BOZEMAN — It is often lamented that 20-somethings and 30-somethings — people who are the future of our communities and state — are some of the least engaged. To whatever degree the statement is accurate, encouraging more thoughtful discussion and involvement from young Montanans undoubtedly would help generate good ideas and move our state forward.
The problem, of course, is that reaching a younger audience can be challenging. Perhaps some of us feel disempowered or have not yet realized the extent to which our lives are shaped by social and government policies. Careers, families or other interests may take center stage instead. Or maybe it's just that sitting around in a boardroom, or trying to wade through the political process, sounds tedious.
Rather than bemoaning the problem, the Burton K. Wheeler Center for Public Policy at Montana State University, which promotes civic discussion of critical statewide policy issues, chose to address it head on. The center, which is best known for holding two “traditional” conferences each year, put out a call last spring to Montanans under the age of 35 to sign up for a five-day “Envision Montana” summer colloquium. There, participants would lead and join in big-picture discussions on issues ranging from education to health care, energy, business and culture.
In a brilliant move, the center hooked the younger crowd by offering a killer conference setting: a clear mountain river that flows through a wilderness area.
So it was that last August a group of 21 young Montanans set out to travel 84 miles via rafts and inflatable kayaks down the Main Salmon River. We began each morning by gathering in a circle on the beach for a two-hour long discussion; each evening concluded the same way. In between, we floated the river, jumped in, played music, watched animals and — oh yeah — had the luxury of hours of uninterrupted time to continue our conversations.
What I think we all found was this: We didn't agree on most issues, and we probably didn't change each other's minds on many points. However — and this is incredibly impressive — we found some common ground nonetheless.
What I loved most about this colloquium was that the participants were honest and open-minded. Without fail, we treated others — even others with whom we disagreed — with respect. Strip away all expectations, the distractions of technology and familiar daily routines, make us collaborate to get through some big whitewater, and that’s what you’ll get. And, it’s worth noting that making the effort to get to know others on a personal level could do wonders in many different spheres.
Looking ahead, it’s impossible to say how the trip will ultimately affect the policies and direction of our state. But we know that the experience pushed all of us to consider new ideas and possibilities. And, I’m absolutely certain that those ideas — and the friendships we made as a result of this unique colloquium — will come back to impact our state someday, somehow, in a positive and profound way.
(Anne Cantrell participated in the Burton K. Wheeler Center's inaugural Envision Montana: Under 35 Summer Colloquium. She is a writer and editor for the News Service at Montana State University and has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Montana.)