Having launched a new podcast, the Battles We Pick, on the work of advocacy and organizing for social change, I get the chance to hear fascinating experiences and approaches from people who do that work. One recent guest was Terry Woodbury of Public Square Communities, who specializes in helping local areas confront near existential-level threats.
When Terry Woodbury was graduating from his master’s program at Princeton Theological Seminary in the late 1960s, it was an internship with a wealthy Kansas congregation—essentially an experiment in changing local racial relations—that set him on a career path as a community organizer.
In our conversation, Terry recounted his experience facilitating dialogue between Black and White community members in Hutchinson, Kansas. Terry is white and was given a mandate to lead the process of forging relationships with black neighbors whom the congregation’s leaders knew they were disconnected from. In today’s terms, he catalyzed difficult conversations that the community needed to have.
He also explained the origin of the idea behind his consulting firm Public Square Communities. A little further into his career, Terry was tasked with assembling a community’s bid for a highly competitive national recognition. That experience gave him a strong sense of the four key sectors of any community’s public square: local businesses, schools, government, and human services. He sees all those sources of leadership as integral to addressing the most serious local challenges. As Terry described the level of threat when he gets involved in a community, he says that he’s typically contacted by someone “worried about things going south.”
But when his own region of Wichita Co. Kansas faced a crisis over unsustainable irrigation, he didn’t need anyone else to tell him what was at stake. Water use in his area threatened to fully deplete the aquifer being tapped. As Terry told me, “Twenty years left, and we’d be shutting the whole thing down. And we could all picture what would happen.” As farms lost their irrigation, the feed lots would close. Given the cattle lots’ role as a major area employer and main consumer of locally grown corn, the local school, hospital, and grocery would follow close behind.
Meeting the challenge was a matter of local farmers seeking water conservation options. And mechanisms the Kansas state government had developed to help identify conservation measures to make irrigation more sustainable. The key step was for Wichita Co. farmers to be designated as a Water Conservation Area, which tapped government experts—particularly from Kansas State University—for in-depth study of local water use. Area farmers needed to reduce irrigation by 29%, and the research for the conservation area produced a plan for how it could be done.
However, as Terry explained, some key local stakeholders were missing from the process. As a result of the consolidation of farming in his region, six large operations were the dominant irrigation users—to the tune of 65% of the total water used—and declined to join the water conservation area. Here again, the State of Kansas offered tools. When major irrigators resist conservation measures, state law empowers Groundwater Management Districts (GMDs) to impose mandatory limits. And once the Wichita Co. conservation area participants showed that the plan could indeed achieve reductions in groundwater use, the GMD imposed the plan’s limits on all users, including the large farmers who had spurned the process.
They brought economic success too. It spurred area farmers to operate more efficiently and reap better yields. As Woodbury explained, “You weren’t going to have 200-bushel corn. You might have 160-bushel corn. So you wouldn’t have bragging rights when you go to the coffee shop at 6:30 in the morning. We’re joking, but that’s what was really driving it.”
Our conversation was also a great chance to explore the differences and interrelationships between organizing and policy change advocacy. Most of Terry’s work entails community organizing—delving deeply into local power structures and the life conditions of community members who’ve been marginalized. It’s the work of newly mobilizing people and resources. Organizing’s close cousin policy advocacy is aimed at whatever changes can be achieved without such a heavy lift. So with all of the consensus-building and bridge-building work that Terry does, I found it so interesting that he ventured into advocacy in a situation where he faced powerful self-serving businesses who had closed themselves off to any change.
Readers are invited to listen to the whole podcast for themselves and let me know of any reactions.