Photo of bridge by J. Eassa 

Dena Eakles, author, podcaster, peace activist and farmer using her talents to cultivate the reality that we are one race, one planet. The bridge symbolizes the potential to connect the rural/urban sense of the other.

Editor’s note:  The Wisconsin Coalition for Justice in Palestine is a collection of esteemed, diverse activists from 60 local and statewide organizations.  Wisconsin Muslim Journal is inviting people from this group to share their perspective and voice on our pages.  Today’s guest editorial writer is Dena Eakles. She represents the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice for the Wisconsin Coalition for Justice in Palestine.  Eakles recently interviewed Janan Najeeb, convener of Wisconsin Coalition for Justice in Palestine, on her podcast called “Conversations” which aired on WDRT 91.9. 

My journey to living on a small farm in southwestern Wisconsin came after a twenty –two year stint in the flatlands of Chicago. The decision to live a rural lifestyle followed decades of study with Indigenous people, the study of Chinese medicine and other non-western thinking peoples. It was done with an understanding that something was missing in our dominant culture’s psyche and I believed that a huge part of the lacking was our belief in dominion over Nature.

I also believed the idea of the “rugged individual” had done more harm than good. “Pulling oneself up from the bootstraps” completely negates the reality of our interconnectedness and genuine need for one another. I longed for the sense of community that I had witnessed among my Indigenous friends. When I asked my Dine (Navajo) mentor about buying land, she said, “Buy the land, it will teach you”. And twenty-two years later her words still echo true.  

My endeavor then became to buy land that could be shared and with it came the hope to foster community. Life’s experiences had broadened my sense of community.  I cherished the diversity of food and thought that nourished my sense of self – and that self was not willing to be limited to a singular set of beliefs and would definitely not be willing to engage in the politics of separation that has become the cultural norm. In Chicago and through travel, I flourished in the human community and grew to appreciate our diversity as our strength. I did not reckon with the lack of diversity in rural life, nor did I anticipate the intentional rise of Christian nationalism and white supremacy that would follow.

The hills and valleys of Southwestern Wisconsin are reminiscent of my Pennsylvania birthplace. And for the most part, the people are similar in demeanor and as the saying goes; they are the salt of the earth. Over the past two decades, I have witnessed the cultivated fear of “Other” being introduced to rural people who are predominately white and Christian. It came on slowly at first. 9/11 had given the perfect excuse for heightened patriotism.

Fear has long been the means used to control the thinking of people. Politicians grabbed hold of that fear and the media barraged us as we willingly followed the lies of “weapons of mass destruction” to committing the horrific atrocities in Iraq.  Fear of “Other” grew as politicians realized the power of it. Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker bragged of the use of divide and conquer as the dismantling and unraveling of social nets began. Religious leaders echoed the fear of Muslims and the label of terrorist was given to everyone who was different or challenged status quo thinking.  

All the while the small family farms were being replaced by industrial agriculture and the simple ways of rural existence were being withered away. Farmer suicides became more frequent as did the use of meth and abuses of alcohol. It’s a strange thing about the family of man, sometimes when we are faced with change rather than trusting in the One we profess to admire, we instead cling to dying ways. Instead of listening to our own hearts, we give power to people willing to manipulate and devour us.

Ironically, the fear of brown people also extended to the migrant workers who continue to labor in agriculture with little compensation or care. The demand for border walls and tightened immigration protocols gave way to inhuman ICE detention centers and rushed deportations with little to no resistance from rural white folks. If anything, the cloak of superiority and US exceptionalism continued to grow. 

Obama’s election proved too much for our unfinished business. We have never owned up to our attempted genocide of Native Peoples or of our slavery of human beings. Trump opened the wound of division and fueled it with violent discourse, but he did not do it in a vacuum. Christian churches moved towards Zionism, preaching “End Times” and forgoing the gospel of love for stories of revenge and fear. Rural airwaves are full of hate speech in the name of Christianity. One devout listener explained to me that she kept guns because one day Muslims would be coming and she wanted to be able to defend herself.  After regaining my composure, I asked her if she had ever met a Muslim. “No”, she replied. I countered with “Maybe that would be a good place to begin.” After a thoughtful moment she agreed.

The murder of George Floyd and the rise of white supremacy were frighteningly evident with every “Blue Lives Matter” and “We Back the Badge” sign.  They signaled safe haven for those refusing to exercise human empathy and compassion. 

One could easily succumb to the lack of humanity and allow hopelessness to win, but I will tell you this: I will never give up on us. Human beings have the choice of doing good or doing harm. We have the ability to be clear and brilliant or to remain in the darkness of ignorance. To flourish, we need one another. 

This is not the time for people of good will to cower. This is our time to shine.

In this moment, when the United States backed, Israeli genocide of Gaza is seemingly unrelenting; there is something else afoot. Marginalized peoples are coming together to throw off the yoke of separation. Immigration and Indigenous rights, abolition, Black Lives Matter, and environmental justice activists are finding commonality. The annihilation of Gaza is revealing itself to be yet another colonial land grab and the 28th session of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP-28) gave Israel the storyline it needed. We, the people of the world,  are now to “transition” to natural gas. And Israel has recently granted twelve permits for natural gas drilling off the coast. 

There have always been lies told to support warfare. People have always been led away from their humanity so the killing can continue unchecked. Our effort must be to dismantle the lies and to champion our shared humanity. There is no other way. We need more people to demand permanent ceasefire and peaceful resolution in Gaza and throughout the world.

It is my hope that those of us who can will step out of the indoctrinations that we have been steeped in – and return to our humanity, which surely awaits us.

Bridging the divide is not hard. Breaking bread, finding commonality, laughing together and sharing in our mutual grief  – human being to human being – is our way out. I urge Christians who have not succumbed to nationalism and superiority to find ways to connect with their rural counterparts.  Do not let the indoctrination go unchallenged. For most, the cognitive dissonance of hate cannot hold up to kindness and love. Let that be our antidote. I welcome Muslim and Arabic people to come and enjoy rural environs. Nature, too, holds a healing for all of us.

I welcome learning new ways to mend the rural / urban divide. I welcome the diversity of thought and especially of food!

Let us proudly cultivate the reality that we are one race, one planet. Let us fall in love with the earth and celebrate one another again.  Those of us who can must be unrelenting in our desire for peace.  And know however daunting, it is possible.