Junction Function: Community Engagement Done Right

As River Network’s Great Lakes Leadership Development Manager, I recently had the opportunity to join 66 community members for a two-day event organized by Junction Coalition in Toledo, Ohio. Junction Coalition is in the Swan Creek subwatershed that is part of the greater Maumee river that empties into western Lake Erie.

Thanks to a grant from The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, four communities around the Great Lakes region are promoting federal investments in water infrastructure to protect the health of communities and the Great Lakes. All of the projects/grants are aimed at highlighting local water infrastructure issues and solutions.

Junction Coalition has been involved in the education of their neighbors in the efficacy of green infrastructure installations to prevent street, yard, and basement flooding during heavy rain events. Those installations are now demonstration sites for storm water management in a thirteen-block area. That success has given impetus to many other community-based projects including housing improvements; remediation and infill of vacant lots; the re-creation of the Junction Business Corridor; the installation of residential rain gardens and produce gardens; the creation of multi-use green spaces for fitness, recreation, and relaxation; and the engagement of young people in environmental awareness and management of green spaces. More projects are in the works.

Aside from River Network, attendees and supporters of the event included representatives from American Rivers (AR), Healing our Waters Coalition (HOW), Lucas Soil & Water Conservation District, City of Toledo, The Ohio Environmental Council (OEC), Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments (TMACOG), and half a dozen community organizations. The morning sessions included speakers: Katie Rousseau, Director of Clean Water Supply in Great Lakes (AR), Chad Lord, Policy Director for HOW, Senator Edna Brown (Ohio Senate District 11), City of Toledo, Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson, Lucas County Commissioner Tina Skeldon-Wozniak, Carla Walker from One Consulting, Simone Lightfoot, Director National Urban Initiatives for National Wildlife Federation, Kari Gerwin, Stormwater Planner, TMACOG, speakers on Green Stormwater Infrastructure and Sustainability, Water Conservation, Green Stormwater Infrastructure management policies and Holistic Green Infrastructure Planning.

Participants loaded two school buses and toured Forest and Belmont street to see a bioretention site led by Beatrice Miringu, City of Toledo Environmental Services, and Scott Sibley from City of Toledo Engineering Services. Next, we visited a residential rain garden led by Keri Gerwin and Ms. Mary Jones and listened to art teachers tell stories of engagement. One had adopted a modified quote from Malcolm X, displayed in one of the murals adjacent to a future community garden: “By any means necessary: GROW.”  Additionally the group toured the Toledo Waterways Initiative site (T3) at 849 Tecumseh and heard from Edward Moore, Director of Water Utilities for City of Toledo and Scott Sibley from City of Toledo Engineering Services. After lunch, Junction Coalition received a special recognition from U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur from Ohio’s 9th Congressional District. They finished the day with talks from Shantae Brownlee from Toledo-Lucas County Land Bank and Yvonne Harper, Councilwomen for City of Toledo.

Ms. Alicia Smith, who leads the Junction Coalition (and is Ohio’s 2017 Environmental Achievement Award Winner for Community Leaders) explained how Junction Coalition has been mindful of its four founding principles (or pillars): social justice, economic justice, environmental justice, and peace education. They practice active listening to the needs and priorities of their community. River Network and I will be helping guide the development of their current strategic plan, and next month I look forward to facilitating a stakeholder feedback session as part of this process.

The next day was a celebration for the community. The event was dubbed “A Junction Function” with bouncy houses, music, vendors, food, and performances by the local dance team. The best part of my involvement? I got to be one of five judges for the first Annual Rib Off. In fact, the whole celebration was a great way to get the community involved.