Tuesday, August 23, 2016

On the Nexus

Hello, world.

My name is Allison Voglesong. I’m a native Michigander, a millennial, and, above all, I am one lucky water wonk because I am the 2016-2017 International Joint Commission (IJC) Michigan Sea Grant Fellow.

This means every day I cross the world’s only underwater international border crossing to go south (yes, south!) from metro Detroit, where I live, to the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office (GLRO) in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

Asian Carp information at the border

Point of border demarcation in the tunnel

View of Detroit from the park by the IJC office

This aspect of my commute is a microcosm of what is unique about the IJC itself, about my Fellowship, and about serving the Fellowship via the Michigan Sea Grant program; it’s a nexus. A nexus is a means of connection between two or more things, like a link. One is a physical link, one is a policy link, one is a cognitive link, and one is a praxis link.

This seems obvious when applied to the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel: a physical link that brings two nations together. They even call the special card pass for frequent boundary-hoppers a NEXUS pass.
The International Joint Commission itself is a nexus. Created by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between the United States and Canada (back then as a dominion of England), the IJC is a cooperative effort of both governments. Importantly, it is independent from the governments and serves as an unbiased third party and objective advisor to the governments.

The IJC is the nexus between Canada and the United States for conflict resolution and water quality protection of all the waters along the international boundary. The IJC facilitates cohesive, coordinated action, and I witnessed this in June when I sat in on the Executive Meeting of the IJC, where the six Commissioners, three appointees from Canada and three from the United States, met to decide how the Commission as a whole would counsel the governments on boundary water issues.

(L to R) Canadian commissioners Richard Morgan and Benoit Bouchard and 
United States commissioners Dereth Glance and Rich Moy at the June Executive meeting

Canadian Section Chair Gordon Walker, left, and US Section Chair Lana Pollack, right

One example is the IJC’s forthcoming Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report. Per the 2012 update of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA), the IJC must report on progress that the governments have made toward achieving the many goals of the GLWQA. The report evaluates the governments’ Progress Report of Parties documents, considers public comments on government actions, and provides recommendations for governments to achieve swimmable, drinkable, and fishable Great Lakes waters. In this way the IJC is a policy link for the two countries to protect our Great Lakes.

This brings me to the second nexus: my IJC Michigan Sea Grant Fellowship. Unlike the last IJC Fellow, I am not a scientist. I have a degree in International Relations, a Graduate Certificate in Transboundary Water Conflict Management and Transformation, and five years of professional experience. Along those lines, my Fellowship duties are with the GLRO’s communications and public affairs team.

Translating science is a nexus because it serves as the cognitive link between information and action. I don’t like saying that communications makes high-level information accessible to “the general public” because that implies: 1. Regular people are unimportant, and 2. Important people already understand this high-level information.

Politicians may not understand the scientific report jargon any better than a sports fisherman, and that’s where the IJC’s communications team, and the multimedia products I contribute, comes in. Many of my Fellowship projects include making videos, like this one about the IJC’s Water Quality Board Report on PBDE Chemicals. The bottom line is that everyone’s actions affect the waters of the Great Lakes, and promoting informational, accessible science to inform decisions and actions of all stakeholders, including governments, is a key part of the IJC GLRO’s responsibility and of my Fellowship.

Some of the IJC team (L to R):  Science Writer Kevin Bunch, GLRO Director Trish Morris, Public Affairs Officer in GLRO Windsor office Sally Cole-Misch, and Public Affairs Officer in Washington, DC office Frank Bevacqua, 
all enjoying lunch at the International Association of Great Lakes Research (IAGLR) conference 
in Guelph, ON in June 2016.

The third and last nexus aspect so far is my relationship with Michigan Sea Grant as the IJC Fellow. There is the administrative linkage manifested in the nerve wracking-but-not-too-scary interview process with both IJC and Michigan Sea Grant staff during the application period; this resurfaces periodically when I send monthly reports to Michigan Sea Grant.

The blog posts serve as a more meaningful nexus between my day-to-day world at the IJC office and the work of the Sea Grant to promote this Fellowship and recruit new talent for future cooperation with the IJC. Is it working? Comment below…

It was somewhat of a mystery to me what the IJC Fellow’s role in Michigan Sea Grant was until I was generously invited to attend Michigan Sea Grant’s staff retreat in July. I met the whole Michigan Sea Grant family, including staff from the University of Michigan office, educators located across the state of Michigan, and staff based at “the other school” (Michigan State, though I’m a proud alum and ambivalent about the rivalry).

I came to appreciate Michigan Sea Grant’s mission to support research, outreach, and education for the benefit of the Great Lakes. One word kept coming to mind amidst the organizational navel-gazing facilitated during the retreat sessions: praxis. Praxis is the practical application of theory to reality. Michigan Sea Grant works to fund research and education ranging from behind the helm of a ship to behind the keyboard of a computer.

Michigan Sea Grant staff up early for birdwatching, in search of the Kirtland Warbler in a Jack Pine forest near Grayling, MI

By funding Fellowships like this one, Michigan Sea Grant funds the praxis of what I’ve learned in school applied to the real world of water policy and communications at the IJC. While my day-to-day is in an office, it has the same praxis link as a Sea Grant educator’s does out on a boat with a class of seventh graders taking water samples. Which, by the way, I did when I was in seventh grade… but that story is for another blog post.

In conclusion, this Fellowship is all about making connections, from international government cooperation to actually putting my degree to good use.

Until nex(us)t time,

Allison Voglesong

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