What it Means to “Convene”

August 22, 2016

Written By: Megan Mills-Novoa, Resilient Montana Fellow

Convene: from the Latin word convenire, which means to ‘assemble, fit, agree,’ from con-‘together’ and venire-‘come

Erik Somerfeld overlooking his wheat field in Power, Montana

It is harvest time in Montana. The often clichéd phrase, “amber waves of grain” is an apt description for large swaths of the landscape around Bozeman. Combines run all night, guided by high-precision GPS and the steadfast watchfulness of the farmer behind the wheel.  In my role as a UNHSI Sustainability Fellow at One Montana, this is not a good time of year for reaching out to farmers, but it is a ripe moment to reflect on the past two months and the lessons learned. 

One Montana, as an organization, builds dialogue between diverse stakeholders around important resource challenges: urban-rural, academic-practitioner, policy maker-citizen. I took the position with One Montana, because of their work convening and facilitating challenging conversations, particularly on the topic of climate change. As a graduate student, I hear a lot of buzz about “science-policy dialogues” and “broader impacts” within academia, but it is in community organizations, like One Montana, where those efforts are not just a section in your research grant proposal, but rather, are a mission. But of course, this work does not come without roadblocks and bumps.

One of the key challenges in the work of a convener is articulating the value of convening itself. Convening diverse groups transcends simply inviting stakeholders and extends to the far more subtle art of relationship and trust building, finding common ground, and building an inclusive narrative. In my role at One Montana, I have been contributing to their broader goals by creating resources that serve as a platform for bringing people together. This work has included collecting and refining outreach materials for Montana State University Extension agents on climate change, co-coordinating public outreach videos connected to the soon-to-be-released Montana Climate Assessment, and drafting a white paper that seeks to re-orient the narrative surrounding the role of farmers and ranchers in addressing climate change from antagonistic to heroic. It is this last project that has offered the most lessons on the challenges of convening people from across the landscape, agricultural sectors, and political divide around the highly-charged issue of climate change.

For those who haven’t been able to spend time in Montana (which I highly recommend), Montana is a predominantly agricultural state with large rural expanses checker-boarded with dryland and irrigated small grain production (i.e. wheat, barley) and ranching. While climate change impacts have been varied across the state, there has been a 2.4 degree F increase in average annual temperature over the last 100 years. Looking forward, this warming trend is expected to continue and precipitation regimes are expected to shift with more rain falling in the winter and spring and less in the winter. 

Organic eggplant being grown in a high tunnel in central Montana

Montana’s farmers and ranchers are already coping with the effects of climate change, and yet, their voices have been absent from many of the discussions dissecting this issue. This lack of engagement with the agricultural community means that crucial land stewards are left on the sidelines. This void has been attributed to climate change denial, isolation, and/or poor science communication. While these reasons may be realities for some individuals, I have come to think that many producers have simply felt sidelined and scapegoated in climate change conversations. These key land stewards are pointed to as the “problem” due to livestock-related emissions and their use of agricultural inputs. And yes, agricultural operations emit greenhouse gasses, but they also provide food and livelihoods. Ultimately, the conversation on climate change needs to include our ranchers and farmers, our scientists, our policy makers, and our conservation community. But who and how can we bring these people together?

The white paper that I am authoring alongside other One Montana staff seeks to do just that. This report will draw on peer-reviewed literature to highlight the myriad ways that farmers are managing their lands to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. no-till agriculture, nutrient management, continuous cropping) and adapting to escalating climate change impacts (e.g. crop diversification, changing harvest and sowing dates, increasing irrigation efficiency, changing animal stocking practices). By highlighting the responsible land stewardship that farmers and ranchers are already doing in relation to a changing climate, we hope to deepen engagement with these crucial stakeholders.

After we finalize the report, Zach Brown, the head of One Montana’s Resilient Montana project and my mentor, will use this report as a launching pad for a public outreach campaign, including breakout sessions at some of the large agricultural groups’ member meetings this fall. For me, who usually writes for an academic audience, this report has been a tremendous learning experience in keeping the objective and audience at the forefront of my drafting. This document is meant to empower farmers and ranchers by reminding them that they are already coping with volatility and reducing emissions in a myriad of ways. Our hope is that this focus will highlight that farmers and ranchers are already addressing climate change, whether they use those words or not; and therefore, they ought to have a more prominent role in the discussion as their industry charts its future course.

So what does this have to do with convening? While perhaps, what I have learned above all else this summer, is that convening is undervalued. Perhaps this is because its “wins” are harder to quantify or because it is a subtle art. Perhaps, this is because it takes a long time and isn’t always successful. But ultimately, if we want to move forward on climate change or on other sustainability-related topics, we need to broaden our work across more diverse stakeholders and sectors. We need to convene, and in doing so we need to be creative and empathic. Because our unwillingness to seek common ground may be the biggest risk of them all.

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