Arts and Entertainment

Social change? Affirmative

Locally based, globally aware “YES!” magazine recently received a big affirmative, winning the 2001 Utne Reader Alternative Press Award in the category of Cultural/ Social coverage.

“YES! A journal of Positive Futures” was also nominated for the category of “general excellence” in a field that included The Nation, Mother Jones – and every other alternative publication nationwide.

The award is particularly significant, magazine founder and executive editor Sarah Ruth van Gelder said, because the cultural/social category addresses how the magazine is changing the social fabric.

“Ultimately this has to do with our core identity,” van Gelder said. “The award tells us that we’re providing leadership in the process of rethinking.

“We don’t make a blueprint, but we examine the nature of the needed changes that people are already engaged in – changes in our relationships to our families, to our communities and to the planet.”

Van Gelder first became aware of social issues when her family lived in India while her father studied economics on a Fulbright Fellowship.

“What got me thinking about these questions was living with the Indian people,” she said. “We weren’t in some protected enclave of foreigners. I went to school with them and played with them. It opened my eyes – what was glaring was the poverty.

“It left me with a lot of questions about this country and our role in the world.”

Quaker roots

Van Gelder’s Quaker upbringing also formed her social conscience, spurring her to self-examination.

“Quakerism presents an ethical challenge,” she said. “The questions always is: Is what you’re doing in line with your own values?

“Quakers teach that there is that of God in every person, so there is fundamental respect built in.”

Van Gelder integrated that principle into a worldview that did not support the notion that American lives had more instrinsic value than others.

She attended the now-defunct Johnston College, a small, experimental school in California.

“I got to study political economics,” van Gelder said, “how entities like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the industrial-military complex have contributed to the state of the world – and I also got to study transpersonal psychology when that field was new.

“That meant I got to study both the inner side of transformation and the structural means by which dehumanization takes place.”

Drawn to the practical application of theory, van Gelder avoided funneling her talents into an academic setting.

She moved to Portland, a focus for grassroots movements, and worked as a volunteer for a community radio station, later producing documentaries for a small television station.


Van Gelder came to Bainbridge Island in 1992 and helped develop Winslow Co-housing, the nation’s first tenant-built housing to combine shared kitchen and common space with individual units.

Van Gelder also became managing editor for the alternative “In Context” magazine.

After “In Context” was discontinued in 1996, Van Gelder started the non-profit Positive Futures Network which publishes “YES!.”

Former “In Context” board member David Korten helped found the Positive Futures board.

Later Korten’s wife Fran left her position as program officer for Ford Foundation in New York City to work at the new magazine.

In the spirit of van Gelder’s inclination to merge theory with practice, “YES!” combined analysis of problems with reports that showed how the issue was being addressed world-wide.

Recent issues have elaborated on broad themes like “culture,” “love,” “work” and “technology” with lucid intelligence.

The magazine speaks to national identity in it’s upcoming issue, “What America is becoming.”

Drawing a distinction between a patriotism that honors national strengths, and destructive nationalism that pursues American interests to the detriment of others, van Gelder believes that a positive definition includes national self-examination, change and growth. She enumerates the national attributes that give her hope in the wake of 9-11.

“America has tremendous strengths,” van Gelder said. “This country has good will, energy and tremendous creativity.”

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