A Report from the “Front Lines”
Every so often it’s nice to get out of the (paradoxical) “sheltered shouting” of the academy and into the world where real, on the ground work takes place. Last week, I spent my time in Moline Illinois, attending the Annual Meeting of the Mississippi River Network and the Upper Mississippi River Conference, put on by River Action and its partners. Here are some quick observations:
The 50 or so members of the Mississippi River Network (MRN) separately and collectively are doing game-changing work to protect the health of the Mississippi River. As the movement matures, our biggest questions and challenges may well turn to how well the members of the MRN can help each other out, share insights and strategies and truly formulate a collective impact on the river that is greater than what all of us as individual programs can do. It’s going to take communication, coordination, and collaboration, each of which is easier to say than it is to do. The group is clearly on the right path, though.
At the conference, Mark Gorman, a policy analyst from the Northeast-Midwest Institute (a member of the MRN) gave a talk with the intriguing title “The Cheshire Cat was Right.” Gorman’s point? “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.” Indeed, figuring out where we really want to go is the hardest part of our work, and the planning element most easily truncated. It’s much more fun just to do something, anything, for the sake of appearing to have momentum.
Finally, Patrick Seeb of the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation (another MRN member) closed the conference with a reflection that asked us all to think bigger, to envision the future of our riverfront cities as well as the future of the rivers/riverfronts themselves. Seeb listed five issues in urban resiliency that all of us should be thinking about:
- the looming health crisis–can we design and plan our cities so they are healthier places?
- the achievement gap–disparities in education, access to good jobs, and a host of other qualities is holding back a large percentage of our population.
- food and water security–the drinking water crises in West Virginia and Toledo OH this year point to a striking vulnerability.
- environmental disruption–what impact will a changing climate have on the physical fabric of our cities?
- the new face of America–across the nation, by 2045, the majority of the population will be nonwhite. Moreover, younger people, the so-called “millennials,” are acquiring and processing knowledge very differently than older people do, even as the percentage of retirees grows and becomes a demographic factor to consider with the particular needs of an aging population.
Indeed, it’s always salutary to be reminded in these tangible, material ways why our work is important.