Brenda Coley is the Co-Executive Director of Milwaukee Water Commons (MWC). Over the years she has served in various positions in the nonprofit and academic sectors and brings a long-standing commitment to social justice and community organizing. She has been a nonprofit director, research coordinator, and project manager with expertise in leadership development and organizational capacity building. Before joining Milwaukee Water Commons, Coley was the 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. In addition, she has served on many community engagement boards and public health initiatives specifically focused on equality and health disparities within the LGBTQ and other minority communities in Milwaukee. Coley brings to MWC her philosophy on being a servant leader. She is committed to exploring the influences of one’s own culture or cultures and understanding ways in which groups of people have been and are treated in society, using that knowledge to develop strategies to effectively engage diverse groups of people in important community issues.
This interview was published on February 22, 2019.
How did your career with Milwaukee Water Commons begin, and how long have you been with the organization?
I have been with Milwaukee Water Commons for three years. I was a program consultant looking for some more stability in my career, so I found Milwaukee Water Commons. At the time, I had very limited knowledge of environmental issues, but thought I could use my community organizing skills at the organization.
Your work has been focused on social justice in your community. How has your previous work experience served you in your current role in the water world?
I think my background in social justice is a reason I was hired. Milwaukee Water Commons wanted to lift up its environmental justice component and I came to the organization with skills and thinking around creating sustainable community engagement. But certainly understanding program development and issues of racism and homophobia has informed our work in getting the community involved in environmental initiatives. I think the water world believes in the importance of equity, diversity and inclusion, but often they don’t fully understand know how to implement it. This is a major issue we are faced with.
What issues is Milwaukee Water Commons focusing on today?
We are continuously working on our Water City Agenda, which includes six initiative areas that reflect different areas of city life. Milwaukee is a water-centric city and we wanted to know what it would take for the community to see their city as truly water-centric. The Water City Agenda has six initiatives, including drinking water, water quality, and arts and culture. These initiatives were developed, created, and vetted through community engagement. For example, with water quality, we are using community engagement strategies including collective impact to plant trees both in riparian and urban areas to enhance the water quality of our rivers and deal with dwindling tree canopy. We are working with experts and bringing in partners to make sure that trees of all sizes are planted where they are needed.
You recently became a part of the River Network member community. How do you feel that membership will benefit you and your organization?
At Milwaukee Water Commons, one of our community engagement strategies is to invite community members to participate in the environmental movement. With our River Network membership, I intend to use scholarship opportunities to bring community partners to River Rally and deepen involvement in the movement, which is so important. Also, the national connections we can make through River Network will be helpful to our work. I went to River Rally 2018 and learned about open water swims that are happening all over the country. I could have direct conversations with those folks. These connections really enhance the quality of our work.
What kind of impact would you like to see your organization make in your community over the next 10 years?
I would like to see a citywide change in how we view water. I would like to see more community influence in decision making and public policy regarding our water agenda, including safe and affordable water across the state. We all share both the responsibility for and benefits of water, because it is a gift. I would like to see more integration of arts and culture into our understanding and connection to water. Every culture has a water story and those stories should be uplifted to enhance our feelings of being good stewards of our water. One of the ways we can be a truly water-centric city is for all community members to have a meaningful experience on the water at least once a year. When we heal the water, the water heals us.