One evening 16 years ago, a young student in Berkeley received a frantic call.
"They're going to destroy our Salt Mother. How can they do this?"
It was Helen Waquiu’s mother, alarmed at the news of a proposal to transport coal through a major aquifer near Zuni Salt Lake. The site, about fifty miles away from New Mexico's Zuni Pueblo, is held sacred by several tribes, used for food and ceremonial practices. The proposal promised at least fifty years of use – in exchange for permanent, unalterable damage to the area.
Helen was stunned.
"How could they put a price on the priceless, on something of such importance to so many?" The project was ultimately denied, thanks to work from local tribes, grassroots organizations, and a scrappy group of attorneys. Still, this near-miss of environmental destruction shook Helen to her core, and eventually led to her majoring in Environmental Economics and Policy at the University of California, Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources.
Helen Waquiu has been known to many at the MPCA as a specialist in air quality, but she will soon be stepping into new shoes as the agency's first Director of Public Engagement and Tribal Liaison. The dual role, created by MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop with support from Governor Tim Walz, will focus on engaging Minnesotans around the state on environmental issues, policies, and regulations, as well as connecting with Minnesota's eleven sovereign Tribal Nations.
"There are several pieces to this role. We'll need to take a look at how we're achieving MPCA's mission. Meaningful public engagement is important, it helps inform where we as an agency need to do better. We need to consider what our mission means to us, but we also have to ask: What does MPCA's mission mean to the people of Minnesota?"
Helen's background seems tailor-made for the challenge. Thinking about how she's reached people in the past, Helen reflects on outreach done in drought-prone Southern California. She was tasked with communicating water conservation messages to a multitude of seemingly disparate groups. How can one send the same message to kindergarteners, tribal leaders, and local businesses?
For Helen, it's all about being authentic. She doesn't believe in a one-size-fits-all approach. For the younger set, water conservation became an interactive water cycle dance. For tribal leaders, it was highlighting how cultural resources and health may be impacted. For business leaders, it was taking a frank look at the economic benefits of proactively using water management best practices — and the high cost of not acting.
She has also helped spark interest in the next generation of young scientists and leaders. Reflecting on an event with students in a science immersion camp from Wolf Ridge, Helen recalls seeing the spark happen in real-time. “I was waiting for the kids to come in and there were two young girls who looked just like me. They saw me in my lab coat, surrounded by all this equipment…their faces totally changed. I saw them seeing me, and it was as if they were making assessments and connections about the things they could do someday, too.”
According to Helen, sharing one another’s lived experiences is key to connection. "Part of engagement work is building and strengthening relationships with communities and simply asking, 'What's important'? The second piece is bringing that information back and acting on it.”
Helen’s role will also include overseeing the MPCA’s Environmental Justice staff. Like many states, Minnesota has its own suite of challenges when it comes to rebuilding trust with historically marginalized communities. Helen broke it down in one sentence: "Environmental Justice as a concept exists only because there was first an injustice." She sees the legacy of past practices and policies that would not be acceptable today not as a shame to be buried, but as an opportunity to dig in and get things right.
She adds that it is important for people inside the agency to expand their knowledge of different cultures and communities. "We're a learning organization. A people organization...we're scientists and engineers and researchers — it's what we do! We gather information and use it to make decisions. It’s not all about numbers, it’s about recognizing that there are complex linkages between human and natural systems." Resources such as the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) and accompanying meetings with staff in MPCA's Human Resources section, presentations from the agency’s internal Tribal Relations Team (which Helen and Cassandra Meyer, an MPCA Permit Engineer, developed and implemented in 2016), and other tools are already making a difference inside the agency as well as to MPCA's customers. When asked what impactful piece of media she's encountered recently, Helen offers up the Seeing White podcast episode, "Little War on the Prairie".
Helen's expertise, passion, and backing from leadership all point to a successful start. Still, she cautions against getting complacent. "We have a complicated history as an agency; it's important that we're thoughtful about how we enter certain spaces," she says. "I'm not going out to recite state and federal regulations to people. Yes, I'm an MPCA employee — but I am also a person with a family, cultural ties, and values that many other Minnesotans share." The goal is to bring MPCA's values to the forefront in every interaction with the public and regulated parties.
Helen will work with Governor Walz's Public Engagement team, which includes Tribal Liaisons, Public Engagement Directors, and other related leads from each state agency.