Reflections on How America’s Waterway Began
by Anne Lewis
The best place to start telling you how America’s Waterway got started is at the beginning.

It starts in a very old-fashioned place where sense of community and participation are ingrained. As a native Minnesotan – and an OLD native Minnesotan – I grew up with the Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale philosophies of social change: door knocking, precinct caucuses, the whole prairie-populist nine-yards. I even used to actually teach it.

Then came grad school in communication and, just about the same time, community organizing was gaining academic traction. They both grow out of the same place: If you want people (or institutions, for that matter) to adopt new behaviors or change old ones, use solid information repeatedly and get the stakeholders involved first-hand so they can see and participate in making the change. That seems passť today, but at the time, it was revolutionary.

Fast forward through a career in marketing that relied heavily on the aforementioned principles and saw great success whether it was health care marketing or financial services. The internet came to marketing and connected the dots. I could see that what I knew from Hubert Humphrey and from communication theory was playing out in the ways online social networking was being adopted by advertisers, companies and causes. It was revolutionizing information dissemination and the building of communities.

All this was just clicking along nicely until I moved from beside the Mississippi River to living beside the Chesapeake Bay. WAKE UP!

Here was a body of water people seemed to be channeling, even in an urban setting. Their sense of ownership of the Bay was palpable, from license plates to annual “state of the Bay” legislative handwringing. Everybody understood if they wanted to eat crabs in Maryland or oysters in Virginia, they had to do things differently in other parts of the Bay… agriculturally, developmentally and recreationally. Didn’t mean they agreed on how to reach the goals, but they got it that the whole Bay mattered.

The question became: why isn’t it like this for the Mississippi River? I could have written it off to population density, major media centers or a long-standing nonprofit called the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. I could have just accepted that the Bay is mostly round and the Mississippi is LONG and skinny. But the internet and social networking negated those geographic and even demographic answers. They aren’t acceptable any more.

There isn’t a reason the Mississippi River can’t have the same sense of community the Chesapeake Bay enjoys. There isn’t any reason people who work on the river, play in the river and study the river all throughout its watershed can’t come together around the recognition that this is one of the country’s most important water resources and if it’s to be sustained, let alone thrive, new ways of addressing its management and sustainability have to be adopted. The internet and internet-based collaboration breaks down the geographic boundaries, just like internet-based learning changes education and internet-based collaboration changes the way bi-coastal companies do business. We just need to embrace it and get on with it.

At America’s Waterway, we believe the public needs to be engaged early for support of the whole-River’s future. We think building an internet-based community of committed and collaborating stakeholders is the way to jump start more unified approaches to the Mississippi River. Top-down planning has given way to an expectation of public-participation planning. And, national awareness and appreciation of the River’s significance to the country’s wellbeing is pivotal. In short, it’s the 21st Century approach to the River’s 21st Century challenges.

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