By Alison De Luise

July 1, 2019

River Rally 2019, hosted in Cleveland Ohio on the 50th anniversary of the burning of the Cuyahoga River, brought together over 450 individuals representing organizations and communities across the US.  I was fortunate to represent The Water Center at Penn at this great networking and learning event.  Plenaries, idea exchanges, workshops and field trips provided us with conducive spaces to share experiences around themes including community resilience, safe, clean and affordable water, water laws and policies, civic engagement, innovation and leadership.

Cross-cutting all discussions were the issues of inclusiveness, diversity and equity.  Keisha Gaskins-Nathan, Director for the Democratic Practice at Rockefeller Brothers Fund delivered a powerful keynote on the topic of ‘Water and Democracy in the United States’, suggesting that water may be the best and possibly only entry point for establishing a framework for human rights in the USA.  Arguing that we are not living in a country that makes crossing boundaries of race, gender and economic easy, Ms. Gaskins-Nathan pressed for audience members to increase our connections to both institutions and communities around issues of water equity and environmental justice.  Such connections would create the pathways for realizing sustainable change in how different parts of society interacted with water resources – drinking water, sewer waters, flood waters, recreational waters.

On the second day’s plenary – ‘Water Equity, Security and Climate Risk – Changing Expectations of Fairness and Equality’ – Brenda Coley, Co-executive Director of Milwaukee Water Commons continued to push us to reflect on our personal roles in either perpetuating or reducing water inequities.  Ms. Coley implored us to move beyond equality and to try and build multi-racial organizations, suggesting that asking people of color to try and diversify a white center was a flawed approach.  She instead asked that everyone step back, and then together strive to build a multi-racial center.  Co-plenary member Alicia Smith, Community Liaison for Junction Coalition requested that we become better listeners, also suggesting that in our actions, we mimic the characteristics of water – purposeful, cleansing, open and free.  Reflecting on the importance of language, an audience member asked us to consider alternatives to the term ‘equity lens’ as lenses were things you could take off and as such, were optional. If real progress was to be made in addressing the current state of water inequity, ‘optional’ was not an option.

The final plenary for the conference focused on ‘The Changing Faces of Agriculture – Soil Health, Water Security and the Next Generation’.  Debunking myths around a traditional paradigm that has pitted environmentalists against producers, panelists shared with us their experiences around making space for the next generation of farmers who represented greater diversity than in the past, many of whom were committed to sustainably managing their land and waters.  Panelist Erin Foster West, representing the National Young Farmers Coalition, asked though that society better appreciate the many barriers faced by these young people in innovating or incorporating environmental practices into farming or ranching efforts.  Such barriers included financial ones such as insecure land tenure, university loan debt, and soaring costs of health insurance.  We were asked to be allies to farmers and ranchers through supporting enabling policies at all levels that would provide them with the means to invest in sustainability.

Throughout the event, the challenge was repeatedly thrown out to the River Network, conveners of the Rally, to think about the degree to which the current membership of the network really reflected the kind of coalition of people, organizations, and communities that will be required to achieve systemic, long term change in how our water resources are managed, accessed, and used.  River Network’s leadership closed the event by making a public commitment to embracing diversity and inclusiveness and building that into the its visioning and strategy processes and plan. Reflecting myself across the many inspiring, hopeful, complex and transdisciplinary conversations I was fortunate to be part of, I too am reflecting on my role, that of my organization and of our core partners and what powers and what spaces each of us might need to be willing to give up to make ample room for all of society’s voices on these issues.