Great River Greening
What has been most instrumental to your progress?
Watershed Core Team Formation: We spent the better part of two quarters of 2016 simply forming our Core Team - identifying the characteristics and qualities that we were looking for in Core Team members, identifying stakeholder groups that needed to be represented, identifying individuals within those stakeholder groups that had the necessary characteristics and qualities, and meeting with and in some cases courting those individuals. Our Core Team is only 10 people, but every bit of success and progress we've had this year is because we were very intentional about making sure that we had the right 10 people around that table. The job of the Core Team was to plan the Watershed Visioning Conversation, and (most importantly) to get people to show up. I have often thought of the Watershed Visioning Conversation as the fulcrum point of the past year, but really the first point of potential failure was not taking the proper amount of care to form the Core Team. Sometimes you can't just accept the people who show up - in planning a community process, intention and strategy count.
Art of Participatory Leadership: We have been using an Art of Participatory Leadership process with both our Core Team and in the Watershed Visioning Conversation. Despite my (personal) initial skepticism it has proven to be the right tool for this work. Recently the MOST (initially) skeptical member of our Core Team started off a meeting by noting that he was actually really excited to be at our 7 Mile meeting because, unlike every other meeting he goes to on these topics (and there are many) we actually have productive exchanges of ideas and get things done. I can't think of a more ringing endorsement.
Watershed Visioning Conversation: We gathered our community in early September to talk about what's possible for the watershed if we all work together. Our Core Team turned out about 65 people, about half of whom were farmers from the watershed who were mostly somewhat skeptical, but willing - largely because the invitation came from their peers and neighbors (see previous comments about the importance of the Core Team). The other half were users of 7 Mile Creek County Park, water quality advocates, water resource managers, and concerned citizens. In only 2.5 hours of conversation, our community defined success, identified the critical elements for achieving success, and created the framework for a community-generated watershed strategic plan to get us there. This project has been all about bringing those two general groups of people together and generating some compassion and empathy for one another, and building upon those interpersonal stories to do good work together. The Watershed Visioning Conversation certainly demonstrated that the premise of this project was right on.
Key lessons learned
Sometimes you can't just accept the people who show up. In order to catalyze a community process that is really owned by the community as a whole and seen as legitimate, you have to go out and find the right people. And sometimes that means a whole lot more work (and time and fear and risk) involved in trying to sell those folks on participating. The process of forming the Core Team certainly felt at points slower than I would have liked. I had my moments of wanting to zoom forward more quickly than relationship- and trust-building allow, or to just ask the usual suspects that I knew would say yes. This is an averted failure - I was advocating for moving through this part of the process more quickly because I felt behind relative to our grant timeline. Left to my own devices I would have screwed this one up! In a grant deliverable driven world, it's easy to forget that achieving deliverables and hitting timeline expectations is NOT the same as doing good work for your community.
Timing, Community Capacity, and Groundwork is Everything: I am certain that what we accomplished this year would not have been possible without priming our community to have the conversation over the past few years (and/or the work of previous incarnations of watershed programs over the past two decades). When we do things like this we are asking people to think deeply about things that are far outside their scope. We're asking folks to be outside of their comfort zone, to learn things that don't come easily, to engage deeply and broadly on complex issues. A community's capacity to do these things needs to build over time and with a great deal of effort and intention. This would not have worked even one year ago, even in this very engaged watershed. This begs the question - although it may be biophysically possible to achieve something like the Statewide Nutrient Reduction Strategy, how do we consider sociocultural constraints? And why don't we give more thought and attention to removing or reducing sociocultural barriers?
Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving
Inclusive: One of the most interesting parts of ensuring that our community process is inclusive is the degree to which backward-planning for inclusivity has generated self-reflection within our program and organization. The thought process was something like: in order to create a community process that will generate the results we want, we need the right people and the best people at the table. In order to get the right people and the best people at the table we have to be inviting them to invest their time and energy in something special and transformative and different. In order to invite them to something like special WE have to be doing the work and taking the risks and pushing the envelope to attract the attention, time, and energy of those people. Basically: the people in your community whose participation can really change the conversation and move the needle are not going to be attracted to participate by the same old-same old. In order to achieve inclusivity WE have to be creating conditions that motivate participation way before (years before) we're actually asking/inviting those people to engage.
Other key elements of Community Innovation
Humility: Related to my thoughts on inclusivity - In our community, and I suspect in just about any community, those people who need to convinced there's possibility to change the conversation around a difficult or complex issue are extremely savvy. They've been burned and grown skeptical after years or decades of half-hearted or insincere efforts at "participatory processes". It is so hard for many of us, personally and professionally to acknowledge failure, but I think it is SUCH a powerful thing with those people who have been burned and have grown skeptical. It's a great relational move, which should be reason enough. It also happens to be a great tactical move as well. When dealing with old wounds, the folks you need at the table are often the ones who want to re-hash the reasons they don't want to come to the table. By hearing that and taking it in and responding with a "yes, you're absolutely right. We have royally screwed this up for you in the past," you can move beyond those conversations about the past, and more easily focus the conversation about the future and how you plan to do things differently.
Understanding the problem
One of the most interesting conversations that we've had within the Watershed Core Team recently has been about connecting conservation action goals to water quality objectives for 7 Mile Creek. I have in the past been operating from the idea that water quality objectives will be achieved if we can create a conservation culture in the watershed - where people are just automatically doing a bunch of conservation because that's just what we do in this watershed. Of course it is my intent for that to translate to water quality metrics, but my biggest rocks to move have been getting the on-the-ground work to happen and creating the momentum and just trusting that the water quality metrics would respond. It was recently raised within the Core Team - what if we accomplish the culture change part, but the water quality metrics don't follow. Or don't follow enough. So one of the ways that my understanding of the need has become LESS clear, actually - is the NEED to remove water quality impairments? Or is the NEED to improve the sociocultural conditions that are a barrier to getting conservation done? And what if the two aren't as intricately linked as we think?!
If you could do it all over again...
I would tell myself to be more bold about asking big things from our partners. One of the most transformative parts of the year was when we asked one of our project partners to do the recruiting/inviting for a key stakeholder group that needed to be represented on the Core Team. It was a little bit of an intentional gamble, at that point in the project we were struggling to figure out a way to get that particular partner engaged in the project as deeply as we needed them to be. The idea was - give them a big important job, it will get them personally invested in the process. It worked! And I wish I would have done it much sooner! They're all in and our watershed program is much more effective because we were able to get this key partner more invested and bought-in to our collective work.