Sarah Van Gelder Speaks at ERUUF

By: Tom Fletcher

"Say yes now, everything real greets you" sang the members of Jewelsong, a very appropriate welcome to Sarah Van Gelder, co-founder and now former editor of YES! Magazine and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America.  

Sarah spoke to a large community gathering in the sanctuary at ERUUF on Monday evening, October 9, sharing stories of her travels that highlight what ordinary people are doing in their communities to create solutions to issues of racial, economic, and environmental justice.

Sarah's visit began Sunday evening with her arrival and participation in the weekly community dinner at Durham Central Park Co-housing where Cheryl Turney made arrangements for her to stay.  The dinner, prepared by several of the residents, was also attended by a number of ERUUFians, Earth Justice members, and guests (Denise Frizzell and Bev Wedda, Betsy Bickel (and husband, Billy), Tom Fletcher, Leslie Zeldin, and Susan Baylies. Despite being under the weather with a bad cold, Sarah graciously gave a short informal talk with the group about her experiences forming and living in a co-housing community in Washington state 25 years ago.  Thank you to Cheryl and her co-housing colleagues for hosting Sarah.

On Monday we were fortunate to be able to arrange for Sarah to appear live on WUNC's "The State of Things" with Frank Stasio.  Maybe some of you caught the radio interview and enjoyed the back-and-forth banter between Frank and Sarah.  We know of at least two people who came to the evening event after hearing the show, which is what we had hoped.  

 The radio interview was followed by lunch at the Durham Food Co-op.  As Sarah describes in her book as well as in YES! Magazine, a favorite solutions-oriented topic is cooperative businesses.  We discussed the creation of the Durham Coop as well as Renaissance Cooperative Grocery in Greensboro mentioned in her book.  Jonathan Sheline joined us and Sarah enjoyed conversing with him about sustainable food, plant-based diets, and his new medical practice. 

After lunch, the original plan was to visit and tour the Scrap Exchange; unfortunately, we had to cancel because of Sarah’s cold and so she could keep her voice for the evening.

Before the evening event started, several groups tabled, including NC WARN, Fight for $15, and the Center for Community Action (CCA).  These are local groups involved in justice work similar to what Sarah addresses, the latter two targeted to receive donations collected during the event.  Fight for $15 brought a strong contingent of advocates to the event, but unfortunately, representatives from CCA had to cancel their plans to make the trip up from Lumberton due to some last minute issues.

When organizing this type of event, you never know how many people are going to show.  So I was nervous about that.  I was hoping that casting a wide net with announcements would draw at least some people from many groups.  As people began to filter in, it was clear that there would be a good crowd.  Though my dream of filling up the Sanctuary to capacity didnot happen, counts indicated 110-115 people attended.    ...  

We appreciate that Jacqueline Brett agreed to welcome the event guests and introduce Sarah, adding the gravity of ministerial staff participation to the event.  Jacqueline first introduced Jewelsong, who performed "Synergy" ("Say Yes now..."), written by group and ERUUF member, Betsy Bickel, that visibly touched Sarah.  Click here to hear the song.   

Sarah shared stories about visiting communities around the nation that highlight local solutions to the three themes of her book, racial justice, economic,justice, and environmental justice.  Click here to listen to an audio recording of her talk.  Several things from her talk stood out.  For Jonathan, it was the importance of community and her message that we are most effective when we act locally.  Noting the value of connections, Betsy appreciated her story of how two Native American tribes from different regions (along with local ranchers) connected to stop dirty energy coal mines and coal trains, benefiting not only their two groups, but multiple peoples, including people in China who would not be subjected to the pollution of burning fossil fuels.  Denise was impressed with the solutions orientation of Sarah's talk, noting that it is vitally important to emphasize what we are building and creating as much as it is to speak to what we are dismantling or deconstructing.  

Sarah described her new project, The People's Hub, which is designed to support community groups building skills and capacities through sharing of expertise and experiences.  The People’s Hub will provide online workshops, trainings, and forums to help members learn from each other, work together, and build confidence necessary to make change.  Her presentation concluding with a Q & A with the audience and passing the hat for donations.

After the event, the audience was invited to a reception in the Fellowship Hall for light refreshment, while Sarah signed copies of her book for attendees.  Thank you to Denise, Bev, and Kristie Mather for preparing the reception and to Betsy and Susan for supporting the book sales for The Regulator bookstore.

Tuesday morning, ERUUFian and Co-Housing member Alice Alexander hosted Sarah for breakfast and then transported her to her meeting with members of the People's Hub planning team before she departed for her next event in New York. 

We want to acknowledge the Earth Justice Action Group for organizing this event.  We are pleased with the turnout from members of ERUUF and the community at large that helped make it a success.  In addition, as a result of their generosity, we raised over $1073 divided evenly between the Center for Community Action and The Fight for $15 Campaign.