Creating One River: Russian River Descent and Confluence



How do you avoid what happened in the past to vastly improve the health of a river, the deeply loved and over-worked Russian River, the lifeline of the North Bay, the heart and the arteries of Sonoma and Mendocino counties?  How do you change public perceptions and help thousands of people create a new story for the river?  How to do you engage two dozen bureaucracies to act holistically?  How do you coax a shared vision from a wide range of people from ranchers to homeowners to paddlers to Tribes to homeless people to align around One River?

County Supervisor James Gore knew the answer had to start with getting people on the river and he envisioned a paddle from the source to the sea bringing together many of the people that could make a difference.  Get them on the river, have them see its beauty and its sorrow, and they will work differently for its future. And it happened. It was called The Russian River Descent, which occurred in the October 2016, to be followed by a summit of leaders , Confluence, in March 2017.

My role in the Descent was as facilitator, to keep visible the greater purpose of the trip to the core group and to the 100+ public participants, and as documenter, recording the shared-adventure through photography and spoken poems.  I provided the spoken word poems each day as a practical method for helping people to know their voices were heard and to provide a unifying summary to each main event. 

The Descent/ Confluence project seeks to transform the activism around the Russian River watershed by making it more inclusive, more inter-dependent and resilient, stronger and wiser through creatively and experientially connecting different people and helping them to re-imagine a new story for their lifework along the river.

The project aspires to bring together very different people of different backgrounds, histories and ideologies. Some believe deeply in science and others believe in older ways of seeing and knowing.   Some will see on this river “parts per million” and others will see ghosts of past ancestors. To enter the river together is a bold step that is best taken with intention and making visible each of these different stories of the Russian River. Building trust and relationship is never an easy task, and won’t be achieved just by an exciting trip down the river.   Breaking old patterns of relationship requires both intention and a solid example of the alternative pattern.  The Descent can be transformational for all involved if participants feel seen and are guided to share their own very different stories and helped to hear these stories.

My role was to develop, through interviews, and organizing theme for each day and a guiding question.  Good questions (different from brilliant answers) are often the most effective way to engage and connect people.  It was from these advance conversations that an over-arching question about personal commitment to the river began to emerge.  That question is What does this river ask of me?

Russian River Descent

Every person I spoke with wanted to express their own holistic view of the river not simply an environmental concern but also a cultural concern.  It was Steve Knudsen of the farm Bureau who wanted to make sure we spoke not about farmers (as one might expect) but about the homeless population along the river.  Steve told me, “I don’t want to sustain the river but to change it, improve its health and the only way we will possibly do that is to make a much bigger tent that includes young homeless women, the Tribes, and every landowner along this river with a dock.”

And it was Bill Keene who wanted to make sure that we spent time understanding the cultural significance of the river not merely the open space plans. Bill said to me, “There are so many different cultural groups living along the river and they make it an amazing place.  We need to find ways to make them visible - the Pomo, the redneck dude in front of me in the line with his six pack, the white guy with dreads, the gay cashier dressed as a woman -in our vision of one river.  It’s important to my vision of the river that we acknowledge and recognize this diversity, that we show that inclusion is in our game plan, in our playbook. But how do we be that inclusive?”

Jim Leedy said there are as many as 400 people living along the Russian River without homes.  The 2010 census says there are 12,000 American Indians living in Sonoma County.

John Haig of the Economic Development Commission started our conversation wanting me to understand that at his core he was an environmentalist committed to the river, but that he was also deeply concerned about all the people who need water and who choose to live “river lives.”  He asked provocative questions like: “I think most of the paddlers going down the river with you will think that they have fewer impacts on the river than the homeless, but I wonder if that’s true?  In my vision for the Russian River, we make it more clean by providing affordable housing.”  Those are some of the “out-of-the-box” holistic responses that reinforce the theme of One River. 

I also heard from Fred and others the importance of protecting the ecology of the Russian River in part by honoring its past.  Fred said to me, “We’ve got to hear stories from old timers about what was here.  If we don’t remember how important and alive this fishery was in the memory of one generation, we risk not having a bold enough vision for bringing it back.  If you never knew this was once a world class steelhead fishery, we may not try hard enough to bring that back.”

These comments helped me to understand how important it is that the Descent and Confluence make visible both the natural and the cultural resources in order to craft that new story for One River. Only in viewing these together might we arrive at a bold enough vision that meets the theme: One River.

Here’s what we arrived at for the themes and guiding questions for the final descent:

Friday, October 7th:        

  • Acknowledging and respecting the more-than-human river.
  • Our question: What life was here before, and what life can possibly return?

Saturday, October 8th:

  • Recognizing and respecting cultural relationships to the river.
  • Our question: Who was here before, who’s here in the future?

Sunday, October 9th:

  • The possibility of a new story of collective action.
  • Our question: What has been our focus in the past, how do we look forward together?                         

What does this river ask of me?

On this final theme about what’s possible through collective action, Gina Casini’s one-liner as she addressed the group on the land that her family has stewarded for 120 years summed it up the best: “Who’s in charge of the protecting the river?”  She was asking who has the vision and the power to make the river great again?  Confluence needs to answer Gina’s question with an inclusive response: we have the power. We have the vision.  We have the authority.

Building a bigger tent is critical to most everyone, and very hard to accomplish. We won’t get there just by inviting different people to a conference in March.  We’ll need to prove in advance through pre-meetings that we understand that “resilience” and “regeneration” are just fancy words for relationship. 

Noreen Trippo (daughter of John Trippo) and her daughter, Brittany, gave us a model for this kind mutually beneficial pre-meeting when they spoke on Friday night in the circle about needing our help to understand how our government works just as we ask for their help in understanding how their government works.  With some thoughtful advance planning, we could create a great pre-meeting with Ya-Ka-Ama (which owns 125 acres bordering the Russian River) that addresses their needs and ours and models a form of authentic community engagements around Confluence. This relationship could lead to new relationships with Tribal members.

These pre-meetings would engage these kinds of questions.

What’s the biological/ecological vision for the Russian River?

What’s the cultural vision for the Russian River?

What are the 3 top policy actions that will get us to this vision?

What do you need to join this work?

What are our agreements among each group to work together toward this vision?

This sort of deliberate effort at inclusion also empowers participants to step up in their own ways to take responsibility to make one vision and to ensure its success.  One the final day, at the beach at Jenner, one participant said this really well: “We should all be river keepers. This river needs hundreds of new heroes.”

View Visual Story Here

Facilitation Type:

Civic Dialogue

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