Janessa Gans Wilder and The Euphrates Institute
By Jordan Venema
Photo by Eric Leslie
Most Americans remember where they were on September 11, 2001. That day forever changed the course of American foreign policy, but for Redding native Janessa Gans Wilder, “it changed my life forever.” In January 2001, Wilder was hired as an analyst for the CIA, nine months before the towers came down.
“I had no interest in the Middle East,” she admits. “I found it dark and depressing, but when 9/11 happened, I was transferred to a taskforce on Afghanistan.”
Over the next two years, Wilder became an expert on a country she didn’t even visit. Accustomed to traveling as a child, Wilder began to feel she would “rather dodge bullets than spend another day at my cubicle.” So she volunteered for a 90-day assignment as a counter-insurgency analyst in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq, which would stretch into 21 months between the years 2003 and 2005. In her own words, the position was Wilder’s first taste of the frontlines.
A seminal moment for Wilder came in spring March 2004, when four Blackwater security guards were killed in Fallujah, and their corpses burned and strung from a bridge. The United States responded by invading the city to rid insurgents – and Wilder was there.
“I was the only woman on base, sleeping in a tent with six guys. It got to the point that I was so exhausted, so mentally drained, that I felt a sense of helplessness.
What is this actually doing to end the insurgency?” Wilder asked herself. “It felt like catching drops of water from a leaky faucet.”
Wilder found some clarity one evening after a run while overlooking the Euphrates River. “It was so calm and peaceful, and the only thing I could hear was the gurgling of the water and the swaying of the bulrushes, and not the sound of a bomb,” recalls Wilder. “It was such an incredible contrast to what I had experienced in Fallujah, and I remember wanting to float down that river, let the stress go, and I realized that if I did I would end up downstream underneath the bridge that had started it all.
“When you’re just focused on the war zone, you miss the beauty of the river,” continues Wilder. “So which do you choose? You can’t focus on both, and in that moment, I chose the river.”
In other words, says Wilder, “I was tired of just fighting the enemy. I wanted to build something.”
Wilder made the decision to begin working with the Iraqi transitional government, during which she began “seeing Iraqis as partners instead of enemies. It was a complete transformation for me… and one that every American can and should make.”
The problem is one of perception, and not limited just to the Middle East, though Wilder acknowledges “most Americans see that part of the world as ‘other’ and the enemy. So how can we turn the others into brothers, and how can we find that common ground and help them, and help ourselves?”
After Wilder returned to Redding, she founded The Euphrates Institute to help answer those questions through creating avenues of dialogue. Practically, Euphrates has organized trips to the Middle East to give people the opportunity to learn about a region that many people have opinions about but little knowledge.
“We also bring people out of the region on speaking tours and media appearances,” says Wilder, “so other people can be inspired by amazing peace builders who are there making a difference.”
Euphrates also has a physical presence through local meetings, with 20 chapters spread across the country and internationally, including India and Pakistan, Palestine and Sweden, Colombia and, yes, even Redding.
These chapters, says Wilder, “are doing the work of creating more understanding of the Middle East and its issues, while building bridges in their own communities with whoever the ‘other’ is.” Locally, that could mean political parties or the homeless, even neighbors.
“Groups will go see films together, hear speakers or read books together, and usually there’s an interfaith component,” says Wilder, adding that many chapters visit mosques and synagogues. Mostly, though, chapters seek transformation through dialogue, with topics aiming to inform, inspire and transform.
It’s like counseling in some ways, says Wilder, “by creating a space for listening, without an attempt to persuade or react.”
That method is simple in theory, but difficult in practice. Still, Wilder has seen people transform to find common ground where they didn’t believe it existed.
“You can’t force people to be open if they’re not ready,” says Wilder, but the doors of any chapter remain open for anybody when
they are. •
The Euphrates Institute
Redding Chapter meets the first Thursday every month, 7pm
Pilgrim Congregational Church, 2850 Foothill Blvd., Redding