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Exploring our connections to Minnesota's water

River with greenery along both shores and two canoes with people on the river.
Photo credit: MN Department of Natural Resources

As the land of 10,000 lakes, Minnesota is known for its water. A new traveling exhibit is raising awareness of just how and why water is important to Minnesotans and their environment.

The Minnesota Humanities Center’s We Are Water MN exhibit is crossing the state, sharing positive stories of Minnesotans and the water that surrounds them. The goal? To shape a stronger bond between the two.

The University of Minnesota Extension Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Northwest RSDP) is helping We Are Water MN engage local communities in the conversation. Many of us work hard to protect our natural resources and have personal, even sacred, connections to water. These positive stories can inspire others to take action.

“We Are Water MN tells stories,” said Linda Kingery, Northwest RSDP Executive Director. “We want to tell stories of natural and cultural history as well as contemporary stories about recreating in and protecting water.”

Britt Gangeness, MN PCA presenting to meeting attendees.
Britt Gangeness, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, speaks at a We Are Water MN community meeting in Crookston.

Local connections

We Are Water MN explores connections between water and the humanities through the exhibit, public events and educational resources. In the words of exhibit organizers, “By creating relationships around water, we are creating networks that can promote positive social norms, and share a vision for and participate in water stewardship.”

Communities hosting the exhibit in 2018-19 range from Austin to Bemidji, Crookston, Duluth, Grand Rapids, Northfield, Onamia and St. Paul. Each site presents information and stories specific to the region. Exhibits are interactive, and invite visitors to share their own experiences. Some exhibits are geared toward youth, while others engage all ages in citizen science.  

Adults sitting at tables writing out information during community meeting.
We Are Water MN community meeting in Crookston.

RSDP connects the exhibit to community partners in each region. Months in advance, community members in each host location come together to share their stories around water and discuss local priorities. RSDP Conservation Corps volunteer Elizabeth Bailey helps host sites prepare for the exhibit. “One of the key roles of my position with RSDP is to connect board and work group members with the host site leaders throughout Greater Minnesota,” Bailey said.

Community forums identify local goals and activities for the exhibit. At a recent planning session in Crookston, community members connected the exhibit to area youth projects and cultural events. For example, an environmental justice theme around clean water may be incorporated into a local Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. Attendees also raised the possibility of an agriculture water forum that would include presentations from area farmers and faculty.

Bailey is helping with school outreach for the Crookston exhibit. For example, high school students involved with the River Watch Forum may undertake a related team project. “One of the goals of the Crookston site is to get all schools scheduled to bring children to the site during the exhibit,” Kingery said. “We'll work with the early childhood and elementary education classes at the U of M Crookston to help staff the visits to the exhibit.”

Linda Kingery adding notes to a sticky board during a community meeting.
Linda Kingery, Northwest RSDP Executive Director, participates in a We Are Water MN community meeting in Crookston.

Absent narratives

According to Kingery, raising more and diverse stories about our connections to water helps RSDP and others working on water issues better serve all Minnesotans. While much attention has been given to the negative water impacts of some agricultural practices, many farmers are working hard to safeguard water. For example, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture offers a voluntary agricultural water quality program that allows farmers to have their land certified as being in compliance with water regulations.

“The Minnesota Center for Humanities focuses on absent narratives. Too often, the experiences of farmers committed to protecting water quality are missing from the conversation,” Kingery said. “There are other communities whose narrative is absent as well.”

Cross-sector involvement in the exhibit is also helping to broaden the stories we share around water. “The We Are Water project includes many state agencies,” Kingery said.

Other key partners include the Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Historical Society. RSDP received a mini-grant from the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment to support partnership in the exhibit.


Those interested in adding their own stories to Minnesota’s expanding water narrative can find exhibit dates and sites on the We Are Water MN website. What is your personal water story?

Caryn Mohr and Alysse LaMond, September 2018

Caryn Mohr is the assistant statewide director of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP). Alysse LaMond worked as a student writer for RSDP in spring-summer 2018. 

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