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Do we need new ideas for the future of the Mississippi River?

February 12, 2013Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured Posts, Guest Posts, Program & AnnouncementsComments Off on Do we need new ideas for the future of the Mississippi River?

I would offer a qualified “yes” to this question.  It’s not that our current thinking is old, or lacking, just that the challenges the river will face in the coming decades are going to require imagination and knowledge that hasn’t yet emerged.  We will need 21st century ideas, in whatever form they emerge, for 21st century conditions.

Which brings me back to one of my favorite topics: the work of the next generation of river leaders, who are in high school and college now.  You may have read some of the guest student voice posts that we have released over the past week or so.  If not, I encourage you to go back and take a look; you won’t be disappointed.

These posts feature two qualities that make them outstanding and exemplary of what’s possible.  First, they don’t know “what can’t be done.”  In all of these cases, whether Aidan Breen’s notion that Fort Snelling meets the criteria for an International Site of Conscience or Derek Holmer’s vision of a connected downtown St. Paul, students see potential solutions and take off with the possibilities.  So what if lack of funding or institutional inertia would stand in the way?  There’s no harm in trying!

The second outstanding quality these posts show is almost the inverse of the first.  None of the students’ ideas are “just a student’s idea” without any reference or awareness of the actual conditions in the community.  Mitch Gulbransen knows that each of the park districts and management agencies needs to brand “their” own park with its own distinctive name and so forth.  But he also asks us to consider what might be possible if we thought a little bit farther than we’re used to, considered something a little out of the ordinary.

“Thinking outside the box” has become a cliche.  These students don’t yet know where the box is, but they aren’t naive about the possibility of there being constraints.

We at River Life work closely with several parts of the University of Minnesota that are committed to community engagement.  The practice in community engagement is becoming focused developing on enduring relationships, building work that we can do together over a period of time rather than “one offs” that just last a few weeks or so.

Where should we be looking for the next set of relationships to build?  Do let us know, and we’ll explore what we can do together.  Who knows, perhaps one of our students today will be your most important staff member tomorrow.

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Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi
A joint project of River Life, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Open Rivers is an interdisciplinary online journal that recognizes the Mississippi River as a space for timely and critical conversations about people, community, water, and place.