Karen Tolkkinen
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MORRIS, MINN – The 17 rooms held the world's problems — as well as problems facing greater Minnesota.

In one room: how to end poverty.

In another: how to ensure the safety of drinking water.

In a third: how to fight climate change.

The 17 problems have bedeviled the world's best minds even before they were adopted by the United Nations in 2016 as a set of 17 goals to achieve globally by 2030.

The thinkers and planners gathered at the University of Minnesota, Morris had an hour and a half to solve them.

To be fair, they didn't have to come up with solutions for the entire planet — only for their communities. And many of them had deep experience in their topic. More than a mere thought exercise, it was a real-world attempt to bring people together to solve seemingly intractable problems facing the small cities and rural places of Minnesota.

They were on the Morris campus, summoned by regional leaders to come up with ways to create a sustainable world for this and future generations.

How to persuade city officials to shoehorn smaller, more affordable houses between larger ones when the owners of the larger homes might not want them there? How to teach community leaders to understand poverty, which they might never have personally experienced? How to protect drinking water at risk of leaching farm chemicals? How to respond to climate change?

The event, called "17 Rooms," was created by the Brookings Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation in 2018 as a way to move communities toward the U.N.'s 17 sustainable development goals. It's been staged in locations around the world, but it's the first for Minnesota. The 17 Rooms event was invited in by the Fergus Falls-based West Central Initiative Foundation, one of several sister foundations created in Minnesota in the wake of the 1980s farm crisis.

Around the world, the 17 goals aren't doing so hot. Stymied by war, the COVID pandemic and rising carbon emissions, it looks like only 17% of them are on track, according to the U.N.'s annual progress reports.

You wouldn't know that by watching the people in Morris, though. They dug into their topics as though real change were possible, and honestly, change has already happened in many parts of greater Minnesota. You can see it on the university campus, where bottle-filling stations track how many plastic bottles had been kept out of the landfill (more than 60,000, according to the counter at one station). You could see it in the compostable utensils, cups and containers used to serve meals and have become a familiar sight at county fairs and local festivals. You can see it in public health insurance available at low or no cost to people who live in poverty.

Entire counties have embraced composting. Solar panels cover swathes of land. Last year, White Earth Reservation got four bison calves, a move toward its goal of providing healthier food for its people.

The event drew a few political leaders, but other than some reassurances that the 17 goals are not U.N. mandates, nobody mentioned partisan politics. The organizers work with governments of all political stripes, and the West Center Initiative Foundation in particular appears to have carved a rare niche in a world where even the version of the state flag you fly indicates your partisan loyalties.

"We live in a society that is deeply polarized. This will not be news to you," foundation President Anna Wasescha told those gathered. She called the sustainable goals, which deal with real-world problems, a great way to unify the country.

"We've got a lot of work to do here," she said. "I don't want to be caught up in the division. I think we need to be caught up in what unifies us."

At the end, leaders from each room announced the solutions their group had come up with: a poverty simulation exercise to educate leaders. Searching out ways other places have solved housing problems and sharing those stories with Minnesota communities. Using nature to heal nature through bogs, rain gardens and restored prairie.

None solved the problem immediately. But many groups pledged to stay in touch long after leaving those 17 rooms and to put those plans into action over the next 12-18 months.

Tony Pipa, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, sees rural communities as "flat communities" unhindered by the layers of bureaucracy, where a few people can get a lot done in a short amount of time.

The handful of stalwarts who get things done in their greater Minnesota cities can attest to that.