Brenda Coley and Kirsten Shead
Brenda Coley is the Co-Executive Director of Milwaukee Water Commons. Over the years she has served in various positions in the non-profit and academic sectors and brings a long-standing commitment to social justice and community organizing. Before joining Milwaukee Water Commons, Coley was sole proprietor of Brenda Coley & Associates, helping local and national organizations build the cultural competence to approach marginalized populations around health, leadership development and social justice issues. Coley is committed to exploring the influences of one’s own culture and understanding ways in which groups of people are treated in society, using that knowledge to develop strategies to effectively engage diverse groups of people in important community issues.
Kirsten Shead is the Co-Executive Director of Milwaukee Water Commons. She has a B.S. in chemistry and broad experience in education, industry and environmental labs. She left the corporate world in 2009 for the nonprofit sector. Her previous work included building Muslim-Christian understanding, facilitating interfaith dialogue and leading an interfaith environmental network. Kirsten has an unwavering commitment to social justice; anti-racism; women’s, LGBTQ, and multi-racial leadership; the Milwaukee community; and our sacred Earth. Her happy place is the natural world – identifying plants, watching wildlife and being on, in, or underwater.
This interview was conducted by Ayana Harscoet on January 23, 2024. Press play to listen and find the full audio transcript below the audio player.
Ayana: Hi, and welcome to River Network’s Meet Your Network: hearing from our network members in their own voices. River Network envisions a powerful and inclusive movement that ensures abundant clean water for all people and nature to thrive. We believe joy and hope for our planet flows through our rivers.
My name is Ayana Harscoet, and I’m the Communications Associate at River Network. I use they/them pronouns, and I live and work in Brooklyn, NY on unceded Lenape land. You can learn more about the lands you live and work on at native-land.ca.
In January, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Brenda Coley (she/her) and Kirsten Shead (she/her), who are Co-Executive Directors of Milwaukee Water Commons. In this conversation, Brenda, Kirsten, and I touched on so many topics – from healing relationships to water, to planting trees in redlined neighborhoods, to what it means to really listen to, organize with, and celebrate with community. And at every step of the way, you can hear their profound care, intention, and commitment to their work to revitalize water in Milwaukee and help build a thriving water city for all. This conversation truly left me so full of hope and inspiration, and I hope you feel the same way too. So without further ado, here’s Brenda and Kirsten.
Ayana: Thank you so much, both, for joining me today. Before we get started, I would love to hear a brief introduction from both of you. Feel free to decide whoever wants to jump in, however you’d like to navigate that. I’d love to hear a little bit about you, and maybe what threads brought you to where you are today, or even if you’d like to tackle the question of, “Why water?”[laughter]
Brenda: Wanna go first?
Kirsten: Sure. So I’m Kirsten Shead. I use she/her pronouns, and I am one of the Co-Executive Directors of Milwaukee Water Commons.
Brenda: And I’m Brenda Coley, the other Co-Executive Director. My pronouns are she and her, and it was very interesting for you to ask how I got to this work. I actually think that the environmental movement was looking for and needed people who were social justice activists and who had skills in that area as well as public health, and I think they were ready.
I’ve been involved now for about 5 or 6 years. I didn’t know anything about environmentalism, not much about the water other than what was generally known, and it’s certainly become my passion over these years. But I think that the movement knew that they needed social justice as to be a part of this movement, and they needed more people of color. And so I came in at that moment, and I certainly will say that I was welcomed in.
Kirsten: Which was 8 years ago.
Brenda: 8 years?[laughter]
Kirsten: So I was involved in some of the early conversations that Milwaukee Water Commons was having when we were just a couple of leaders with a vision that we needed community input into this story of Milwaukee being a water-centric city. So I was involved as a community partner and was involved in interfaith environmental work. And I got to know Brenda in those early days when she joined the movement. She was Co-Executive Director – this was the second iteration of Co-EDs; we were founded by two white women who had a strong racial justice lens – and Brenda took the next role as Co-ED along with one of them, and then I came on. So we became the “dynamic duo round 2” of the co-director model. I took that role in 2018. So we’ve both been here for a little while. COVID makes time go strange.
And I would say, I really came up in water. Not necessarily through a traditional environmental background, but through recreation and a family that just had a lot of play and experience and access to water. And we spend a lot of time talking about reconnecting people back to the water, who had been disconnected through no fault of their own. And so that is really appealing to me, the environmental justice side of our work. We live at the shore of a great lake and the confluence of three rivers. And yet we have people that live less than a mile from these bodies of water, who feel unwelcome or have never had access to either recreation or decision-making about those shared waters, so that piece of omission really compels me.
Brenda: Yeah. I think part of my contributions to the work here at Milwaukee Water Commons has shifted us towards really delving into what was already a part of Milwaukee Water Commons, but it wasn’t very pronounced. Because when I came on to the scene, environmental justice here in the Midwest was not a word that was used.
Kirsten: It was too left for the Midwest.
Brenda: It was too far left. And now I say everybody and their mom is talking about environmental justice. But there was a time when that wasn’t true here.
So now, what we have to guard against is the performance that that happens around these words. There is one thing to value Environmental Justice, and another thing to implement EJ remedies – “I’m gonna say the right words, although I really don’t know what they mean. I don’t really know what Environmental Justice implementation looks like or means for my programming.” But I’m seeing a lot of that now, where those are the right words to say, those are the key words to say, but there’s not really a deep enough analysis of what environmental justice means for our work and what that means for our city. We’re in a highly segregated city. I just read a report today that this was the worst place in the United States for Black people. So what does that mean in our water work?
Kirsten: Yeah. So we really formed and continue to work addressing racial and social injustice through the lens of water. And we’re also addressing water injustice through a multiracial, anti-racist approach to organizing and decision-making. So it’s really both and. They’re not disconnected from each other for us, and so we really look to Black feminism and intersectional approaches to environmental justice. In some ways, we say that we heal the water and the water heals us. And in Milwaukee, that looks like being really direct and honest about structural inequities and injustice.
That was our big, long answer to your “why water” question. [laughter] As you can see, we’re not afraid to talk!
Ayana: Wow, thank you so much, both for sharing that. I had so many thoughts and questions popping up as I was listening. If you’re open to sharing, I would love to hear more about how justice became so much more central to this work being done at Milwaukee Water Commons, and more about what it looks like to organize in those ways. I saw that on your website you share the Jemez principles. So I’d just love to hear anything about what it means to you all to work together in solidarity and in mutuality in that way, and how that comes into play in the work that you do, and in your day to day.
Brenda: I would say that it’s really been a process. And it’s been a process that really hasn’t come top down. It really has come from the middle up, I would say, where our staff and our team has really been committed to this multiracial, anti-racist aspect of our work. They’ve pushed us as well as we’ve pushed them. We really mean it.
And we’re looking at transforming ourselves before we’re trying to transform the movement. The Jemez principles call for transformation. So, for example, we have 2 meeting spaces within our organization. One is a Black Affinity space, and the other is a White accountability space. These are reflective spaces where people who share and have similar racialized experiences are allowed to talk about their experiences. It holds us in an accountability relationship with each other.
Affinity spaces like this aid us in employee retention. I am not aware of other environmental organizations really delving into these when they’re doing this kind of work. But when we talk about transformation and what we sometimes ask of community members, really engaging with the community, and I think in the right way, in solidarity with the community rather as charity, then we have to get our own house in order, get our own feelings in order, take our own responsibilities as we ask other people to do so as well.
So one of the things we’re talking about is engagement to the water. Water doesn’t want to be moved around and we have to understand that water has its own eco-system that we should respect. Water is here, is a gift for us. And so everyone should be privy to the benefits that water gives, And that could be jobs, it can be recreation, it’s drinking water, it’s all those things. Water is life, it’s all those things. But we have a situation here where people don’t know that water belongs to us all.
And so a lot of our programming is centered around really bringing groups of people together so to create a space where we can talk about these issues, and that they know that they belong in these waters, that these waters belong to all of us. So we do a lot of work about taking people to the water, not recreation so much, but in other various and important ways such as – we have a Water School program where we’re engaging people with stewardship of the water, because with this great gift comes great responsibility.
So those are the things that we’re engaging. And you don’t have to convince anyone of the gift of water. Communities understand the importance of what water is. What we try to do is invite people into the discussion of water, policy, and the importance of shared decision making with institutions regarding water. We’ve been working at this, what, 8 or 9 years? In the beginning of our water city agenda, people were not as aware of water issues as they are now. One of the Water City Agenda Initiatives developed and vetted by community input in 2016 was a Blue / Green Jobs Initiative, which came from listening to the community. Are jobs a part of the environmental movement? I mean, that was a big leap to understand that everyone should share in the gifts of water, and having water sector jobs be overwhelmingly white is something we need to correct.
Is it mission creep to be more intersectional in our environmentalism? Do we save the fish, or do we have clean drinking water? When I came in, that was the argument. Now, there is none. We’ve come to the resolution that it is an environmental injustice when we finally clear the path for all people to get to the water unencumbered and they get there and algae blooms are prohibiting them from enjoying the water. We must have safe drinking water, clean water, and affordable healthy water. All of this matters. That’s the intersectional part of it. All of that matters in order for us to have a healthy people and planet.
Kirsten: And then we really organized early around: What would it look like to be a water-centric city from the community? So the conversation was starting in Milwaukee, at least around, “We’re gonna be a water-centric city, right?” And it had some branding to it. And there was government involved, and academia was involved, and businesses were involved, but community wasn’t involved. Not in any impactful way.
I think we’ve really been informed by those early conversations with artists, and with public health advocates, and with spiritual leaders, and with community-based organizations that were doing after-school programs for kids, who were really moving the society forward. And who wanted to be part of water work, and had been more like, well, you’re over there doing social justice work, and we’re over here doing water.
If we really take this – what does a thriving and water-minded community look like? – we’re still working under that direction, which was, “We need to have safe drinking water. We need to have swimmable, fishable, drinkable rivers. We need to have access to these jobs that keep getting promised.” But somehow, 98.6 or 8% of the plumbers in the whole United States are white men. We did a needs assessment of the water workforce here in Milwaukee. Not because we actually wondered, but because we needed to show the data. The barriers to those life-supporting, family-supporting jobs in the water sector are so high, and have been so high for so many generations that we have a very, very white male structured water sector.
And then we have folks who will say, “Well, we want to diversify. We believe in that now.” But the structures all continue to support this monolith of workers. And so we’ve been working for years – this is a community request. This is a call from our community. “We want access to those jobs. And it’s not just that we don’t know about them.” Sometimes, that’s what the big players will say: “Well, we put the notice out. Nobody applies.” We’re really looking at: what are the structures? What are the built-in barriers? And how can we do our work considering that?
Ayana: Yeah, wow, I hear that. These are really important considerations. I think unfortunately, it is kind of uncommon to hear of groups really intentionally engaging community like that – engaging artists, engaging spiritual leaders, educators. And I think it’s what’s needed. It’s absolutely what’s needed.
I would love to hear more about the work that you’re doing in your programs. I briefly looked at your website, and I saw that you have some really wonderful programs furthering those intentions. And I’m just curious if there’s any work you’re especially proud of from this past year, or any moments that felt really meaningful.
Brenda: I would say our Branch Out campaign has been quite meaningful and something we are proud of in the past year. We’re working in Sherman Park, a mixed economic community, not far from where our offices are located. And we’re working to build a more robust Urban Canopy. So we are planting trees – not trees just on public property, but private property as well. And when you’re planting trees on private property, then that means you have to pay attention to the other trees that are on that property as well. You can’t just plop a tree in there, right? And so if a tree is coming out of the garage, or we see a tree that is hazardous that needs to be taken into account before we plant an additional tree. We know that our urban tree canopy needs improvement. It is not equal to suburban or white neighborhoods in this city, so we need to make that much more robust. That is environmental justice. We look at three components of EJ: Distributive, Procedural, and Restorative. Planting trees in urban settings is restorative justice.
We’ve begun our tree planting project in Sherman Park, and plan to expand that into other communities, such as the Latinx community here in Milwaukee. And as we work on policy in this area, we are also working with funders to understand that maintenance has to be a part of planting trees on private property, and we should to maintain the trees that are there, and we have to maintain the new trees as well. We’re talking about mixed income, so if it takes $6,000 to take a tree out that is hazardous, so that we can put in the right trees to go into that area, well, we need to figure out how we will combine our resources to make this a feasible part of our work.
And these are the things that we’re trying to talk with funders about, which is the importance of maintenance, if we’re gonna really be equitable in the distribution of these trees. As part of the Branch Out Project we have established an Urban Tree board in the Sherman Park Neighborhood, probably the first of its kind in the urban setting. They advise us on our engagement strategies, ambassadors for the project, and we can check our programming with them. We engage them around why trees are important, especially the importance of the giving serious consideration to native trees and plants and how that strengthens the ecosystem. The Tree board meets on a monthly basis. They are visible models around trees for the community and neighborhood as well.
And one of the things that I was very surprised with: We often partner with Indigenous communities, and we had one of our friends, our partners, come and do a tree blessing, and the neighborhood was very honored and pleased. They had not had an opportunity to have that kind of connection with Indigenous folks. We all just really wanna be together. And they were asking us, “How much did you pay them?” We said we didn’t pay them. They came here to bless the trees as a way to bless this neighborhood and to show solidarity. And so that was one of the surprising things that I was especially proud of: to connect them. They’re currently hosting unity fires inside urban gardens in Milwaukee. So that’s just a really good way to come together.
Kirsten: Holding sacred fires.
Kirsten: And we came to trees because of flooding, and because of the call of residents to address green infrastructure. Which is a wonky word, that’s a sector word. But talking about natural solutions to heavy rainfall, and we know here in the Midwest that climate change looks like heavier storms. The emerald ash borer is destroying a lot of our ash trees, and we have a significant portion of ash trees making up our canopy because of the last loss of trees. We had Dutch elm disease, and when those trees were replaced, we replaced them with what we had, which was a whole lot of ash trees. So you see these structural challenges that are very ecological. We have to have a more complex ecological approach.
We also see that those trees were replaced based on lines of division. So when you have a city that’s hyper-redlined, the replacement of the elm trees with ash trees only happened in certain places. So it’s layers upon layers of structural challenge. And then you have invasive species, like a little bug that causes this ecological crisis, too. On top of that, we have the reality of climate change. So I think we’re not just planting trees because it’s the sexy ecological thing to do. We’re really looking at, “What does a healthy, thriving canopy look like in neighborhoods that don’t have it?” That will not only address long term flooding and soil retention, but also public health. And pollinator habitat.
So I think we are really trying to take a very holistic view of what water justice looks like, and all that requires community decision making. All that cannot be done with, “We know what you need. And we’re gonna give it to you. And then we’re gonna write our grant report about it.” It has to come from an authentic community engagement place. So I’m really proud of that program this year, too. We’ve had a lot of our team working really hard to make that pilot project happen.
Ayana: Yeah, thank you for sharing. Wow! That does sound really incredible. And it sounds like people got really invested and involved. And that’s really special. Sometimes it can be really hard to get folks excited about doing that kind of work.
Brenda: Well, community is now being consciously engaged in a way that is in solidarity about flooding. Other environmental groups as well as MWC have engaged communities around that. You do better when you know better. Think about it. Communities have been disengaged from the water. They’ve been disengaged from nature. Many of us are afraid of bees. We don’t have the information needed to know that we cannot live without them – these kinds of things. And once you communicate with folks and tell them these things, then they can see. “Does that make sense to me? Can I buy into that?” And then we know we’re on the right path. Then we know we’re on the right path, and we can continue. But we have to do something with our planet and with people at the same time. You can’t do one without the other. And I think that’s the way we used to work, in those kinds of silos.
Kirsten: And the other thing about Branch Out as an example is: we came to this approach because we were working in collective impact in a coalition. So we had 30 different partners, from city forestry to regional nonprofits to churches.
Brenda: This work cannot be done in isolation.
Kirsten: Right. Who’ve been part of the conversation around, “What would a thriving canopy look like? How are we gonna deal with this crisis of lack of tree cover?” The Branch Out program, the pilot project in Sherman Park, is primarily Milwaukee Water Commons, but we’ve been doing this branch-off thinking and dreaming and unpacking complex solutions in coalition and with partners. And I think that’s also really important in this movement, because we just have so many folks in the water sector, or in the environmental sector. And everybody’s trying to hit their goals. And I think a lot of the power of Milwaukee Water Commons is how we work together with others, and really say, “We need more people thinking together on this.”
Brenda: This is one of the strategies that we do, is that we research the problem. We gather data to make the case to deal with the issue. So we have a Branch Out report. And you could tell that how robust the tree canopy would be depended on the zip code that you lived in. That just blew people’s minds because folks are saying, “We plant trees. We don’t think about color.” And I said, well, that’s part of the problem. You gotta think about where these trees are going to make sure it’s equitable. That’s the status quo. So let’s be honest about that. Let’s get a network of people together. And let’s figure out what we can do to resolve this issue The point is to be hard on the problem not on the people we are trying to influence.
Ayana: Yeah, I really appreciate that context. It sounds like again, it’s very much not a top down approach. It’s very much an approach in collaboration and doing some real listening to people.
Brenda: We try.
Ayana: Right. I’m sure there’s push and pull along the way, but it’s about the intention.
Brenda: I mean, when you get in this kind of work, we’re sometimes involved in neighborhood misunderstandings. That’s not where we want to be. Fortunately we’re in partnershipwith the Community Association there. But all those things are important to folks. We had an eighty-year-old woman – we were planting trees, she came up – and we’re really thinking about natural trees that are going to really help the ecosystem. But this eighty-year-old Black woman comes up and wants some trees, and she wants fruit trees – we’re going to give her some fruit trees! If anybody deserves them, it’s her.
Ayana: Yeah, absolutely. That ties into this other question that I had pop up when I was listening to you both, which was that, it’s one thing to do education and to tell folks these things that you’ve found, and this research you’ve done. But it really sounds like the learning is going both ways. So I’d love to hear any really meaningful learning moments or lessons that you’ve learned from the people that you’re in community with.
Brenda: Well, we wrote that Branch Out report for policy makers and government institutions, and for other organizations like that. We weren’t really writing that particular report for the community. Cause they already know there’s the issue there, but we’re unpacking it on their behalf in solidarity with them. But when we come to the community, we’re coming with a different voice. We’re bringing that information to them in a way, because we don’t want people to feel more disadvantaged than they may perhaps already be. So we have to be very careful on how we word these kinds of things, and how we must take into account the resilience of the community, because really, the innovation is there. But what we have to do is learn how to listen. We don’t know how to listen. And we have our agendas, and we have our goals to meet, and people are nice, and they go along with that. But we really are trying to have a situation where a structure will be there when we leave. We’re not going to be there forever, but we want that tree board to stay there forever. We want them to be involved in that. So we have to listen.
One of the things was, there’s a huge issue and problem with reckless driving in the community that we’re working in. And within Sherman Park is a boulevard. And folks were telling us that there was a problem with reckless driving and speeding on that boulevard. So we needed to listen to that. And we began partnering with community residents who were organizing around reckless driving, these grassroots community activists, came and were part of a tree planting event. When we planted trees, they also shared information about reckless driving. So we have to take in good consideration: we know that the earth and the trees are needed. We study this. We’re thinking about these issues all day long. But community folks are concerned about their children playing safely. and if a car is recklessly driving. So we have to take into consideration that that’s just as important as the trees. Maybe that’s what I want to say.
Kirsten: And that listening to the community and really knowing that the innovation comes from the community, it reminds me of another area that we’ve been really active in in the last couple of years, which is our area of concern. So the EPA Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding is coming in Milwaukee. We’re getting a huge influx of federal funds to clean up a hundred years of toxic legacy that’s in our three rivers and in our estuary. And this has already been going on – there’s been planning and strategizing and science that’s been happening for years. But because of some our pushing and some of the awakening to the need for more community engagement and environmental justice, we’re upping the level of community engagement and not just checking the box around, “We had a public meeting.” I don’t think we’ve arrived yet, but I think there’s a lot of partners here in Milwaukee that are doing better and trying to do better at real community engagement.
And we talk about environmental justice priorities. We talk about, “This river is gonna be restored. And we’re gonna do all these great things along it.” And then you talk to a local resident that’s actually fishing that river to feed their family. And you go, oh. There’s a very specific fishing access point at this point that’s highly used by x-y-z community in Milwaukee – that could be the Latinx community, the Hmong community, Black, white, whoever it is – are we putting it in the right place for the community that’s already using it? Are we educating with the information they need in order to know the safety or the concern around that fish consumption in a way that isn’t condescending and judgmental? Are we doing restorative justice? Are we saying to communities that may have been eating fish out of this river, or drinking this water, or whatever it is, are we actually not just saying, “Oh, by the way, that was dangerous” – are we actually giving the public health messaging? And are we conveying the work we’re doing? Which is gonna be really challenging work. Dredging a river is ugly, and ripping out areas that have been restored, whether there’s toxic sediment underneath, all these things are very complex, painful things to do to heal our waters.
I think it’s so important that we not only communicate well to the community, but we really listen to residents and local folks around those spaces, or who are using those spaces, so that we don’t build solutions that don’t make sense. And this is our opportunity to actually build solutions that make sense.
Brenda: And it makes me think of We Are Water. We have a yearly celebration, We Are Water, where we’re really engaging the community to celebrate the gift of water. So it’s not just the problems, but the gift of it and the mightiness of it. And we have a beautiful, every year in August, celebration that I’m very proud of. It’s totally multiracial, and we really just celebrate the water through all kinds of art activities and engagement and giving out information. So that’s been a really good thing that we also do as well. When we celebrate water, we try and highlight that every culture has a water story.
We don’t do it anymore, but for two years we held an open water swim in the Milwaukee River. Our goal was to give people the understanding that, “You belong here.” And so our biggest thing was getting people of color in that water. We can’t do it any longer because of the dredging that’s going on, but that was the first open water swim that had been in that river for 100 years. Well, in five, six years that river is going to be really robust, and we want to make sure that certain people aren’t left behind, and only certain people, the middle class, gets to enjoy that. That everyone gets to enjoy that water.
Ayana: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s really beautiful to hear about that joy and that celebration alongside some of the more difficult work or difficult conversations. I think it’s so important. It’s what keeps movements alive – you can’t run off of frustration and anger.
Brenda: Yeah, I think that’s a very unique part of us. You know, we’re advocates, we’re policy makers, we build capacity among communities and other organizations around some of these principles – but we also know throw some really good parties.[laughter]
Kirsten: I also think we’re unashamedly women-led. We’re multiracial, team-led, and we take a lot of leadership, and we look to Indigenous women especially, around water work. And I think when you’re looking to Indigenous women, women of color, the LGBTQ community – folks that have been resilient through generations – I think joy and celebration and story and spirituality, all those things have to be present. They’re not an add-on to make it nice once a year. We need to weave that through our work if we’re gonna truly be resilient water protectors.
Brenda: Well, these communities tell us that. Every one of those communities you listed have used joy as part of an antidote to oppression and repression. They’ve instituted some form of joy. Because life is, as bad as it gets, it’s still good.
Ayana: Yeah, I completely agree, and I hear so much connection at the heart of that. I really hear that deep care for one another, and for keeping each other safe, even as far as the dangerous driving. You know, it’s building that sense of care and trust, it’s so critical.
And if there’s anything that you feel like, “If there’s one thing I wish everyone would know about what it means to really intentionally and respectfully and vulnerably engage folks in a community as opposed to doing it on paper,” if you could sum that up, or if you could give people a tip, or if there’s something that you think is a missing ingredient often, what might that be?
Brenda: We have a few kinds of concepts that we work under here in Milwaukee Water Commons around community engagement. One of them is to really be as transparent as possible, and to let people know what our agenda is. A lot of times you hide that agenda, but we try to let people know your agenda, and not to over promise. We have to be honest with folks and tell them what we can do. We can’t over promise.
Another thing that I try to think about is transparency. As I said before, not over-promising, letting folks know what our agenda is, and listening and learning how to listen. That means being able to suspend our own agenda if other things are coming up that are more important to the community folks that are in the room. And that’s hard to do, because we think we have to get this thing done, but progress goes at the speed of trust, right? And so we have to build relationships. And that’s a process. And folks want that relationship right away without putting that work in.
Kirsten: And I would say, to add to what Brenda just said, I could say, we don’t need to be so intimidated by community engagement, either. It doesn’t have to be as complicated. I feel like there’s a lot of talk around, “We need community engagement, but, oh my God, we gotta do these 8 things, and we gotta do it right and have the right meeting.” We need to go to meetings that are already happening in the community. Where are we trying to reach people? And where are they already. I mean, it’s an obvious tactic. But I feel like at least coming from a white woman’s perspective here in Milwaukee, there’s a lot of theory around community engagement. A lot of talk about it, but it’s a very othering conversation rather than, especially in a hyper-segregated city, if you’re coming from a white-led organization or an institution that’s primarily had a lot of privilege, you’re gonna have to just get your feet a little dirty.
We wanna talk to fishermen, and we’re gonna send some email out to who knows whoever, rather than going to the bait shop? [laughter] I know that bait shop because I walk past it, I drive past it, and that bait shop is packed. It is packed with working class people of color who are fishing in the river to feed their families. We need to get over ourselves and just go to the bait shop and be okay with coming with an agenda. We’re not going like, “Do you have any thoughts on the river?” We’re saying, “There’s this big restoration project happening. Do you know about it? Do you care? Do you wanna care? Do you wanna have a vote? What would it take for you to be involved?” You know, kind of coming with something, but also being open to, folks may or may not be interested. But everyone deserves to have an opportunity to have a say in these kinds of projects.
Ayana: Yeah, I think that’s such an important point – meeting people where they’re at. They’re not necessarily gonna come out to your meetings unless they know who you are and know what you’re trying to do. And the moving at the speed of trust, absolutely. And I think that transparency is also one of those things that gets talked about but not always practiced in the ways it could be. I appreciate you naming those things.
Something else I’d love to hear a bit about is, at the end of the day we’re all dreaming of something, or we’re all building towards something. What is the future, or what are the futures that you dream of? What do you hope that you’re helping to imagine or build or sustain for our collective future and our communities’ collective futures?
Brenda: Kirsten’s so much better with that. [laughter]
Kirsten: Times are going to be tough. I mean, times are already tough, and we can’t pretend that our water work isn’t connected to these other really big societal challenges. So when I think about what water could be and what water work could look like, how are we going to build a thriving Milwaukee, a thriving society, that, as we do the work of dismantling racism, as we do the protective work, as colleagues do the work to make sure we can retain our vote, and that we have rights and protections, especially for the most vulnerable among us, what’s our piece in building a society we all want to be in? And we can’t be a thriving society if we don’t have safe drinking water.
And so that means getting into some of the nitty gritty around SRF funds, and who’s replacing the lead laterals, and are they gonna be replaced in the right neighborhoods at the right times. You get way down in the weeds. Is the next generation gonna be able to be the thriving and just society that we’re aiming for in Milwaukee? How are we gonna get there? And so to me, one of the things that inspires me is like the integration of the arts and people reconnecting back to the earth. I mean finding the sacred in their water. I think those things. I can see those things being a really important piece we carry into this next season of humanity. [For more on MWC’s SRF work, read River Network article “Changing Narratives in Milwaukee with Water Infrastructure Dollars”.]
Kirsten: And Brenda just nods her head yes. [laughter]
Brenda: I love it. I told you she said it best.
Ayana: Yeah, that’s really beautiful. And I love the way you put that. The art and the spirituality – we don’t always consider those in the same realm as science or policy, but I really do think they need to be intertwined.
Brenda: They are.
Kirsten: And in many ways, we have a really fun continuum of people’s reverence for water here on the staff, and we have people that are so scientific that it’s spiritual without being themselves as spiritual people. It’s not saying that you need to believe a certain thing, or even have this warm, fuzzy, kumbaya approach. When we connect with water, and we connect with our cultures as they connect with water, there is just depth there that you can find. And I think it’s really healing and restorative and frankly really compelling.
Brenda: You know, I think about, for African Americans, water is both traumatic – we came over in the middle passage, thousands of us died, were thrown over, we were shackled right? so water is traumatic – but at the same time, water also was a pathway to freedom. Enslaved people used the waterways to get to freedom. Here in Milwaukee, we have a stop by the Milwaukee River that was an Underground Railroad spot, and they followed the water to get to freedom. So water was not meant to be used in that way, but it has been, and so we have to heal the water from that as well. That’s the spirituality of it, too. I believe the water is a living thing, and it also was damaged in all that. Every culture has a water story, every culture.
Ayana: Yeah, I hear that. It’s really important to acknowledge those complexities and that trauma.
Brenda: That’s part of us really attaching to water – to really look back at how our ancestors were, all of our ancestors were. We cut that off, and I think that that hinders our growth.
Kirsten: Yeah. And we need Indigenous ways, whether that’s Indigenous North American or Indigenous African, Indigenous Northern European – they were all indigenous somewhere, and we lived in harmony with the earth, with the water.
Brenda: Right. We did.
Kirsten: It wasn’t always all easy, but there was an understanding of, “We’re not gonna come to this place through an extractive lens.” So we’re not afraid to push back. This can’t be exploitative capitalism. We’re gonna find water justice. This can’t be oppressive control. Whole generations just dammed the water. We just dammed it because we wanted to control it. And we know all the impact that had on the ecosystem.
Brenda: And people.
Kirsten: And we’re still actively dismantling that control and commodification, and saying, what does it really mean that water is life? If we let water thrive and humanity thrive within, what would that really look like? And I think we’re going to look a lot different in society when we come back to those Indigenous ways.
Brenda: Right. That’s right.
Ayana: Yeah. Because it’s not only the question of healing that individual relationship with water, but at a societal level. How do you think that folks can – or you’ve witnessed folks going about this – go about the very personal, and I’m sure complex, process of healing or restoring a relationship with water?
Brenda: I think about our relationship with True Skool. True Skool is a hip-hop, social justice organization that has become really vibrant and involved in the water sector here in Milwaukee, and we first met them through Water School. They became one of our Water School partners. We haven’t talked much about Water School, but it’s our leadership development capacity building program where, four Saturdays in a row, we take community based organizations that bring teams of 5 people. And we really engage them about their water footprint, about pollution, and all things water. We don’t know how people are going to do after this program is over, and some folks just went right into being advocates and stewards of water in big ways.
And so I see these young urban Black and brown and white young people involved in the area of concern, involved in recreation, involved in reviving a creek in the middle of the Black community because of the work that we and many others have done to engage people back to the water because they were disengaged from something that was theirs. I ask folks all the time, “Well, when you recreate on water do you see Black people, do you see other people of color?” Folks are surprised when I ask this question. You’re there. You were out this weekend on a boat. Did you see any Black people out there? No! [laughter] We can’t just look away.
Kirsten: I think what we’re offering is we’re inviting people to know. To share this knowledge that this is where our water is, this is where it comes from, this is where the ecosystem is, these are some of the ways that we’re working to protect and steward it, these are some of the challenges that are actively being discussed – and then letting folks self-determine how they want to engage in that. It’s great when we see folks who become activists and policy makers or really move right into the water sector work. But there’s also folks that will then just have a reference every time they fill their glass, or they might take that back to the daycare they work at, and make sure that there’s a filter on that faucet because they know that there’s lead piping.
Sitting behind Brenda while we’re talking right now is what is a sign that has a number of areas and ways in which we work. It’s these four Rs: resist, reform, recreate, and reimagine. So some folks might take that water knowledge and really become a resistor. And say, I’m gonna stand at the Dakota Access pipeline – we have folks that were there. Other folks may be reforming and working within their local government.
Brenda: Or utility.
Kirsten: Or decision-making body, to make change. Others may be reimagining and weaving water more into their art or into their music, whatever that looks like. We’re not directing people – “here’s how you need to be a water warrior or work for the water” – but, “here’s the information. Here’s some points of view. Here’s some analysis. How do you take that and move it forward?”
Brenda: That’s solidarity. With the water and with the people.
Ayana: Yeah. Really honoring people’s individual journeys and relationships.
Brenda: You know, at Water School, we had one session where we actually take people to a small lake that feeds into the Milwaukee River. And we’re working with people who, like we said – and we’re talking Native people as well as Latinos and Black folks and white people as well – who have little relationship with water recreation. And we opened it up to their families. We set up recreational stations. We set up swimming. We set up fishing, and we set up kayaking and canoeing. We include many safety measures, and so here these adults are having these experiences – they don’t want to have them without their family being there. So we figured out – this is another thing that we had to listen to – they wanted to bring their family. So we had to make accommodations for them so that everyone would be safe, but so that they could bring them as well and have this experience. And that was one of the ways that we also listened because we hadn’t thought about that, that their family should come. Not everyone brought family, but most people do, and this is the first time they’ve stepped in the water recreationally.
Ayana: Right, because even if it is an individual journey, it always happens in in the context of community and with families. I bet there were both children and elders who that was their first time.
Brenda: Oh yeah. It was amazing to see that joy. They get it right away. And that we had a hand in making that happen. Our staff come back from that experience tired but very fulfilled.
Ayana: Yeah, there’s that joy again. I hear it. Well, thank you both so much for sharing all of this. I think maybe I’ll ask one more question to close us out. Is there anything that’s on the horizon, or anything coming up this year or in the next couple of years that you’re really looking forward to, or really excited about?
Kirsten: I think across a number of our areas of work, we’re really shifting from strategizing and dreaming and maybe doing some pilot project work, to some pretty big implementation, both in Milwaukee Water Commons, and as a city. The federal funds that are supporting some of the infrastructure work, it’s gonna be hard work. But we’ve got an implementation opportunity. Some of our own programming is just scaling up, and we had a really big process going on 10 years ago to form our Water City Agenda, which is the 6 point initiative where we talked to 1,500 folks around the city over a course of a couple of years to say, “What would a water-centric city look like?” They brought the big things: jobs and safe drinking water and arts and recreation and education and such. So we’re dreaming of, what is that gonna look like for the next 10 years? What does it look like to re-engage community around that conversation? And what is the next 10 years of work for us collectively as Milwaukee? And so I think starting to see some real impact of the work that we’ve done in coalition in the last 10 and dreaming about what the next 10 has for us is gonna be coming up in the next couple of years.
Brenda: Our goal is very ambitious: to talk with 10,000 people around the Water City event agenda here in Milwaukee. See if there’s still buy-in, if there’s things that need to be taken off, did we meet some goals, that kind of thing. And we’re doing this process both internally and externally.
Ayana: Yeah, I hear big visions. But building on the foundations that you’ve been establishing for a long time. Yeah, that’s wonderful. Well, thank you both so much again for making time. I’ll be in touch to follow up, but again, really, truly, thank you. Both as someone doing this work, and just as a person, so much of what both of you said really resonated with me, and it really gives me a lot of hope to hear the work that y’all are doing, and some of the ideas that can absolutely be transferred to so many other places and people and communities. So thank you.
Ayana: One more time, a huge thank you to Brenda and Kirsten for joining me on this conversation and for these deeply thoughtful responses – there’s so much wisdom and care here to learn from. If you’d like to learn more about Milwaukee Water Commons and their programs, you can visit milwaukeewatercommons.org.
And, I’ll also quickly share that River Network is one of 12 National Pass-Through Funders under the USFS Urban and Community Forestry Program. That means we’ll be issuing a Request for Funding Proposals later this year to support projects similar to the Branch Out program that Brenda and Kirsten described. Stay tuned for updates by subscribing to our River Voices monthly newsletter!
And last but not least, if you enjoyed this Meet Your Network episode, you can find more conversations and connect with us at www.rivernetwork.org. Thank you for listening, and we hope to see you around.