Sometimes it’s just plain fun to work at a place where people have lots of ideas and energy. On Friday February 28, our “River at our Doorstep” program was exactly that: lots of ideas and energy and a day from which to build good project ideas.
I wrote earlier about our friends at Works Progress,and particularly the blog response to our event from one of the co-principals, Shanai Matteson. If you want a good primer on what roles the arts can play in forming community and helping us all find new ways to see differently, this post is a “must read.”
The Institute for Advanced Study, our “home base” at the University, filmed the opening remarks for the symposium. This link contains that video, featuring Paul Labovitz from the National Park Service, Katie Nyberg from the Mississippi River Fund, and me, speaking on behalf of the River Life program.
So how did the day go, after all? At the beginning I listed three goals for the workshop:
- for people to become acquainted with folks they did not know before;
- for people to see expanded possibilities for their own work;
- for us at River Life to identify some threads and efforts that we could assist with.
According to everyone I spoke with afterwards, those goals were met, with resounding success to the tune of “we ought to do this more” or “wait, I can’t talk now because I have to go catch that person before they leave and exchange email addresses.”
There were three other clear take away messages that emerged from all of the dynamic conversations in the room.
- The relationship with students is a big deal. We had a number of students there and they were nearly unanimous in their desire to learn more about the river, to engage with this corridor during their time at the University, and to do service projects with river-oriented community partners. The community partners there also expressed a strong desire to connect to students, so that’s a set of projects waiting to happen.
- The arts and design can play a huge role in our University-River connection. We had relatively few scientists in attendance, so it’s not fair to say that there’s no need for scientific investigation (far from it!). But the rich, complex, and diverse voices of artists added a great deal to the overall mix of the day.
- There is still a gap between the University’s research enterprise and the knowledge needs of the community. Sometimes the community needs something that we just don’t have; sometimes our researchers are too specialized for a public audience/collaboration; sometimes the mix just isn’t right. But it was clear over the course of the day that disconnects between “town and gown” remain to be worked on.
Lewis Gilbert from the University’s Institute on the Environment closed our discussions with a couple of key messages. Primary among those was the exhortation to do something worthy of the scale of the Mississippi River and the University. We’re a big, comprehensive research, teaching, and engagement institution, and the Mississippi is one of the world’s great rivers. Our efforts should aspire to that scale. As Gilbert asked us,
“How does what you do here make the world a better place?”
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.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
I have found that this question has meaning for everyone, not just college students wondering what to do when they are forced out (or released) into the real world upon graduation. I have also found that there is probably a better way to ask this question—what do you want to DO when you grow up? The River at Our Doorstep Workshop last Friday spurred me (the token college student) to ask this question of myself, once again.
In the morning, we covered research on and about the river…at least that was the idea. In reality, our discussion (speaking here most particularly about the biological research group) spread beyond research and settled mostly on how to communicate science to induce action. Sure there are plenty of things about the biology of rivers we don’t know yet, like what the biota of a healthy river consists of, but a more pressing issue is how to communicate about what we do know. How can we prove the worth of the river through economic value? How can we change the conversation about the value of our resource to be less redundant and less negative? How do we encourage conservation and restoration above the bare minimum level? How do we create citizens who will intentionally vote in favor of the river? In a sense, we realized that no matter how interested we are in the biology of rivers, other people in power positions need to be motivated to take what we know about rivers and do something with it.
The afternoon brought discussions on how to integrate the river into education and programming. All kinds of ideas for getting students and non-students involved were contrived, from zip-lines and festivals on the Bohemian Flats to story telling, courses, and student research on the river. Everyone had a plethora of great ideas, many of which would likely be beneficial to implement, but it made me wonder, how do we know which ones will achieve our ultimate goal? (This brings up another great question. What are our ultimate goal(s) for river research and engagement? Why are research and engagement good things?). Does anyone know what really works to engage people? Have people studied effective engagement elsewhere?
What all of these questions ultimately left me asking, was whether I could study the effectiveness of different types of engagement when I grow up. Is this something I could DO (and maybe more importantly get paid to do)? The Mississippi River is great; the ideas at the conference were great. Now, how can we DO something great with them, and how can what we do here help others do equally great things elsewhere?
Thank you to Pat, Joanne, and Molly for organizing such a wonderful event! I really enjoyed it.
Explore the connections between campus and the Mississippi and learn about important aspects of the river corridor and the water system that supports it (and us!) on the second Tuesday of each month at noon, place TBA. Students, staff, faculty, and friends all welcome!
March 11 at Noon – Seasonal Changes Water Walk
Join us at noon on March 11 as guest speaker Jay Hatch leads us on a Water Walk across Bridge 9 on the Mississippi River. We’ll talk about seasonal changes and the river.
Meet us in the corridor outside the Dunn Bros coffee shop in the Education Sciences building, on the East Bank of the UMN campus.
Weather permitting, we’ll take a walk on Bridge 9, but we may just go out and have a peek before retreating to the coffee shop.
Come with questions!
For more information and to RSVP if you’d like, send a message to the River Life Program email@example.com. Attendees are welcome to stay and purchase lunch after the event.
Students, staff, faculty, and friends all welcome!
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.
Recently, River Rangers has been doing our best at staying warm and having some fun with river-related science.
On Friday, February 7, we went on an excursion to the wonderful Science Museum of Minnesota! While we were there, we also visited the Mississippi River visitor for the MNRRA park we love so dearly. We spent most of our time exploring the floor graphic of the park, just like we do during the Environmental Fair during welcome week. One new revelation was the ease in which golf courses are located on the map. The fact that Minnesota is the state with the most golfers and golf courses per capita was readily apparent. It left me wondering, what impact are all of these fertilized green spaces having on the Mississippi River?
If you haven’t been following us on Twitter (which you should definitely do @RiverRangersUMN), I’d like to introduce you to Rzeka, our new mascot. She is a river-loving snail whose name means river in Polish.
Rzeka tagged along on our adventure and hung out with some native Minnesota mollusks inside the visitor center. Exotic zebra mussels were nowhere to be found—lucky for those of us who had never seen any before, there was a sample in the Mississippi River gallery, once we entered the Museum collections.
Inside the museum we explored the environmental impacts of farming, electric cars, scientific fallacies, and mummies among other things. A group of us stayed all the way until the museum closed at 9pm, and we could have stayed a lot longer.
On Tuesday last week, the science continued, when I participated in River Life’s monthly “River Walk.” Inside the Campus Club in Coffman, we discussed winter on the river with a scientist from the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory. Highlights included the view of the river and a raptor siting, gaining some information about the impact of road salt on the river, and discussions on fish kills and carp.
Up next for River Rangers is a bit less science (though there is always some science…) and a bit more fun. At our next meeting (Wednesday, February 26, 6pm STSS 121), some of the participants from Paddle Forward (http://paddle4ward.com/) are coming to talk about their trip. We’re also hoping to get out and so some cross-country skiing before all of the snow melts! We’d love for you to join us for one or both!