If it takes a village to raise a child, imagine how many people it will take to raise the quality of the Great Lakes.
Part of the Alliance’s approach to protecting the Great Lakes is the understanding that we can’t do this alone. We rely on an incredible network of partnerships to build new relationships to tackle water problems and challenges from different perspectives.
In Ohio, Crystal M.C. Davis, the Alliance’s Director of Policy and Strategic Engagement, works to prioritize relationships with local groups that have deep roots in the community. She began with outreach, hosting listening sessions in northern Ohio communities. And, only after listening carefully and hearing community concerns, she partnered with local and state-wide groups to educate and train advocates.
“We’re educating folks to inspire action and build relationships for the long-term,” explains Davis. “When the legislature acts on potential policy, sometimes we have very little time to respond. Educating our communities now enables us and residents to respond more quickly when it’s most important.”
Two of our partners, the Trust for Public Land, and the Environmental Health Watch, focus on more than water issues. The Trust for Public Land works to create Ohio parks and natural areas. They safeguard the state’s natural, recreational, cultural, and agricultural resources and promote park equity for future generations. Environmental Health Watch provides education, advocacy, and direct services to families while also working alongside policy makers to spotlight and confront critical environmental health issues in Ohio. Both appreciate the role water plays in their work and need to address water-related challenges. Working with these partners allows us to build broad coalitions to tackle some of Ohio’s most pressing environmental issues.
In her work training advocates, Davis heard from community groups that they prefer a holistic approach to issues. “Environmental and quality of life issues are connected and talking about them in a connected way, helps elevate them on a priority list,” she said. “We’re talking about land, water, and the impact on disadvantaged communities. That’s all connected.”
Developing Partnerships with Shared Goals
Even though Great Lakes communities sit on the shores of the world’s largest surface freshwater lakes in the world, many residents do not have affordable, clean, safe drinking water from their taps. A key focus of our partnerships is with groups working with water issues at the end of the tap. And one of the greatest challenges ahead is addressing lead in drinking water.
It was through community group meetings that Davis connected with Kim Foreman, Executive Director at Environmental Health Watch. Foreman was called to her work earlier in her career. When she was a part-time tutor, she remembers working with a child who could not remember the alphabet. It was the result of lead exposure in the home.
Years later, Kim Foreman is Executive Director at the Environmental Health Watch (EHW), and was recently awarded the Community Collaboration Award from the Ohio Environmental Council for her work on the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition, among many others accolades and awards. She is highly regarded for her expertise in authentic community engagement and lead issues.
When exposed to lead, the body mistakes it for calcium and iron. Small children take in 50 percent of the lead they are exposed to. Foreman explains the impacts range from a decreased IQ , to lack of impulse control, and anemia. “Lead sits in the bones, leaving a lifelong body burden of lead,” says Foreman.
She works to inform the public. “People know lead is bad,” she says. “But they are [less educated] about the long term effects, what to do about it, or how to protect their families.” She works with community leaders and partners, like the Alliance, to increase awareness of the issue and build capacity to progress policy solutions.
Although the EHW focuses on lead in the home, and the Alliance focuses on it in drinking water service lines, we have the same end goal – eliminate lead contamination on our communities and ensure the financial burden doesn’t fall on the backs of our most disadvantaged communities. We are working together to build a strong, informed, and passionate base of people ready to take action and speak out on this critical issue.
Like the Alliance, Foreman is focusing on how to connect people to policy. “I can’t speak for everyone, we have to build capacity for them to speak for themselves…No matter what the issues are, [people in the community] can work on them, because they understand how decisions get made,” she says.
Our partnership with the Trust for Public Land (TPL) takes a different approach. The Trust for Public Land has a program called “Great Waters,” which focuses on protecting Lake Erie and Ohio’s watersheds. Watersheds are the land area that channels rainfall to creeks, streams, and rivers, and eventually to outflow points such as Lake Erie. Without healthy land, it is impossible to have healthy lakes, since what goes into the land will run into the water.
“We made our mark by starting to purchase and conserve land as the Cuyahoga Valley National Park,” says Shanelle Smith, TPL’s Ohio State Director. This land purchase protects large areas of land along the Cuyahoga River from development, helping it return to health by keeping natural systems in place. In 2019, the region marked the 50th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River Burning and the rebirth of the river.
“If we’re protecting the land, it helps remediate the river. There are not large developments or encroachment that could threaten the health or comeback of the river,” says Smith. Additionally, the Trust has bought thousands of acres along Lake Erie, protecting the land, which in turn helps improve water quality.
The relation between water and land being undeniable. TLP’s work to protect the land near the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie has lasting benefits to our health, economy and environment.
Building strong partnerships with groups like Trust for Public Land and Environmental Health Watch, we are developing a multi-prong approach to protect Lake Erie, our local rivers and streams, and the water flowing into our homes.