“It is possible to undergo a fairly complete program design process including goals and objectives and never examine the underlying assumptions about how change really happens in a given context” (Church and Rogers p. 11).
My project for PAX 573—Uncovering your Inner Theorist: The Hidden Assumptions that Shape Practice—will revisit my Art as Research and Transformation project, The Voices of the Penokee Hills, Becoming the Poets of Our Own Landscape, where I attempted to provide a space for people to give voice to what they value in their community in the context of a large scale industrial mine proposal in the area.
My aim in this post is to begin by unpacking the underlying theories of change and practice that implicitly guided my choices in that project and how those theories might relate to outcomes. I will also make use of my understanding of theories of change and practice to explore the evolution of a loose coalition of activist organizations that has emerged in the area initially in response to the mine proposal and progressively more focused on local capacity building. There is a wide range of organizations, starting with the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and including many unexpected allies ranging from hunting and fishing advocacy groups to farmers, politicians, journalists, business owners and peace-activists. Because I have been able to follow the work of the Penokee Hills Education Project most closely, I will focus my attention primarily on that organization, but also include exploration of some of the collaborative relationships that it has spawned and maintains with other groups and individuals.
To begin, I would like to offer brief introduction to the context. In early 2011, a proposal was announced to explore the possibility of developing a large-scale open-pit iron-ore mine in the Penokee Hills. The Penokee Hills are located in far northern Wisconsin, in Ashland and Iron counties. The location of the proposed mine sits on ceded territory (by disputed treaty) that once belonged to the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe). As my Voices Project pointed out, the mining company is promising significant job growth and economic development as well as a new state of the art mining operation that would prevent environmental damage. Meanwhile members of the Bad River tribe, immediately downstream, as well as other people from near and far are gravely concerned about the threat to habitat, ecosystem and most significantly to the water.
From a macro-level perspective, this mine proposal in the Penokee Hills is part of what has been called a “radical shift” in the way that mining operations around the world are being funded and administered:
Prior to investing in new resource colonies, multinational mining corporations frequently change a country’s mining laws to remove restrictions on foreign ownership, reduce taxes, ease environmental protections and guarantee access to water supplies needed for mining. During the 1990s, under pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, over 90 states in the Global South changed their mining laws to attract foreign mining investment. These neocolonial measures, often called “neoliberal reforms,” are now being used to open up new mining projects in the Lake Superior region of Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. (Gedicks)(See also Gedicks 2001, p.29).
In my 2011 interview with Gedicks, he describes what he has witnessed in countless mining operation and/or proposals around the world, where multinational corporations come into communities with the promise of economic development and explain their process using of a lot of technical jargon.
He explains his own approach in these contexts—what we might call his theory of change (or even theory of justice). His objective is to provide communities with good, accurate, reliable scientific data and comprehensible information so that they can make their own informed decisions. As Gedicks also points out above, tactics similar to those used throughout the global south have been employed in Wisconsin over the last three years to undo some of the most responsible environmental protections and mining oversight legislation in the nation. He argues that in Wisconsin, during these last few years, there has been a consistent movement toward excluding ordinary citizens from the political process when it relates to resource extraction.
So the conflict at the macro level is between powerful outside economic interests aligned with regional/state political forces and some members of the local community with vested interests. At the forefront of those threatened by the mine proposal are the members of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe) whose federally guaranteed treaty rights have also been consistently bypassed throughout the state level permitting process.
The change needed at this level is about guarantees for local self-determination around safety, environmental, quality of life issues, and the exercise of Native American Treaty Rights. Gedicks argues that it is also about the erosion of the democratic process.
At the mid-level it is a conflict between people who have been convinced of the benefits of the mine and those opposed to the mine. It is about a vision for economic development in Iron and Ashland counties. The mining company and the state legislature have framed the mine proposal as a solution to economic difficulties in the region. The collective memory of the last active mines in the area (dating back to the early 1960s) is strong among some local community members and labor unions. The promise of high-paying jobs offers an attractive vision in an area with relatively high levels of unemployment. The political climate at the state level has allowed many significant legislative changes favorable to the vision of resource extraction with major outside investment. At the local level, many elected officials will either downplay or dismiss the issues related to safeguards for the environment, health and safety in favor of the promise for jobs and economic development.
Meanwhile a loose coalition of groups and individuals has begun to form, initially motivated in opposition to the mine proposal, but progressively orienting their activities around an alternate vision for the region, one that is grounded in local self-determination. This coalition has become increasingly more effective at re-framing the narrative in ways that have begun to promote local empowerment. There are many ways that they have begun to do less “fighting” about the mine and more expression of shared community values and messages that promote positive solutions.
Why is theory important in social movements?
Now that I have offered an explanatory overview of some of the key issues, I would like to step away from the context for a brief reflection on the role of theory.
A theory of change is a set of beliefs about how change happens. By identifying and examining our theory of change we develop an understanding of our underlying assumptions about what actions will produce desired outcomes. A theory of change can make the implicit explicit and can help us assess the effectiveness of program choices or interventions. A theory of change can be a guide.
Theory of Quantum Voices
On January 19th, 2011 the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center in Ashland Wisconsin, hosted a Town Hall Meeting to discuss the proposal of an iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills. Representatives from the mining company were invited to sit on a panel to answer questions from the community about the mine and it’s possible implications on the environment. To my knowledge, this was the first open forum regarding the mine. Standing at the back in the town hall meeting was Pete Rasmussen, a carpenter, photographer and now grassroots organizer of the Penokee Hills Education Project: The Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin (which I will discuss more later). Pete lives with his wife and son in Marengo, three miles as the crow flies from phase 1 of the proposed mine site. From the outset Pete has been asking critical questions about the integrity of the proposal and permitting process.
In June of 2011, I was having dinner with Pete and friends and discussing the proposed mine. Pete was asking where is the civic engagement on this issue and observed that both individuals and organizations seemed hesitant to take a position on the mine proposal. There is just not enough good information out there, he thought, and suggested that social media might be a good way to communicate with a broad range of people. Having just taken an Art as Research and Transformation class at The Summer Peacebuilding Institute, I said, I could do something like that.
And so the Voices of the Penokee Hills project idea was born.
I did not have a fully articulated theoretical rational, but intuitively I knew that the issue was bigger than a simple conflict between jobs and the environment. In the Voices project I attempted to change the “us verse them” dichotomy. My hope was that IF we could uncover the things that we have in common, like the place we cherish, THEN the dialogue between the local citizens might become more productive rather than divisive.
I did a series of video interviews where I invited reflections on the possibility of a mine in the area. Some of the early videos, which featured experts, were informative and educational without being inflammatory—they offered much needed clarity to a range of confusing issues. They raised critical concerns about the science, the potential impact on the environment and about the political process. As the project progressed, I began to widen the scope of the interviews to invite broader reflections on the values of community members and how those values relate to the mine proposal. Rather than asking a polarizing question like “what is your position on the mine,” I would ask people to articulate their own positive vision of place, home and community. I would ask people to tell a story of the place that they cherish.
I also hosted an open forum where we wrote collective poems around the same theme—a story of the places that we cherish. On the whole, my hope with the project was that by using art (poetry) and media (blog and video) we might raise awareness, clarify the issues and create a space that would give a wide range of people an opportunity to be involved in the process—especially people who have a stake but may not ordinarily find a place in the political forum.
The assumption was that by creating an opportunity for voices to be heard, on a boarder scale, via the blog and video, and to engage with the content through a collective poetry writing workshop, we might begin to create greater potential to raise awareness with a larger number of people and therefore create the space for more community dialogue that might ripple out to more people. Lisa Schirch and Vladimir Bratic write in a 2007 issue paper, Why and When to Use the Media in Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding, Chapter 8, The Media and Creating Critical Mass for Peace, “that art-based processes reach 100’s-1000’s of people” (Schirch 24). That was my hope. To date, there have 4500 views.
As I was making the videos, people would approach me and say, hey I want to tell my story. Anecdotally, it seemed that the project began to have a domino effect and promote a climate where a wide range of people were beginning to feel comfortable with being involved in the process—by seeing someone that they knew talking in a non-aggressive way they were encouraged to find their own voice.
As I analyze the project I have made use of the Strategic Frame Analysis (SFA) to identify some of the theoretical basis, which in many ways I was unaware of at the time—at least explicitly. SFA points out how important it is to communicate with a “reasonable” tone which “activates a community approach and a can-do attitude” (Frameworks, p. 64). An argumentative tone, one that is “opinionated, highly charged and ideological” (64) tends to alienate people and make them suspicious of the message. A reasonable tone invites people into the conversation and makes them feel comfortable to be part of the process and the conversation. While I did not have the SFA theoretical perspective to back my choices at the time, I was very attentive to the tone of the interviews that I did. I asked the questions and framed the conversation in a way orient the conversation in a positive, non-threatening way.
SFA also discusses the importance of the messenger. “Messengers are the people who become the physical symbol of the issue—they sign op-eds, appear at new conferences and before civic groups…and testify at hearings. They answer the question who says this is a problem I should pay attention to?” (FrameWorks Institute, 62). I would suggest that the messengers represented in the voices project are sincere, credible and they also come across as people highly involved with a stake in the community. Rather than one single messenger, this range of voices begins to take on the appearance of a community coming together as a coalition.
Finally, the Voices project, perhaps more than anything else became a forum where people were beginning to articulate their deep relationships to the place and people and to express individual and shared values. When the SFA discusses values, the point out that in communication, the order of the story matters. Often advocates begin by telling the end of the story, for example in the case of the proposed mine in the Penokee Hills the story might be, “there will be no mine” or “there will be a mine” without telling how. By starting with the end of the story advocates might assume that the public understands the details of the issue, but people can often be overwhelmed by the details and check out of the conversation. SFA suggests that the public actually needs to have access to information that lets them understand what is at stake and how it involves the things that they value. “Research from several academic disciplines tells us that people reason on the basis of deeply held moral values, more than on the basis of self-interest or “pocket-book” appeals. When we approach people as citizens, when we remind them of the widely shared values they already incorporate into their thinking, we tap into powerful models that guide their thinking about themselves and their political responsibilities” (FrameWorks Institite, 52). By beginning the public story by communicating our collective values we set a tone that invites people into the process.
Intuitively in the Voices of the Penokee Hills Project I believed that by asking people to talk about the place that they cherish we would be able to get passed the positions and down to the deeply held values that surface when we tell the story of those places. In a more recent stage of the Voices project I have been using a story telling process that taps into these deeply held values, by “guiding the storyteller toward a narrative that will engage and inspire listeners toward reflection and action.” Stories are powerful ways, Marshall Ganz argues for “translat[ing] our values into action” (2008).
Penokee Pete and the Penokee Hills Education Project
The following is a synopsis of the evolution of the Penokee Hills Education Project: The Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin (PHEP) based in part on my own observations and on an interview that I did with Pete Rasmussen. Pete is the Vice President of the PHEP whose mission is to educate the public on the impact of mining on the environment, on public health as well as the social and economic issues related to mining. The PHEP including Frank Koehn and Bill Heart, and Pete in particular, works closely and collaboratively with the Bad River Tribe—so much so that Mike Wiggins, Tribal Chair, coined the nickname “Penokee Pete.” In what follows, my aim is to use the Strategic Frame Analysis as an index to “unpack” the theories of practice and theories of change that are at work within the PHEP and some of the organizations with whom they collaborate.
Facts and Values
The PHEP decided early on the process that they would not spew out a lot of detailed technical information. They have consistently done the hard work of understanding the science and the technical information themselves, but they recognized that a bunch of facts was not going to get people involved. So, one of their key practices is to walk people to a site along the Tyler Forks River that would be directly impacted by a mine if it were to be developed in the Penokee Hills. This is a practice that brings people back into the wilderness to: touch the ground, listen to the water and feel the vastness along a river. This action reminds people why they should care about this place and expresses the values that the PHEP holds—which are also shared community values. When he was featured in a Midwest Environmental Advocates video, Pete says “I lead tours of the Penokee Hills because once you see them, you’ll want to save them”
SFA points to the importance of developing simplifying models. While the SFA approach involves the use of metaphor, the PHEP and other organizations in their coalition have been effective at achieving a similar aim through direct engagement with the living environment—rather than metaphor they have been using tours in the affected area and an experiential learning approach to communicate the science of the issue. Simplifying complex concepts in a way that the public can grasp and remember the essence of an issue will result in a broader base of understanding. “A good Simplifying Model has the capacity to make people “smarter” about the issue. Perhaps most important, when people understand HOW something works, they are better inoculated against SPIN” (FrameWorks Institute, 58). There are additional ways in which members of this loose coalition are making the complex issues more accessible. The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission has been very active doing scientific studies and communicating through social media in highly accessible ways. See Cyrus Video.
Perceiving low levels of civic engagement early in the process the PHEP committed themselves to developing a tone that is non-aggressive but is matter of fact. They show up, tell the truth and wait patiently. Their approach and their tone are slow and steady. As discussed above, SFA points out the importance of reasonable tones. It is also worth mentioning that the slow and steady approach is more sustainable.
One of the key approaches to lobbying that the PHEP has used also involves getting people out to the place. They have consistently invited politicians—particularly those who are on the fence to join them for a tour of the Penokee Hills. At least one politician in a critical moment of the legislative process was persuaded by that visit to the hills.
The Frameworks Institute points out the importance of being attentive to the messenger: “Messengers are the people who become the physical symbol of the issue—they sign op-eds, appear at new conferences and before civic groups…and testify at hearings. They answer the question who says this is a problem I should pay attention to?” (FrameWorks Institute, 62).
In September 2013 at the Penokee Hills Education Summit sponsored by the PHEP a really similar point was made by John “Duke” Welter Western Great Lakes Conservation Coordinator for Trout Unlimited. Based on his own legal and environmental background he urged the 350 attendees from a range of advocacy groups to strive for a coherent way to deliver a common message from a broad range of different voices. He also gave great emphasis to the importance of developing discipline in the message. He argued that inflammatory and combative language can be a disservice to the cause. (See Indian Country News)
As the Frameworks Institute suggests, “messages can be reinforced or undermined by their attachment to a spokesperson” (p. 62). What Duke’s recommendation adds to this is the value of a coalition of messengers. “No successful movement sprouts up overnight; similarly, a frame shift happens when coalitions of advocates learn, over time, how to ‘sing the same song’ in the service of social change” (p. 86).
Visuals Tell a Story
The landscape of the Penokee Hills spans more than eighty miles along what is an ancient mountain ridge. The mountain ridge, located in northern Wisconsin and Michigan, was slowly scraped away “millennia ago by streams, rivers, oceans and glacial periods” (Voices), what remains of the mountain ridge is the Penokee Hills. The ridge, running on a slight northeast to southwest angle, stands tall above the surrounding landscape and is home to a vast network of rivers, streams and lakes that form the Bad River Watershed. The lifeblood of the region, this watershed pumps water though the Penokee Hills and eventually into the largest freshwater estuary remaining on Lake Superior, the Kakagon Slough. The environmental and cultural significance of the Kakagon Slough is immeasurable. This freshwater estuary acts as a filter, similar to that of a human kidney, removing sediment and contaminates from the water before it enters Lake Superior. This slow moving water filtration system provides important habitat for many aquatic organisms including Wild Rice. Wild rice, a staple in the diet of Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, is of significant cultural importance to the tribe; as a food source it provides important nutrients and it is also a principle part of their migration story.
The ancient ridge of the Penokee Hills supports habitat for many plant and animal species, countless wetlands and waterways. Penokee Pete has created many important photographic images of the landscape. Many of these images tell the story of the vast expanse of the Penokee Hills. They have the capacity to share with the public the magnitude and potential impact that a 22-mile long, open-pit iron ore mine would have on this landscape.
The PHEP website also includes other strong images, including maps that highlight the topography and watershed, as well as visual images from other smaller scale open-pit iron ore mines in Michigan. SFA asks does the visual provide context? Do the visual help or hinder the message? “Visuals, such as stock photos, art and other imagery trigger mental models just as language does. It is important to be aware of this, so that the frames introduced by the pictures do not work against the frames introduced by the words” (FrameWorks Institute, 66).
In brief, some of the PHEP’s additional approaches:
- They always show up at public hearings and ask hard questions with respectful tones.
- They have a visible office strategically located across the street from the Ashland county courthouse.
- They host picnics and potlucks to promote community engagement and relationship building.
- They host journalists- local, statewide, national and international to help them learn about the issues.
- As described above, they take people on tours of a key place that would be impacted by a mine. The place is an old fishing hole where they can discuss water, geology, fish habitat and natural environment in a tangible experiential way. The location also affords an opportunity to observe a gated entry to the mine exploration site.
- They have participated in the building of a coalition of organizations and individuals who are actively working on positive solutions.
Partial List of Coalition Members:
- Lac Courte Oreilles tribe member sponsored Harvest Education Project
The Lac Coutre Oreilles Band of Ojibwe are exercising their treaty hunting, fishing and harvesting rights in ceded territory by establishing the Harvest and Education Learning Project (HELP). (See Video) The project, which is located in the Penokee Hills, just minutes from the drill site, invites people from all over the world to visit and learn about harvesting practices. Tribal members and other citizens from the area are occupying the mountain “in order to facilitate an inventory of resources, and assess the potential of long term sustaining tourism and harvesting opportunities under the idea that this old mountain range would rather some day become the Penokee Hills National Heritage Park,” as well as for “hunting, fishing, harvesting and public recreational use as defined by treaty and public laws. (Indian Country).
- Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
With the leadership of Mike Wiggins, Tribal Chair, the Bad River Band has been very active locally and at the state and national level. In the science realm they have been active through their tribal sponsored Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWIC). In the judicial realm they have been monitoring the evolving situation and investigating the treaty right implications. Finally, the threat of the mine has spawned many positive expressions of tribal cultural identity.
- Bad River Watershed Association
- League of Conservation Voters
- John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club
- Wisconsin Chapter of Trout Unlimited
- Wisconsin Wildlife Federation
- Lake Superior Binational Forum
“One of the most effective communications strategies for advocates is to help the public understand that we have the ability to solve many pressing social problems. This ‘can do’ attitude is deeply embedded in the American psyche” (Frameworks, 70).
When people can envision a solution to a particular problem they are more likely to become active toward that solution. One of the most interesting outcomes of the loose coalition that has emerged in this context is the many grassroots-based positive solutions to local self-determination. There are countless examples of farmers, innovative small business initiatives, community based networks, and educational programs that are offering viable solutions to issues of economic development. As both evidence and promise of the movement to build the local economy in Ashland, Iron and Bayfield counties of far northern Wisconsin. This workshop, hosted by The Alliance of Sustainability, The Bad River Tribe and UW Extension office, is another example of coalitions merging to find positive solutions to complex social problems. Please see (Link Local Economy workshop).
In many ways this approach to self-determination begins to take the shape of local solution to a global social problem.
Church, C. and Rogers, M.M. (2006). Designing for Results: Integrating Monitoring and Evaluation in Conflict Transformation Programs. Washington D.C.: Search for Common Ground.
FrameWorks Institute. (2009). Changing the Public Conversation on Social Problems: A Beginner’s Guide to Strategic Frame Analysis. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute Framing eWorkshop.
Gedicks, A. (20011). Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations. South End Press. Cambridge, MA.
Gedicks, A. (February 2013). Mining Industry Targets “Prove It First” Law, Z Magazine.
Indian Country TV.com. Lac Courte Oreilles Harvest Camp Opened in Penokee Hills. (2013) http://www.indiancountrynews.com/index.php/tv/indian-country-tv-com/13830-lac-courte-oreilles-harvest-camp-opened-in-penokees-9min
Schirch, L., Bratic, V. (2007). Why and When to Use the Media for Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding, Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict: European Centre for Conflict Prevention. The Netherlands.
Taylor, D. (December 2011). Voices of the Penokee Hills: Becoming The Poets Of Our Own Landscape. Retrieved November 30, 2013 from http://voicesofthepenokeehills.wordpress.com/.