By Bridget Butler
Voices for Lake Project Manager, ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center at the Leahy Center
With bytes and bites of information continually bombarding us through media outlets like television and radio or the seemingly innocuous places like our local library or science center, it is a wonder anything reaches us or that we can ever focus on any one thing.
What I have enjoyed most about managing the Voices for the Lake Project at the ECHO Lake Aquarium & Science Center is that the institution’s voice is not meant to be the loudest, it is the community voice that we mean to amplify. The goal of Voices for the Lake is to create a community forum through a website, an exhibit and a set of social network tools to engage people in an evolving dialogue about water. Sure, we have other goals: to connect people throughout the Lake Champlain Basin watershed, to help them to think about how they value water and to move them toward taking action to protect waterways where they live.
However, we’ve found that if we approach building community around the health of Lake Champlain by starting a conversation with people who live in the watershed, and we ask emotive, speculative questions, we provide the public with the opportunity and the freedom to tell us about their values and concerns. We begin the conversation, and then we listen.
When you have a conversation with friends, there is a very genuine aspect about the questions you ask, how you listen to a response, and how your comments drive the conversation forward. Most likely, you don’t have an agenda in mind other than pleasant conversation. Applying these same ideas to the Voices for the Lake Project, we have opened the conversation to anything that has to do with water. We use our social networks and our exhibit prompts to ask people emotive and speculative questions, not for the sake of asking but because we care about the answers. For instance, when we ask for stories about memories, we are reaching out to make a personal connection with community members. We suspend our ultimate agenda of moving people to take action and, as a first step, focus on listening effectively, and taking time to decipher the meaning of attitudes, knowledge, values, and experiences that we find in people’s stories.
By showing that we can be both teacher and learner, ECHO has been able to deepen our relationship to the community. For example, we heard people talk about pollution in the stories contributed to Voices for the Lake and so we have adapted how we talk about healthy waterways to include the public jargon rather than our own sometimes cumbersome science jargon. By listening, we are able to impart our expertise about the nature and issues of the Lake Champlain Basin by presenting knowledge in a manner that is digestible and of interest to our community members.
Voices for the Lake is really not about “me”, it’s about you–all of you in our community. It’s about truly listening, without an agenda or our institution’s mission clogging our ears. Listening allows us to connect, to collaborate, and to make change…effectively.
About Voices for the Lake
Voices for the Lake is a timely and innovative ECHO initiative to inspire Lake Champlain Basin stewardship through social media; connecting people who care about the health of their watershed with shared stories and regional resources. This innovative open-source project is using Omeka to create a user-contribution website and onsite exhibit to build a digital storytelling archive of the values, concerns and experiences of individuals across the entire Lake Champlain watershed.
Bridget Butler was hired by the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in rural Vermont to manage Voices for the Lake. She has been a professional naturalist, informal educator and bird whisperer for 18 years. She is one of the first National Audubon Society certified professional naturalists and developed the conservation education strategy for Audubon Vermont’s Forest Bird Initiative.
Editor’s note: The Lake Champlain work has helped inspire a partnership between Lake Champlain and Lake Tahoe that was recently awarded a $2.3 million grant from NSF for a global prototype for lake and watershed education. See http://www.news.ucdavis.edu/search/news_detail.lasso?id=9991