Driving into each of the four convening communities where we hosted Climate Minnesota events this spring, the differences in the character of the places were evident at every turn, present in the weather, the infrastructure and the residents we had a chance to meet. We witnessed the ice breaking up on Lake Bemidji, which formed the backdrop for our mental snapshot of Bemidji, along with the hugs we received in welcome from our hosts; we were blown into Crookston on a wind carrying topsoil from the surrounding farms that are central to the town’s personality; we visited an expansive and comfortable community education center for our Burnsville event; and we experienced the bipolar weather of a Northland spring during our trip to Duluth, with snow showers on the night of our event turning into a bright sunny May morning the next day.
While Bemidji, Crookston, Burnsville and Duluth were unique in many ways, each shared a strong sense of community pride – we had the strong feeling that no one in any of these towns would switch places with anyone else. The word “home” defines residents’ relationships with their communities more than most places. That said, they value their hometowns for different reasons.
In Bemidji, when we pulled up to the curb outside BSU’s student center to unload our materials, a student stopped to volunteer her help, and we were soon greeted with “Bemidji hugs” by several of the faculty members who had helped organize the convening. Bemidji took “Minnesota nice” to a new level. The town had a strong ethos of progressivism and conservation as well – sustainability and the environment were front of mind for many in the community when we asked them to write down one word that captured what they valued most about Bemidji. During the convening, the atmosphere was similar to that of a reunion, where most people had crossed paths before and shared a common understanding of the importance behind the event. As a GreenStep city, Bemidji has a good number of sustainability and climate-related initiatives already in place, and the crowd in attendance was generally aware of the progress their town had attained. That said, several new connections cropped up thanks to the convening, and as we left town the next day we shared the impression that the event had given this already-active community a fresh boost of inspiration to fuel its work towards greater climate resilience.
Crookston felt like a different world. A small outpost surrounded by farmland, with the University of Minnesota-Crookston campus anchoring one side of town, the small-town feel hit us right away. After lunch and chatting with our waitress about the windy, dry weather, we headed to the UMC campus to prepare for the evening. As attendees streamed in, it was clear both how central the university was to the town as well as how outdoors-oriented people’s lifestyles were. When the words about community values were gathered, hunting, fishing and agriculture rose to the top along with the close-knit, familial bonds shared by most residents. While Crookston was also recently recognized as a GreenStep city, climate change seemed more of a distant concern for attendees, and people were less familiar with efforts to move Crookston on a path towards sustainability – one presenter noted that bikers often received odd looks around town. However, residents attended with open ears, and were especially engaged by the solutions presentations focused on agricultural adaptations in the face of a changing climate, which many recognized from their own observations. The Crookston convening felt like a bridge connecting what people were seeing with the information and resources that would equip them to do something about it.
A month later, we pulled into the Diamondhead Education Center in Burnsville, a sprawling building that seemed to serve as a central community hub – when we arrived, a dance class for seniors was taking place in a room down the hall, and a “Kindergarten Ready” event was scheduled for later in the evening. Along with a cadre of high school student volunteers, we set up for the evening, and welcomed an array of south metro residents. For this community, safety, parks, people and friendship shaped their hometown pride, and attendees appeared happy to participate in the discussion, asking questions and engaging with speakers throughout the night. Their interest in climate solutions was mostly oriented towards lifestyle changes they could make themselves – the most well-attended workshops addressed local food, composting and native plantings.
Finally, we wrapped up our spring convenings with a trip up to Duluth, arriving on a foggy and cold Sunday afternoon for a Brewing a Better Climate fundraising event at Bent Paddle Brewery. Bent Paddle, as well as a host of other breweries, farm-to-table restaurants and cafes around town had Climate Minnesota event posters displayed on community boards, and Duluth residents seemed well-informed of both events. Not only that, but we had the impression that attendees at our fundraiser and Climate Minnesota made a regular habit of turning out to community and issue-based events. The convening, held in the historic Duluth Depot, attracted several local UMD students as well as a wide range of outdoorsy Duluth residents of all ages. Among attendees, Lake Superior was the most widely shared community value, followed by people and similarly nature-focused words such as environment, water and wildlife. In Duluth, many climate and sustainability-related initiatives are underway, with most oriented towards the strong wilderness-loving culture of the region: the green infrastructure projects arising in the aftermath of the 2012 Duluth flood and an aquaponics facility were prominent examples. However, there were other, more under-the-radar climate solutions taking place as well, highlighted by the story of one church’s efforts to improve the energy efficiency of their building. People in Duluth appeared to embrace and pursue climate resiliency projects even without directly connecting their work back to climate change, and the power of the Climate Minnesota event was in linking these efforts into a broader, community-based movement towards addressing climate change.
Looking back on the spring, it seems clear based on these four convening experiences that Minnesota communities will confront climate change in their own ways, and their solutions will be as varied as their unique characters.