Thursday, May 18, 2017

Jennifer Tonko - Building Water Relationships through Stories

Jennifer Tonko is the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Program Officer for Community Engagement and Traveling Exhibits

Over the last two years, the Humanities Center has been exploring the connection between the humanities and water through a partnership called We Are Water MN. The first phase of this partnership, where we shared the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street exhibit, Water/Ways, with six greater Minnesota communities is now over. We did some tremendous things. We worked as a group of five statewide agencies to build a complementary exhibit, We Are Water MN, that tells Minnesota’s water stories collaboratively through personal narratives, historical materials, and scientific information, and more than 7,000 people came to see it. We helped host sites build and strengthen relationships with 125 organizations in and around their communities. We presented about the partnership to about 500 people.

Last October my colleague, Britt Gangeness (from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency), and I were invited to speak at a meeting of the Basin Alliance for the Lower Mississippi in Minnesota (BALMM) to make one of these presentations. Whenever we present we strive to do a few things: remind our audience that we’re in an indigenous place, give the participants a chance to reflect on and share their own relationships with water, and to help them experience the We Are Water MN partnership by actually doing our work with them—instead of just talking at them. We do this primarily through story.

This BALMM meeting was a pivot point for me, because it’s where I learned to tell my own water stories. When we do these presentations, we always share some of the wonderful stories that our professional interviewers have gathered. (You should look at them too; you can find them all at Some of my favorites are the stories of Jim Rock, Emily Buermann, Sally Hausken, and Becky and Don Waskosky—but there are lots of good ones!) Then we ask people to reflect on what they heard and tell some of their water stories. Because I’m usually the one asking the questions, I don’t often share my own stories. But this time was different. I shared the story of when my dad and I got his truck stuck in deep mud at Dunbar Slough in Iowa when I was visiting home during one of my college summers.

It was one of those August days where even breathing makes you sticky, and we were four miles from home, three miles from my grandparents’ house. We walked and walked through the cotton batting air hoping that someone might drive by (which they never did). Then we came to the artesian well in the ditch that he and his brothers knew about from their childhood explorations on this same road. We climbed through the prickly grass and drank the cold, clear water—and it was the best water I’ve ever had! Sharing this story reminded me of my own relationships with water: visiting one of my special places from childhood, a love-hate relationship with humid Iowa summers, the refreshment and life that is the water we drink. This kind of exercise in reminding and reflecting is exactly how the humanities help shape the conversations that are happening about water right now. Sharing this story also built my relationship with the people from BALMM in the room—they learned a little bit about why I love the work that I do and saw the world from my perspective as they listened to me.

Even though the partnership is called We Are Water MN it could just as easily have been called We Are Story—hat tip to Mona Smith with Allies: media/art for making this connection for me. It has been my great honor to hear many Minnesotans’ water stories and to step into their hearts for those moments. I carry those stories with me now and they affect the choices I make every day. People here have a deep relationship to this place and to the water that shapes it and sustains us. I’m looking forward to learning more from people in additional communities throughout Minnesota. Looking ahead to phase two, we are hoping to engage a new group of eight host communities, where we can continue to learn from and amplify Minnesotans’ personal experiences with water in this place that we call home. If you think your community would be a good fit for this community-building exhibit, please let me know by reaching out to me:

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