Janessa Gans Wilder
is a former CIA officer turned peacebuilder and social entrepreneur. She discovered in the war zones of Iraq that eliminating the “enemy” did not lead to peace – nor did it solve the more immediate problem of the growing counterinsurgency and terrorism.
Gans Wilder was working on issues in sub-Saharan Africa when, in the middle of a military briefing during the 9/11 terrorist attack, she was struck by the certainty that our world would never again be the same. She joined a task force to support joint wartime efforts in Afghanistan. Then, after the Iraq war started in 2003, she volunteered for a 90-day tour, which extended to nearly two years, supporting democracy building and counterinsurgency. She got a taste of
“the darker world of antiterrorism efforts” when she interrogated insurgents in Abu Ghraib prison in response to four American security guards who’d been ambushed, burned, and strung up on the Fallujah bridge.
“As the only female CIA official and one of very few civilian women at the Marine base just outside Fallujah, it was my job to provide additional intelligence to the military effort: Who exactly was fighting us, and why? Were they Saddam loyalists or Islamic jihadists? Were they supported from abroad? And whose side were the people on? … But as with too many other battles, Fallujah ended without moving us forward,” Janessa discovered.
It was the beginning of a personal turning point for her. About a month after the battle in Fallujah, while at a Special Forces base in Ramadi, she went up on the roof at dusk to cool down after a run. The base was along the Euphrates River and “the first thing I noticed was the stillness
” of the river. Then it struck her
that Fallujah was just downstream – “Not far away the river flows under the bridge where the four guards had been hung and on into the battleground between Marines and Iraqis. Whoa! It struck me how diametrically opposed those two images were: the quiet of the river and the intensity of the war zone. … A question formed, ‘Which one will you choose?’ … I choose the river, I declared silently, almost instinctively, seeing that it was the more powerful force. No matter how many bombs went off, the water flowed on, undisturbed, undeterred, unaffected. I sensed at that moment that, even in the bleakest of human circumstances, there is hope, there is life. We just need to open our eyes and see it.”
Janessa’s epiphany at the Euphrates led her first to shift to democracy building efforts in Iraq, and then eventually to create an organization and to dedicate her life to shedding light and inspiration on the “dark issues” of the Middle East. The Euphrates Institute
would be a connecting force between East and West, just as the River is a boundary – or rather bridge – between East and West.
The Euphrates Institute, a non-profit grassroots peacebuilding organization, aims is to build bridges of understanding between the Middle East and the West through sponsoring educational trips, championing change agents in the Middle East, and leading a global network of 30 local chapters in 15 countries in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Its work helps transform people from seeing the “other” into seeing a “brother” – a need that Janessa has felt her entire life as people have encountered her special-needs brother as the other.
The Euphrates Institute seeks to inform, inspire and transform: to help people think about the Middle East; to open our thoughts to what's possible and to those doing the work already; and to bring those ideas home so everyone can become a visionary and a peacemaker. It hosts summits like the Euphrates Summit: “Our World Beyond 9/11”
, where the question asked is how to have the biggest impact on the world for good with the same commitment and dedication as terrorists have had on the world for evil. The Euphrates Institute also hosts students to travel to the Middle East through a Fellows program
. Through the Euphrates Institute, Gan Wilder applies the Golden Rule
to nations, civilizations, and religions as a deeply held Christian value that unites and improves all relationships and acts as a key building block.
Gans Wilder has also transformed. She had been cynical and bought into the idea that change can't happen. In seeing those working in the Middle East and the students who participate as fellows, she describes how their attitude of being hopeful and believing that change can happen has rekindled her hope. She suggests
that people open their hearts enough to compassion and to take that first step toward the “other” out there, advising people to start small and in their communities. She takes comfort in the Diffusion of Innovation Theory proposed by Everett Rogers: it only takes a small percentage of the population to create a tipping point
for massive social change. Even though it looks like nothing is happening, she explains that change is one person at a time, a journey, and a process.
Gans Wilder strikes that middle ground between being a member of her local community and a global citizen herself. As an Ambassador with California Vision 2020
she applies her values to her community. Living in Shasta County, California, an area that has been devasted by drought and fire due to climate change, she proposes imagining a world in which California leads the way forward in generating innovative ways to deal with climate change and encouraging inner transformation on a personal, collective and systemic level. She helps her community “unlearn” certain behaviors as a coach with Educare Unlearning Institute
. And in her work with the United Religions Initiative
, she explains that what gives her #tangiblehope is the moral courage of the people around the world with whom she has had the privilege of working. Moral courage is the courage to act for moral reasons despite the risk of adverse consequences, to address the issues of violence, extremism, racism, and discrimination non-violently regardless of the costs to yourself.
Janessa has written dozens of articles and been interviewed by major news outlets, including CBS, CNN, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Democracy Now
, and many more. Previously, she taught political science at her undergraduate alma mater, Principia College, and was a consultant to the State Department. She has a Master’s degree in International Policy Studies from Stanford University and a bachelor’s in International Relations from Principia College. Janessa lives in Redding, CA with her husband and three young children. She enjoys spending time in nature, running, and yoga.
Join us in conversation with this transformational change agent!
Five Questions with Janessa Gans Wilder
What Makes You Come Alive?
I'm a reformer at heart and I know the only way to make a difference is to realize that there's nothing to change--there is a perfect Order governing the universe. I relax and "come alive" when I get that. And also when I see that in that perfect Order, we are all connected. Every single person matters and is included and affects the whole. That sense of unity and order is amazing. I come alive when I am doing my utmost to fully serve and live according to these ideals, and I'm so inspired when I see others stepping up and doing their part--together giving it our all to the fullest of our capacity. Life is good, and people and creatures are beautiful, essential parts to this universe. It's awesome!!
Pivotal turning point in your life?
In my 20s, I was riding a train in the Bay Area and it had been a time of deep spiritual searching for me. I looked out the train window and all of a sudden, things merged. I had the sensation of being "One" with everything--with the sky, the light, the sea, the grasses. I looked inside the train and saw this elderly couple and experienced the most intense love for them. "Gasp! I am you and you are me!" I realized. "How could I feel anything other than this gushing love for you?" The feeling stayed with me all day and then slowly went back to normal. But I've never forgotten the glimpse of reality beyond the veil of separation and what it felt like to see life from that perspective.
An Act of Kindness You'll Never Forget?
I will never forget one time being lost at night in the Palestinian Territories, driving my rental car with a colleague and trying to find our way back to the checkpoint to return to Jerusalem. I stopped at a gas station and asked the young Palestinian attendant in Arabic if he could direct us. "Yes!" and he hopped in the back seat, next to my colleague, (a lady for whom it was her first time to the region, and was startled!) He insisted on taking us personally to the checkpoint so we wouldn't get lost, even though it was a good 20 minutes away. We chatted and heard all about his life in Palestine. As we approached, he hopped out and refused to accept any money for his taxi back to the station. We thanked him profusely and my colleague said, "Please tell him to tell his mother she has raised such a wonderful young man." He cheerfully responded, "It's nothing. I know you would do the same for me in your country!" This struck me and I thought how incredibly unlikely it was that in the United States, a young Arab male would be treated as generously and kindly as he had treated us.
One Thing On Your Bucket List?
I will be so disappointed if I go before I've had the chance to take my children to the Middle East and around the world to see the reality of the issues humanity is dealing with and also to meet the extraordinary visionaries who are giving their all, and to me are modern-day prophets. My kids (ages 5, 3, 1) are so sweet and earnest and I can't wait to see how they take in what's going on--and what they are inspired to do with it.
One-line Message for the World?
See the Other as your brother.