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Behind the Scenes of the Initiatives at the Wisconsin Academy

Tue, 03/31/2015 - 9:41am -- Meredith Keller

Before I joined the Academy’s staff last fall, I believed it was rare to witness an individual experience an epiphany—a profound moment of insight, or the connection of dots pointing to a new way of looking at a problem.

I have been fortunate to see several such moments in my six months as the Academy’s Initiatives program director. I attribute the regularity of these “a-ha” moments to the third and sixth words in the Academy’s mission: bringing people together at the intersection of the sciences, arts, and letters to inspire discovery, illuminate creative work, and foster civil dialogue on important issues.

A member of the audience considers the words of our speakers at the Academy Talk “Envisioning Responses to Climate Change," February 2015.

A member of the audience considers the words of our speakers at the Academy Talk “Envisioning Responses to Climate Change," February 2015.

Through the Initiatives, we bring together experts from seemingly disparate backgrounds to explore issues facing Wisconsin’s people, land, and water. These interdisciplinary conversations form the intersections that connect dots across the sciences, arts, and letters. By convening minds that might not have otherwise converged, we present a platform for new perspectives and arrive at solutions for a better world.

A case in point occurred this past December, when executive director Jane Elder and I had the pleasure of participating in the Sustainable Business Council’s annual conference in Milwaukee. While moderating an afternoon session that connected the topics of climate change and business, one of our panelists, a Corporate Sustainability representative from Jack Links—a company that purchases half of the lean beef in the United States—explained his own experience of making connections to our audience. Within the previous 48 hours Tom Eggert, Executive Director of the Sustainable Business Council and advisor to our Climate & Energy Initiative, helped him see certain intersections that pointed to a larger problem: climate change.

It wasn’t a light bulb. It was like a hammer on an anvil when we were having conversation and dialogue about why this was important for me to be able to speak about this today—especially for a company that doesn’t take a position on climate change. In 2013, our meat costs [went up 18%. In the following year, we again saw another subtantial increase of 22% in meat costs.]*

Does anyone know why?

Drought.

Climate change.

Thank you Tom [Eggert]. This is going to be great dialogue back home and to have this conversation with people who think about it a little bit differently—but it is absolutely affecting our industry. And the drought in the Southwest and actually across America which drove up the grain prices…drove a lot of the cattle producers to disperse the herds…the herd reduction has [driven] the supply down, the demand is high, and for a company that consumes [a lot] of the lean beef in the United States—which is us—[this has a] significant impact…

So this has really opened my eyes in the last 48 hours, Tom, to thinking about how I can get a better message to our organization, to taking a bigger stand on certain projects that have a bigger impact.

*Bolded text was obtained in a separate interview with Tom Myers.

The United States’ drought, exacerbated by climate change, is having a negative impact on businesses like Jack Links that source their supply chain through the agricultural sector.

The United States’ drought, exacerbated by climate change, is having a negative impact on businesses like Jack Links that source their supply chain through the agricultural sector.

It was proof positive that bringing experts together across disciplines to discuss the intersections between, say, business, agriculture, water, and even beef jerky, can change minds and alter business practices.

Another way the Initiatives have facilitated epiphanies is by introducing new skills to our network of experts.

Within my first month at the Academy, I saw a room full of 30 silent a-ha’s during our biannual Waters of Wisconsin Summit. The meeting brought together 30 members of our Waters of Wisconsin Leadership Network—experts on Wisconsin’s waters across the sciences, arts, and letters. To herald our new communications project, we welcomed Julie Swanson from Wisconsin Clearinghouse who delivered a 60-minute workshop on the power of storytelling to enact change.

Thirty members of our Waters of Wisconsin Leadership Network met at our fall summit in September 2014 to discuss the state and future of Wisconsin’s Waters. Our next summit is on April 9 in Milwaukee.

Thirty members of our Waters of Wisconsin Leadership Network met at our fall summit in September 2014 to discuss the state and future of Wisconsin’s Waters. Our next summit is on April 9 in Milwaukee.

It was more than Julie’s energy and riveting storytelling that maintained the attention of all the limnologists, policy-makers, social scientists, faith leaders, and other experts in the room; it was the fact that the content—how to use narrative to effect change—was salient to everyone listening. Just as Wisconsin’s air, land, and water are relevant to all disciplines, so is narrative. We see its effect on science, art, and policy through grant writing or testimony at public hearings.

One of our attendees, who recently retired after a long career in conservation, affirmed that “it was the most enlightening workshop [he] had attended in years.” Others confirmed that it was going to change their way of approaching their work on water issues.

Providing a platform for these kinds of connections in tandem with convening stakeholders and experts has been at the core of the Initiatives program since its inception in 2000. Our first Initiative, Waters of Wisconsin I, gathered over 20 experts in policy, science, and philosophy to “examine and analyze the current state and long-term sustainability of Wisconsin’s waters...through a process of informed discussion.”

The 2003 Waters of Wisconsin report is the product of years of deliberation, research, and analysis from the Initiative’s staff and steering committee. Their insights and options for action remain relevant into 2015.

The 2003 Waters of Wisconsin report is the product of years of deliberation, research, and analysis from the Initiative’s staff and steering committee. Their insights and options for action remain relevant into 2015. You can download your copy here.

This mission has guided the Initiatives that followed: from the Future of Farming (2005-2007) to our current Initiatives, Waters of Wisconsin II (started in 2012) and Climate & Energy (also begun in 2012). We stand on the shoulders of the original Initiative by cultivating both its findings and network of experts for deliberation, analysis, and distillation to identify strategies and solutions for a sustainable world.

In fact, many of the previous directors are now members of our leadership networks, our steering committees, and our working groups. Their work has established a vibrant and growing network of innovative thinkers across policy, academia, research, and philosophy who not only highlight intersections, but use those connections to create a more sustainable Wisconsin.

 

Scholar Mrill Ingram, and scientists Steve Carpenter and Chris Kucharik spoke at our February 3rd Academy Talk: Envisioning Responses to Climate Change. These experts explained how they use tools like scenario-building, storytelling, and the arts to help envision society’s role in prospective responses to climate change.

Scholar Mrill Ingram, and scientists Steve Carpenter and Chris Kucharik, spoke at our February 3rd Academy Talk: Envisioning Responses to Climate Change. These experts explained how they use tools like scenario-building, storytelling, and the arts to help envision society’s role in prospective responses to climate change.

I encourage you to have your own a-ha moment by exploring the rich list of resources the Initiatives staff have generated since 2000.

You can also join our conversation by emailing me, commenting here, and attending our events—such as February’s Academy Talk on climate change, scenario-building, and the arts; or last week’s World Water Day celebration that connected water with music, the visual arts, and public health.

What intersections do you see? Where are the connections? How can we use these to create a better, more sustainable Wisconsin?

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Meredith Keller was the Initiatives director at the Wisconsin Academy from 2014 to 2016, where she led both the Waters of Wisconsin and Climate & Energy Initiatives, and launched the statewide, annual Local Government Summit on Energy & Resilience.

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