Amid Election Chaos, Communities Show Where the Real Power Is
In every community I visited, I found people working hard to lay a different foundation for our society.
Amid Election Chaos, Communities Show Where the Real Power Is
At the local level, people are discovering power they didn’t know they had. This group of ranchers and Northern Cheyenne tribal members collaborated to stop a massive coal mine in southeast Montana. Photo by Sarah van Gelder.
By Sarah van Gelder /

A year ago, it looked like we were in for a tedious election with yet another Bush pitted against another Clinton. Not so, as it turned out.

Inside the Beltway, they didn’t see it coming, but I wasn’t surprised that millions of voters defied the political establishment and chose to support Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. I spent 18 weeks on a road trip last year visiting communities across the United States, and I found an America that has lost faith in the status quo. There is real disquiet among the American people, with two out of three saying they are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, according to the Pew Research Center.

Economic pain is the most obvious reason so many feel alienated. Many economists tell Americans we should be celebrating the recovery, but I found communities stuck in poverty and debt and lacking affordable health care, decent housing, and even safe water. We are told it is our own fault if we are struggling, even though the structure of the economy has shifted profoundly to the advantage of the superrich.

The crisis isn’t just economic, though: Racism, especially in the criminal justice system, continues to limit the future of many people of color, while climate change is drying up fertile lands and causing wildfires, floods, and extreme weather all over the country.

But in every community I visited, I found people working hard to lay a different foundation for our society.

For many reasons, the people I met distrust big transnational corporations and their ties to the political establishment. Whether because of job exports, reckless treatment of the environment, or the damage done by big box stores to local businesses, I found people everywhere looking for ways to build a different sort of economy, starting with locally rooted businesses and nonprofits, but also cooperatives, land trusts, food hubs, and urban farms.

In communities where more young people get caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline than go to college, I talked to people creating alternatives to mass incarceration by bringing restorative justice into schools and policing.

And as sea ice melts and coastlines flood, and the collateral damage of coal, oil, and gas extraction add up, I met people who are standing up to the fossil-fuel industry, saying “no” to fracking, pipelines, coal strip mines, and tar sands extraction, while saying “yes” to renewables and restorative farming.

The political establishment in the United States is losing legitimacy as it fails to deliver the basic things people expect from their government: economic opportunity, security, fairness, and a viable future. When a system loses legitimacy—as did the apartheid system in South Africa and slavery in the United States—it is like the rotting of a foundation. You can’t predict when or how the structure will buckle or collapse, but you can be pretty sure that it will.

From Montana ranches to Detroit neighborhoods to Appalachian hamlets, I met people who understand that this system is failing. Donald Trump appeals to some who see the decay, but he offers nothing to build on—just hate, authoritarianism, and more power for a wealthy elite.

Bernie Sanders’ political revolution—regardless of who gets the nomination—has galvanized the yearnings of millions for a society that puts the common good ahead of corporate profits.

My road trip left me convinced, though, that the most powerful work for change is happening one community at a time. The local level is where people are creating ways of life that work for themselves, their communities, and the ecological systems that support all life. It’s at the local level where people feel their power. This work is rarely covered in the media, and even the best local efforts can be defeated by powerful corporate interests and the political insiders who support them. The hate and division represented by the Trump candidacy could still be in our future, especially when frustration turns into despair and nihilism. But this unusual election season is opening up opportunities for local changemakers, in partnership with enlightened national leaders, to set a direction for our country that will benefit everyone—including Trump’s supporters. The stakes have never been higher.

Sarah van Gelder wrote this article for Gender Justice, the Summer 2016 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is co-founder and editor at large of YES! Magazine. Sarah writes articles and conducts interviews for YES! Magazine, and speaks regularly about solutions journalism, grassroots innovations, and social change movements. She is the editor of several books and is writing another. Follow her on Twitter @sarahvangelder.

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Amid Election Chaos, Communities Show Where the Real Power Is