Putting Relationships at the Center of Water Work

In November, four partners from the “We Are Water MN” partnership presented during the 2018 National Humanities Conference in New Orleans, Those partners included Britt Gangeness with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency; Laurie Moberg with River Life, a program of the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota; Jennifer Tonko with the Minnesota Humanities Center (MHC); and Leslie Winter with the Minnesota Department of Health. Being together at the mouth of the Mississippi River, in a place that’s directly connected with so many Minnesotans and the water we care for and affect, was significant.

Our group shared what we’ve learned by working together since 2015 and to hosted a conversation for humanities professionals who are interested in working across disciplines—as MHC did—with scientists and environmental professionals. The participants at this conference are mostly professionals at other humanities councils and faculty, staff, and graduate students at colleges and universities.

Participants shared stories of how they think about relationships, water, and cross-disciplinary work like the environmental humanities in their own experiences. They also asked the “We Are Water MN” team great questions about how we do our work, from very practical questions—“How often do you meet?” “How do you co-design an exhibit?”—to the more theoretical—“Why is the Minnesota Humanities Center working on water?” “What have the humanities brought to the other partners?” “How do you think about your work differently now?”

We were able to share that we built “We Are Water MN” upon the theory that building community capacity to protect water requires building relationships between community members, organizations, and sectors. In our work, we apply the principles of MHC’s Absent Narratives Approach™ as a framework for building relationships, and assess how relationships are changing community capacity.

MHC’s Absent Narratives Approach™ recognizes that the assets and solutions to address intractable issues—such as decisions around land use, water protection, and water restoration—lie in a multiplicity of voices. Relationship-building is foundational to our approach and programming.

Because we use this approach:

  • We ground our work in story as a vehicle for expressing and sharing knowledge;
  • We reflect on our relationships and process during our meetings and trainings;
  • We amplify local knowledge, concerns, and solutions when developing exhibit content and programs;
  • We focus on preserving and adhering to our process, trusting that this will create robust and relevant products;
  • We seek multiple sources of knowledge in a community; and
  • We learn and grow together.

“We Are Water MN” was also nominated for the 2018 Federation of State Humanities Councils’ Schwartz Prize. While we didn’t win, you should check out the winners and other nominees to learn about some of the leading humanities work going on across the nation!

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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