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Interview: Jim Gurley

by stevie |

Lead image from the StarTribune, photo credit Brian Peterson. An uncovered frack-sand stockpile (“Mount Frack”) in downtown Winona, 2013. In the background is the historic Winona County Courthouse. (After large demonstrations and direct action at Winona’s City Hall, the city finally reacted to the citizen’s demands and required the carcinogenic frack sand to be removed.)

The frack sand industry (sometimes spelled frac sand - sometimes considered the industry’s spelling) is one of the lesser known dirty supply lines of the oil and gas industry. “With the massive adoption of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in the U.S., round silica sand is needed as a ‘proppant,’ a material used to prop open oil and gas-bearing fissures while also allowing gas and oil to escape.” (read more on the history on the Frac Sand wiki). For many years Wisconsin and Minnesota, among other midwest states, have been the victim to the oil and gas industry’s long and vicious assault on natural resources through the frack sand mining industry. Think of the lands where Aldo Leopold wrote the famous Sand County Almanac. These are the beautiful places that have been pillaged. Hills have been flattened, rivers have been silted, farmland have been destroyed, livelihoods have been threatened, and human health impacts have been disregarded.

But out of this chaos and injustice, again we find incredible people who are working together to bring light, and fight back. The interview below is with Jim Gurley, one of many we have to thank for their hard work against the oil and gas industry on the Midwest front.

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Jim Gurley Interview Below:


What kind of support do you look for for your community organizing activities?

I split my time between two issues: frack-sand mining, since 2011 with CASM, (Citizens Against Silica Mining) and exploding oil trains, since 2014 with CARS-Midwest, (Citizens Acting for Rail Safety). I’m also active with LSP (Land Stewardship Project). I also plan to help as an organizer with Our Revolution-Minnesota. The groups I’m a part of have not done much fund-raising. We’re all volunteers, except for a staff member or two at LSP. So financial support is not something we have focussed upon.

For rural issues in our county, we lobby for support from our county board of commissioners. The only way we were able to secure a ban in our county on frack sand mining operations (the first and only such ban in the U.S.) was because we spent a lot of time, energy and money (we did fund-raise for that campaign) to get one of our CASM members elected to the board. She won and replaced a pro-sand person, who was a lifelong resident of Winona, and was a TV and radio news anchor with virtually 100% name recognition. Her win was extremely important -- it helped us get the ban (flipped the majority on the board from 3-2 pro-sand to 3-2 against) but also provided the first and only “referendum” of sorts on the frack-sand issue, so we had something tangible to point to when discussing public opposition to the mining. Frack sand is a dangerous carcinogen, so we are interested in low cost monitoring of dust, and ways we can measure particulate matter around the seven frack-sand operations in the city of Winona.

In CARS, we seek and get support from public officials at all levels, and we have networked with other groups who are fighting oil trains throughout country. Those sorts of connections are important. Perhaps the most important support we look for is from local citizens who write Letters to the Editors, come (and sometimes speak) at hearings, attend our meetings, march in direct action, etc. “People power” is our most effective and valuable resource.

Are there any resources for your environmental work that you’ve found to be helpful? Such as guides, monitoring resources, websites, trainings, network, or otherwise?

Several CARS members attended the Oil Train Response conference in Pittsburgh, and that was very informative and good for networking. The human capital of good researchers in our own groups, as a resource, is key for us. Working with the staffs of senators and congressmen has been somewhat helpful. The Crude Awakening network holds a national conference call every few weeks, and that allows us to get good and timely information about victories and bad things around the country. We need to bolster ourselves and each other and take time to celebrate and integrate the victories that we do have. Connection with others is a reward.

When you, or your group, is learning something new, what is the best way for you to receive information? What is your preferred method of sharing information?

In our frack sand group, some members are not on Facebook, and a few don’t have email. So we use phone calls and emails. Short emails are good, but group email discussions (which can easily devolve into what I call “e-maelstroms”) are challenging. Emailing information prior to meetings allows informed comments at the meeting. In-person contact is paramount.

Someone with expertise willing to visit and address our group is a great way to learn. We’ve also sent a representative to workshops and seminars. One important thing to me — as both a listener and a presenter -- is to be able to clearly hear and understand the person speaking (particularly considering that many volunteers are elderly and hard of hearing). Testing acoustics and microphone ahead of time, and asking at the beginning of the presentation if folks can hear, can make all the difference. It also helps in getting good audio when we are video-recording an event.

What methods of sharing or learning do you or your group find challenging?

New social media platforms are challenging. I and others find Facebook to be useful, but not all of us are on Facebook. We've found language barriers. Reading something that is above our skill level containing technical jargon is difficult; e.g., reading an industry journal is sometimes hard to “translate" into vernacular English in order to report about it to the group. This also happens when working with scientists, or people who have a specific expertise. Articulating scientific ideas in layman's language is a skill and talent that should be cultivated by those who wish their knowledge to be widely understood.

Would being in a network of people from different backgrounds discussing environmental questions and collaborating on how to address them be useful to you? If so, in what ways?

Working with a diverse group of people (geographical, gender, racial, ethnic, education, political party, age, etc.) gives us complementary skill sets and perspectives. We need to have folks who like to make phone calls, others who like to do on-line research, others to write op-eds, etc. Bringing people together from different political backgrounds is challenging, but important and potentially rewarding in the long-term, if we are sincere and honest and open-minded. Having a wider group or network of people who could be resources to each other and develop a broader expertise would be great.

Who would be important people for you to be able to engage with?

I would like to engage with (and educate) elected officials about environmental issues. They often are well-versed in how to create jobs, but they need to be at the table to learn about environmental issues and the consequences of the job-growth they advocate. It would also be useful to have academic folks there, but so far, few academic leaders at public universities have been willing to help us in a public way due in part to pressure from the state. Last, scientists and activists sharing a space where they could share with each other what they’ve learned could be really useful as well.

What would be important values or practices for the networking space to hold?

Tolerance, patience, and focussed listening are important values. Sometimes people new to activism may be turned off if someone is impatient with them or they don’t feel welcome, so having a welcoming culture is paramount. Follow-through is also key, and it’s healthy for a group to respectively hold members accountable for what they have promised to do. On a mechanical level, ground rules and an outline of shared expectations can help protect these spaces.

In physical shared spaces, welcomers at the door are helpful. Also, we need to be intentional about celebrating our victories, and to avoid getting too intense at meetings. We need to be able to laugh at ourselves and be lighthearted at times. Otherwise, stress and the resulting burnout can hurt our efforts.

End of interview


Thanks again Jim! Hearing about your work is truly inspiring.

**This post is part of a series with Grassroots and Environmental Justice Community Organizers. Read more on the series here or follow the blog tag to get updates on new posts.



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