Q&A: ‘Bridge Builder’ Says Dialogues Should Not Shy Around Rural Fears
Anna Claussen has helped rural communities talk productively about contentious topics like climate change. Now she’s forming an organization to help her expand that work.
Anna Claussen writes thank-you notes. She presents thoughtful gifts to colleagues when she visits from out of town. She’s polite – Minnesota polite.
So she’s not the sort of person you expect to lead folks into potentially uncomfortable conversations about contentious topics. But that’s exactly what she does with the Rural Climate Dialogues.
The dialogues assemble a representative sample of rural community members to explore climate change and create a community response plan. The dialogues are not a feel-good pep talk for like-minded thinkers. They include people with starkly different opinions. They probe the topics you try to avoid at the elementary school-chili supper fundraiser, the ecumenical potluck, or anywhere else rural people tread delicately through the minefield of polarized politics.
Claussen says when communities prepare properly for a discussion on polarizing topics, there’s nothing to worry about. And she isn’t just being polite about it.
“We [must] walk into this vulnerable space and have a conversation about something that has been tagged as too polarizing and just too deep, that will somehow derail us if we go there,” she said. “We need to go directly to the center of those issues. To have faith in each other. To have faith in people who you think don’t align with your views.”
Claussen’s views are the product of five years of conducting Rural Climate Dialogues in three Minnesota communities. She is now using that experience to create a new organization, Voices for Rural Resilience.
Claussen grew up in an extended Minnesota farm family. She lives in a metropolitan area. With a foot in both worlds, Claussen thinks there are plenty more people like her who have the experience and skills to help Americans cross cultural and political divides.
Voices for Rural Resilience will look for ways to support these “bridge builders,” she said.
We talked to Claussen about Rural Climate Dialogues, the role bridge builders play in bringing people together around tough issues, and what she hopes to accomplish with her new organization. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tim Marema: For the past several years, you’ve brought rural and small-town residents together to talk about climate issues. You give a diverse set of people a common set of information and then talk directly about issues where we tend to strongly disagree. Can you walk me through an outline of the Rural Climate Dialogues?
Anna Claussen: A key component in how we engage people on contentious issues is that the group we work with is a representative of the community. [Claussen collaborated with the Jefferson Center using their citizens jury model for participation.] We’re having the conversation with everyone in the room together.
Secondly, we’re empowering those “jurors” to have facts and information and vet that information collectively for bias and to pull out what they collectively feel are priorities. We don’t tell them what to do or think. They go through the process of hearing that information and looking through it.
I think another point is showing them from the get-go that we are asking a lot of you, so we’re going to invest in you. It’s paying people for their time. When people come together as jurors they’re not there specifically as stakeholders. You’re showing up as you.
Part of this conversation is, “What are your fears and anxieties, and your hopes, around climate change?” Or “extreme weather impacts in your communities”? This humanizes each other and it unites the jury to understand what’s shared by everyone – even people who perhaps don’t share ideological views but, they certainly share some very important values and passions for their neighbors, their communities, and the place that they’re from.
Tim: What’s the product that participants produce together?
Anna: By the end of three days, the jurors collectively have created both a statement for their neighbors and a community action plan. That often gets picked up by the community leaders, people who are in local government. That document is very important for being able to help communities take the next step. It’s not just a process that doesn’t have agency for change. It’s not a document that sits on a shelf. It is a document that is rooted in a process that has motivated people to action.
Tim: What types of actions might be recommended in that plan?
Anna: In some cases it’s been for the city to immediately be able to swap out all of their city lighting to LEDs. In other cases it’s been 20-year plans for small towns and communities to become fully renewable [in energy consumption] and fully sustainable. In two of our three pilot communities, they both were initially able to get a substantial grant from our state pollution control agencies to apply towards some of those specific actions. In one of our communities we were able to push on a large scale utility to provide the first-ever rural home and housing energy audits. Where they weren’t providing them outside of the larger metropolitan areas and to create a communities grant program, but also a communities’ competition program to help people understand what that opportunity was and to make it fun. Those are a few that pop to mind.
Tim: You say the climate conversation in the United States has skipped the part where we deal with people’s personal fears of change and uncertainty. How do you respond to someone who says, “Having that conversation would be great in a perfect universe. But we don’t have time for that. We’ve got to act now”?
Anna: Well, when we think about a perfect universe, it’s a reminder that we are in, like it or not, a human-centered universe. And so, I think that’s why it’s valuable to take a very humanity-centered approach to climate change. If we are the ones driving this as humans, then we have to come back to that very essence of what drives our inner being of how we show up and care about each other and how we feel cared for.
Tim: You said during your career you’ve felt like the person who brings empathy into the conversation. What do you mean by that?
Anna: When I’m working alongside others on climate change, many of us feel this weight of urgency. So it is easy to be critical and want to see change on the ground quickly. For me, empathy is a reminder of all the different pieces we as a movement need to help build in as a form of risk management [for the people who are earning a living from the land]. Not just understanding from a numbers stand point, from a spreadsheet standpoint, but understanding what it feels like to be in those positions and making those decisions. That is where I try to bring my perspective and build that empathy so that we can name those fears and those anxieties and let people put them out in the room.
We [mistakenly] think that if we can create an economic pathway forward, people are ready to jump onto a new way of doing agriculture, a new energy system. And there also is what that former economic system has meant for the identity of individuals within a community. I believe only by creating opportunities to collectively talk with your neighbors about what that means, the pride in that work, [will we be able to have] an open conversation of what a communities’ new identity will be.