Building Capacity for Water Quality Through Community Organizations
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I’ve learned in the past few years of my life that community is a crucial element of what’s important to me. Thus far, for me, that has been defined as having people around me who are supportive and make me feel at home. This summer I’ve expanded my notion of community. I’ve had the chance to really think about what makes a community work, how it actually functions, and how it creates change. The term for all this is community capacity—all the elements that work together to create a functioning community: a sense of place and community, commitment, being able to define and access resources, and the ability to set and achieve goals. It is all the resources a community can bring to bear to solve important 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 get a glimpse of what that looks like this summer in Menomonie has been insightful.
In past years, the LAKES project has done a lot of work researching organizations directly related to improving and protecting water quality in the watershed. Less attention has been given to the organizations more peripherally related to this issue, but certainly impacted by it, such as the Dunn County Fish and Game Club, Pheasants Forever, the Prairie Enthusiasts and others. This summer I took on the task of investigating these organizations to document what they have to add to the community’s capacity to improve water quality.
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 more than just geography and encompass our social networks and communities through time too. The concept of communities through time really intrigued me, and as I analyzed the qualitative data I collected it became apparent that there were many ways that we can draw on past, present, and future contributions to build capacity. This is the lens I used to organize my findings.
Past contributions continue to add to capacity in the present. Some community organizations have long histories and a vast resource of oral histories—stories of lake and community history and tested strategies for keeping organizations going, navigating changing times, and making projects successful. Past members often contribute to efforts today through bequeathed gifts 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, land protected 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. They allow outlets for civic engagement by attracting people with specific interests, such as fishing or wildflowers. The topic of blue-green algae may not be enticing to everyone, but working with wildflowers might, and the environmental protections an organization focused on prairie restoration, for example, might work towards could help improve water quality. These groups create community and help people develop a sense of trust that allows them to ask questions, discuss issues, and gain knowledge. These resources can then, in turn, contribute to water quality efforts. Just as importantly, their work can also foster a sense of connectedness—among individuals and between individuals and their environment—creating a shift in how individuals view their place in the world. This can, in turn, lead to people identifying themselves as stakeholders in other environmental issues.
Lastly, these organizations help build future capacity. They build a shared vision for the future. Land easements and protections save resources for future communities to use. Fundraising builds economic capital for projects down the road. The social networks created and the dissemination of information among memberships can create political will to influence future policy. Another important element of building future capacity is youth. They are a part of our communities now, but they have great power to shape how our communities will look in the future. Community organizations’ engagement with youth builds capacity through funding scholarships, providing educational programming, and encouraging youth leadership. Involvement at a young age can lead to an identity that encompasses a sense of responsibility to contribute to one’s community, and community organizations allow members to demonstrate this value in practice.
It was clear to me that these organizations add to our capacity as a community to address environmental issues; however, many people I talked to also expressed the challenges they face. A primary concern was how to get information out to different groups effectively. Another challenge is with managing memberships, whether that is retaining members, receiving consistent participation, or dealing with aging memberships and/or seasonal members (including students). Moving forward, social media and communications training for these organizations is a necessary investment for providing them with a resource to expand their impact.
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 additional ones between groups concerned directly with water quality and those peripherally related to it 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.