Paddlewheels, young boys with fishing poles, banjo music, horrific storms washing out dikes and a whole host of other images have come to represent the Mississippi River. These visions of the River come from history or from disasters or both. But what of the River and its future? What is the contemporary vision of the Mississippi River?
This topic will be the subject of presentations and debate at an upcoming meeting in Collinsville, Illinois. While the title of the conference is Visions for a Sustainable Mississippi River, I doubt a unifying vision will emerge in one session. It’s a good first step.
That’s too bad because a unified vision is the basis for a unified Mississippi River. Many who read this will say the Mississippi River is too vast and too varying to produce a unified vision, but we know from our own history that it often took a unified vision to rally the kind of support needed to take monumental action. And that’s what’s called for in the case of the Mississippi River.
When President Kennedy wanted public support for space exploration, he captured the essence of that exploration (not every technological innovation it would take) in his image of a man on the moon. When President Eisenhower wanted public support for interstate highways, he created a vision of an interconnected U.S. thriving because of expedited commerce and family connectedness. More recently, President Obama wanted public support for the stimulus package, the unifying vision that enabled its passage was people going back to work. (There was also avoidance of a negative issue. The desire to avoid the images of the Great Depression were vividly unifying, too,)
There are ways to capture a vision for the Mississippi River and it calls for a more deliberate and continuous effort. In the public opinion arena, strategists often test imagery around issues to assess the positives and negatives. They come up with the images they think are right and then test them.
In marketing, focus groups of interested parties are often asked for their input first, before developing any images. That input is collected and massaged and tried out on consumers. With attention to including a cross section of consumer attitudes, marketing still holds a higher success rate than political strategists. However, leaders, if they are sensitive to public sentiments being expressed by their constituents and they are articulate enough to capture that sentiment, are often the best visionaries.
In the case of the vision for the Mississippi River, I hope for a mix of all three by engaging River residents in a National Dialogue on the Future of the Mississippi River. In the meantime if you have a vision for the Mississippi River, share it here.