This post was written by Candace Eudaley, Assistant Executive Director at the East Central Intergovernmental Association (ECIA) in Dubuque, Iowa. ECIA is a council of governments serving Cedar, Clinton, Delaware, Dubuque and Jackson Counties in eastern Iowa. This post was written in conjunction with a recently released report from NLC’s Sustainable Cities Institute: “Dubuque Gets Engaged: The Critical Role of Partnerships in Moving Sustainability Forward.”
The double meaning of the title of this blog post and accompanying report seems to address the most valuable lesson learned by Dubuque and its partners in the Sustainable Dubuque initiative: we’re all in this together, for better or worse and in good times and bad. As with any relationship, there are successes, trade-offs and setbacks, but the commitment of the partners and community is what keeps the momentum going.
If you walk into a Dubuque coffee shop on any given day, you’ll likely overhear a conversation at one table about how climate change is a hoax and the UN is trying to take over the world with its ominous Agenda 21; at the exact same venue a few tables away, you might hear another conversation about melting ice caps and the need for immediate action by reducing individual carbon footprints and overhauling transportation infrastructure.
While people may make assumptions about my personal beliefs, to do my job well I maintain that my opinion on the subject is irrelevant and rarely discuss it. The role of local government and council of governments staff is not to blast an opinion and demand that citizens jump in line behind policies. Our role is to work with organizations in the community dedicated to the various facets of sustainability, build consensus and help develop policies that help to achieve the end goal of a viable, livable, equitable and thriving community. In short, we are here to listen to both coffee shop conversations and craft incentives or disincentives for decision-making that both groups can understand and get behind. Often this involves use of the free market and adding the hidden costs of decisions into the equation. Dubuque continues to work to strike this balance; however, it’s important to remember that while progress is slow, we’re still moving forward.
Being part of a regional organization provides a unique opportunity to see the variation in opinions toward and approaches to sustainability in different communities across a relatively small geographic area. Within each community, there are champions for the cause of sustainability, but motivations vary. The beauty of the Sustainable Dubuque model is that it is both broad and specific enough to allow for a variety of organizations with very different missions to converge. In general, communities of interest tend to form based around specific issues. Leveraging their energy and intensity can be difficult without a structure in place to first understand their motivations and goals, and then connect them with local, state and national resources to help accomplish those goals. The role of a regional partner, in this case the council of governments, is to assist member communities with the upfront planning and gathering of stakeholder input as well as serving as a clearinghouse for best practices and state and federal resources.
Dubuque’s residents, businesses and organizations are engaged in Sustainable Dubuque and with each other, but each on their own terms. While there are always challenges to making lasting change, meeting people where they are has been a mantra for Sustainable Dubuque and a key to its success in connecting with a broad cross section of the community. Understanding the motivations of individuals and groups in the community is essential to creating the long-term commitment and shared responsibility necessary for a successful sustainability initiative.