Thursday, March 2, 2017

Jim Roe - The Places We Learn

Jim Roe is a consulting planner, helping organizations develop places and venues where people can enjoy a kind of learning that’s guided by their own interests, backgrounds, and motivations. He works nationally with a range of organizations—from historic sites and museums to parks, nature centers and other environmental-education facilities, science centers, and children’s museums.

On a cold day in November I took part in a Bdote Field Trip sponsored by the Minnesota Humanities Center. The tour was led by Dakota educators and included stops at various Minneapolis-St. Paul sites of importance to Dakota people, including Mounds Park, Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, Historic Fort Snelling, Fort Snelling State Park, and Pilot Knob—all places I had been to many times before and thought I knew.

One of our guides, Mona Smith, asked us to consider learning from these places, not just about them. I get this. From the warmth of our own homes we could acquire a bounty of information about these places. Learning from them would take a different kind of relationship. The question remained, how do we learn from a place?

I’m used to learning from places that are designed to teach, such as museums and typical historic sites. But when a place is largely unbuilt and uninterpreted, what are the elements I’m supposed to learn from? In the weeks since that tour, I’ve been thinking about other ways to know a place—to learn it in a way that I can learn from it. I’m thinking now that it’s more like getting to know a person, which takes time.

A name is always good place to start. ‘Bdote’ is the Dakota name for the area around the confluence of two great rivers—described better in the sweeping gesture of our guide than by a pin stuck on a map. Mni Sota Makoce, Wakan Tipi, and Oheyawahi are some of the other names I learned that day.

When getting to know someone, I always like to hear their story. Where do they come from and what have they been through in life? Who knows, maybe we know someone in common. Every place we visited that day had a story, in fact many stories that helped me get to know them in ways I couldn’t have before.

In getting to know someone, I also like to hear about their families – brothers, sisters, parents, and others who have loved and cared about them. If I ask, they usually also share some memories of their childhood. During the Bdote experience, I learned that many people care about these places and that each of them hold memories, some from very long ago. People remember, but the land remembers too—and for much longer.

It takes many conversations over many years to genuinely get to know someone. And it takes shared experiences, which we value and remember together over time. I may never learn all there is to know about a place, but I think I can figure out what it has to teach me—given time.

I do know I’m just beginning to figure out what these places have to teach. For that I am grateful to our Bdote tour guides: Ramona Kitto Stately, Ethan Neerdaels, and Mona Smith. And to the land itself.

To learn more about the Bdote Field Trip and upcoming trip offerings visit

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