It may have happened when they were one of just a handful of people holding a placard outside the Statehouse, or while writing their 63rd letter to the editor, or when they were waiting on hold to talk to a bored-sounding Congressional staffer. At some point, every activist wonders: Am I having an impact? Do the decision-makers really know I am out here?
Connie Wick knows the answers. In the summer of 2004, Wick wrote her umpteenth letter to Senator Richard Lugar, this time in her role as coordinator of the Bread for the World group that meets at the northwest side Indianapolis retirement community Robin Run. A month later, President Bush held a signing ceremony in the White House. The invited guests included Lugar and Bread for the World president David Beckmann. Beckmann took advantage of the opportunity to lobby the President about the importance of full funding for the Millennium Challenge Account, designed to provide development assistance to the world's poorest countries.
Bush in turn called over Lugar, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee), and asked for their help getting the MCA funded. As Lugar and Beckmann walked away, the Senator turned to the Bread for the World head. "You know, I am just now responding to a letter from a constituent, Connie Wick," Lugar said. "She is saying just what you're saying, that we should fully fund the MCA and the AIDS initiative, and not cut funding for ongoing programs of assistance to poor people."
With the help of Senator Lugar, Congress soon designated $1.5 billion in funding for the MCA in fiscal year 2005. The Connie Wick story took on the status of legend among anti-poverty activists. "That was thrilling," she says.
Thrilling, but not unprecedented. Wick, 83, has seen the fruits of her activism in the environmental, civil rights and anti-poverty arenas for over forty years. In the Lafayette area, where Wick and her husband Joe lived while Joe was pastor of First Christian Church there, Wick is best known for leading the fight to save Wildcat Creek, an idyllic north-central Indiana tributary of the Wabash River. In the late 1960's, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced a plan to dam the Wildcat and flood 28 square miles of creek bed, farms, cemeteries and towns to create a reservoir.
When Wick and others formed the Lafayette Environmental Action Federation in 1969, the reservoir appeared a done deal. The political leaders of the state and community wanted the reservoir, as did the Chamber of Commerce. The local newspaper editorialized in favor of the dam, construction companies and lawyers stood to make a lot of money.
The national climate was very favorable for the project. The Army Corp of Engineers was in the midst of a post-World War II orgy of dam-building, and members of Congress had proposed flooding even the Grand Canyon. The environmental argument for the benefit of rivers and streams to wildlife, fish and the broader eco-system was not resonating with either voters or lawmakers.
So when the first president of the Lafayette environmental group stepped down, and Wick was elected the new president, she was cautioned by other local activists. "The one thing they told me when I became president was not to monkey with the reservoir problem, because it was just too big for us," she says. But Wick was not easily deterred. She had already defied an FBI agent who had visited her home a few years earlier to warn her off participation in the Lafayette area civil rights movement. When she heard from outdoors lovers and people who lived on family farms destined to destroyed by the dam, Wick decided she needed to step up. "The environmental, sociological and human side of this was just too much for me to stand aside.
"That was the end of my private life for twelve years," she says with a laugh.
"We Had the Votes"
When they began their anti-dam campaign, Wick was told by a Senate staffer that if the group wanted to be taken seriously, they would need 10,000 signatures on a petition. They gathered 20,000. They were told personal lobbying was important, too. So Wick organized two bus trips to visit lawmakers in Washington, and the "dam fighters" got in to talk with the governor and state legislators. Wick and two other activists chased then-Indiana Senator Vance Hartke around Lafayette one night, ultimately buttonholing Hartke outside a fundraiser at a private home.
They held marathon strategy sessions fueled by Girl Scout cookies, taught themselves the technical aspects of dam-building, and gave tours of the targeted areas to community leaders and youth groups. "We would bring them to some beautiful places and then say, 'Hold your breath, because if the dam cones, we are going to be under 60 feet of water here,'" Wick says.
"When we started to make headway, the power structure kept wondering where our money came from. But we didn't have any money. We just had a lot of volunteers, a lot of hard work, and a lot of community support."
Eventually, after more than a decade of struggle, Governor Otis Bowen and a majority of the state legislature expressed their opposition to damming the Wildcat, and federal officials backed off. "We had the votes, thanks to Connie's talent in reaching the public," says Carol Baker, who has lived for 55 years on a Rossville farm on the middle fork of Wildcat Creek. "Any knowledgeable person would say if it was not for Connie, it would have been Lake Lafayette, and there would have been an Army Corps of Engineers dam on the Wildcat."
The anti-dam movement that started in places like Connie Wick's living room grew into a well-organized national coalition that has reversed the dam-building trend. "It takes an unbelievable amount of energy, commitment and stamina to fight off an Army Corps of Engineers project," says Melissa Samet, senior director of water resources for the organization American Rivers. "But there was a pretty darn big impact made by the people who stood up and said no to dams. The era of the Corps of Engineers encasing rivers in concrete is now over."
Mark Krivchenia, a West Lafayette resident who is current president of the Wildcat Creek Foundation, recently wrote Wick a letter. "As I paddle the stream, I feel such a deep gratitude to you and the many others that had the vision to leave a little something for tomorrow," he wrote. "You are a hero to many, and you are a hero to me. Most importantly, you are a hero to the creek, to nature and to God that resides in nature."
Turning Over Apple Carts
When Joe Wick retired from the ministry, he and Connie moved to Robin Run in Indianapolis. Connie immediately joined the center's Bread for the World group, and soon became its president. She led letter-writing campaigns and the delivery of symbolic loaves of bread to congressional offices. Both Connie and Joe have served as president of the resident council at Robin Run, and Connie organizes the center's annual election forums that are a must for all area candidates for Congress and the Statehouse. "I manage to lasso all of them, by hook or by crook," she says.
One of the candidates who is a regular at the Robin Run forums is Congresswoman Julia Carson, who has become close with Wick. The two women exchange notes, calls and visits to birthday parties. "Connie always steps up when there is a need," Carson says.
The Wicks are now struggling with poor health - Joe has lung cancer, Connie has knee and back problems, They joke that doctors' appointments are the staple of their social life. But they recently took the time in their Robin Run apartment to reflect on the 60-plus years since the two native Hoosiers met at Texas Christian University.
"I went down there to marry a rich rancher and ended up with a poor preacher," Connie says.
"Must have been my magnetism," replies Joe.
When asked about the state of activism in the 21st century, Connie theatrically puts her left thumb in the air and turns it downward. "I really agonize over the fact that we just don't see the demonstrations we used to see in the 1970's, and that used to be so important for educating and energizing people. I'm not knocking those who are still out there doing it, but I don't see as much of it.
"We've got an awful lot of comfortable people in this country and they don't want their apple cart turned over."
But Connie Wick doesn't accept a disappointing situation without trying to lobby for change. So she argues why young people should take action to address injustice. "One of the wonderful gifts of activism is all the bonding that goes on, the creation of friendships with unselfish, tireless, committed people," she says. "It can be very exhilarating.
"But if you do this, don't let anyone denigrate your patriotism. Citizen participation is the backbone of democracy, and those who don't take action deserve what they get."
She rubs her swollen knee and looks over at Joe, who smiles back at her. "I really was known as a rabble rouser, wasn't I?" she asks. They both fall silent for a few moments, and then she smiles too. "Still am, I guess."