This is the seventh of eight articles in the Standpoint Series, a set of short essays meant to articulate our perspective and spark conversation.
It’s no secret that the environmental movement has long had a diversity problem. What’s less discussed but at least as important is how this impacts our actual work and its outcomes. Research has now well established that the vast majority of mainstream green organizations—including the Alliance for the Great Lakes—are predominantly white in their staffs and boards, and likewise many of our efforts have been shaped by the lens that goes with that. In the environmental community, we have often had a working vision with the environment at the center, but with a limited perspective of all the ways that people rely on it.
While we like to think that any work associated with the lakes is colorblind, we know that neither clean water benefits nor the cost of water stresses are equitably shared across communities. For example, when a city like Cleveland or Detroit makes the smart decision to confront longstanding problems with massive sewage overflows and flooding by updating its water infrastructure, the tremendous costs of fixing those problems can place a disproportionate burden on the city’s lowest-income residents. When a city loses its water supply like Toledo did in 2014, again it’s the people with the fewest resources who are hit the hardest. And we know that African-Americans and Latinos are vastly over-represented in low-income populations across the Great Lakes region.
So when we talk about water benefits and stresses, we are talking about questions of social and racial justice. Low-income residents, and communities of color in particular, routinely bear the brunt of the water problems—whether it’s the challenge of finding potable water for drinking or bathing children when the tap fails or the potentially staggering impact of regressive approaches to paying for water infrastructure updates.
We also realize that to affect change in the statehouse and win policies that advance clean water outcomes, we need to build a stronger advocacy army. And we can’t do it with the status quo. We can’t do it alone. A grassroots strategy that is diverse and represents the range of perspectives in the Great Lakes region is what’s going to move legislators to action and hold them accountable.
It seems a lot of historically white environmental groups are asking themselves how to build relationships with low-income communities and communities of color. How to talk about race and racism. How to bring people of color to the table to improve our work and build stronger, more diverse coalitions. But whose table are we talking about? The problem I see time and time again is a failure to understand that it’s not about bringing people to us, it’s about de-centering our position in the first place. It’s about meeting people where they are and understanding how to make our work more inclusive. And it’s important to note that a seat at the table is not enough—we have to seek out and support the voices of people who have been silenced or talked over. It’s about shutting up, and it’s about listening.
These are questions we are grappling with at the Alliance. The truth is that we have a long way to go before our organization truly reflects the region we aim to represent. And as everyone in our very white field of work seems to be trying to figure out what communities of color want and need, we decided to start with Step One: shut up and listen.
Since I started with the Alliance, I have invested significant time in building relationships with local leaders and organizations in Cleveland, where I’m based. And together with my new friends and allies, I led a series of community conversations that engaged black and Latino residents as well as low-income youth. My goal was simply to hear what people had to say, what their chief concerns are, and what, if anything, resonates when they hear about the issues we work on.
See, there is a wealth of polling data on what issues and messages appeal most to people, but a lot of times, urban coastal communities of color are not part of the sample set. The truth of the matter is that communities of color are very familiar with environmental and water issues—just not always with the same area of focus or same lens as the traditional conservationist approach.
When asked about water in these community conversations, affordability and access were top of mind. And it’s clear that as an organization committed to protecting one of the world’s greatest freshwater sources, it is within our mission to make sure people can access it. People talked about lead in water, public health, and flooding—all tied to a smart approach to water infrastructure. But people talked about other things too—concerns about safety, housing, healthcare and their neighborhood—things that impact their daily lives.
It’s on us to put our work into terms that people can relate to and see as relevant in their everyday lives.
That means dropping the insider speak or adopting a new approach, even taking on new issues or playing a new role. For example, in our community conversations, people were livid about their water bills. When we realized the water department has a speaker series where they send representatives out to get public input, the community leaders we worked with wanted us to be the facilitator of those conversations, and so that’s what we did. We held a Water Affordability Clinic in partnership with Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, Cleveland Water, and local community development corporations. We facilitated a conversation about water affordability, and connected residents’ to the answers and assistance they needed.
In many ways, we are still in listening mode as we continue trying to make our work more equitable, both in practice and outcome. We are dedicated to becoming an organization that serves the whole Great Lakes region, and ensures that our water remains safe, clean and accessible to all who live here. We don’t know exactly what that will look like yet, but we are committed to figuring it out, starting with Step One.