Tuesday, February 21, 2017

We Are Water MN - A program that uses stories and science

Water & Watersheds
by Guest Blogger: Britt Gangeness

Britt Gangeness coordinates and develops outreach and education projects at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). She has been working with the Minnesota Humanities Center on the Smithsonian Water/Ways project since 2014 and was thrilled to see the exhibit hit the streets this summer. She has a B.A. in Biology and M.Ed. in Environmental Education.

Minnesota has a very unusual geographic position. We sit atop a triple, continental-scale water divide, a divide that sends water north to the Hudson, east to the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, and south to the Gulf of Mexico. Almost all of our water comes to our state as rain or snow.

This means we are not receiving polluted water from a state with lower environmental standards. But it also means we have a responsibility to keep water clean — for our community and for other states and nations.

Whoa, that's a big responsibility. How are we doing?

Right now, 40% of the water in Minnesota is not meeting standards set for safe for swimming, fishing, or drinking.

Because of investments through the Clean Water Legacy, Minnesota is on track to improve water quality by 6-8% by 2025. Many people believe this is not good enough. In February 2017, Governor Mark Dayton challenged the state of Minnesota with an aspirational goal to improve water by 25% by 2025.

To reach this goal, every community in Minnesota must believe that clean water is important, have an understanding of the local issues they are facing (which vary widely across the state), and have relationships on which to draw to solve these problems. Other social factors that are important to achieving clean water goals are social norms, emotional connections to people and places, self and collective efficacy, and a value of the collection good over personal interests.

In directly addressing these social measures, We Are Water MN works with Minnesota communities to learn about local water issues, rediscover the reasons we each care about clean water, and bring participants into deeper personal and community involvement with water. We:
  1. Educate through a traveling exhibit. The exhibit features statewide and local information about Minnesota's position as the headwaters of three major basins; the sacredness of water to Minnesota's first peoples, the Dakota and Ojibwe; land changes over time; the current stresses on water; steps needed to make progress; and stories about the meaning and use of water by local people.
  2. Engage with host communities that are ready to address important and difficult questions around water. Host communities develop cross-sector partnerships; deepen their knowledge, understanding, and commitment to water issues; create companion exhibitions; develop high profile programs, events, and stewardship projects; and conducted local story-collecting initiatives. 
  3. Connect a cross-sector, cross-disciplinary network of scientists, historians, humanities scholars, storytellers, artists, and other water stakeholders to protect and preserve water in Minnesota.

The power of stories

Through my work on the project, I've had the opportunity to learn about water quality from my MPCA colleagues, listen to interviews of people from the six tour sites, and collect images of the special places they describe. Now, I don't just think of regional water quality trends. I think of people — THESE people.

And I smile, because there are an awful lot of people out there who care about all the little plants, and animals, and flow rates, and smell of the mud, and the places where loons nest (to name a few of the minutia they care about). They treasure the special events in their lives that happened in and around the water.

Stories are a great way to reconnect Minnesotans to the preciousness of our waters: the history; sacredness of Minnesota's first people, the Dakota and Ojibwe; the land changes over time; the current stresses on water — and most importantly, the future story they are part of creating.

Stories can also be used to bridge traditional divides. People don't want to be immediately dismissed because they might have a view that you consider wrong. Stories ask the listener to simply put themselves in the shoes of other people — to understand their problems — especially if we listen to stories that break stereotypes, that present people as individuals rather than as a group, and have conversations or programs that increase contact between isolated groups of people.

How do you use stories and storytelling in your work?

Try it! Listen to these stories and consider your own experiences. 

Becky and Don Waskosky live on the bluff overlooking the Le Sueur River. In 2010, storms dumped 10 inches of rain in the area and sent a torrent of water down the river. It eroded more than half of the bluff that lies between the Waskoskys' house and the river below.

What has happened in your life that inspired you to take action to serve water?

Pat Duncanson's family has been farming in southern Blue Earth County for nearly 100 years. He is very passionate that drainage needs to be part of our southern Minnesota landscape, but that it can't be done like it's been done for the past hundred years.

Demonstration of solutions is important. What are your success stories? 

Learn from three women about why they participate in Nibi (Water) Walks — indigenous-led, extended ceremonies to pray for the water.

Are there cultural or spiritual practices that shape your water ethic?

More about We Are Water MN

We Are Water MN is a touring exhibit and community engagement initiative that will be in Detroit Lakes from February 25 to April 8. It will also be at the Eco Experience (Minnesota State Fair), along with the Water Bar, a free educational experience that serves flights of tap water and generates conversation about water. We Are Water MN is a partnership led by the Minnesota Humanities Center and including the MPCA, DNR, MDH, and Minnesota Historical Society. It is a true collaboration — we develop content together, set goals together, and share networks and resources. We have been working with 6 non-metro Minnesota communities for 2 years and are now in the final stages of the tour.

You can listen and read some more stories collected by this project at www.mnhum.org/waterways. Click on "story maps." 

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