In May, the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota was the site of an energetic mock Bi-National Forum public hearing on the topic of Lake Superior water diversion. Whether they played the role of venture capitalist, concerned citizen, or other interested party, eighth grade students from Cook County Middle School were enthusiastic participants in this simulation of a real-life forum—forums that are integral parts of the public policy development process.
Prior to the half-day forum, students were assigned to one of five groups: Venture capitalists who wanted to divert water for economic gain; shipping industry executives concerned about low lake levels; “friends of the lake,” representing a broad cross-section of concerned citizens and groups; tourism industry proponents; and a group representing water-starved southwestern states.
Each group conducted their own research, supporting or opposing water diversion from which they prepared opening statements and formal questions to ask other groups. Based on this information gathering process, each group then developed their closing statement. Four adult members of the community played the roles of Bi-National Forum members who, at the conclusion, developed their own recommendation for action – that the issue is far to complex too decide in a single hearing and that further study is needed.
“It was a tremendously productive experience,” says Greg Wright, executive director of North House. “Students experienced the entire public hearing process, including the rewards and frustrations, right up to the emotional reality of the ending – discovering how interconnected and complex environmental issues really are – they’re not just black and white. This expanded their appreciation of perspectives other than their own.”
This public policy-making simulation was the culmination of a five-year process of working with the same students on water issues through North House’s Fresh Water Studies Program. In addition to raising awareness of the water diversion issue, goals included teaching students about the public forum process and helping them recognize the issue complexity and the interconnectedness of differing perspectives and concerns.
“We’ve worked with these students since third grade,” says Peter Barsness, a retired limnologist and college professor who worked with North House to develop the program. “It will be interesting to see how they carry what they’ve learned into their high school years and beyond. Now they realize that when they read about a public meeting in the paper, they know this is one of their opportunities to participate in the public policy process.”