In Community Events, News

Power in River Rally: Reflections on Rally 2019

Twenty years ago, River Network began bringing together our nation’s river champions and water protectors at our annual River Rally conference. This year’s event was held on the banks of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the last time the river caught fire, an event that informed the modern environmental movement, the achievements made since that time, and our water future.

Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson speaking with River Network President Nicole Silk and River Network Board Chair Rebecca Wodder. Photo by Ruggero Fatica.

We kicked off River Rally Friday night with a warm welcome from Cleveland’s Mayor Jackson, brought history alive through Cordell Stokes’s eloquent words about the roles of race and his family in elevating the fire on the Cuyahoga River to national attention, and heard about how far the Cuyahoga River has come through a vibrant and engaging presentation by Bill Zawiski from Ohio EPA.

The narrative arc of the plenaries continued on Saturday, with the impassioned keynote speech of Ms. Keesha Gaskins-Nathan (Director for the Democratic Practice–United States program at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund) on water and democracy in the United States, reminding us that water is truly one of those “mom” issues everyone cares about and can get around, providing an opportunity for true democratic processes to work at the local level.

On Sunday’s plenary panel, moderated by Jalonne L. White-Newsome (Senior Program Officer – Environment at the Kresge Foundation), we dug deep into changing expectations on fairness and equality and how they are contributing to efforts to achieve water equity, water security, and reduce climate risk in geographies across the country. Panelists Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells (Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District), Katherine Baer (River Network), Brenda Coley (Milwaukee Water Commons), and Alicia Smith (Freshwater Future) offered insights on how to begin in these areas.

Monday’s plenary on the changing face of agriculture, moderated by Ann Mills (Agua Fund and former USDA Deputy Under Secretary), provided our audience with a generous opportunity to explore how the agricultural sector is shifting both demographically and with expanded emphasis on soil heath and water security. Speakers Erin Foster West (National Young Farmers Coalition), Jessica D’Ambrosio (The Nature Conservancy of Ohio), Martha Winters (Ohio grain farmer), and Nicole Seltzer (River Network) discussed how now is the time to set aside old paradigms that pit environmentalists and producers against one another and instead move forward together.

Together, these anchoring presentations helped us imagine a different water future that is more equitable for everyone.

These keynotes and plenaries constituted only a small fraction of the 90 total learning opportunities embedded throughout our three days in Cleveland. As noted in the table at left, these opportunities were significant both in terms of numbers and impact. In this short time, we offered 65 workshops dedicated to practical knowledge transfer across a set of themes important to achieving clean water and healthy rivers: working with farmers and ranchers; building resilient cities and communities; pursuing safe, clean, affordable drinking water; advancing robust and effective water laws and policies; civic engagement and our water future; expanding impact through science, technology, and monitoring; sustaining strong leaders, organizations, and coalitions; and innovative solutions from the Great Lakes.

Over half of these workshops were intentionally designed to intersect with considerations of equity, diversity, and inclusion. We are in debt to the 170 speakers who made this year’s content come alive, to our local partners for nine different field trip opportunities, and to the 526 people who registered for this year’s event.

Each Rally also takes time to celebrate accomplishments across the network. Always a high point, this year’s Awards Ceremony and Celebration was unbelievably moving, with three types of awards celebrating six individuals:

  • River Heroes: River Heroes are nominated annually by peers, selected by peers, and celebrated with peers. Recipients of this award are those who bring people together to solve water problems, seek solutions that are inclusive and equitable, go “above & beyond,” never give up, and inspire and help others to make a difference too. Their efforts to protect and restore their local rivers and waters are extraordinary in scope, scale, impact and heart. The awards themselves, miniature paddles, are hand made by River Network staff. Four or five awardees are selected annually, with this year’s recipients including Dennis Chestnut, San Juana Olivares, James Rasmussen, and Monica Lewis-Patrick.
  • Compton Award: The recipient of this award, determined by River Network’s Board of Directors, is selected for their admirable and noteworthy achievements that have benefited multiple communities and rivers over many decades. This award was created in 2001 in honor James “Jim” Compton who inspired thousands of river activists and community members through his personal and professional contributions to river recreation and restoration. One awardee is selected each year. This year’s recipient was Mark Van Putten.
  • Emerging Leader Recognition: New in 2019, this award recognizes someone early in their professional career (10 years or less) and young in age (35 years or under) who deserves our attention for their work at the intersection of water and equity. This award was inspired by former River Network board member Leslie Lowe. Leslie was a strident supporter of investing in and recognizing new and younger voices and perspectives in the water arena. Candidates self-nominate through the registration process for River Rally. This year’s recipient was Kevin Jeffery.

2019’s Emerging Leader Kevin Jeffrey receiving his award from River Network Board Member Lynn Broaddus. Photo by Benjamin Colon.

The words of each of these individuals, and those who introduced them, moved the audience to tears, encouraged deep reflection, and carried us all to moments of elation as we celebrated their achievements and vision for their work. Their stories helped further reinforce that our work in water is changing and that we have an obligation to work together for an equitable water future.

We are continuing to reflect on what went well, the reactions to some new programming (Idea Exchanges to lift up our work collectively), how we make River Rally accessible to more people, and the importance of dedicating enough time to the fun stuff (open mic night, film screenings, networking dinners, people of color social hour, among other events) that makes River Rally a special experience. What we know for certain is that we are so pleased to spend time with our amazing and increasingly diverse community of water advocates and river champions across the country – you inspire us!

If you joined us in Cleveland, thank you! We can promise an equally amazing program focused on education, celebration, and inspiration at River Rally 2020. Mark your calendars for May 15-18, 2020 – we can’t wait for you to join us in San Antonio, Texas.

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