What Can Storytelling Tell Us About Water in Minnesota?

More than two years ago I sat down with new We Are Water MN programming partners from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Historical Society, and the Minnesota Departments of Health, Natural Resources and Agriculture. We were designing a traveling exhibit that would focus on water in Minnesota. As I was sitting with these amazing people who were parts of large agencies that had lots of research and collections at their disposal as part of their work, I admit that I was wondering—what does the Minnesota Humanities Center have to offer?

When I’m unsure what to do or how to move forward, I often go back to the core values of the Humanities Center. These values define both what our work is and how we do it: build and strengthen relationships, recognize the power of story and the danger of absence, learn from and with community voices and amplify community solutions for change. Reflecting on these values led me to the conclusion, once again, that it’s not only what the Humanities Center has to offer that’s important, but who we can bring to the table.

Who was absent from our table? Many people—most people, really. We were a group of agencies and organizations operating in a colonized system, all centered in whiteness, and all with a mission to serve the whole state. How would we bring the voices of indigenous people and people of color to the table? How would we bring the voices of people who are working at the local level to the table? How would we bring everyday Minnesotans who live here, work here and play here, but don’t necessarily live their lives as “water experts?”

For us, the answer was story. We worked to gather and share the water stories of Minnesotans. Information about the condition of water in Minnesota is complex and can be quite technical. However, water in Minnesota is also highly personal—we take it into our bodies to give us life, it influences where we live, we shape where it flows by the work we do and the societies we build. There is a lot to learn from these stories of the water in this place.

This Friday, Jan. 12, I’m privileged to share the story of this work and this process with others in the L’Etoile du Nord vault room at the Minnesota State Capitol from 8:30-9:45 a.m. This event is hosted by the University of Minnesota Center for Changing Landscapes. I’ll be joined by Jothsna Harris from Climate Generation and Rebecca Montgomery from the University of Minnesota’s Backyard Phenology project. Afterward, attendees are invited to view the We Are Water MN exhibit at the Capitol; it’s on view on the ground floor there January 10-March 11.

I’m very proud to be a part of bringing the voices of so many Minnesotans to “the people’s house.” The people who know the water best are the ones who live with it every day. If you’re interested in learning more about how storytelling affected this project, register to attend the event on January 12. If you’re interested in sharing one of your own water stories, consider coming to the exhibit at the Capitol before March 11 and adding your voice to Minnesota’s water stories!

Jennifer Tonko

Author: Jennifer Tonko

Jennifer Tonko is the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Program Officer for Community Engagement and Traveling Exhibits. 

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