What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word home? What about beach? Great Lakes?  

These questions were the start of some incredible conversations we had in the greater Cleveland area last year.

When the Alliance for the Great Lakes first established a full-time presence in Cleveland in 2016, we had to decide how we wanted to operate. Instead of hitting the ground running by simply bringing our regional agenda to the city, we decided to talk to Clevelanders about the issues that are important to them and see where our priorities align.

We started by doing a lot of listening, with a focus on elevating voices we haven’t historically made a point to hear.

Cleveland is a “majority minority” city, with a population that is more than 50% black and less than 35% white. But when we started, there wasn’t a whole lot of data about how people of color in Cleveland feel about environmental issues.

So, in 2017 we embarked on a listening tour comprised of four “Community Conversations” in northeast Ohio—one with inner-city youth from various neighborhoods in Cleveland, two in the Cleveland neighborhoods of Buckeye Road and Kinsman, respectively, and another in nearby Lorain, Ohio. This was an effort to hear from people of color in some of our region’s most economically and politically marginalized areas, who we have not traditionally engaged, to begin to build relationships and to inform our work.

And residents appreciated that we took time to really listen instead of a business-as-usual approach to community outreach. “The community conversation was both enlightening and encouraging. Enlightening because of the unique perspectives shared and the absence of routine engagement. Encouraging because it suggests that these opinions and experiences matter, and instills hope for future engagement,” said Julian Khan, a community activist and local business owner.

Finding New Partners

We invited partners to co-host Community Conversations, where we got a group of neighbors together, offered a hot meal, and started conversations. We worked with traditional conservation partnerslike River Network, Western Reserve Land Conservancy, and Ohio Environmental Counciland some new partnerslike Voices for Ohio’s Children, MyCom, El Centro De Servicios Sociales, Inc., and Environmental Health Watch. We spoke with black and Latino youth and adults, from very low-income to middle class backgrounds, from across Cleveland and Lorain, OH.

“It was great being able to participate with my dad. It was interesting to see where our perspectives aligned,” said Jonathan Rivera of Lorain, OH, just west of Cleveland. He and his father were part of a Community Conversation with members of Lorain’s Latino community. This conversation in particular highlighted intergenerational experiences, with seniors on fixed incomes relating differently to water affordability than their children and grandchildren. Younger people likewise had a different relationship to the water and beaches as recreational sites.

Lessons Learned From Community Conversations

We already know that clean, accessible waterespecially safe drinking wateris important to just about everyone. Whether you’re a beachgoer, angler, owner or employee of a coastal business, or you just drink tap water in the Great Lakes region, you’re impacted by water and the health of our lakes. What we don’t always understand are the other issues and priorities that residents care about, and how they intersect with clean water.

“I appreciated being able to voice my concerns on water affordability and priority issues in my neighborhood. It feels good being heard,” said Barbara Vauters Davis, a resident of the Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood.

When we talked to residents, we heard that drinking water quality and affordability are top concerns. We heard that people care about water, and the closer they are to the lake, the greater their sense of obligation to it. We also heard that pressing, local quality of life issues take precedence over environmental issues.

To ensure that all in the region benefit from our treasured freshwater resource, we need to work with communities to understand their priorities, identify opportunities to collaborate, and lift up the needs that matter most to residents.

Local demand for community education on water issues also became clearincluding how to navigate public agencies to work for cleaner, more affordable water. The lessons we learned are already guiding our work. And we walked away with ideas for how we can better serve Great Lakes residents’ clean water needs:

  • facilitate conversations between communities, elected officials, and public utilities;
  • lose the insider jargon and simplify our messaging;
  • focus on water issues that matter most to communitieslike water affordabilityat all levels of government; and
  • build more diverse coalitions that include community organizations that will make our work more equitable and strengthen our collective impact.  

Looking Ahead to a Community-Centered Approach to Water Protection

We’re excited to incorporate the lessons we learned from Community Conversations into our broader work. We’re also excited to continue talking with Great Lakes residents to make sure our work best serves the interests of people in the region.

In the greater Cleveland area, we had the chance to build something new from the ground up. And while the Alliance has been working in Great Lakes communities for decades, we’ve already learned a lot from our work in Cleveland that we hope will inform our presence around the region. For one, we’re working to shift our approach from working in communities to working with communities.