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May 29, 2011

Celebrating 15 Years of Independent, Ad-Free YES! Magazine

By Joan Brunwasser

This isn't feel-good fluff. It's smart to find out what works. All too often, progressives focus on flaws and failures -- our own and other peoples'. At YES!, we look for the possibility embedded even in difficult times. We want to celebrate people taking action and especially celebrate and understand successes. That helps energize everyone.


My guest today is YES! Magazine co-founder and executive director, Sarah van Gelder. Welcome to OpEdNews, Sarah. Please tell our readers about YES! 

photo credit: YES! Magazine

Thanks, Joan. YES! is an independent media organization founded in 1996 in the belief that a better world is possible and that we the people have the power to drive profound change. At first, our main efforts centered on our quarterly print magazine. Today, we continue to publish YES! magazine (still 64 pages, still ad-free), but we also post daily fresh news and commentary from a YES! perspective on our website. And many of our articles are picked up and reposted on both progressive and mainstream websites.

The need for change today is even more urgent than when we were founded 15 years ago. Millions are unemployed, and our safety net is in tatters. The richest segment of our society has not only captured most of our nation's wealth, they are now systematically claiming the right to govern our nation in their own interest. We are facing the possibility of climate catastrophe, further economic decline, and bankrupt governments, but the status quo is stuck in old arguments and old paradigms that don't get us anywhere.

The purpose of YES! is to break through with the powerful ideas and practical actions that can inspire people to create a better world.

Of course, we don't sit around at the YES! office in Seattle and make up these ideas. We are journalists -- we uncover the stories and solutions that are already making a difference.

These stories are left out of the corporate media, which is stuck in an obsolete mindset that doesn't recognize the rapid evolution of our society. And these solutions may challenge the interests of their owners and advertisers. On the other hand, YES! is non-profit, subscriber-supported, and ad-free, so we have the independence to tell it like we see it.

How did you make the decision to be ad-free? Was that a hot debate? How has it affected the way the magazine is run?

Actually, being ad-free was an easy decision. We wanted to remain independent. And we believe the underlying messages of most advertising -- that you have to buy something to be happy, that we can buy our way to a sustainable world, that big corporations are our friends, and so on -- run counter to the message we want to send. That message is about where real happiness comes from (science and religion agree -- it's not from more stuff). And the meaning of a good life -- which comes from relationships with friends and family, and building community. And the real potential for sustainable ways of life, which comes from reuse, simplifying, doing it yourself, buying close to home, sharing, supporting local businesses that are less likely to have ad budgets. Seldom is buying something new the best option.

So there are lots of reasons we didn't want to carry advertising. 

The other thing is that we wanted to develop a different relationship with our readers. Instead of offering to sell their attention to the highest bidder, we wanted to create a relationship with readers based on our common purpose. We all care deeply about human and ecological well being, and readers know they can rely on us at YES! to find the best answers we can, without any influence from advertisers and corporate sponsors.

In turn, our readers support us. They give thousands of gift subscriptions to friends and family. They buy extra copies of YES! to give away, and they share our website with friends and family. And they made financial contributions, some small, some large. Nearly 1,000 are "Dedicated Friends," which means they give us a monthly contribution of five dollars to 25 dollars. 

So we've developed a business model that relies on the support of our readers (along with some foundation grants), which means we are accountable to readers, not corporations and special interests. This approach has served us well.

Being accountable to readers, not corporations and special interests. What a rarity, especially these days. Beyond your independence, you also have an incredibly positive message. Instead of dreading picking up a magazine for fear of the latest bad news lurking inside, it's actually fun to read YES! It's full of people doing good things and being kind to one another and our planet. Is that where the name came from? 

That's right, Joan,  we love sharing good news, especially in a time when so many people are deeply discouraged. When we do, we are saying "Yes!" to the possibility for change and the extraordinary work so many are doing to bring it about.

But this isn't feel-good fluff.

If we want to know how to take on the really big challenges, or the small ones in our own back yard, it's smart to find out what works. And it makes sense to en-courage people -- to offer the recognition the helps people find the courage to take a stand or risk a new innovation.

All too often, progressives focus on flaws and failures -- our own and other peoples'. At YES!, we look for the possibility embedded even in difficult times. We want to celebrate people taking action and especially celebrate and understand successes. That helps energize everyone.

Here are a couple of examples from the Spring 2011 issue of YES! Colin Beavan, self-described "No Impact Man," tells readers how he went from a regular guy who cares about the environment, to a media phenomenon -- someone who found a way to live for a year in New York City without having an impact on the environment. Joel Salatin explains how his farm animals are integral to the health of his whole farm ecosystem -- and how the animals live good lives. And Jane Goodall offers the top ten things we can all do to help animals survive and thrive.

In the last year, we've also done themes on community resilience (how to work together to be ready for natural disasters, economic breakdown, or whatever may come), the changing American family, water--how to protect it from privatization and pollution, and "America: The Remix" about our changing racial and cultural identity as a nation.

So, as you suggest, we're all about saying YES! to what ordinary people are doing to make their communities, homes, work-places, and societies more just, compassionate, and sustainable. You could think of it as spreading the love "

Where do you get your writers? Do you grow them yourselves? A journalist who has been writing in/for the mainstream press would probably need a major reorientation to reflect the positive prism that YES! utilizes.   

Some of our writers are staff and interns. We also turn to people who are doing substantial research in an area we're covering or who are leading edge activists. That allows us to get the stories of change early, as those changes are unfolding. Months, or more often, years later, you'll find similar stories in the mainstream press.

And yes, we do have mainstream free-lance journalists write stories for us about innovations that are changing lives and restoring ecosystem. And it doesn't really take a reorientation. Like other responsible media outlets, we want to produce accurate, well-crafted articles, blogs, columns, etc. The difference might be in the story choices and the framing. We highlight the grassroots leaders that the mainstream press ignores. We feature successes, and what others can learn from those successes, not only where things are falling apart. And we especially seek out the innovations that can change our world from one that is headed for ecological and social disasters to one built on a foundation of respect for all life.

Summer 2011 Issue

I noticed that you also work to engage students. For instance,  you very recently had a national writing project going on. What's that all about?

The essay contests are a way to support teachers in engaging their students in ways that spark their imagination about possibilities for their own lives and for a better world. We provide them with an article and a provocative question, then select a winning essay from among those submitted by the students to post on our website. The author of the original article responds to the student essay. You can find a list of the essay topics here .

That's a wonderful idea, on several levels. And I love that the authors respond to the students. I bet it was fun to read those essays. Does it make you more optimistic about the next generation and its stewardship of our planet?

Let me tell you what really made me optimistic about the next generation--Powershift. I expected to be impressed with the passion of the thousands of young climate activists from all over the country who gathered in Washington DC this spring. What blew me away was how smart they were about galvanizing the power to actually take on the big, powerful energy corporations. They had a lobbying strategy, a green jobs creation strategy, and a long-term organizing strategy that they were bringing home to do the hard work of building a grassroots base for a powerful youth climate movement. Here's an interview I did with one of the founders of Powershift.

Great interview! That Jessy is quite a ball of energy. I've been impressed with her and Powershift as well.  What else would you like to talk about, Sarah, before we wrap this up?

We are celebrating our 15th anniversary this year, so we are doing a lot of reflection on why we started and what comes next. We started YES! Magazine in 1996 to tell a story that wasn't being told. Bad news was getting plenty of coverage. Now and then, you'd find solid reporting on the deeper social and environmental crises, and the root causes of crime, pollution, family breakups, poverty, and so on. But almost no one was reporting on the people--young and old, of all races, religions, nationalities, and genders--who were taking the future into their own hands, building better communities, restoring ecosystems, reaching across divides, living lives of meaning and purpose, and building social movements to press for change.

We started YES! Magazine to uncover those stories and show how they weave together to create possibilities for a just and sustainable society. We knew that business as usual wasn't working for people or the planet. And we wanted to show the alternatives that are not only possible, but are already happening.

Today, many of the crises we worried about in 1996 -- from climate change to corporate overreach -- have deepened. That makes the work of the people and communities we've featured in YES! during these 15 years that much more important. There are practical means available to preserve Earth's life-sustaining capacities, to share the Earth's gifts without killing each other, and to create societies that provide for everyone.

As we celebrate 15 years of powerful ideas and practical actions, we ask you to join us in saying YES! to building the sort of world we know is possible.

Please come to our website, , to learn about how to stay connected with YES!

I look forward to each and every issue of YES! It's my favorite publication.  Thank you, Sarah. It was truly a pleasure talking with you.


Submitters Website:

Submitters Bio:

Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of transparency and the ability to accurately check and authenticate the vote cast, these systems can alter election results and therefore are simply antithetical to democratic principles and functioning.

Since the pivotal 2004 Presidential election, Joan has come to see the connection between a broken election system, a dysfunctional, corporate media and a total lack of campaign finance reform. This has led her to enlarge the parameters of her writing to include interviews with whistle-blowers and articulate others who give a view quite different from that presented by the mainstream media. She also turns the spotlight on activists and ordinary folks who are striving to make a difference, to clean up and improve their corner of the world. By focusing on these intrepid individuals, she gives hope and inspiration to those who might otherwise be turned off and alienated. She also interviews people in the arts in all their variations - authors, journalists, filmmakers, actors, playwrights, and artists. Why? The bottom line: without art and inspiration, we lose one of the best parts of ourselves. And we're all in this together. If Joan can keep even one of her fellow citizens going another day, she considers her job well done.

When Joan hit one million page views, OEN Managing Editor, Meryl Ann Butler interviewed her, turning interviewer briefly into interviewee. Read the interview here.

While the news is often quite depressing, Joan nevertheless strives to maintain her mantra: "Grab life now in an exuberant embrace!"

Joan has been Election Integrity Editor for OpEdNews since December, 2005. Her articles also appear at Huffington Post, RepublicMedia.TV and