As community coordinators, our job is to connect with local folks to determine the unique needs or priorities of their community. Often, we fulfill a support roll—lending resources or time to helping existing organizations or groups to achieve their goals. Once in a while, we are called on to help shape those priorities into policies through advocacy and cooperation with local leaders. But, sometimes, we encounter a community where despite having all of the enthusiasm and talent required to advance conservation issues, little or no progress can be made because there has been a breakdown in trust between the local leaders and their community. Sometimes it’s old grudges held over from former leadership or situations that stressed the system, and sometimes it’s something recent—a rift over a high visibility issue that divided the community and seems hard to repair.
Over the last three years, I have come to believe there are a few of these dynamics at play in one particular community—Saint Peter. Below is a letter I recently had published in the Saint Peter Herald, calling for the City to bridge the divide between its sustainability-concerned citizens and the City government.
This summer will mark three years working as a community coordinator for Conservation Minnesota in Southern Minnesota. From Winona to Saint Peter, incredible people are having discussions around water, habitat, and clean energy that have been remarkably similar—Southern Minnesotans are committed to preserving the natural resources that make our home so special.
In most communities, I provide information and assistance where needed while most of the work on these issues is done by residents through dedicated boards. However, Saint Peter has not provided this productive avenue, leaving concerned residents to look outside the community for support. I and others continue to be called upon to fulfill a role that should be facilitated by the city itself—holding public meetings and organizing coalitions to address issues. This results in a situation where citizens feel frustrated by the lack of transparency and the sometimes defensiveness with which the city deals with the community’s concerns. Clearly, this does not create an environment for better understanding and shared progress.
I am excited to see that a community solar agreement has been reached, but it was the result of collaborations between Interfaith Power and Light, myself and others that put together numerous public meetings, meetings that consistently drew over 50 people each and in a town the size of Saint Peter, that’s a huge turnout. This begs the question: Why hasn’t the council considered creating a sustainability commission or something similar as a venue for people to engage on this topic and other related issues?
Picturesque and forward thinking, Saint Peter has a number of environmental issues on its plate and people ready to work together in a constructive manner to find solutions and compromises. Keeping citizens on the outside of the process will just makes things worse for everyone. Without a forum to vet and advance ideas, Council Members find themselves unable to respond to neighbors’ concerns or meet community expectations. At the same time, frustrated residents who are deeply invested and feel it’s their duty to stay involved, feel ostracized. I am sure this is not the outcome that anyone is seeking.
I love my job working with communities across southern Minnesota. But everyone is better served when local residents have a forum to lead, and people like me can just serve as a helpful resource. If other communities–of all sizes and demographics–across Southern Minnesota find value in creating an official venue for the discussion of sustainability issues, why not Saint Peter?
While this isn’t the approach we typically take, it seems to be working. On a recent visit to Saint Peter, I found that the response to the article from citizens was great. It made them feel like they weren’t alone in the conflict anymore; they have an ally who is asking for a reasonable solution to an ongoing issue that just simply doesn’t need to be. There are currently plans in the works to host a discussion night and try to pull city leaders and the community together to see if there’s a way forward that values everyone.
Just south of Saint Peter lies Mankato and there is a lot of back-and-forth between the communities for employment reasons. Recently, the City of Mankato hosted a public input night, divided into interest areas and open to everyone. A sustainability discussion group formed and came up with ideas and a request for a commission of some kind to work on issues going forward. The Council is reviewing the notes from all of the groups that met that night and looking to find ways to take action and address the issues raised—this is how it should be. Inclusive communities just work better and it would be in Saint Peter’s interest to capitalize on the incredible passion and talent of its citizens and follow Mankato’s example.