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Two rivers, two cultures, one goal


Cultural exchange initiative shows off region’s environmental expertise in hopes of building long-term partnerships

Story by Robin Driessen Bruecker

Sister cities are an international exchange program with which many of us are familiar. This culture-bridging concept extends to river systems, such as the new Rivers as Bridges organization that links the Mississippi and Yangtze rivers along with the American and Chinese people who live in those regions.

Now maturing into a genuine economic development opportunity, the Rivers as Bridges program has its roots right here in northeast Wisconsin, and continues to draw upon the environmental expertise of the region to help shape the learning experiences it affords.

The beginning

The development of the organization was the work of many, on both sides of the globe. Back in 2008, New North Inc. hosted the China-U.S. Water Symposium, a gathering of 35 Chinese scientists from various water-related fields plus their American counterparts. A sister-rivers partnership was suggested by the visitors, an idea that was later mentioned in a report presented to the Wisconsin legislature and governor by the University of Wisconsin System.

Two years later, a River Spirit exchange was organized at UW-Madison. Spearheaded by a student from China and another from Iowa, the event brought college students from China and America together on rivers in Wisconsin and Iowa. It was there that the name “Rivers as Bridges” was born. Additional exchange trips began. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp went with a group to China this past March, and upon returning she recommended that a nonprofit organization be created.

With the formation of Rivers as Bridges the Yangtze and Mississippi river basins were linked, along with their people, creating an exchange program for Chinese and American youth and adults that includes visits to educational institutions, business parks and chambers of commerce, environmental agencies, plus meetings with government and business persons, educators, students and parents.

“Both the Yangtze and Mississippi Rivers are important to the cultures of each nation as well as their commercial well-being,” said Jeff Smoller, DNR deputy operations manager, who serves as chair of the RAB board. “They’re highly symbolic and inspirational. It’s really Wisconsin’s and the Midwest’s good fortune that China President Xi Jinping loves the Mississippi, having spent time in Muscatine, Iowa, as a young provincial official. When he visited Iowa last year and was so warmly welcomed by the people, he said, ‘To me, you are America.’  That belief has incredible diplomatic power and commercial potential.”

Smoller noted that while the organization is still in the early stages, “it has the potential to serve three needs in China and the US: cultural understanding, conservation and commercial transactions.

“Commercially, Rivers as Bridges is a relationship-based brand that can be used to leverage investment and support trade. It could be a kind of ‘Good Housekeeping seal’ that folks in China think good things about because it supports the kids and connotes mutual respect between us,” Smoller added, noting the DNR’s involvement is due to its support of Wisconsin’s economic and environmental future, which includes connecting on a global level. Besides Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois have joined.

From a business standpoint

Even though much of northeast Wisconsin doesn’t lie within the Mississippi River Basin, our Fox River basin provides a solid portion of the program’s curriculum, as well as involvement from New North business, civic and education leaders and their organizations.

Currently involved with Rivers as Bridges are New North Inc., higher-education institutions such as Lawrence University in Appleton, and businesses like The Boldt Company in Appleton and Green Bay-based Foth, which Smoller said have been strong supporters from the start.

“Between Rivers as Bridges, ENCSS (UW-Madison group Environment and Public Health Network for Chinese Students and Scholars) and the good work of Lawrence and New North, I bet we’ve had up to two dozen or so visits by Chinese officials, business persons, students and others to look at what’s happening in New North in terms of water, environmental remediation and much more,” he noted. “I’ve personally been with delegations that get very excited when they learn about the Fox River (PCB) cleanup and I can say there are folks working in DNR, Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and Lawrence University who are working hard to translate that environmental success into an economic opportunity.”

The challenge in executing such an economic opportunity, Smoller believes, is finding that right opportunity for the first sale that produces other sales. He believes the Rivers as Bridges relationship-based brand could help.

“The one thing that folks in the U.S. have a hard time appreciating is the importance of government-business partnerships when it comes to issues like this,” Smoller noted. “I see other countries all the time with their economic and environmental agencies going hand-in-hand selling stuff like pollution abatement equipment overseas. We don’t do that much of it here in the U.S.”

He recalled a past conversation with the second-highest environmental official in Shanghai about how he makes purchasing decisions, indicating the gentleman said he buys from people he knows.

“Well, he didn’t have a relationship with anyone from the US – and I’m talking about government – so, guess what, he was buying from the French, from the Germans and from the Canadians. I got the message,” Smoller said.

“Rivers as Bridges is a brand that is validated by youth and relationships, and if you look at culture in China and you see who’s sending their youth to our programs you get the feel that these parents are having a say in how and where funds are invested overseas and what imports are purchased in China,” Smoller said.

The experience

Rivers as Bridges Executive Director Gary Vaughan , who is president of Appleton-based Guident Business Solutions and also lectures on economics at Lawrence University, noted students from China are touring universities and colleges in  three states, which showcases the quality of higher education in the Midwest.

Also involved in educational aspects are Trees for Tomorrow and Northland Pines School District – both in Eagle River – Ripon College and UW-Stevens Point. ENCSS/Rivers as Bridges Curriculum Director Jack Palmer said the involvement of educational institutions is critical to the program’s success.

“Teaching our Chinese visitors about the rich natural resources and conservation tradition of Wisconsin is central to our mission,” he said. “A major goal for the next 10 years is to work together with the people of China to assist with the improvement of our planet’s substantial pollution and natural-resource challenges.”

Rivers as Bridges’ summer academic exchange educational program, set for July 21 through Aug. 4, starts and ends in Chicago. In between, workshops and other events take place in Iowa, Madison, Baraboo, Eagle River, Ripon and Appleton. Besides Lawrence University, Fox Cities involvement includes Fox River boat rides arranged by the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway, and PCB cleanup education with assistance from The Boldt Company.

Rivers as Bridges President Xiaodong Kuang noted a July 28 event, “Peace, Friendship and Mother Earth,” will bring together young Chinese and the Ho-Chunk Nation to share cultural traditions.

“These Chinese students who will be participating in our natural resources exploration field trip in the summer are interested in studying in the U.S..” explained Kuang. “Most of them will possibly work and live in the U.S. after their study. Therefore, personal stories and suggestions made by successful Chinese Americans here – e.g. government officials, business persons, professors, lawyers, etc. – will be quite helpful for them to learn about American society, culture and economy, and, furthermore, learn how to be successful in working and living in the U.S. in the future.”

During the three-day Ripon College segment of the summer event, Wisconsin Leadership Institute Executive Director and Ripon Professor Jack Christ will provide team-building exercises that develop trust, collaboration, problem-solving skills, and goal- and relationship-oriented leadership behavior, along with a healthy dose of fun.

“Besides the focus on leadership development, the program will involve considerable attention to the ecology of the two river systems for which the program is named,” said Christ. “This means that students will get considerable hands-on work in the biological and environmental sciences, and they will be introduced to a range of scientists, teachers, environmentalists, professionals, and political leaders along the way.”

A legacy for all

A former student from China who is currently an investor in Shanghai came up with the timeline for the organization to develop and implement its goals: Link Rivers as Bridges to the golden anniversary of the Shanghai Communique signed by former President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, which will be in 2022 and could also be the retirement year of President Xi, Smoller noted.

“This can be a legacy thing for him … That date will be the launching point for another 50 years of peace and commerce between our countries, hopefully,” Smoller noted. “The great part is that the young people who will participate in Rivers as Bridges between now and then will be moving into leadership positions. In fact, we already have some ‘graduates’ who are in pretty good spots.”

Said Kuang, “Youth are the future leaders in the U.S. and China, the two greatest countries in the world. RAB provides a platform for them to share similarities and learn from each other in conservation, culture and commerce.”

Robin Bruecker has 17 years experience in magazine and marcom writing. Contact her at