Southwest RSDP Grows Sustainable Connections with Digital Engagement

June 2021

By Marie Donahue, RSDP and CERTs

By leveraging technology in creative ways, recent projects in Southwest Minnesota are using digital engagement to connect people, places and sustainability.

This past year, University of Minnesota Extension Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Southwest RSDP) supported multiple projects in creating digital assets and virtual showcases. This work is helping introduce new audiences to sustainability in the region and share local knowledge and stories about water, soil health and resilience.

“Like a lot of other things over the past year, our Southwest RSDP projects adapted to the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this case, they created videos and webinars rather than activities that might otherwise have been in-person. It’s interesting to explore what they learned and what will be carried forward from these digital products,” said Anne Dybsetter, Southwest RSDP executive director. 

One example of these digital efforts shared stories of regional sustainability that can be drawn on for years to come. Troy Goodnough, University of Minnesota Morris (UMN Morris) sustainability director, was a key collaborator on this project, Sharing Stories: Growing Relationships with the Land. “Together, we can build a positive rural vision, one that builds stronger lives, livelihoods and lands,” Goodnough said. “We change when our ideas about what is possible change.”

As part of We Are Water West Central Minnesota (WC-WRW), a team of partners, including Goodnough, UMN Morris student interns, and collaborators from CURE (Clean Up the River Environment) and the Stevens Soil and Water Conservation District, recently worked with the Minnesota Humanities Center to host the We Are Water MN exhibit on the UMN Morris campus.

The traveling exhibit explores connections between water and the humanities through local engagement efforts and educational resources. 

While the We Are Water MN exhibit was in residency on the Morris campus in fall 2020, it shared space with the Why Treaties Matter exhibit. Housed together, these complementary exhibits weaved together themes of environmental stewardship and indigenous perspectives.

Although these exhibits and related in-person activities were successful, the COVID-19 pandemic made it challenging to fully engage with people across the region. Thinking creatively about how to reach a larger audience, the team decided to adapt.

“In the midst of COVID-19 times, our partnership team in collaboration with the We Are Water team said, ‘Let’s go all-in adapting to this moment,’ in a comfortable and accessible way,” Goodnough said about the team’s work and its shift to prioritizing digital engagement.

The team worked with Mike Cihak, director of media technology at UMN Morris to produce a virtual exhibit, which includes a set of videos showcasing the collaboration and stories in the region.

“We are water, and no one knows the water like the people that live here,” notes the first video in the series. “One of the best parts of living in any community is getting to know the water story of that place.” 

In addition to WC-WRW team's programming, CURE and Goodnough also worked together to convene a six-part “Sharing Stories” webinar series in winter and spring 2021, in partnership with the Land Stewardship Project and supported by both CURE and Southwest RSDP.

This series amplifies stories of local leaders who share their relationships to the land and the types of conservation practices that have important regenerative potential, while reducing the impacts on water and climate change.

“We wanted to lift up a new generation of farmers or those who may be returning to the region, introducing some new faces who take a holistic approach and recognize that smaller operations and soil health practices are better for the whole ecosystem,” said Peg Furshong, CURE’s operations and program director and a key member of the WC-WRW team.

Audiences and partners throughout the region and state can continue to draw on these digital assets well into the future. “I like to think of stories as memories. ... We are producing these stories that people can return to. When we hear things more than once, we can let the message sink in,” Goodnough said.

“I’m thankful to have these videos to sink into,” he added.

Marie Donahue works as a statewide sustainability storyteller with the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) and Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs).