Friday, August 11, 2017

Utilizing Diverse Communities within Menomonie for Water Quality through Community Organizations

I’ve learned in the past few years of my life that community is a crucial element of what’s important to me. But for me, that has only been defined as far as having people around me who are supportive and make me feel at home. This summer I’ve had the chance to really think about what makes a community works, how it actually functions, and how it creates change. The more academic, but helpful, term for this is community capacity. It’s a concept that includes elements that work together to accomplish just that, a functioning community. These elements include having a sense of community, commitment, being able to define and access resources, as well as the ability to set and achieve goals. Actually thinking about the elements that contribute to a community is valuable when it comes to solving issues. At this point in my life, my interactions with community have been transitory – traveling and moving around, working seasonal jobs, being a student. I haven’t had the chance to establish myself as part of a long-term community yet. Having the opportunity to have a glimpse of what that looks like and study it this summer in Menomonie has been insightful. It is very fitting then that my final research project revolved around this idea of how community organizations can contribute to the community’s capacity for changes in water quality.  

In past years, the LAKES project has done a lot of work researching organizations directly related to water quality in the watershed. However, less attention has been given to those more peripherally related, such as the Dunn County Fish and Game Club, Pheasants Forever, the Prairie Enthusiasts and others. So this summer I took on the task using literature reviews, participant observations, and in-depth interviews as my tools.

As we all know, community is not linear and it is not static. Our communities are constantly in a state of change, expanding and altering over time. They are less related to just our geography, but encompass our social networks and communities through time too. This concept of communities through time really intrigued me and as I analyzed the qualitative data I received it became apparent that there were many ways that we can draw on past, present and future contributions to build capacity and that is the lens I used to organize my findings.

Past communities’ contributions can be accessed in many ways as the past continues to add to our capacity. Some community organizations have long histories in the area. They have a vast resource of oral histories through their membership, including stories of lake and community history as well as tested strategies for keeping organizations going, navigating changing times and what makes projects successful. Members from past communities often contribute to efforts today through bequeathed gifts after their passing to causes they care about and these gifts are a testament to the sense of identity and commitment members can feel as a part of an organization. Additionally, protected land through these organizations allows us to connect to resources in the past.

In the present, it is easier to see how organizations contribute with their tangible work and presence. However, there are other key ways they help build capacity that aren’t as visible but just as valuable. They allow outlets for more civic engagement by attracting people with specific interests, such as fishing or wildflowers. Keeping people involved for these organizations often means having people feel enthusiastic and interested. The topic of green algae may not be enticing to everyone, but working with wildflowers might. These groups also create a community within their organization where people develop a sense of trust that allows them to ask questions, discuss issues and gain knowledge. Just as important, their work can also foster a sense of connectedness, among individuals and between individuals and their environment, creating a shift in how they view their place in the community and environment. This can lead to people identifying themselves as stakeholders in more environmental issues.

Lastly, our work right now with these organizations can tap into future communities to build capacity too. Their memberships work to build a shared vision for the future. Land easements and protections by some of the groups save resources for future communities to use. Fundraising builds economic capital for projects down the road and the social network and dissemination of information among the memberships can create opportunities for political will that can influence future policy as well. A large component of the upcoming communities will be the youth. They are a part of our communities now but have great power to shape how they will look in the future. Community organizations’ engagement with youth builds capacity into future generations through funding scholarships, education programming, and encouraging youth leadership. Involvement at a young age can lead to the formation of an identity encompassing a sense of responsibility to contribute to one’s community and community organizations allow members to demonstrate this in practice. If children see this they might be more likely to continue to be civically engaged in their future and build our capacity along the way.

If these organizations build capacity, then involvement in them or civic engagement is a way to mobilize this capacity. However, many people I talked to expressed challenges they had with keeping involvement. A primary concern was how to get their information out to different groups effectively. Another challenge is with managing memberships, whether that is retaining members, receiving consistent participation, aging memberships, and/or seasonal members (including students). Moving forward, social media and communications training for these organizations could be a necessary investment for providing them with a resource to expand their impact.

Identifying and recognizing the ability these organizations have to contribute to community capacity allows us to see the role they can play in water quality. Supporting and encouraging involvement in these groups is important and necessary work in the watershed. It allows us to expand our involvement, increase our impact, keep people engaged and tap into communities of the past, present and future. Continuing past collaborations and building more between groups concerned directly with water quality and those peripherally related are ways to continue to grow our capacity for change. Through my work I’ve had a chance to really understand what makes a community work and the complex processes that go on within it. Menomonie has an immense ability to continue to build its capacity for improved water quality by utilizing the diverse array of communities within it, including those across time. 

Peace on the Waterways.

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