Our work on the Rural Climate Dialogues began nearly four years ago, and continues to this day. Over the course of the program, we have heard repeatedly the need in Greater Minnesota for support from metro-based state agencies and organizations, and in September we responded to this call.
Eighteen Citizen Jurors and leaders from the three Dialgogue communities were selected to meet from September 8-9 with one another and representatives from state agencies. Over the two days, these representatives of rural Minnesota worked to uncover the shared priorities, actions, and barriers among their very different communities, and worked with the Center for Rural Strategies to tease out the personal stories underpinning their concerns about the changes rural Minnesota’s climate is experiencing. The stunning diversity of experience and perspective on climate issues the participants represented was unparalleled for traditional outreach efforts by agency staff, who rarely have such an opportunity to hear from rural residents.
Participants heard a variety of presentations from agency staff whose work addresses climate, but some of the most fruitful parts of the presentations came from open discussion between the participants and agency staff. In response to a presentation by Brenda Hoppe of the Minnesota Department of Health, Stevens County resident John Geleaneau shared his personal account of the physical toll that increased dew points and heat waves have had on Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad workers like himself. Stories like these, the real-life experiences of a changing climate on our rural residents, simply don’t make their way to agency staff, contributing to agency-directed policy less relevant to the experience of rural Minnesotans.
In considering the impacts of climate on rural communities, rural residents face a different set of challenges in comparison with the concerns of urban and suburban residents. Rural residents tend to have higher poverty rates, more persistent long-term poverty rates, and higher child poverty. Melissa Weidendorf of Itasca County’s personal experience working with children fleshed out a more diffuse impact of extreme weather on rural residents, drawing attention to the idea that “when you’re talking about families who are living in poverty already, and how devastating that can be to families and kids who are already living paycheck to paycheck, or barely making it, and then something comes along like a flood or high winds, trees down, and they don’t have the resources to be able to deal with that—from a mental health perspective, that’s an added stressor in terms of how people cope.” Our understanding of the devastating impacts of extreme weather events cannot be understood in terms of property damage or increased homeowner’s insurance rates alone. We must also account for the personal impacts on our state’s residents.
Beyond the opportunity to interact with agency staff, the State Convening gave residents from Stevens, Itasca, and Winona Counties the chance to see the progress made in their communities and identify how best to learn from one another. These dedicated participants carefully noted the successes they’ve had, the areas in which they need more state support, and their next steps. To learn more about the participants, read about Troy from Morris, Caleb from Grand Rapids, and Shona from Winona.
Our work in rural Minnesota has demonstrated that the greatest opportunity for community resilience comes from unleashing the human capital already present in our rural areas. We aim to institutionalize the inclusion of rural voices in future state policy, and will continue to listen to and support the communities as they work to achieve a stronger, more resilient, and more vibrant tomorrow.