This year marks 20 years since we founded YES!—and that’s about 19.5 years longer than I originally thought we’d last.
Like many startups, we had an energized small team, an idea we thought important, and a basement for our offices. But unlike many startups, we had no angel investors. We had taken on the obligation to fulfill the subscriptions of a predecessor magazine, In Context, and we inherited some old Macintosh computers, but we had almost no money to work with.
YES! succeeded because it was necessary and relevant.
There were some difficult decisions: Do we pay the magazine printer or cover payroll? The printer. Do we buy a new subscriber database or rely on the old custom-built one? We keep the old one working. Do we delay publication when the staff is stretched thin? No, we work weekends and pull all-nighters.
People came from all over with offers to help. A couple of women drove out from Minnesota and repainted the dingy walls of that Bainbridge Island, Washington, basement office. A retired dentist and his wife arrived from New Mexico in a truck camper and parked in the driveway. They, along with friends and neighbors, helped with mailings, editorial research, and fundraising. Another friend helped build our website.
I remember one weekend close to deadline, when I looked out the ground-level basement window and saw an ice cream cone held by a small hand. First I thought I was hallucinating after too many hours staring at a computer monitor. Then I saw that it was one of my kids with an offer of support.
I remember riding my bicycle home along the midnight streets, grateful for the starlight and cold wind on my face.
People came from all over with offers to help.
Startups are rough. Most don’t make it. YES! succeeded because it was necessary and relevant. The magazine relentlessly asked where powerful change could come from, and the answers it uncovered addressed the key crises that were central to our times then—and still are.
The mid-1990s were the Clinton years, and many believed that the relative economic prosperity of those years and the limited warfare in Iraq meant all was well. But other trends were troubling. Scientists were warning that fossil fuel emissions were destabilizing the climate and that the rapid growth of human impacts on the environment was causing the biggest wave of extinctions since our species began. Author David Korten, co-founder and YES! board chair, had recently written When Corporations Rule the World. We shared his concern about the growing power of transnational corporations and the influence of money over elections and government. Harsh sentencing guidelines and an ill-conceived war on drugs that unjustly targeted communities of color were causing prison populations to skyrocket. So-called welfare reform shredded the safety net for many Americans. Commercialism was distorting the American dream, making it about excess and consumption instead of about an authentically good life for families and communities.
We believed these trends were not isolated. In fact, they continue to be part of an interrelated crisis that threatens our future.
We’ve covered these and other movements for change and watched them take off.
If we were a magazine that examined this unsustainable direction, why would we call ourselves YES!?
We felt it must also be true that people are creating solutions that add up to a more satisfying, just, and sustainable future. While most of the mainstream media focused on covering problems, we would cover stories of positive change. These solution stories could bring into focus an emerging new society that could pick up where the old one fell short. We believed that could be one of the most interesting shifts of our time.
For 20 years we have tracked down stories of transformation, big and small. With the help of a growing network of grassroots activists and international visionaries, we have reported on some key social movements as they were emerging.
Local food was still a fringe movement when we began reporting on it years ago. Today, the local food, food sovereignty, and slow food movements continue to grow, with communities around the world developing innovations related to healthy and sustainable local food systems.
In 2000, we published our first issue on mass incarceration when the United States hit the unworthy milestone of 2 million people behind bars. And again in 2011, we went beyond the disproportionate imprisonment of people of color, the war on drugs, and police killings to cover the emergence of alternatives to incarceration, like restorative justice. Today, a left-right coalition is working to reduce prison populations, the war on drugs is discredited, and restorative justice policies are taking hold in communities, schools, and even in police departments.
Movements for economic justice and for a new economy, simple living and sustainable happiness, climate solutions, restorative farming and grazing, water rights, resistance to fracking, and clean elections without big money interests—we’ve covered these and other movements for change and watched them take off.
We humans have everything we need to create a better future.
In addition to news of emerging social movements, the pages of our magazine have been home to the transformative ideas of visionaries like David Korten, Vandana Shiva, Pete Seeger, the founders of Idle No More, and Angela and Fania Davis. We’ve published articles by people who are rethinking family life, old age, livelihoods, race, and sexuality.
Woven throughout all our stories is this question: How do we live now, in a time when the climate crisis, racial exclusion, and structural inequality make the status quo untenable. We’re always looking for innovations that liberate the human spirit and bring us together across divides, showing new possibilities that work for people and the planet.
And we’re always looking for ways to better serve our readers because it is your work and your choices that can ultimately make a difference in a world that so badly needs change.
Which brings us to today. After a 12,000 mile road trip across the United States last year, meeting with people who are making real change in their communities, I am profoundly hopeful. I believe that, in spite of all the divisiveness and the scary predictions about the planet, in spite of war and greed, we humans have everything we need to create a better future.
Sarah van Gelder is a co-founder and columnist at YES!, founder of PeoplesHub, and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America.