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"By protecting the most vulnerable people and the Earth, supporting each other, and nurturing the seeds of healing and rebirth, we can use this time of disruption to transform our society," writes Sarah van Gelder. (Photo: Jason Hunter/flickr/cc)

It Wasn’t All Bad: 5 Signs of Positive Change in 2016

The election divided the year into “before” and “after.” But there remain signs of hope for 2017.

Sarah van Gelder

 by YES! Magazine

It was a year blown up by the election results. There are now two very different 2016s—the one before and the one after we learned that Donald Trump would become president of the United States.

Trump’s administration won’t get us where we need to go.

Before Nov. 8, most assumed that Hillary Clinton would be elected and would lead the nation more or less in the footsteps of Barack Obama. From Nov. 9 onward, though, we entered a different world. The ideologues and billionaires appointed to the cabinet, coupled with the president-elect’s own tweets, clear up any doubts that disastrous policies will soon follow. Most recently Trump’s tweet about restarting a nuclear arms race gives the dangers a terrifying immediacy.

And we know from watching the campaign that Trump is poised to use his presidency to direct hate and blame at people of color, immigrants, religious minorities, LGBTQ people, women, journalists, and anyone else who fails to get in line. We are about to enter a time of uncertainty and danger.

To make it through the Trump presidency we’ll need to clear away any remaining illusions that the solution is a return to the Democratic establishment status quo.

We are living on a planet with a carbon-saturated atmosphere, in a time of increasing inequality and terrifying violence. Trump’s administration won’t get us where we need to go, but neither would the Democratic Party’s corporate-friendly policies.

So, even as we enter a time that could be quite dark, we should focus not on finding a way back to an Obama/Clinton past, but on how to move forward by nurturing the seeds of real change that began to germinate in 2016.

1. We gained a new respect for Mother Earth

The most dramatic new possibilities in 2016 came out of a North Dakota tribe: the Standing Rock Sioux, the people of Chief Sitting Bull. The vision and courage coming from the Native peoples gathered at Standing Rock are rippling out across the country. Natives and non-Natives are learning lessons about humility, nonviolent power, thinking about the seventh generation and about our ancestors, off-the-grid communities, and about protecting Mother Earth, one place at a time.

Elsewhere too people see that progress cannot proceed at the expense of Mother Earth.

Contaminate the water and the soil, and we poison ourselves.

Contaminate the water and the soil, and we poison ourselves. And we poison our own souls when we demean the animals who are our relatives. This wisdom, long part of the indigenous worldview, is permeating the broader society.

Meanwhile, the people of Flint, Michigan, and other cities are stepping up the fight for clean, safe water. Movements led by Native people, farmers, and neighborhood leaders are fighting pipelines and fossil fuel infrastructure across the country.

2. We learned how to heal violence

The water protectors at Standing Rock flipped the notion of what it means to be a courageous warrior. It is no longer about the capacity to inflict violence; being a warrior now means the courage to stand unarmed in the face of danger, to protect vulnerable people and places, and to be willing—as the veterans at Standing Rock said—to take a bullet to protect the sacred.

Courage also means the willingness to apologize and forgive. Veterans and clergy alike made history at Standing Rock by apologizing for the role of the military and the church in the atrocities committed against Native peoples.

3. We acknowledged the leadership of people of color

Black Lives Matter continued to force onto the national agenda the issue of police shootings of people of color and, more generally, the continued issues around White, male, straight, cis-gendered violence and exclusion. And they were able to get through to both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Despite the backlash of the Trump election, or perhaps because of it, there is a growing awareness that the issues and leadership of people of color must be central to progressive change.

4. We embraced a presidential campaign based on economic justice

The surprising strength of Sanders’ insurgent presidential campaign showed the passion of many Americans for authentic economic populism. While the Democratic Party establishment glossed over the hardships faced by low-wage workers, the underemployed, and unemployed, Sanders acknowledged the hardship.

Sanders showed that the grip of the oligarchy can be challenged.

Trump also acknowledged the hardships, but he touted policies based in xenophobia as the answers to middle-class fears. Sanders, on the other hand, showed that the systems that concentrate wealth and power can be changed and that everyone in the 99 percent could benefit.

By filling stadiums with tens of thousands, raising millions with average contributions of $27, and mounting a powerful campaign in the face of Democratic Party obstruction, Sanders showed that the grip of the oligarchy can be challenged. This authentic economic populism is an important step to countering Trump’s form of ultra-right populism, which would quickly have collapsed into its own absurdity were it not for a compliant media and the continued legacy of racism in the United States.

5. We witnessed the start of the fight for real science

Trump has chosen to surround himself with climate deniers. But actual climate scientists and others who believe in the reality of the climate crisis are not sitting still. Instead they are downloading research data on the changing climate from U.S. government servers and safeguarding them so they will remain available for further research no matter whom Trump appoints. Preserving these invaluable data sets will enable scientists to continue to refine their understanding of what is happening to the habitability of the planet, and that could be life-saving. Their moral courage in the face of possible retaliation is an example of the sort of quiet heroism that we’ll need to make it through the Trump years.

The acts of courage at the camps on a frozen plain at Standing Rock, in the nondescript offices of climate scientists, and among citizens in cities and towns throughout the country offer hope.

I was at Standing Rock on the day after the election, and I asked tribal leaders for their reactions. We’re accustomed to living under bad presidents, they told me. We’ll get through this, too.

By protecting the most vulnerable people and the Earth, supporting each other, and nurturing the seeds of healing and rebirth, we can use this time of disruption to transform our society. Even the children of Trump supporters might someday thank us.

This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder is founder and director of, co-founder of YES! Magazine, and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000 Mile Journey Through a New America. Follow her blog and connect with Sarah on Twitter: @sarahvangelder

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