Wilburforce Foundation supports innovative ways to connect citizens to conservation and the democratic process. For this work, we focus on Montana, Alaska, and New Mexico where we help our nonprofit partners test new approaches to citizen engagement and political accountability.
One project of interest to us is the Montana Engagement Partnership, a collaboration that includes several Montana-based conservation organizations. In Fall 2018, we discussed the Montana Engagement Partnership’s vision and what makes it special with its director, Laurel Angell.
WF: What sparked the Montana Engagement Partnership’s interest in trying a new approach to citizen engagement in conservation?
Laurel: In 2017, looking at the chaos and divisiveness in Washington, DC, the Partnership turned its attention to the local landscape – to Montana. Montanans span the political spectrum but they share a love of their state and its public lands. We know from polls that 82% of Montanans identify themselves as a conservationist. That’s an amazing number. We also know that many Montanans choose to live here because of values like neighbors and community, hunting and fishing, freedom and fairness. We want to better understand and tap into those shared values. We want to help Montanans be “for” something that is deeper than a single conservation issue and bigger than a reaction to dysfunctional national politics.
We also took inspiration from other places and new citizen engagement models. In Alaska, for example, residents place a huge value on salmon; it’s a source of food, income, culture, recreation. By connecting with Alaskans through that shared value, and working together, conservation groups are encouraging and helping Alaskans protect salmon habitat, improve policies, and make their voices heard.
WF: What’s special about the Montana Environmental Partnership?
Laurel: We’re listening. That’s so important and so hard, because everyone – funders, environmental groups – want to dive into “action.” The idea of finding shared ideals and working toward them together is what makes this partnership different. Learning to listen is hard. We can’t just assume we know what matters to folks and how best to talk to them about those issues.
WF: How does this project help build, or rebuild, community connections and democracy?
Laurel: We’re conducting a deep canvas and community organizing to really understand what motivates Montanans to act on conservation issues and to identify a broad set of people across the state who care about lands and wildlife.
A deep canvas was first used by the LGBTQ community after California passed an anti-marriage equality measure in 2008. The LGBQT community bravely decided to try a new approach: they mobilized volunteers and went door to door specifically to talk to people that disagreed with them. What they learned changed so much of what they did, including how they talked about marriage equality. They learned that the fundamental message they needed to convey was the value of being with the person you loved—a value that resonates with many, many people regardless of religion or politics.
Recognizing how powerful a tool a deep canvas can be, we’ve worked with The New Conversation Initiative to figure out how to do one well. We want to have real conversations about conservation in Montana and learn what Montanans want, what they fear, and why.
“The idea of finding shared ideals and working toward them together is what makes this partnership different.”
WF: What have you learned so far? What has surprised you?
Laurel: People are more than willing to talk. In this divisive time, people don’t feel heard or that they’re welcome to weigh in on environmental issues. Many are eager to share and converse — and even be recorded on video!
As somebody who’s been in the environmental field a long time, and who can be cynical, it’s profound to see these videos. What we learn is that the people that seem to be lined up against us are the people we need to be talking to more. Once you hear their fears, you can have a conversation. It opens up a place for all of us to figure out where and how we care for Montana.
I’ve also been surprised by how valuable the canvas is for letting people know who we are. The opposition has been successful in defining us from their perspective. To do the deep canvas we have to show up as environmentalists or conservationists and talk openly to people. I find there are a lot of questions about who we are and what motivates us. By showing up, we begin to define ourselves – and show our diversity and shared values on both sides of the doorstep.
WF: What are some common perceptions (or misperceptions) about conservationists in Montana that this project might help dispel?
Laurel: I think that in Montana the biggest issues are that environmentalists are perceived as privileged, elite, and out of touch. This is exacerbated by some economic problems that aren’t easily solved. Bozeman and Missoula are doing well and they derive economic benefit from public lands. But folks in more rural areas perceive of environmentalists as sitting in comfy ski lodges, planning how to stop progress in rural areas.
The deep canvas helps get at the real fears of residents who might feel like it’s a jobs-environment narrative, or we don’t care about jobs. We’re using the canvas to better understand local peoples’ fear and to get at their perceptions of environmentalists.
WF: Prairie Populist is a special communications component of the Montana Engagement Project. Tell us about it.
Laurel: Prairie Populist is a web publication created to give Montanans a chance to share stories and offer commentary about what’s happening in our state and our way of life. We’ve created a place to ask questions about what our elected officials are doing to defend what matters to us. The reporting is driven by curiosity and accountability. We showcase voices and issues overlooked by other media, including stories about state parks, open space bonds, and rancher-environmentalist collaborations. We call the site “Prairie Populist” because of Montanans’ independent streak – little guy vs. big corporations.
WF: How does a forum like this help achieve conservation outcomes?
Laurel: The writers take on principles of “solutions journalism” and seek solutions to large problems in their communities. Prairie Populist seeks writers who are curious and able to keep their own biases at bay. We genuinely want to cross political lines and use this forum as another way of having difficult conversations and through the process, help people tell their conservation stories and build trust in one another.
WF: What are some important things you hope Montana decisionmakers will learn from the Montana Engagement Partnership by the end of 2019?
I hope they hear that to be a successful elected official in Montana, you have to represent your people by being pro-conservation. Simply put, I hope they hear that it’s important to a bi-partisan, socio-economically and geographically diverse set of Montanans that we conserve our lands, waters, and wildlife.