OPINION  This past winter, not long before COVID-19 shifted so many things in our lives, I found myself sitting across from a friend at a coffee shop. We were debating the biggest problems facing rural America. At their root many of those issues kept coming back to the same point – big money that’s stifling the average American’s voice and controlling what happens on Capitol Hill as well as a lack of leaders willing to stand up to it.

Wealth inequality can be felt starkly in our rural areas. It fits into the bigger picture in many of the long-overdue discussions happening around the country on racial inequality, fair wages, climate, monopolization of our food and more.

Bloomberg reported in November 2019 that the richest 1 percent of Americans were drawing nearer to holding as much wealth as the middle and upper-middle classes combined. Meanwhile, the report noted, the poorest 50 percent of Americans carried 35.7 percent of liabilities in the United States – and a mere 6.1 percent of assets.

That leaves America’s family farmers and working class fighting for pennies. I for one am tired of seeing soaring bonuses for executives, and companies reporting record profits year-after-year while workers and farmers have maintained status quo salaries for the past 30 years.

In its infancy in the early 1900s the Farmers Union recognized the value of banding together family farmers and laborers. We’re pleased to be bringing some element of that back with work centered around farmer-labor solidarity as well as the common values and needs of the working class.

The “Black Lives Matter” movement and the many inequities we’ve seen in 2020 have also brought the wage gap and wealth disparity front and center. How do we stand together to make life better for all people? How do we band together for the improvement of our country in an atmosphere that has become increasingly polarized?

For starters we need our political parties to work together. When we have thousands of family farms going out of business across the country and people living in poverty, petty political squabbles and party lines seem insignificant. Rumblings in my neck of the woods indicate that folks are ready for change. Yet time after time we put a vast majority of incumbents back into positions, despite their stalemates and shenanigans.

Rural America is hurting. For that matter many of our urban areas are, too. Now maybe more than ever we need champions who are willing to stand up to the status quo – champions in our legislature but also champions in our communities. Champions like you and me.

The time is ripe for champions to step forward – whether it be as an educated and engaged voter at the polling booth, or as an advocate for better policy for rural America. In these times being a champion might even mean just speaking truth to your values and friends. Maybe more importantly it’s being a listening ear in these times when tensions are fraught and deep listening is so sorely needed.

The forces we’re up against – from dark money in politics to monopolization in so much of our economy – make it clear that this work will not be easy. But throughout history, champions have risen above politics to speak up on the values and issues that matter. Let’s join together in taking that first step.

Darin Von Ruden dairy farms near Westby, Wisconsin, and is president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, a grassroots family-farm organization that's committed to enhancing the quality of life for family farmers, rural communities and all people through education, legislation and cooperation. Visit www.wisconsinfarmersunion.com for more information.