Great River Greening
What has been most instrumental to your progress?
Community assessment: Informal feedback from our UMN partners is already helping us to understand our community in new ways (e.g. despite almost 20 years of almost continuous watershed-based water quality programs, some still do not have a very basic understanding of water quality-related goals of a watershed program), and confirming some things we thought about our community from anecdotal experience (e.g. for many people, skepticism of motives tends to be an initial response to new people knocking at the door).
Farmer-led process: This has been important in a way that was completely unexpected at the beginning of our grant term. Our commitment to creating a farmer-led process *despite* the pace at which that is happening (SLOWLY) has been recognized by both our project partners and the farmers with whom we work. As mentioned above, skepticism among the farming community of those perceived as “environmental” actors runs high. Continued commitment to this path is the only way to break-down that skepticism, earn the trust of that segment of our community, and generate the buy-in that is needed to accomplish community-building and water-quality objectives. It has been recognized and applauded that, even though progress on this front is slow, we haven’t abandoned the concept in favor of what is expedient or what we (the Watershed Program) can more easily control or push forward.
Volunteer events on farms: A key component of creating the bridges between farming and non-farming stakeholders in this watershed is increasing understanding among these groups of people. By inviting groups of (largely) non-farmers to a farm to contribute to a community project, people seemed to get a more concrete understanding of what farming looks like today in their community. Many volunteers were asking “silly” or “stupid” (their words) questions about farming – particularly related to farm economics, basic farm operations, and environmental regulation – these questions, and the opportunity to ask these questions are critically important to our work because they’re the kind of questions that allow people to think deeply about how complex this intersection of water quality and agriculture really is – a key component to having empathy for someone they may see as “on the other side.” In addition, these events have been instrumental in generating local media coverage of the Watershed Program and our expanding role and mission in the community.
Key lessons learned
Most people want to tell their story, and being intentional about asking is an excellent opportunity to make people feel important, included, and listened to – this is a primary tenet of how we as a watershed program have been engaging with farmers in the last two years, but we are rarely intentional about that “tell me your story” conversation. When that conversation lacks intention, it can also lack some of its potential power to connect. In some ways I would consider this a “failure” – this is a realization that we have come to through having an “outside” research group in the watershed conducting these intentional interviews as part of the community assessment. (There are also benefits to having an “outsider” conducting the interviews and I would make the same choice again. I will however incorporate express intention into these types of conversation I have on my own moving forward.)
A tool is not a substitute for a process – in the original concept of this project, we proposed to use a collaborative geodesign tool developed by partners at the University of Minnesota. Although those of us who are familiar with the tool were (and still are!) quite keen on this tool’s utility in this process, it became evident that our community ought to first to agree on some general principles for what our water and our farming landscape of the future look like together. We can then use that tool (or others) to find paths to that future.
Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving
This will likely change as we continue on the community innovation process, but so far being resourceful has been most important and valuable to making progress. One of the things our community has is financial resources to implement conservation projects – it has been crucial to getting and keeping the farming community interested and involved in the collaborative process to be able to offer concrete examples of improvements on individual farms as well as an idea of what improved water quality downstream will look like for the upland landscape. We have used financial resources from other competitive grants to create tangible examples of these things and created community space and hosted events around these examples to begin creating a community conversation and collaborative process that has some momentum. However, needing to be resourceful in this way to get and keep peoples’ attention has always been for the end goal of making sure that we have the right people (inclusive) as possible engaged meaningfully in our community process (collaboration).
Other key elements of Community Innovation
Empathy – Likely true in most community processes, but asking people to innovate is asking for someone to be vulnerable with you – to not only be open to new ideas, but to generate new ideas, and try out new ideas. People won’t do that for you unless you’ve demonstrated empathy for and understanding of how much you’re asking.
Understanding the problem
The process has not changed our understanding of the need fundamentally, but has certainly provided clarity on whose need that is exactly – we frame our need in terms of the water resource and have super-imposed it as a need for the community. While, yes, it is hard to imagine a future in which the health of our water resources does not directly impact the lives and business operations of the farming community, that day is not today nor in most cases is it imminent enough for this “need” to be perceived as such by most farmers. Since motivation to innovate most often comes from need (or desperation) this understanding has certainly generated some thinking on our part about how to make this future need feel more important today in the farming community, or on the flip side how to innovate for success among the community that does feel this need more acutely today – largely the government agencies tasked with protecting and improving water quality.
If you could do it all over again...
I would have encouraged myself to start talking about our work in terms of opportunities and shared values much more quickly, as opposed to challenges and “what divides us.” Challenge and division are what defines the need for planning, fundraising, grant development, but it’s the opportunity and the shared values that get people interested and invested in the process of actually addressing those challenges and divisions. Framing the work in a positive and encouraging way is critical for drawing people in.