Reflections on a Confluence

Confluence can mean a couple different things.  It often pertains to a literal flowing together from several sources. Then it can mean the coming together of  people as in an assemblage or congress. And in the case of rivers, it’s used to pertain to the merging of more than one tributary in such a way that they become one physically and take on new characteristics.

Interestingly, last week’s Visions of a Sustainable Mississippi River Conference took place near the great confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers being celebrated and documented with a new  National Great Rivers Research and Education Center. At the same time, the conference itself was a confluence —  bringing together people from different locations and vantage points — to  share ideas about the Mississippi River, its ecological, economic and cultural values.

The people at the NGRREC, including the partner institutions of Lewis and Clark Community College, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne and the Illinois Natural History Survey were great at the confluence thing. They appear to be used to partnering, so bringing together many people with a wide variety of expertise was executed professionally. Even more important, the process maximized the sharing of ideas and the written delivery of those ideas to a panel of policy makers at the conference’s conclusion.

However, the vision part of the conference was more complicated.  As one who has helped numerous organizations struggle with their vision, either to accomodate a new direction or to transition an organization, I knew it wouldn’t be easy.  And the conference seemed to agree because after an hour and a half of trying to state a vision, one of the participants voiced the obvious, “Visions are better left to a long-term, deliberative process. We can’t do this in a morning or with just these people in the room.”

That’s why it was heartening to hear Brigadier General Michael Walsh, head of the Mississippi River Commission and head of the Army Corps of Engineers Mississippi River Valley state his view that the Mississippi River needs a 200-year, unified and multigenerational vision. What I didn’t hear was how he plans to secure that vision. An op-ed in this morning’s New York Times  by James Fishkin makes the case for deliberative processes that ensure that all interested parties are in the room.  I would add the involvement of river residents on a representative basis to ensure not only a vision, but the development of an involved and engaged constituency. 

No one seemed to dispute the need for a Mississippi River Vision. Granted, it would be hard to argue with someone like a Brigadier General when he says he thinks something’s needed. But I don’t think he’s alone. Let us know what you think by commenting here.

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