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Iowa's Heart in the Fight to Protect the Land: A Conversation with Angie Carter

SEHN's Kaitlin Butler has a conversation with Board Member Angie Carter. November 3, 2015. Angie Carter is one of the co-founders of the Bakken Pipeline Resistance Coalition. She recently earned her PhD from Iowa State University’s Graduate Program in Sustainable Agriculture (GPSA) and Sociology. She also holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona. Carter’s experiences growing up in rural Iowa during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s inspire her commitment to social change. Her public sociology has led to research partnerships with multiple community organizations. I had the opportunity to sit down with this SEHN Board Member to talk about her work and what it’s been like working on the frontlines of the Bakken Pipeline resistance.


Kaitlin: Now that you are finished with your dissertation, you are teaching, and the Bakken Pipeline Resistance Coalition is fast underway, could you tell us about the relationships across your work – creative writing, women, farming, pipelines, water – what is the thread there?


Angie: I grew up in rural Iowa in the 1980’s during the Farm Crisis and my dad had a large animal veterinarian practice. I grew up during a time when agriculture was changing really really fast and saw the impact on the everyday in my community.


As a little kid you don’t understand economics or social justice, but you do understand when people are having a hard time and when all the adults around you are really stressed out. You understand the importance of family and the importance of community. We’re really sensitive as children to what’s happening around us, and my childhood really influenced a lot of what I have done.


I’ve always been committed to my family and to Iowa as home. I’ve always been very inspired by, fascinated, and in love with the power of stories and who’s telling the story and what stories are heard. Also, the question of power.


I first came to think about stories from a creative direction. I was an English major at the University of Iowa and then I went and got an MFA in creative writing. I really thank my mentor Allison Hawthorne Downing at the University of Arizona and my teachers there with helping me see that my stories about rural places did matter and that they mattered in different ways than the good work that people like Michael Pollan are doing. I could talk about this place and the people there and understand it because I was from there and that had a lot of power.


I worked in international education in the University of Texas for a little while in Austin. Austin is a really great place to be young. I had a lot of great creative people around me and got to travel a lot and it was always really fun, but I was always missing home. I felt like being in a creative community without having the foundation of my family and the place I love that I was without my feet.


So I came home to Iowa in 2010. I’d only applied to the one grad program and if I hadn’t gotten in I would have just done something else. I wanted to study sociology and agriculture to better understand where there may be points of intervention and points for change so that I could be part of the change that I really felt was needed on this landscape and re-engage with my community.


A good thing about studying justice, environmental issues, and agricultural issues in a place like Iowa is that everyone knows each other and we’re really supportive of each other. It’s a very non-hierarchical community and we need all hands on deck. Everyone’s working really hard and so I found a really awesome, empowering community of people after I moved back home.


I started studying water because that’s what my master's thesis funding was for, and through that work I was able to build connections with everybody from county conservation staff to non-profit staff to legislators. I’ve always been…I mean if I look back now, as a high school kid at Ames High School, I was the head of the environmental club and we did a statewide survey to try and get information about the bottle bill, then used the information to lobby our legislators to retain the nickel deposit on cans in Iowa. That’s an early example of public sociology and participatory research and using sociology for social action.


So I’ve kind of been doing all of this but didn’t have a name for it until the last couple of years.


Kaitlin: It’s clear how you came to the place you are now and the work that you’re doing now, especially around this emerging coalition. That all started happening when you were finishing up your PhD. Could you speak to what drew you to that particular action? How did you get involved to the point where you were starting to lead a coalition?


Angie: In July or August of 2014, I was supposed to be just hunkering down and only working on my dissertation and finding a job (laughs). At that time, we were just finding out about the pipeline proposal. I worked with some local groups to try to figure out what’s happening, what’s it going to look like, and who’s it going to impact.


At the time, I was part of a really strong group of students at Iowa State University who have done a lot of activism together. We’re all women. I don’t know why that happens, but it seems like it often does. We were really frustrated by the narrative that was growing about the pipeline. I get that land owners’ rights are very important to a large population in Iowa — I’m a 7th generation Iowan —and I also get that this land was originally stolen. It’s been in families for 150 years because it was taken from other people. It really bothers me to hear these narratives about property rights being the only thing coming out and thinking about NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) issues as well – people didn’t really want it going around their farms but didn’t really seem to care about people in North and South Dakota or people in Illinois or people downstream.


My friends and I were really frustrated and thought, we have to talk about this from an ecofeminist perspective; we have to talk about what happening in the Bakken region, we have to talk about the exploitation of land and people, we have to talk about justice. Even if climate change isn’t something Iowa farmers are famous for believing in, we have to talk about future generations and legacy. We can’t have this just be centered around the people in power defending the power they have.


So, we tried very hard when we were looking at creating a coalition last fall to recognize that people come at this from very different angles but perhaps we can, in a subversive sort of way, start to steer the narrative towards something more inclusive and more empowering. That’s been hard because obviously not all groups are like Women, Food and Agriculture Network, or SEHN, or our student activist group that get these interconnections, so there’s some power struggles sometimes. But by necessity or default, I think everyone involved knows that they need one another so we are stronger together because we’re fighting and oil companies so obviously we need many voices.


It’s been interesting to see the narrative develop through our collaborative work. There have been some lone ranger crusaders but they haven’t lasted very long; they’ve kind of sunk. Our narrative and our work have carried on and are stronger by having diverse voices in it.


I was doing a lot of this work with the students last December 2014. We had a community meeting that we thought would just be for the Ames or Story County community and then we had 250 people come from across the state. I think that’s when we realized that this is a bigger issue; there are more people who agree with us than we thought. It really opened our eyes. Then we got really serious about the coalition and made it a more formalized informal group.


That’s when we worked with Carolyn and SEHN to help us be able to accept money, to take donations, and to be our fiscal sponsor. We realized we can be in this for the long haul. People are paying attention and it’s only growing. And I think that’s been the case since.


My friend Ahna Kruzic did the website and all the communications. We were just doing the work whenever we weren’t sleeping or eating or doing something else. Both of us would talk about how we’d be waking up in the middle of the night thinking that we could be doing this 24 hours a day and it still wouldn’t be enough. At the same time, we were feeling inspired knowing there were more and more people feeling similarly and so trying to have faith that our collective work together – I mean you can only give what you can give, right – will have to be enough.


We connected with BOLD Nebraska and people fighting pipelines in Wisconsin and Minnesota. That gave us a lot of good energy. We realized we were on the right path, we could learn from their mistakes, and we can apply that to what we’re doing in Iowa.


Thinking more about those regional connections was empowering too to see that you know that this is a bigger story than the media tells you. There are all these local communities in the Midwest who are fighting these pipelines and they’re fighting not only to keep it out of their backyards, but they are also fighting the industry, they’re fighting the complex. That’s really encouraging.


Kaitlin: You bring up the work going on in these different areas -- you mention BOLD Nebraska -- and the lessons learned from them. There are states around you; North Dakota is very [oil] business friendly at this point. Could you talk about Iowa given that you have this long history there and a clear understanding of the long history of the space and how those impacts how these coalitions get built? Why is Iowa such a special bolt in the machine and what does it mean to be organizing in Iowa not only locally but also for the region – these larger, interconnected issues you’ve been speaking about?


Angie: Only Rhode Island has less public land than Iowa. Iowa has very, very little public land. We don’t have these beautiful natural resources or national parks that people can rally around as these iconic beloved places that other states may have that they want to protect. And we’re already in a place where it’s been very politicized that past few years.


We know that our rivers and our water are already very, very polluted. Many people already talk about Iowa as being an ecological sacrifice zone. So, in some ways it seems like, why not Iowa? It’s already so polluted and our political system is already so corrupted by Big Ag. This has been a surprise for most of us organizing here to realize that many people are really tired of this in a way that we didn’t realize. You know, the farmers are really mad. Hearing them talk about their land in terms of future generations and the care that they have and the respect that they have for the soil is really beautiful because they haven’t been allowed to speak about their farms lately in that way. They’ve been trying to defend their farms from environmentalists. Finding that common language is really important.


I think that probably the company thought it’d be easy here because we have had such a long history of agribusiness running our state, and of course agribusiness is fueled by the oil business, right, all the fertilizers, all the synthetic things, and the oil need to move all these products around.


So I think the oil company thought it would be easy, that farmers had come to accept that we were doing ag in this destructive way. But farmers weren’t ready to accept that a giant oil pipeline was going to go under their farm. We are working farmers who realize that the pipeline would bring some of the destruction that’s happened in the Dakotas here, where we have some of the best soil in the world. Are we going to let some money jeopardize all of that? People are saying “no”, and that’s really encouraging especially as we think about Keystone and what may or may not happen in terms of this complex of pipelines.


What if the Bakken pipeline were to become a new Keystone or a Keystone Light, or Keystone East? It’s a really short build from the Bakken to the tar sands. The Bakken region has a really short supply of oil. If oil companies are investing in all of this infrastructure, it would make sense that they’re hoping for longer-term payout and what seems to be on the table right now. That makes people really nervous here. We can ride a little bit on the energy in the media that was built around Keystone in that way, farmers and ranchers working together to try and stop that.


Kaitlin: You made a great comment, one that I’m sure people in the area think about a lot, but you said that Iowa and the area are the heartland of the country. So much agriculture happens there. A lot of that stuff that gets produced in that area gets transported over to other regions like California to support their food production. It sounds like people in the area have accepted that this is the way we grow our food. It seems like there is a growing recognition that this process is causing major changes and contaminations to the water systems and the soil systems. You made this connection between the Big Ag industry and the fossil fuel extraction industry. Could you speak about what looking at these two issues raised for people in the area. And I wondered if that connection is driving a lot of the conversation or if it’s too taboo of a topic – to make those overt connections in a space that is so reliant on agriculture?


Angie: I think we’ll get there. The Bakken pipeline is giving us the opportunity to make those connections. There’s nothing better to unite people than having a common enemy, right? Before this pipeline came through we had largely rural versus urban, environmentalist versus farmers, the city being really mad about the polluted water in their area because of the ag production, and the rural people being very defensive of their ag production.


Now with this pipeline, it’s rural and urban people who are mad about it. People from faith based communities and environmentalists and Ag communities are mad and so it’s giving us this space together. That’s the positive, right? The pipeline fight is giving us this space together to have conversations again and hear people talk about their land in ways that aren’t couched in the Farm Bureau’s rhetoric but are just about their feelings about their land or their feelings about their community, and talking about those things in terms of moral obligations and not so much just money all the time. Finding those common values and that common space together has been really powerful.


Kaitlin: Fast-forwarding to now, it’s been about 9 months to a year of some great coalition building, both hard and good, and now there’s this public hearing and evidentiary hearing coming up. I wonder if you could speak to that: what it is, what people should know about the hearings, what the ask is, how it relates this pipeline work you’ve all been doing?


Angie: We want to show the broad base of this movement at the public hearings. We are hoping to have many farmers and landowners, but also parents and kids and ministers and activists and our community members there so that people see the faces of Iowa who oppose this. You can’t say, “it’s the Democrats” or say “it’s the tree huggers.” There are a lot of diverse people who are opposing this. That’s what I think we’re hoping for the public hearing.


We’re also hoping to show and thank the landowners who have been shouldering all of this. I think of Bill and Pam Alexander who have been working really closely with us down in southeast Iowa. I know this has an impact on their health. I know they’re not sleeping well. I know they think about this every day. It’s a hard thing to have to bear. Standing with them and their knowing that we’re supporting them – our knowing that they’re carrying a lot of weight in this fight -- that is very important. It shows that we’re a unified and solid front.


The legal system is unfortunately not’s pretty partisan in Iowa in this process. A lot is stacked against us from the start. Maybe a lot of people who have not been involved in activism before, especially in this state, may have faith in the legal process that I don’t have. I have faith in the social movement part of it. We’re building our own narrative at the hearing. Whether or not that influences the Iowa Utility Board, it will influence those landowners with easements still sitting unsigned on their table, it will influence funders who may be able to help us out, it may influence media who will put our story in a wider distribution. The pivotal moments are showing the momentum that is building in our story.


It would be so great if there were so much momentum that we did sway the Iowa Utilities Board, but the Governor picks people to be in those seats who he knows will vote a certain way or decide a certain thing. In the evidentiary hearing, we have all of these stellar witnesses: Carolyn Raffensperger is testifying at the hearing, James Hansen has submitted witness statement. The Iowa Utilities Board will be hearing at the public day and the evidentiary hearing just how angry we are about this pipeline, just how far our organizing has extended. We’ll be able to present a very strong front and that will happen no matter the decision of the Iowa Utilities Board.


Kaitlin: The work that you all have done, the boundaries that you’ve pushed and the innovative ways that you’ve looked at this pipeline issue is so inspiring. I hope that other locations and other regions will start to pick up on your great work. Coalition building is no easy task, and so it’s really inspiring to see how you’ve managed to bring together a diverse group of people and really come up with a common agenda. Protecting the things that we all share seems to be a particularly Midwestern ethos that’s emerging. I don’t know that it could have emerged in any other place than the Midwest given its history.


Angie: I remember a couple months ago meeting with some activists from Illinois and they asked us about the coalition. We explained our structure to them, how often we talk, and how we make decisions. They said, “oh, you’re a real coalition. Usually people just call themselves that because it sounds nice, but you’re really doing all that”.


Kaitlin: I’ve heard similar feelings here in Utah for those resisting development of Utah’s oil shale and tar sands resources, of just how complicated these issues are and how difficult it can be to find a common agenda in a space – and granted this is how all of the United States is – where there is a long history of land taking...of illegal practices, of environmental racism, and also a government system that’s designed to promote this type of behavior. To me, some of the most exciting information that you point out is the lessons captured through story, and then disseminated around to other communities to show people that this is happening. It’s not a divided front like the climate deniers would like us all to believe.


Angie: Something we try to be really conscious about in our work here is recognizing that we are in this place now because of patriarchy, because of colonization, because of white power. We try to not reify or perpetuate those things in our messaging and it is really hard. The biggest and most powerful organizing groups in Iowa are run by men, and the biggest voices about these things are often men, and agriculture is run by men, and it’s been really hard doing this work as a woman. It has also been encouraging to see the many women who own farmland—women who’ve maybe never done anything political before, who’ve never spoken at a public meeting, or who’ve usually deferred decisions about their land to male relatives--being the voices who are in the paper who are saying, “We can’t do this to the land! This is our land.” It is my hope that this is helping change some power that we can’t even realize beyond this pipeline and that will be helpful long term in thinking about a healthier landscape.


Kaitlin: That’s really powerful stuff. Do you feel like there’s a trend in other Midwest states: these women rising up on behalf of the land and on behalf of future generations?


Angie: You think about women like Winona LaDuke and Lois Gibbs--it’s often the women who are putting these connections together doing this work. In Iowa especially, it seems as if life goes back in time sometimes in these rural places. My dissertation research studying women in agriculture was just horrifying sometimes. We’re battling a lot of gender and race narratives that have organized communities for generations. I don’t know that people are even conscious of it. My friend Ahna and I talk about it a lot. We realize how radical and revolutionary a fight like this can be, not just about pipelines but about community structure and whose voices are in the papers and who is making decisions about this land. If we can have a small shift in that in a place that’s as white and male-centered as Iowa that would be a really great victory in itself.


Kaitlin: I like the phrase you just used, the power of old narratives to dis-organize a community. I like it because it assumes that the community is intact and whole, whereas identity politics in the older phases of social justice movements sometimes tended to bifurcate communities (for example, the women’s suffrage movement excluded women of color). Despite a narrative calling for justice,  it wasn't justice for all, the community was still bifurcated. 


Angie: I realized the whole time I’ve been talking I’ve been sort of emotional and nervous--I don’t know if you can tell--because it’s really hard for me, there are so many people doing this together and I don’t really want to speak on behalf of anyone. I feel such a fierce commitment and obligation to this place because this has been my family’s home for seven generations and that privilege means I have to step up and do more right now given the situation. It’s so hard wondering if it is enough. There’s always so much more to do.


The coalition helps us all have faith in the work that we’re doing and reminding each other we can’t do all of it all of the time. Some of us have to step out at times. The work has carried on. I stepped out the two months before my dissertation defense, and others have stepped out when they need to move, or they have a job situation, or sick parents or whatever. Since we are working collectively the work can go on and that’s a great gift.


Kaitlin: I don’t feel the work is not presented as a speaking for anyone, and I think that that is the power of this coalition, or at least the way that it seems to be playing out, is that it is – as that person made note – it is a real coalition and that you all have taken the time and the care to create a very powerful communion. That is difficult to do – a bow to you and all of the amazing people that you’ve been working with. And to have someone like you, of your caliber, as a witness to these stories is a powerful part of this. I honor what you’re saying, and I think there has to be the storytellers, there has to be the witnesses, and that’s how I hear you telling your story. 

I want to end with a question that was framing one of our recent organizing meetings here and it was asked by elders here who are really interested in igniting the baby-boomer generation here around our own extraction resistance that’s happening. The questions they want to ask their peers are: What do you envision for the future? What do you wish to pass on to future generations? What do you wish to protect?


Angie: [Pause. Laughs.] That’s a good question. I mean for me, I’m a sociologist, so community is what’s so powerful to me -- communities that have the power to help shape their future. We’re not just being exploited and used as pawns by these big corporations, we actually have some role to play in the process of making our future and what that’s going to look like. It’s a messy process to do things in a participatory way, but that would be how I hope our future unfolds instead of what’s happening now where we’re just being brainwashed into thinking we’re consumers of a system instead of makers of it. I would hope that communities would have more power again, or know their power better, and claim their power more. That would solve a lot of other problems we’re seeing, the degradation, the exploitation…


That will require a big cultural shift away from individualism, and the NIMBY, and this-is-my-farm-don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-with it. To find that community center again, or for some places, for the first time, is powerful.