Email and Twitter pages last month yielded an assortment of people attending meetings for parts of the Mississippi River. Their purposes and agendas were as varied as the River itself. People in Stearns County, Minnesota adddressed a vision for 31 miles within their sight. A noble endeavor that — while highly localized — is not unlike what could be done for the whole Mississippi River. The Upper Mississippi River Basin Association devoted three days in Illinois to their section of the Mississippi River. The Army of Corps of Engineers and state departments of transportation, of course, held numerous meetings focused on specific issues that pertained to a section of the River. This is business as usual as it concerns the Mississippi River.
But, at the same time, several research and high-visibility organizations are calling for the Mississippi River to be treated as a whole water system. Organizations as seemingly disparate as the Army Corps of Engineers and The Nature Conservancy are among those calling for wholistic approaches to the Mississippi as a system. The National Academies of Science has convened more than one panel that has recommended a whole-system approach to America’s Waterway, as well. So it occurs to me, “How do you start talking about the whole Mississippi River, when so many people are tied up in meetings for parts of the River?” The answer I’ve come up with is… “We have to stop meeting like this.”
Of course I don’t mean calling a hault to all the forward motion these many worthy organizations are making. However, it does mean dropping the usual agendas that are locally or regionally focused. It does mean stopping business as usual and turning attention in a new, whole-river system direction. The organizations currently in place would need to put a moratorium on their own objectives for a while. People used to addressing their issues in a set format around commonly understood goals, would have to take a look at new goals. And patterns of ingrained behavior would have to take a pass for several months.
This is how change happens. The need to come together with new partners and in new settings is compelling enough to stop business as usual. New ways of looking at old problems must be explored and adopted and that takes a different framework. And, a willingness to put aside accepted patterns — not without its unsettling implications — has to take hold.
In November, I watched people from all over the U.S. do exactly this. 46 organizations with missions addressing different aspects of Autism came together in 15 locations to create an agenda for adults with Autism. The people themselves were stakeholders and not necessarily organizations. But the organizations made a commitment of people and resources for a year of planning and a day of multi-faceted input. AmericaSpeaks – with technology and expertise at facilitating public policy input at the grass roots level – managed the process. At the end of a day, a set of actions for the future was produced. In two months, more in-depth priorities and actions will move these initial findings forward. And, invigorated participants have been energized on behalf of the outcomes. It was stimulating just to watch.
The same process can work for the Mississippi River. A National Dialogue for the Future of America’s Waterway stands ready and waiting for use as a vehicle for the creation of a whole-River approach to the Mississippi River. It won’t be easy. Some organizational practices will have to be put on the back burner temporarily. But it is what it will take to unify the Mississippi River and start addressing the River as a system instead of just meeting the needs of one region or section at a time.