Steel Mills to Shifting Sands – Pat Wisniewski Digs the Dunes
(Feature photo: Film Crew at Chelberg – Ranger Bruce Rowe, Lee Botts, Pat Wisniewski, and Rana Segal)
Submitted by: Matt Werner
Patricia Wisniewski held her camera as she stood among a group of big, burly guys and one woman holding guns at a firing range. The woman asked her, “Do you shoot?”
“My Canon,” Wisniewski replied.
A short time later, the group crowded into a room and Wisniewski stood before them and made her sales pitch. She asked for $80,000 and official sponsorship so she could make a documentary film. The group deliberated. She was nervous. Then a man stood up and said, “I think we should do this.” The group was the Diana chapter of the Izaak Walton League and those words of support launched “Everglades of the North,” a documentary about the Grand Kankakee Marsh. Momentum from that film rolled to “Shifting Sands: On the Path to Sustainability,” about the Indiana Dunes.
Wisniewski grew up in Hegewisch, a steel mill jobbing neighborhood on the far southeast side of Chicago. Her great-grandfather, her grandfather, her father, and her uncles were all steel mill workers, and when Patty turned 18, she became a steel mill worker. At age 22, she became the first woman and the youngest person ever elected union rep at Local 1033 of the United Steel Workers of America. When fellow workers pushed her to select their friend as a sub-griever, she picked her own man instead. They ostracized her. She didn’t care because she had done the right thing. When her job got cut, she worked for the Chicago Mayor’s Office for Employment and Training helping other displaced steel workers find jobs too. She was one of the top producers. That whole time, Wisniewski had another plan in mind.
“I’ve always liked writing, even when I worked in the steel mill,” Wisniewski said. “I used to write stories about all the characters and the things I saw. The stories sat under my bed for about 15 years.”
That’s when a Northwest Indiana career center held a writing contest for stories about steel workers. Wisniewski dug out the stories under her bed, dusted them off, and sent some in. She won and one of her stories got produced as part of an ensemble called “Steel and Roses,” a series of plays about the steel mills.
When her parents passed away, Wisniewski pursued another dream: to earn a college diploma. She studied communications at Indiana University Northwest and for her senior project she produced “Walking in their Shoes,” a documentary that focused on peoples’ words, stories, and the things around their lives before revealing their faces.
Shortly thereafter, Jeff Manes approached her. “I gotta tell this story,” he said and showed it to Wisniewski. She was blown away as she read through the pages of history and stories Manes had collected about the Grand Kankakee Marsh. More people need to know about this, she thought. We have to share it. Together, they made a five minute video with borrowed equipment, put it on youtube.com, and it got 5,000 hits. That’s when she met the Izaak Walton League and launched her company, For Goodness Sake Productions.
Midway through production of “Everglades of the North,” Lee Botts approached Wisniewski. She too had a story she had to tell. She talked about the Indiana Dunes, all of the change it had endured, and how it was making a remarkable comeback with renewed efforts on sustainability. Wisniewski’s imagination raced. Three months after finishing “Everglades,” Lee Botts, Tom Desch, Rana Segal, Matthew Keene, and Wisniewski teamed up and began work on “Shifting Sands: On the Path to Sustainability.”
“I learned environmentalism,” Wisniewski said. “I learned so much from ‘Everglades’ and ‘Shifting Sands’ from the people I’d met who gave me a masters degree in environmental education. Jim Sweeny, the Izaak Walton League, Paul Labus, the Nature Conservancy, Susan MiHalo, Dan Plath, Save the Dunes, Shirley Heinz Land Trust—I learned so much because you have to go in so much depth to create a documentary.”
The Shifting Sands team caught Wisniewski up to speed and she applied her video production experience. Together, they turned 200 hours of film footage into a one hour story that informed viewers about the Indiana Dunes—the natural wonder, the amazing biodiversity, the buildup of the factories, the destruction, the battle, the politics, and its ongoing renewal.
“I had no idea the army of people who are out there every single day, fighting to keep our water, our air, our landscape clean and most people don’t even know they’re out there and I’m so grateful to them,” Wisniewski said. “Now I know who they are and I want everybody to know who that army is.”
There are over 200 different restoration projects in the area. The Calumet River, once completely dead, now has orchids flowering on its banks. Wolf Lake has reverted from an open dump back into an oasis. Roxanna Marsh has been converted from a polluted swamp to a full-functioning marsh again. “It’s amazing what all these people did,” Wisniewski said.
As Wisniewski talks, she gets fired up. She loves this and I find myself loving it too—all of the amazing things right here and we don’t know. We just don’t know. She may be an accidental environmentalist, but she’s now a dedicated cheerleader, promoting the stories, the people, and the activities to maintain and improve northwest Indiana’s nature and environment.
She’s talking about the environment, economics, and social justice and what it all means to the planet, to the Dunes, and to the people of northwest Indiana. She’s rolling and her face lights up. “The sweet spot is when you can meet in the middle and have all three,” she said. “That’s what we really want in order to move forward. That’s called sustainability.”
It truly make sense and that’s what “Shifting Sands” is all about.
“I had a guy from the Teamsters Union call me the other day,” Wisniewski said. “He wants to show it at their hall. He said, ‘I learned more about the lakeshore in that one hour than I’d learned in all my years of school.’”
That Teamster isn’t alone. Anybody who’s seen “Shifting Sands”—myself included—will say the same thing. I get it, you think you know this story and this isn’t for you. Well, you’re wrong. You will be surprised. This film was made just for you.
One of the opening scenes is an aerial shot moving up over the Lake Michigan beach into rolling hills filled with plants and trees. The aerial shots are eye-opening, stunning, informative. It’s unlike any place I’d ever seen.
“That’s here in Indiana? Those are the Dunes?” I said.
Wisniewski smiled. “Yep.”
Those stunning shots took four months of planning and coordination, but Wisniewski insisted they be part of the film. They are a critical part of the story. The Indiana Dunes is one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the world.
“People don’t realize it. Our dunes are so rare. Not only does the forest of the eastern deciduous forest meet the prairie, but also the glacier came down and we’re at the northernmost region where southern plants grow. We have these four distinct areas coming together, so you can see an arctic bear berry growing next to a prickly pear cactus. You can see the forest meet the prairie. Not only that, but because you have the glaciers receding, you have the dune and swale—dry sandy ridges with wet boggy areas underneath. You have lizards and things living in the bog and things that grow in dry, sandy areas living right next to them on the dune. That is a globally rare system—you rarely see that anywhere on earth and we have it here!”
Wisniewski is on a roll again and she’s got me rolling too. She’s laying the foundation for the argument why the Indiana Dunes should become a full-fledged National Park and, well, I’m sold. Wisniewski is a great salesperson and she speaks with passion, but subtract that and the facts remain. It makes pure and simple sense, but that’s another story for another day.
“It’s a very special place,” Wisniewski said. “It’s a very unique place. I had no idea—outside going to the beach with my family—how rare, and beautiful, and special that place really is.
Wisniewski now knows and she wants you to know too. Do yourself a favor: see “Shifting Sands: On the Path to Sustainability.” Look for it on public television or catch it at one of the public viewings in the area. Buy a copy of the DVD. Buy 10 copies. Show it to all of your friends and family. You’ll be glad you did.