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Eight Takeaways from Eight Days of Listening in Rural Wisconsin and Iowa

By Rebecca Polivy

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I’m grateful for the opportunity to have supported Resetting the Table in their new initiative Resetting the American Table for the last few months culminating in spending the last 8 days in rural Wisconsin interviewing a range of people in the Driftless Region. The initiative was born in the aftermath of the election when it became glaringly clear how little Americans knew and understood about each other and what matters to each of us. In one week I formally interviewed and listened to 20 diverse people (soil consultants, manure farmers, conventional farmers, organic farmers, non-profit workers, stay at home moms, lawyers, pastors, priests, insurance salesmen, small business owners (some 6th generation family business owners), county supervisors). Mine were 20 out of over 300 people whom we interviewed over the course of 5 weeks.

Here are my take-aways:

1. Most people were not pleased with either of our two presidential candidates. There was a deep dislike of Hilary all around. It was real. It was visceral. Much deeper than I realized. She didn’t come here. She didn’t speak to the people. There was no message of change in her campaign. Trump spoke of change. Though there is agreement that he is ridiculous and he needs to stop tweeting.

2. There was a strong voice of “Now that Trump is president, people need to stop protesting. Get out of his way. Give him a chance to do his job. And if he can’t do it or if you don’t like it, vote him out in 4 years.

3. I deeply appreciate having a purpose to intentionally connect/communicate/converse with people with whom I wouldn’t ordinarily come into contact. These are valuable opportunities to truly learn and appreciate our fellow human beings, to question judgment, identify triggers, red lines, and bring my own opinions into clearer focus and articulation. These conversations are often personally transformative and surprisingly these spaces are rare.

4. People are human. Their opinions are formed by their experiences. Their opinions matter. And when you dismiss them as irrelevant, it hurts. We sat in the kitchen of a 5th generation family farmer and his wife who grew up on neighboring farms. The couple was in their 70s and were organic dairy farmers. The man was a gunman in Vietnam, a farmer upon return, and drove the school bus for the town over the years. The woman was a nurse in addition to raising 4 children until she had to retire early when diagnosed with Parkinson’s. They recalled watching the news as the election results came in, and how one reporter said something along the lines of: “These votes don’t matter because they were cast by the uneducated women in rural areas.” There was clear pain in the woman’s retelling of this story. They continued that just because they didn’t have 4 year degrees or didn’t go to college doesn’t mean they don’t count. They have a lot of experiences and know a lot of things that those who did go to college don’t know. And if any catastrophe befell us here in the US -- a natural disaster or a war -- they would be some of the few who knew how to survive.

5. Bernie was a real contender in this region. He spoke to the people. His message resonated. Even for those who eventually voted for Trump. But there were also many for whom he went against their work ethic and who frown at those who are dependent on government programs which Bernie would have continued and grown.

6. Hard work, independence and personal responsibility are the highest values of those with whom I spoke. Higher values than money in many instances. I heard one farmer speak of his friends in Florida who retired on government pensions, live in expensive houses, and accomplished less in their careers than he did in one summer! And yet he wouldn’t ever trade his life and his work for theirs.

7. People do not fit neatly in categories or boxes. Take, for example, our drive out to one interview which took us to the end of a road at which point we turned down another rural isolated road, at whose end we turned down another uninhabited isolated country road. I turned to my partner in crime and expressed my gratefulness that he was with me because it was kind of scary to be in such an isolated place, as a woman, alone. He replied that even he would not have wanted to be in such a deserted place alone. We took bets about who we would find at the end of this road, in this beautiful forest, in this gorgeous, wood house. Would it be a conservative libertarian who wanted less government infringement on individual freedoms or a democratic lawyer who lived here seasonally? Most of our experiences had pointed to conservatives at this point but it turned out to be the former head of the county’s democratic committee!

8. Running on country roads has healing effects.

Interested in staying connected to Resetting the Table’s work, strengthening democracy through dialogue and deliberation across political divides? Follow us on facebook.

Author Bio

Rebecca is the executive director for KEEN Los Angeles. Her professional career is dedicated to fostering relationships between people(s) that promote dignity and respect. She has spent the last decade working in non-profit organizations committed to addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including seven years working on the ground in Jerusalem. Rebecca joins KEEN LA after serving as Deputy Director of Development for J Street Southwest preceded by 6 years at Encounter where she led hundreds of Jewish leaders to Palestinian areas of the West Bank and facilitated difficult conversations about the conflict. Prior to Encounter she held positions at Search for Common Ground, Breaking the Silence and Ultimate Peace. In these positions she contributed to the design and implementation of a number of programs that emphasized sports, social entrepreneurship, print and television media, as well as face to face interactions as tools for transforming conflict. Out of a passion for the game, and recognition of its unique contribution to the field of peace building, Rebecca helped establish the sport of Ultimate Frisbee in Israel and the West Bank by forming and leading a group of volunteer trainers and coaching youth teams herself.

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