Empowering Watershed Leaders and Building a Professional Network through Peer Learning

Story by Jenny Seifert

Even though watershed management is an inherently people-oriented endeavor, the work of a watershed project leader can often feel lonely. They may be the lone watershed coordinator in their watershed, and they may have limited connection with peers in other watersheds. Or perhaps they are a farmer who’s active in conservation but feels like the black sheep in their community.

Photo by Fishers and Farmers Partnership

Dispelling such feelings of isolation through peer learning is one of the bread-and-butter ways The Confluence for Watershed Leaders is working to increase an essential element for successful watershed management: human capital. I like to define human capital as people with the skills, knowledge, and networks necessary to succeed.

Peer learning is a form of collaborative learning, where knowledge and solutions get co-created and exchanged among people with a shared identity. One model for peer learning is a community of practice, which is a network of people united by a common expertise, vocation, or passion who come together to learn, co-create, and grow personally and/or professionally.

Building a community of practice is one of the primary objectives of The Confluence for Watershed Leaders. That community includes watershed professionals, engaged farmers, and watershed educators in the Great Lakes, Mississippi River, and Red River Basins.

Among these watershed leaders, there is a thirst for connection, a hunger for learning what works and doesn’t work, and a distaste for reinventing the wheel. By providing watershed leaders light structure and facilitation, The Confluence is giving them space to take charge of their own learning and networking.

Two ways we are providing this space are a virtual meet-up series and an online community.

The virtual meet-up series, called Life Hacks over Lunch, is for watershed professionals, and it adapts a peer learning method common in the computer programming world, called a Hackathon, where a coder brings a coding problem to a group of peers to solve together.

How it works for Life Hacks over Lunch is one person, who we call our Hack Pitcher, presents a real-life challenge they are experiencing in their watershed work that they’d like to get input on from fellow watershed professionals. The group then discusses possible solutions to that challenge, with participants sharing ideas based on their own experiences or observations of others.

We take a “facilitation light” approach in Life Hacks over Lunch, leaving it mostly up to participants to keep the conversation going to cultivate as organic a conversation as is possible on Zoom. The conversation starts in the whole group – which can range from 30 to 60 people – to allow folks to throw out ideas for everyone to hear, and then we divide into smaller breakout groups to provide a more comfortable space for participants to share and network.

The Confluence’s online community provides a more asynchronous way for both watershed professionals and engaged farmers to connect with each other and share ideas, resources, and opportunities. It functions like a social media platform, but with a focus on watersheds and without the ads and creepy algorithms.

To date, the online community has just over 400 members and counting from all over the Midwest and Mid-South. The opportunities for cross-state pollination provided by both the online community and Life Hacks over Lunch are an important benefit The Confluence provides watershed leaders – watersheds often defy state boundaries, after all.

Facilitating peer learning through The Confluence is fundamentally about strengthening connections between watershed leaders to empower them with the collective wisdom of the community and help them feel part of something bigger. If you work to improve soil and water resources in a watershed context, I invite you to join The Confluence and connect with your peers across the region. Check out the website, sign up for our email list, and/or join the online community.

The North Central Region Water Network is the backbone organization for The Confluence for Watershed Leaders, which includes collaborators from multiple land grant universities, nonprofits, and federal government agencies.

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