WILLISTON, N.D. — CNN’s Lisa Ling said when she came to Williston, she was prepared to be cat-called due to the influx of men working in the oil fields of western North Dakota.
But what the award-winning journalist and author found was more women than she had expected, seeking their own opportunities to cash in on the energy boom.
On Sunday, her eight-part series for CNN, “This is Life with Lisa Ling,” will feature the Oil Patch city in an episode titled “Filthy Rich,” in which she explores how “women pioneers” are leveraging their skills to compete for oil field jobs or to work in the booming food and hospitality industry.
Ling said she thought focusing on women would be interesting, given the state continues to have the lowest unemployment rate in the nation.
“(It’s) the place in America where jobs are in abundance. People have a second shot at life. I met so many people trying to patch back some semblance of life,” she said.
Ling rides along with Helen Hextrum, a 50-something mother of four from Northern California, in her truck as she makes fuel deliveries to job sites on a pitch-black night.
The only female driver in her company, Hextrum, who saw her business and marriage fall apart, now makes a six-figure salary and voices the tenacity of many who come to the Bakken.
“I told myself I can do this, I can do this. I just put my pioneer pants on and got right at it,” she says in the episode.
Crystal Thomas drove from Florida to avoid being a “welfare mom,” leaving behind her 11-year-old son in Florida — a sacrifice, Ling said. The two met at a job fair in March in Williston.
Thomas would initially sleep in her car, as Hextrum did for four months until she moved into company housing.
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In the episode, Ling
accompanies Thomas to consider living in a crew camp, where workers — mostly men — sleep in 10-foot-by-12-foot rooms, share a bathroom and receive meals for $85 a night.
Ling said the women illustrate the pursuit of dreams and hopes — a recurring theme heard during her visit to Williston.
“They’re examples of pursuing the American Dream. People are going there to work, support families back home, and that was almost universal,” she said.
But with the “massive concentration” of men, Ling said it’s not a new phenomenon that women would follow to “service” the men, challenging local law enforcement and rattling the once-sleepy community.
Windie Jo Lazenko, an advocate for those who have been victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking, tells Ling that Williston’s sex trafficking issue is an “infestation.”
Through her ministry, 4her North Dakota, Lazenko combs the streets, hotels and bars of the city reaching out to the women to provide hope and empowerment. In one scene, Ling talks with an unidentified woman about her experiences of being trafficked as Lazenko sits quietly nearby.
Ling said she found herself “utterly fascinated” by what’s happening in Williston and is excited to return. The episode attempts to show the different worlds that women inhabit in the boomtown. However, she noted it’s difficult to tell the whole story of a city in transition.
“I don’t know that you can ever tell the full story. The dynamics happening in Williston are so fascinating and complex,” she said. “I think (we’ve) done a decent job of telling what’s happening here.”
The CNN Original Series was produced by Brooklyn, N.Y.-based part2 pictures. “Filthy Rich” can be seen on CNN at 8 p.m. Sunday.