Thursday, November 17, 2016

Reflections: An Update from Allison Voglesong

Standing at the water’s edge, you can reasonably expect to see yourself peering back—that is, assuming there aren’t too many waves. Water acts like a mirror, and it’s normal for people to want to see themselves reflected in it.

Over the past few months, I have been working on multimedia communication projects that support the International Joint Commission’s public engagement mission in the Great Lakes. Communication is key to public engagement, and I’m particularly focused on understanding and improving the role of our constituents’ representation in our media. Like water, people who are integral to Great Lakes issues and solutions want to see themselves reflected in our communication products.

Young women canoeing at Point Pelee National Park in Ontario, Canada.
At the Great Lakes Public Forum, organized by the Environmental Protection Agency and Environment and Climate Change Canada, the International Joint Commission held a public comment session to solicit comments on the Canadian and US governments’ progress toward the goals of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The event was held in early October at the Allstream Center in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and attracted scholars, activists, and industry reps from around the Great Lakes basin on both sides of the border. You can watch the whole thing for yourself here, or watch a summary video here, created by yours truly.

Sunset near the Allstream Center in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
My project leading up to the Forum was to create a short video that would play at the beginning of the IJC’s public comment session to frame the purpose of the event: why the IJC was the one receiving the public’s feedback, how that is rooted in its mandate under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and what the audience can expect the IJC to do with their comments afterwards. This video project was my most challenging and fulfilling Fellowship project to date: Listening to the Great Lakes: About the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

If I was asked to make a feature-length documentary or a short film, perhaps I would not have learned as much about the importance of helping an audience to see themselves in communications. But to summarize, in less than five minutes, a living policy document that addresses specific scientific water issues and also explain what the IJC is, its role, and why the “general public” should care enough to engage and provide IJC with comments…on a 150+ page government technical report, no less.

Before any lights, cameras, and filming action, I had to think hard about my audience. I didn’t have time to extol platitudes about how much of the world’s fresh surface waters are in the gifts of the glaciers—the folks showing up to comment to the IJC already know the basic stats. I didn’t have time to explain each of the ten annexes of the Agreement, though I’m sure plenty audience members couldn’t list them all off, either.

I had to focus on tapping into the why – what was it that made folks want to come to the meeting to say something to the IJC? They want to be seen and feel heard. They want to see themselves and their Great Lakes issues reflected in the IJC’s recommendations. 

That's how I came up with the "listening" lens for the video project. Participants should see themselves not only as at the proverbial table, or simply invited to be in the room, but as an essential partner with governments in restoring and protecting the lakes. Citizens are an integral part of the history that brought the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to life. The video became a way of holding a mirror up to the audience, to remind them what they accomplished already by working to hold government accountable to their actions. What do they see when they peer into the water and see their reflection? I wanted them to really see themselves, and that's how I came to the video's refrain: "You are the voice of the Great Lakes."

L to R: Commissioners Moy, Pollack, and Bouchard at the Great Lakes Public Forum for the IJC's public comment session in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
The IJC also visited Milwaukee, WI, later in October to host a scientific roundtable public comment session that solicited comments, recommendations, and updates on Great Lakes science issues from community members. Check out the wrap-up video I produced here. In the spring of 2017, we expect to host more public comment sessions across the entire basin, from the far northwest corner of Lake Superior to the east on the St. Lawrence River.

L to R: Val Klump, Dean of Freshwater Science, UWM; Sally Cole-Misch; Michael Toope; Commissioner Lana Pollack; GLRO Director Trish Morris; Commissioner Rich Moy; Matthew Child; Lilith Fowler, Executive Director of Harbor District, Inc., Milwaukee; Commissioner Richard Morgan; and Commissioner Benoit Bouchard on the UWM Research Vessel in Milwaukee, WI.
In addition, we’ve launched the democracy platform for individuals to submit comments and engage in topical discussions on issues they care most about. Many IJC public comment strategies ask constituents to post their written comments once or attend one public engagement event. The IJC’s public engagement for the Triennial Assessment of Progress, the ultimate report card on the Canadian and US governments’ progress toward Agreement goals, is much more in-depth and requires a special place to help citizens communicate and discuss what they consider to be the Great Lakes’ successes and challenges. I encourage students looking to apply to this Fellowship for 2017 to fully explore and get involved in the monthly discussions. November’s discussion topic is, aptly, public participation and engagement. We’re looking forward to even more feedback about whether citizens really do see themselves in the media and work of the IJC.

Can you see yourself in a Michigan Sea Grant Fellowship at the IJC in 2017? Share your own reflections on this post in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to respond to questions any of you may have.

Allison Voglesong