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Get to know: Iron & Earth

Iron & Earth is a worker-led organization with a mission to empower fossil fuel industry workers and their communities to build and implement climate solutions. One of their main goals is to help ensure that Canada’s transition to a net-zero economy by 2050 is a prosperous one that supports the workers who will be impacted by the shift away from fossil fuels. Engagement coordinator Jessie Golem recently sat down with Iron & Earth’s national chapter director Ana Guerra Marin to chat about their community conversation and how it connects to their ongoing work.

Jessie Golem (JG): What interested you about this project? 

Anna Guerra Marin (AGM): There were two main things. One was the discussion about income security, and the fact that the Green Resilience Project is aligned with organizations that are working for basic income, which I support. And I really appreciate that the funding [provided] was very [reflective of] how hard it is to actually have conversations with communities, and allocated funding for reimbursements, etc. I have a very strong social justice background. In order to get information from those that are more marginalized or more vulnerable, you need to compensate them and understand that their time is valuable. I really like that part of the Green Resilience Project because it fits within my philosophy.

JG: And there’s also sort of a level of dignity in it. Like, we value your input, we value what you have to say, and therefore we can show that value with an honorarium, at the very least.

AGM: You’re working with vulnerable communities, so for instance, you may need to set up transportation or daycare so people are able to participate. There are all these things that you should consider that a lot of people don’t get, because they don’t have that sort of social justice background. For me, that’s how I want to run community conversations. Ironically, this project came at a moment when I had actually [just] started to think about how to do community conversations, because I’ve only been at this job for a few months. So one of our projects going forward is to have community conversations, and this conversation will be a great pilot project for us because then we can see what works, what doesn’t work, etc.

JG: Tell me a little bit more about Iron and Earth and the work your organization is doing.

AGM: Iron & Earth was created by oil and gas workers through one of the “bust and boom” cycles in the oil and gas industry. They were trying to figure out what to do, and they understood the effect oil and gas was having on the environment. So how do we move out of it? 

Iron & Earth is worker-led, all of us have worked in the oil and gas industry at one point. I’m originally a geological engineer from Colombia. I used to work in the oil and gas industry and other extractive industries. And about twelve years ago, I got fed up with it. I moved to social justice because I just couldn’t be part of the industry when I saw the harm it’s causing. [Iron & Earth] is an organization that basically says that workers need to be at the centre of conversations [about transitioning to clean energy], and a great way to support the transition is to help the workers. Interestingly enough, boom and bust cycles are nothing new. When the economy is good, the community surrounding it is booming. And then when they close down a lot of towns disappear, or at least neighbourhoods. This is not new. So what we’re hoping with our work is to make it less damaging for those who are working in these industries—to support them, and make sure they have a seat at the table in these conversations. Industries always have a seat at the table, but not necessarily workers. These are the bridges we’re trying to build. 

JG: It’s giving empowerment and support to these workers. And especially when we’re about to enter into, or we should be entering into, a time of huge transition in this industry. 

AGM: The reason the founders came up with it was because they were afraid of losing their jobs. They thought they should look into energy transition out of concern for the environment. We’re trying to humanize the workers as well, because a lot of times those working don’t necessarily have the choice to say no in this industry. I’m not trying to justify things that have happened, but if the company makes a decision, then the worker has to make it happen. They need to pay their bills and keep their jobs. Again, this has nothing to do with people who actually commit harm, but as a worker, you’re doing what the industry tells you. I was one of those workers who went to a community that didn’t necessarily want us there, and you as a worker can build great relationships with the community, but we’re still going into this community because the company is telling us to.

JG: A better and more ethical industry that’s better for the environment. What does that look like? Are these workers going to be protected in this transition? Or are they going to be left unemployed?

AGM: It’s very complicated, and what a lot of people don’t see is that we are still going to need extractive industries, whether or not we stop doing oil and gas, because most items like your cell phone or computer, for instance, need minerals. A driller in an oil site can easily be retrained to be a driller on a geothermal site, or to drill a hydrogen site. 

JG: Certainly, those are highly specialized skills. I know I’m far from qualified to do any drilling at all.

AGM: Another thing we do is provide upskilling and training for workers in the industry. Often it only takes ten days for requalification, it doesn’t necessarily have to take years. But the other tricky thing is that all those other extractive industries may not be contributing to carbon [emissions], but they’re still damaging the environment and causing conflict with the communities around them. We actually need to restructure how we see the extractive industries, because otherwise we’re just migrating issues from one area to another. Even if we still reach our goal of a net-zero Canada, loggers will still be felling trees, people are still going to the Amazon to get titanium or other minerals, the system is still being perpetuated. 

JG: Yeah, switching out of the oil industry is not going to repair Indigenous relationships or old-growth forests. 

AGM: I think that piece is missing from the renewable conversation. For me, a just transition is a transition that doesn’t forget the workers, that centers them, but also that challenges how these industries relate to the community and the environment around them.

JG: There’s this intersectionality between climate change and income security. And we’re also talking about community resilience, because Iron & Earth is empowering workers and vulnerable groups.

AGM: I see things from an intersectional feminist perspective. I’ve been inspired by and learned from Black feminism and critical race theory, and Indigenous teachings. The issues are complex. For instance, if a project is doing well and a town gets created around that project, an economy will be set up. There will be schools, stores and community centres that people live, learn, work, and play at. I used to work in a small mining town about 45 minutes away from Val d’Or in Quebec. The town grew around the mine, but then the mine shut down. You could see where the Tim Horton’s and grocery store used to be, but then the whole town disappeared when the mine shut down. When we’re talking about intersectionality, if the oil and gas workers have money, they will put it back into the local economy. 

Most of the work Iron & Earth does is focused on the practical solution. So we are doing renewable skills training. We partner with postsecondary institutions and go into remote communities to train people. We also have a Climate Career Portal. For instance, if you’re an oil and gas worker, you can put your qualifications in and find out what skills you need to upgrade and move into a cleaner industry. It shows what courses are available and where, as well as what different companies are looking for. My part is less practical and more focused on listening to people and ensuring that they have a seat at the table, as well as helping to educate and using the practical aspects when needed.

JG: You’re advocating for people and educating them, and I love the idea of empowering and giving them the skills and tools to transition while still continuing to develop the community. And I also like that you’re working in partnership with other organizations—there’s no competition, just cooperation.

AGM: Another thing that the community conversations can help with is understanding the history and pride behind working in an industry, especially if it’s been a part of the fabric of a community for generations. We have to understand that sense of pride while still providing more environmentally ethical options, and not vilifying people or making assumptions about who they are based on their political ideologies. We live in a very divided world, and it’s easy to make those assumptions, and much harder to see the humanity in those we see as different. I see the community conversations as a way for people to learn about these topics in a non-threatening way, one that doesn’t come off as patronizing.

JG: What are you hoping to learn from this community conversation, and the subsequent community conversations you plan on having?

AGM: I want to learn from people’s experiences, just because I love hearing people’s stories. The way I do research and analyze data is through critical narrative analysis and critical discourse analysis. What you’re basically doing is analyzing the language in the stories that you’re hearing. From there, you see what micro-ideas come from society and what comes from their own personal beliefs. I’m very interested in stories because you can understand a lot from a person that way.

JG: I’m of the opinion that storytelling is one of the most powerful elements of the human experience. 

AGM: I want to give people voices, help people learn from each other, and change their own narratives as they learn more. My main hope is that people learn from each other and create a just narrative. I want people to feel like their contribution is valuable, their time is important, and their voices matter. I just want people to feel heard and cared for, and like they didn’t waste their time, they were with their community, helping to improve their community.

JG: It’s important to value the stories people are sharing. The information may not be private, but it’s certainly important.

AGM: I really just want to be a background person, and actively listen. I’ll provide information when needed, but I want to make sure that the community feels that this is about them, not Iron & Earth. What I mean is, the less space, the better. I want to make sure that the facilitators are from the community. Another thing I liked about the Green Resilience Project is that you gave us a guide about questions, but they’re not set in stone. I’m interested in storytelling, I can probably get the answers that the Green Resilience Project is looking for, but not necessarily coming from those questions. I like that freedom, the best answers will come from that freedom.

JG: Then we’re actually getting the answers that we need. It’s not us, you know, preaching or telling communities what they need. It’s scary and vulnerable, but so necessary. Do you have anything else you’d like to say?

AGM: Interestingly enough, I’m actually not using the word resilience much. I understand what that is. But why do we have to be so strong? Why do we have to take all this and survive it? Of course we will survive, that’s what humans do. But it’s okay to not have all the answers to make it better. I think the idea of “resilience” has been over-utilized in a way. I understand why the Green Resilience Project is using it, but that is why I’ve left it out of our discourse.

JG: That’s really interesting feedback and I don’t disagree with you at all. It’s praising strength and resilience without giving people the space to just live and be average.

AGM: Why do I have to be so resilient? Why do I have to be strong? Can’t I just live? Why can’t I be vulnerable? Why can’t I be sad? Most of my education and background is in sexual violence, so I approached my thoughts from that perspective. I also have invisible disabilities, so I’d rather just live than be praised for being resilient because I’m trying to survive. Why do I have to be resilient, and put up with this? You have this expectation put on you to be twice as good as everyone if you’re a woman, a person of colour, Indigenous, etc. just for them to notice your humanity. 

My driver’s license from Colombia isn’t valid in Canada, while a driver’s license from the UK (where people drive on the opposite side of the road) is valid. I felt the same kind of scrutiny when trying to get basic qualifications and licenses while in Quebec. It’s like, yes, we [in poorer countries] have to be resilient to climate change. But why do we have to be resilient to climate change? More often than anything, it’s not the community’s fault for the disasters they’re experiencing. 

JG: The most vulnerable and poorest countries are always impacted first, the hardest, and the worst. Every single time.

Going back to resilience, yes, we’ll survive it. But why are we in this situation? We’re allowed to be mad at it. We’re allowed to not be okay with it.