Ever have that experience of working on a project, or with a group where the thought occurs to you: “If this had not happened ‘naturally,’ someone would have had to invent it.” That’s how it is with Works Progress, the Twin Cities-based arts and community development group: if they didn’t exist already, someone would have to invent them.
What’s to “invent,” you may ask? A decentered, nonheirarchical approach to community engagement that provides energy, ideas, a “safe place” to try new things that bring people together, all embodied in two people and a shifting cast of characters working to make the region a more livable place for all of us.
OK, that needs unpacking. Works Progress, the husband and wife team of Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson, does not have the “official authority” of an Arts Board or a formal Community Development office. Their classic pattern is to devise means by which people talk together, learn from each other, and solve problems. Think of projects such as “Give and Take,” and “Neighbor Makers” as the “un-TED-Talk.” No story of MY profound insight, MY transformative journey, MY startup that worked miracles, only “we” and “us” and living together and making “here” better. The expertise is in the group, and bringing that expertise out is catalytic work.
For Works Progress, the work of artists is far more dynamic than making pretty things (although the formation of new community identity can certainly be a beautiful thing!). What artists do is get people to see and think differently, creating space–both physical and psychological and social–to try new things and connect. What if we looked at the Mississippi River through the lenses of stories and games, as well as science? Played music as well as played with knots? River City Revue, which did precisely that, is but one of several river-oriented projects and programs in the Works Progress portfolio.
We’ve worked with Colin and Shanai for a few years now, so it was natural for us to invite them, as well as their colleagues from the City-Art Collaboratory, to our recent River at Our Doorstep event. There’s more to say about River at Our Doorstep, and that will be forthcoming. But let’s close this post with a link to Shanai’s reflection on the event, which she posted recently on medium.com. As a whole, the post captures pretty much exactly what we were looking to achieve.
Her close, though, is pure dynamite. She challenges us, and the communities of people we work with, to consider what it would mean to embrace complexity and paradox, to resist our “natural” urge to streamline and simplify, and (my addition here) to imagine how we might move forward by pursuing so-called “grand challenges” by attending closely to the particulars in front of us.
It would be hard to capture River Life’s mission more directly.
As we all know by now, the Mississippi River is a big place, full of an almost-unimaginable range of interesting places, people, and issues. Every so often someone comes up with the (not new!) idea that “If we could just get everyone interested in the Mississippi together, we could ____” fill in the blank with any number of transformative ideas.
Well, yes and no. I’ve been at the Mississippi River planning and programming and project development business for nearly 20 years and have made several full-length trips in service to two or three efforts to coordinate around one project, or a particular theme, or constituency. That more limited form of engagement is very difficult; the idea of getting “everyone” just doesn’t seem feasible to me, even with new digital technologies.
Still, people are going to try, and one of the most persistent is Anne Lewis, founder of America’s Waterway. Lewis uses the full range of ordinary digital media in her quest, but also is connected up with an outfit called America Speaks, trying to put together a “National Dialogue” on the Mississippi River.
Whether or not I personally think such a dialogue is really possible, the work of America’s Waterway is a prime example of how interesting things happen while we’re trying to do something else. Tweeting as @unifymissriver, Lewis continually turns up interesting and informative items across the range of subjects pertaining to the Mississippi River. Some examples, from the past week alone:
National Weather Service hydrologists predict a low likelihood of spring flooding on the Mississippi, despite recent heavy snows. Snow drifts higher than cars in my neighborhood in St. Paul call the science into question!
How was St. Louis founded, nearly 250 years ago? Madame Marie Therese Choteau, wife of a prominent fur trader, was instrumental, as this historically-themed article makes clear.
Farther down river, Baton Rouge, LA makes significant progress in creating a new riverfront mixed-use development. Check this article in The Advocate for more details.
Hard as it may be to believe, the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge will sponsor a geocaching event on March 22. No word on whether they provide snow shovels or you have to bring your own. More details, should you find yourself in the vicinity of Thomson, IL, can be found here.
These stories really demonstrate one of the great values of our wired world: dedicated people with a wide range of interests and the time/passion to share interesting items, work to inform all of us.
And speaking of inform, if you’ve read this far, you’re obviously interested in the Mississippi River! River Life is hosting two workshops today, Friday 2/28, in Coffman Union on the Minneapolis campus to develop ideas for research, teaching, and programs on the Mississippi River corridor. Do come join us if you’re in the neighborhood and have some time. Further information is here.
Maybe our recent cold and snow has kept report writers chained to their desks. Whatever the cause, something has happened, because this week has seen a spate of potentially important news about water in Minnesota. A sampling:
Results of several studies on the impacts of sulfates in water on wild rice have been released. The state Pollution Control Agency is set to announce shortly (was originally going to be Thursday 2/27, but has been postponed) whether the science indicates that new sulfate standards from mines need to be adopted.
The back story, as explained in an article by Stephanie Hemphill for Minnpost.com, is that we have known for a long time that high levels of sulfates damage wild rice. The new studies show that the level at which damage occurs is lower than had been previously understood. Wild rice is an iconic plant in Minnesota, and carries a variety of spiritual and cultural meanings for the state’s indigenous Ojibwe population. Protection of wild rice would seem a “given,” except that mining companies are chafing at the existing restrictions, not to mention the potential for new, higher water quality standards. Stay tuned: this could well end up in the state legislature and in the courts.
Speaking of the Legislature, the spring session began this week, which means that nothing is safe, or beyond comprehension. In a very informative article, Elizabeth Dunbar from Minnesota Public Radio rounds up and summarizes a number of bills, mostly having to do with the emerging awareness that the state needs to manage its groundwater better. Some of these, such as the appointment of a state hydrologist, are clearly good ideas. Others, like the provision of bonding money to refill White Bear Lake near St. Paul, don’t appear to have been thought through very clearly. Still, anything is possible.
And finally, it seems distinctly possible that Minnesota could become the first state in the country to ban triclosan, a key ingredient in many anti-bacterial products as well as common household items such as toothpaste, shampoos, and the like. Research shows that triclosan can interact with chlorine and sunlight to form harmful dioxins in water. Since water treatment plants commonly use chlorine and sunlight in their processes, this is a big problem.
Another article from MPR’s Dunbar points out that many big household product companies are already phasing triclosan out of their products, while others are dragging their feet. State action would thus seem to be warranted. The article has good quotations from Trevor Russell from the local organization Friends of the Mississippi (FMR). FMR and the National Park Service’s Mississippi National River and Recreation Area combined forces to produce a State of the River report in late 2012. That report, which concentrates on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis-St. Paul, covers triclosan and 12 other key indicators of river health. Well worth a look.
One more note: readers wanting to keep up to date on the groundwater issue in Minnesota should bookmark the MPR project Ground Level: Beneath the Surface, which has ongoing analyses and news coverage.
Lots to chew on here, but there are plenty of good journalists covering the issues and advocacy organizations keeping tabs on progress.
I wrote early in February about John Ruskey and the “Mighty Quapaws,” a canoe company in the Mississippi Delta that takes young people out on the Mississippi down where the river is REALLY BIG, and where most people are, frankly, afraid of the water. Ruskey and his crew are working wonders to set up trips that teach people about the history and geography of the place they live in, open their eyes to the wonders of the natural world around them, teach them self-reliance and teamwork, and get good exercise into the bargain.
What’s not to like, right?
Apparently the Mississippi Department of Revenue has found a lot not to like, assessing Ruskey’s company a five-figure tax bill even though federal law clearly states that taxes shall not be assessed on activities taking place on navigable waterways. As this article from the Mississippi Business Journal makes clear, Ruskey and his company are in imminent danger of going out of business or, at the very least, being distracted to the point where the quality of their work suffers.
Ruskey’s “Island 63” blog recently announced the formation of a Legal Defense Fund and ways to contribute, an extreme step that obviously pains this proudly independent entrepreneur. His point that the nature tourism business is in its infancy in Mississippi and has tremendous growth potential is a powerful argument that deserves to be heard more widely.
Aside from the immediate urgency from the tax case Ruskey is facing, I think there is another issue here as well. Once again, the Mississippi River is “a place apart,” a place where some of the rules “on land” are unclear or not applicable. The Mississippi River forms the border for eight of the ten states that it passes through, as well as the borders of a number of federal agency regions (the EPA, for example.)
The net effect is two-fold. On one hand, the river’s status as on the margins of state and agency boundaries leaves it isolated, “falling through the cracks” with no certain responsibility or authority for making sure that it is managed well. This status is obviously problematic.
On the other hand, the margins are where interesting new encounters happen, where growth occurs. Ruskey would probably agree that much of the magic of paddling the Mississippi lies in the fact that it is away from so many things that define “life here in settled areas.” In this respect, the “margins,” understood as ecologists understand the margins between ecotones, are dynamic, interesting, the most valuable places on earth.
It is fervently to be hoped that Ruskey and his supporters can talk sense into a hidebound state bureaucracy. We must be able to continue to send our young people into wild places, into the margins.
As with most slowly evolving disasters, this one has many causes: decades of habitual overuse, failures of water governance and public investment, a stretch of abnormally “wet” years that came to be seen as “normal.”
What’s less clear is how Californians will be able to respond and what, if anything, California’s case means for the rest of the country. Sure, California is dry, but much of it has always been a desert and should have remained so, according to some smug ruminations from the Midwest, that part of the country that Western writer Wallace Stegner habitually referred to as “the humid East.”
But that’s not entirely true, or fair. The court fight between the states of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida over allocation of the Chattahoochee-Apalachicola-Flint River systems has been to the Supreme Court once and may yet be headed there again. The recent pollution of the Elk River in West Virginia owing to spilled coal cleaning chemicals showed us that our water protection laws are not always as robust as they need to be. Patterns of drought and flood on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers still baffle some of the most expensive engineers and planners in the country.
And that’s not even to mention the groundwater challenges in places like the Ogalalla Aquifer, which underlies most of the Great Plains and is being drawn down at an unsustainable rate.
In this climate of confusion and overwhelming information, where are we to turn? Fortunately the water conversation on the web is incredibly rich. On the California drought alone, and just within the past week, leading sources have included:
Circle of Blue, a topnotch online platform of news reporting and multimedia materials covering water issues across the world. The Special Report posted February 20 on California’s response to the water crisis caps a series of detailed analyses of the current crisis. Brett Walton (@waltonwater) leads the coverage.
Michael E. Campana, faculty in hydrogeology at Oregon State University, is, as his Twitter handle suggests @WaterWired. The WaterWired blog is a first-rate source of information on a range of water-related disciplines and has a very robust “jobs” listing.
In Minnesota, Minnesota Public Radio’s Ground Level program is conducting a sustained and detailed investigation of issues pertaining to water scarcity and to groundwater in Minnesota. Often thought of as one of the most “well watered” states in the country, Minnesota is beginning to see signs of strains on its water systems.
California journalist Emily Green writes at “Chance of Rain.” Her work often displays a deep skepticism of the platitudes uttered by elected officials at all levels of government.
All of these writers are prominently engaged on Twitter as well as maintaining their own blogs and other digital platforms. For tweeted insights particular to the California situation, follow the hashtags #cawater and #cadrought.
Not too many universities are located directly on one of the great rivers of the world. In fact, I can only think of one: the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus, which is bisected by the Mississippi and is located, as well, inside the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.
This fact of geography offers us at the University unique opportunities and, it could be argued, unique responsibilities. We’re a land grant school, charged with developing practical knowledge that is helpful to the people of our state. The Mississippi River, though, is not just a statewide resource: it is truly a significant regional, national, and global water system. What we do here has implications for urban rivers everywhere. The road from thinking about our own backyard to thinking about the planet is challenging, but must be undertaken.
University faculty, staff, students, and community partners will take some steps on this journey at a workshop “The River at Our Doorstep” on Friday, February 28. The morning session will begin at 9:00 and will focus on research programs, needs, and opportunities. The afternoon session, commencing at 1:00, will take up questions of teaching and public programs.
The workshop will be in Coffman Memorial Union, the President’s Room on the 3rd Floor.
All river rats are welcome! For more information, see the River Life events page, or contact Pat Nunnally at email@example.com
If we take the term “blogroll” more loosely to mean the organizations and people we interact with through digital community, then the people whose work on Twitter we link to, and who link to us, are very significant members of that community.
Maybe more clear: Instead of just keeping track of blogs we read and check regularly, our digital communities include people whose tweets we send along and who retweet our stuff. (Can you tell it’s been a long week?)
Here’s a partial list, with Twitter handle and other information as readily available, is who we have been communicating with this week. It’s been a great week, with lively exchanges, and we thank all of these folks for the interactions!
@AnnEssippi Annette Anderson Mississippi River enthusiast! 1 Mississippi Outreach Coordinator. Protect, preserve, conserve, canoe, bike, hike, rock climb or swim, enjoy the beauty! Mississippi River · 1mississippi.org
@ndngenuity American Indian advisor promoting indigenous ideas, perspectives, and solutions. Author of the Indigenous Cultural Landscape. Opinions expressed are mine only. Chesapeake Bay watershed
@LandscapeObserv Providing observations and information on the emerging fields of landscape scale conservation, heritage preservation, and sustainable community development. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania · livinglandscapeobserver.net
@RestoreDelta Louisiana & the Mississippi River Delta lose a football field of land every hour. Follow us as we work to restore it. By @EnvDefenseFund,@NWF & @audubonsociety Coastal Louisiana · mississippiriverdelta.org
We’ve listened to many more people this month, and have been heard by many more. These accounts, though, give a good account of who we’re in conversations with.
It’s a pretty short, but densely packed, article, a few hundred words noting a relatively minor action by City Council Committees in Minneapolis. With the recent passage of a city budget item, 2014 will officially be the last year the City’s Upper Harbor Terminal will be open.
The Terminal has fallen on hard times lately, with business down by about half over the past five years or so. The 48 acre site only supports 11 jobs at the moment, less than what the City asks from new businesses looking for City assistance to get started. What happened? Lots of things, really: coal plants switch to burning natural gas; we put less salt on roads in winter; shipping by river overall is down.
The article contains good information on how the Terminal got built in the first place, out of a competition between Minneapolis and St. Paul over most of the 20th century concerning which would be the head of navigation on the Mississippi River. Clearly, St. Paul won that title, but navigation as a whole is in a long period of decline, so the prize doesn’t glimmer as brightly as it did 50 or 75 years ago.
What will come next? Hard to say. There are plans that call for the site to remain a shipping transfer point, but one more suited to a 21st century “green economy.” Other plans, of course, all for mixed use housing and commercial developments, linked by trails to other parts of the city and riverfront. Looming over all is the question of how much longer the locks at St. Anthony Falls, a couple of miles downstream, will remain open. The site may not end up being a distinctively “river oriented” place at all, despite its location.
It seems, though, that we aren’t talking about some things that are badly needed. The site lies across the freeway from Minneapolis’ North Side, where jobs and job training opportunities are hard to come by. Moreover, the transfer of the Terminal to some other use marks a significant point in the long “retreat of the industrial glacier” that is giving us new land uses, new audiences and connections, a new riverfront. It remains to be seen whether the new riverfront is accessible fully, whether the river will be an asset that is shared equitably with citizens from across the city. Past developments, which concentrate on market rate (read: very expensive) housing are not promising in this regard.
In 2007 the National Park Service published a series of reflections on parks and “civic engagement,” that is, places where parks can become spaces to learn our country’s past. Of course many parks already do this, in very clearly defined ways. There is one line in the report, though, that has stuck with me: “Parks should be safe places to tell unsafe stories.” By “unsafe,” I take the author to mean stories that haven’t ended happily ever after for everyone, stories that illustrate ways of thinking and decision-making, community priorities, that are now recognized as out of date and no longer our core values as a community. I would even go so far as to argue that until parks (the National Park Service unit on the Mississippi, in this case) do this, they will not be fulfilling their truest potential as valued spaces in our communities.
Rivers can be about more than short term gain; they can and should be places that show us who we are. Read through the “Common Ground” report here and let me know of other opportunities for the riverfront to be a place of civic engagement.
Everyone knows in at least an abstract way that the Mississippi River is a really big river. That notion is really brought home for those of us near the headwaters by reading evocative, vivid writing from the other end of the river, the Mississippi Delta.
Writing in the Island 63 blog, my friend and colleague Mark River mentions getting on his mountain bike and riding off to his “special spot” along the Sunflower River on January 20, MLK Day. And there’s a picture of him with Griot Arts Youth, some of them in shorts! Maybe the photo wasn’t taken in December, but up here in Minnesota, not many of us are hardy enough to ride a mountain bike and sit on a riverbank in January!
There’s a lot more to learning about the Delta stretch of the river than climate differences, though, and Island 63 is just one of the blogs produced by John Ruskey (Driftwood Johnnie) and his collective group affectionately referred to as the “Mighty Quapaws.” Island 63 amounts to a commmunity bulletin board, announcing music events, river clean ups and other comings and goings in Clarksdale, MS.
For those actively planning a canoe trip on the Delta stretch of the Mississippi River (or even dreaming of one) there is the “River Gator,” site for the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail.
Information on the Mighty Quapaw Canoe Company, including how to book a trip, is at http://www.island63.com/.
Described as a “deep-delta haven” for writers, artists and creative types, Big Island lives up to its name with multitudes of images, paintings, prose passages, and the like. You could get lost in there!
It is extremely gratifying when broader media outlets and other writers with bigger audiences pick up on things that have been our own obsession for so long. Jay Walljasper, a well known local author, speaker, and consultant who focuses particularly on issues relating to “the commons” as a community ethos, last week published a series of articles on the Mississippi River and the future of the Twin Cities.
Walljasper’s articles appeared in the online source MinnPost.com, and were drawn from a recent report completed for the McKnight Foundation, which has a longstanding commitment both to the Mississippi River and to the future of our particular region.
The three articles that appeared last week are all eminently worth scrutiny, but here’s a “cheat sheet” for those who are short on time:
The opening story points out that the Mississippi River is central to the region’s international recognition. People may not know Minneapolis or St. Paul, or Minnesota, but across the world people have heard of the Mississippi River. For decades, even generations in some instances, community leaders have woven the Mississippi River into the fabric of the cities, first through renowned systems of parks and trails, and later as a more explicit community development strategy.
The proliferation of ideas about how to make the downtown riverfronts more attractive, and create more access to the Mississippi itself are the subjects of the second article.
Finally, Walljasper’s vision travels down river, pointing out the many many places down into southeastern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa where riverfront revitalization has become key to community redevelopment. Dozens of small river towns are enjoying revivals as their restored historic structures, newly developed cafes and the like provide destinations for visitors, many of whom come from the Twin Cities and just follow the river.
As with any good body of work, there are always subjects left to explore in later efforts. In the future, it will be great to see similar explorations of how the river is increasingly functioning as a connected ecological system, with aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems increasingly important as the water becomes cleaner and park vegetation matures. We also are increasingly mindful of the regional benefits brought by the river as the visible part of a freshwater system that our communities absolutely rely on for drinking water, for industry and many other reasons.
Taken together, the river as freshwater system and as habitat system point us toward understanding the “ecosystem services” of the Mississippi River to the Twin Cities. This is the next, more complex, (and harder to describe gracefully in prose) connection of the river to the future of the region.
Anyone up for tackling that writing project? Jay Walljasper’s work is a great model!