These days it feels almost second nature to say that we live in a political and ideological landscape that is quite polarized.
Iowa City, the mid-size city of nearly 75,000 in which I live, is considered one of the “bluest” places in the state of Iowa. Some of my colleagues refer to it, half-jokingly, as “the People’s Republic of Iowa City.” For all that my city offers (great schools, diverse cultures, walking and biking paths, restaurants, LGBTQ+ inclusive, a top research university and hospital), I recognize that even us residents of Iowa City can get stuck in our perspectives, especially if we never venture into other parts of the state, or the Midwest—and I’m not talking about Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis or Kansas City. I’m talking rural places and small towns, as well as micropolitans (those small urban areas between 10,000-50,000 people).
Since the publication of my most recent book, Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland, I have been on the road, giving book talks across the country, from Wisconsin to Massachusetts, Virginia, Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Illinois. While my travels frequently take me to familiar settings at colleges and universities, they also include local detours outside my usual purview, from church book groups, retiree clubs, social justice organizations working with farmers, to conferences like the Society of Working Class Studies. Nothing is more rewarding for a scholar than to engage with folks who have read her work and who add their own interpretations and ask informed questions about it.
Inevitably, the people at the talks I’ve been giving—whether it is students at a university, religious leaders, or residents at a local restaurant—share how they are grappling with the vexing inequalities that restrict opportunity in their communities.
I come to these events from a variety of perspectives. I’m a mom of three teenagers and two dogs, a university professor, a wife to my husband of 29 years, a Midwesterner, the great-granddaughter of working-class immigrants. I came of age in the 70s and 80s, and without intending to romanticize those eras, I find myself longing for a time when folks would talk and hash things out face-to-face, when our phone was tethered to a cord that would stretch through our hallway—a time when things did not feel so fragmented, when we were not glued to our social media bubbles or ideologically closed feedback loops.
Yet, through these conversations, I have met and learned from many thoughtful people in my state and across the country who care deeply about their neighbors and who want all people in their community to experience a sense of belonging. This has given me a renewed perspective that we can indeed move past the political rhetoric that threatens to undermine democracy.
But it’s a process—one that takes commitments of work, time and resources. As Daniel Kemmis writes in his Barn Raiser essay, when we inhabit a place, we dwell there in a “practiced way,” in a way that “relies upon certain regular, trusted habits of behavior.” Kemmis urges us to consider that living well depends on our ability to relate to our neighbors and to behave in a way that acknowledges that we are indeed part of a shared public.
Right now there are visible signs across rural and small town spaces where individuals are searching for meaningful connections and finding common ground while not giving up on their convictions.
For instance, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI), focuses on connecting rural and urban dwellers, and raising awareness of the environmental impacts of CAFOS and the construction of a proposed CO2 pipeline that many people believe carry too many environmental risks. When I sat down recently with Iowa CCI staff members Devyn Hall and Katie Biechler over tea, they told me how they are working hard to build a coalition of Iowans who understand that we are all connected, whether we are established cattle farmers who own the land and cattle, or migrant workers who work for these individuals and their companies. Devyn and Katie work to build bridges between people across the state and to show that despite differences we might have, when it comes down to it, we value clean water, air, food and soil. (Devyn recently left their staff position at Iowa CCI to pursue other passions).
Individuals like those at Iowa CCI know that when people spend time in close proximity and talk, divisions, perceived and real, can be mitigated and eased, and common goals can be located without erasing the particularity of the differences that give each one of us our unique perspective. Not surprisingly, many of these organizers also log long hours and many days on the road, meeting with a broad spectrum of individuals and groups including farmers, small business owners, factory workers, CEOs, and others, to create and facilitate dialogue that builds upon shared goals and values.
I’m an optimist, committed to the point of having the famous Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shakleton’s quote “Optimism is true moral courage” inked on my ever-evolving arm sleeve. However, my family, a mix of Lebanese, Swedish and Polish immigrants, also raised me with a healthy dose of pragmatism. I saw how hard my family members worked, prayed, and lived. These women and men had grit and determination—I ate up their stories as much as I did their food from the Old Country. I loved the smells and tastes of their clove cigarettes, their spiced tabbouleh and hummus, and their imported liquors.
For the past 25 years, I have written about working people who try to create a slice of heaven in this world—one that can be deeply unfair and unjust for themselves and their loved ones. I have spent a lot of time with people like my relatives who have experienced challenges and even generational trauma and who want their children and grandchildren to thrive and live better than they did.
When folks who do not work in meatpacking plants hear from those who do, for example, workers’ demands for higher wages and certain protections make sense as shared values. Understanding that everyone wants a living wage, bodily protections, and being able to provide for their families, binds us as humans. When Starbucks consumers demand better pay and unions for Starbucks employees everyone wins, as they recently have in downtown Iowa City.
This is not so much an answer as a place to start, and it demands the space for acute reflection, interpersonal charity, and critical honesty. It will involve healthy doses of humility. It will require self-reflexiveness and inward turning. It will take a lot of soul-searching. It will involve not only being curious but acting on curiosity.
Thanks so much for reading—see you next month for the next installment of “Midwest Connections.”
Kristy Nabhan-Warren is the V. O. and Elizabeth Kahl Figge Chair of Catholic Studies and a professor in the Departments of Religious Studies and Gender, Women's, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. She is the author of Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland.