Kris Meyer and Alex Van LohProgram Managers at Freshwater

Kris Meyer and Alex Van Loh

St. Paul, MN

This interview was conducted by Ayana Harscoet on January 29, 2024. Press play to listen, or find the full audio transcript below the audio player.

Kris: We realized that adapting the program is the way to stay healthy and relevant. Also, we check in with partners who have been sponsoring [Minnesota Water Stewards] and work with Stewards throughout the metro area and incorporate their insights. So, we’re constantly flexing that way and listening. We talk to the stewards, as I mention, who mention the things that were helpful in the program and things that were barriers, and we adapt to that as well. So, flexibility and adaptability and listening are important – starting out with a good idea but being willing to listen and change it.

Ayana: Welcome, Kris and Alex. Thank you so much for taking time to chat with me today. To get started. I would just love to hear a brief introduction from each of you, and maybe, if you’d like to share a little bit about the threads that brought you to this work or to water?

Alex: Yes, thank you. Thank you for having us. My name’s Alex Van Loh, and I am a programs manager at Freshwater along with my colleague Kris here and so I work in a little bit. You know, we’re a small nonprofit. So, we dabble in a little bit of everything. But my main focus is our community education and engagement programming.

Kris: I’m Kris Meyer. I am senior programs manager with Freshwater and work with Alex, focusing on the community engagement and education aspects of Freshwater’s work. I can say a little bit about what Freshwater is just to help people understand that. Freshwater is a statewide member-supported nonprofit committed to building collaborative partnerships. And these partnerships are aimed at developing leadership on at all levels. For us, particularly community leadership and advancing water research, advocating for sound public policy. And all of these are with the goal of inspiring and empowering people here in Minnesota to value and preserve water. I should say, too, that our organization, being statewide, operates on lands that we acknowledge are the traditional lands of the Ojibway and Dakota people.

Ayana: Great. Well, thank you so much, both for sharing. I’m hearing a lot of that people aspect, both of you spoke just and even briefly to community engagement. And yeah, I know we partnered with you to highlight some of your liter cleanup work which you had shared out, and you’re addressing the addressing litter series that we did. Maybe to start, speaking more broadly, I’m just curious to hear both of your thoughts on what intentional and successful community engagement looks like. What does that mean?

Kris: I think you hit it right on the on the head. As far as people, people are really the heart of what we do while we’re working for healthy water. We can impact the human impacts because that’s who we are. So we we respect water and our responsibility to water. I think that, for me, shared learning and listening and collaboration are the key components. And they were in the project we’re going to discuss. But that’s what we do. When we talk about developing leadership, we like to listen to people, equip them with whatever resources they feel they need for the goals that they like to identify (or maybe sometimes help facilitate identifying some of those goals. That doesn’t always come one before the other) and then then supporting them with practice so that people feel capable to step forward and be leaders. Alex, I’m sure you have more to say on that.

Alex: I think we always try, in anything that we do, to bring people together to the table. Before we get started, we never think of ourselves as the experts. We kind of like to be connectors and conveners and make sure that as many voices as possible are heard. We like the mantra, “Nothing about us without us.” So, if we’re going to be doing anything that affects people’s lives, and the way that they interact with water, we really want to make sure we’re hearing from as many perspectives. First, you know, right out the gate, as we can before we get started on the work itself.

Ayana: Yeah, I really like that. You know making sure you know who you’re talking to, to listen and not just step in with an agenda.

Kris: I was just going to say that we both come from various aspects of an education background, and part of that is understanding that people learn and are drawn to information and in different ways. And so we’re always careful to try and meet people where they are, with what they need as best, or if we don’t have, if we can’t supply that, we can help direct them to where they need to go. So, that’s part of that convener connector aspect of our work that we find enjoyable.

Ayana: I’m really hearing the the breadth of the the work, you know. Obviously, water touches all our lives. I really appreciated the framing of helping people to become leaders in their own communities and regions. Because people who know those have those experiences firsthand are going to be the ones who are best equipped to work with their communities in their regions. But yeah, I would love to hear more about some of that leadership support you’re doing or about the Water Stewards program. And I think, Kris, you were saying earlier that that program has really evolved or has shifted since its inception. I’d just love to hear a bit more about the work that you all do through that and how you support folks to have some of those leadership skills.

Alex: So, the Minnesota Water Stewards program is a high-level education and volunteering program. It’s based on the master naturalist or master gardener type of program where you learn a bunch of information, and then you become a knowledgeable volunteer moving forward. We also include a project where you kind of take everything that you’ve learned and put it into action. Over the years, we’ve gone through lots of iterations, from in-person to partially online, and then the pandemic made it fully online. But folks come together to learn about basic water science, water history, and policy and how it works in our state. They learn about community engagement, that sort of social science side of things as well. We think, as we’ve talked about already, that people are super important to getting any of this work accomplished. They also learn about landscaping for water quality, or what we call ‘rainscaping’. You know, ways to adjust the land around you so that water stays where it falls rather than running off and carrying pollutants into lakes, rivers, and streams. So, yeah, they go through this online curriculum at their own pace, then put that into a capstone project, which historically was, as Kris mentioned, homeowners installing a rain garden on their property. We’ve now moved beyond that, and capstone projects can really look like anything now from those still traditional rain gardens to, you know, pollinator lawns or water efficiency audits, or even more focused on the people side and not just adjusting landscapes, but really doing community campaigns like door knocking to remind people not to rake leaves into the street, as people sometimes do because then, you know, those go into our lakes and rivers and create too much nutrient overload in the water. But yeah, Kris, is that a good summary?

Kris: Yeah, you laid out a great framework there. I just want to expand on that by mentioning when I joined the team, my goal was to craft a curriculum focusing on water efficiency and conservation, intertwining that with our emphasis on the management of outdoor water. We started to explore different water sources we interact with and how we could conserve them—like considering alternatives to using treated water for gardening or other household and outdoor water-saving strategies. Initially, we thought this would be a standalone module in our teaching. However, we quickly recognized its importance as a core element for everyone we engage with. So, we integrated it into the main curriculum and it’s been a key component ever since. But I also want to highlight something crucial we’ve realized along the way. While the model Alex described is what we generally follow in the metro area and some surrounding regions, our understanding of our program has evolved. Especially as we consider the broader scope of our state and look at different populations and communities within urban areas, we see our program fundamentally as a leadership development initiative. This realization means that the program’s format can and should vary depending on the community we’re working with. Initially, as Alex pointed out, we started with in-person classes. But now, as we reach out to other communities, we’re thinking differently, adapting our approach.

Alex: Yeah, just building on that. When considering the role of stewards and their leadership, it’s worth noting that once certified, they have the freedom to pursue a variety of initiatives. One notable example that comes to mind is our recent focus on chloride reduction. Given Minnesota’s snowy climate, there’s a tendency to overuse salt for ice removal, leading to water pollution—just one teaspoon of salt permanently contaminates 5 gallons of water. Our stewards have acted on this issue from many angles. Some have lobbied at the State Capitol to push for legislation reducing legal liability for individuals using salt responsibly. Others have tackled the issue in more creative ways, like one of our “art for water” participants. This initiative aims to broaden the program’s reach and project diversity, engaging new audiences in conversations about water quality and behavior change. For instance, one artist incorporated excess salt into their artwork to raise awareness about over-salting practices. This artist also organized a cleanup event in a heavily salted area, sparking discussions with local businesses about responsible salt use. While the cleanup event was eventually cancelled due to safety concerns, it prompted a productive dialogue between property owners and managers about proper salt application, potentially leading to lasting change. This incident underscores the efficacy of individual actions and the ripple effect they can have, from grassroots efforts to engaging with businesses and influencing legislative initiatives. It’s these interconnected efforts that truly drive meaningful change, demonstrating the leadership and collective impact of our stewards and their involvement in broader environmental initiatives.

Kris: Together, we can be stronger and can make some actual policy change. That checks all our boxes of our roganization for the kind of work we want to understand, the science behind something. We want to be able to share and educate people. We want to be working for smart policy solutions and I want to share one other thing that came to mind – we’ve been having some conversations with stewards that we certified years ago. Who is taking leadership roles in different areas of the city and state and asking hem what motivated them to be part of their steward training and what they’re drawing on in their work? And we’ve been getting wonderful testimonials of people who either came in fairly well qualified to do this work anyway but felt like they didn’t quite know how to tace action, or they didn’t quite know where to connect. Then they received these tools and that practice and community in the program. Other people I’ve talked to say, “Oh, I was trainied a while back but I’m not a steward anymore,” and we talk about how you can never unsee what you’ve learned. Once you start seeing and understanding your impact, you don’t go back. So, you may not be saying, “this is my volunteer moment, and I’m doing this.” This artist, who has been focusing on chlorides, wasn’t going to stop thinking about doing something for water, she just went there and she noticed the salt because she’d been paying attention. She knew the impact, and she knew what to do and and did it. So, we feel like anybody who’s interested in hearing anything about this, and is willing to learn, is going to go out into the world more capable leader for water.

Ayana: Yeah, wow, that’s an amazing story.  And it’s incredible to hear about this program. I think, you know, it’d be amazing if other states and cities had similar initiatives. I want to join! There’s so many things that we’re popping up while you both are speaking that I feel like we could talk about for hours. But for folks who are maybe working on a similar program or hoping to create some sort of leadership support and similar ways, what are some of the the lessons that you’ve learned from doing this program? Or what do you think would be helpful for other folks to know in terms of trying to train and educate and support people to be informed and and take initiative in their communities. What do you think are some of the most important things that other groups or organizations should know that you’ve learned?

Kris: Well, we actually pondered this recently while engaging with another group. We’ve kind of formalized it, although the specifics don’t immediately come to mind. But what stands out for me about this program is its flexibility and adaptability. Initially, we followed a pretty rigid program structure outlined at its inception, mainly focusing on supporting property owners in installing rain gardens. However, we soon realized the broader underlying principles of the program and the importance of adapting to stay relevant. We regularly seek feedback from our partners who sponsor and work with stewards across the metro area, incorporating their insights into program adaptations. We also listen closely to stewards, considering their feedback on program impact and potential barriers, and adjust accordingly. So, flexibility, adaptability, and active listening are key. It’s about starting with a solid foundation but being open to evolving based on feedback and changing needs. I also echo what Alex mentioned about not striving to be experts but rather serving as guides and connectors. It’s about giving ourselves permission not to have all the answers and empowering stewards and leaders to seek out information and connections as needed. Instead of feeling inadequate, they’re equipped to navigate uncertainties and find solutions by leveraging community resources and expertise.

Alex: Yeah, one thing that comes to mind, sort of a piece of advice for anyone considering a similar program, is the importance of funding. As nonprofits, securing funding is crucial, often through grants and other sources. Grantors typically want to see tangible results, quantifiable impacts on the community or the environment. Previously, we focused a lot on metrics like the number of gallons of water infiltrated or pounds of phosphorus captured. However, as our projects diversified, our metrics have shifted to focus more on people—such as the number of individuals engaged and the types of events they attend or create. Recently, we’ve been placing greater emphasis on the power of storytelling as a metric. While numbers can sound impressive, they often lack personal connection. By sharing stories—what went well, what didn’t, and what was learned—we can make a deeper impact on individuals. Stories resonate more deeply with people, finding their way into their hearts and minds in a lasting way. So, moving forward, it’s less about simply reporting numbers and more about sharing meaningful narratives that inspire and connect with others.

Kris: Hmm, yeah, I love that, Alex, that’s great. In addition to collecting and sharing stories, staying flexible, and providing continued support, I think one key aspect is the willingness to invest in relationships. Building and nurturing relationships, both existing and new, has been crucial for us. This investment in relationships isn’t often quantified in grant deliverables, but it’s essential, especially when working with new communities. We’re looking for trusted voices within these communities, individuals who can help us bridge gaps and build trust. Another aspect that we’ve implicitly followed but haven’t explicitly articulated is maintaining a light touch. It’s about not being heavy-handed in our approach. We see ourselves more as facilitators in a hub-and-wheel model, where we connect, synthesize, and support, but the actual action comes from our partners and stewards. We’re constantly amazed by the creativity and innovation within the communities we work with. There’s so much more happening out there than we could ever conceive on our own. Interacting with the leaders we’ve worked with and hearing their stories, seeing their ongoing impact—it’s truly the most rewarding part of our job. The energy and innovation they bring are truly inspiring. So, despite the challenges and roadblocks along the way, it’s all worth it. This work is not just doable but also enjoyable, and there are many other models out there. We’re just one piece of the puzzle in this broader movement.

Ayana: I’m hearing so much expansiveness, you know, both in breaking out of the conceptions of what it means to measure outcomes but then also that expansiveness and really letting people envision and create all of these ideas and initiatives and projects without telling them what to do. I think that’s really beautiful. Maybe this will be our last bigger question that we touch on together. But I’m curious, what do you see on the horizon, both in the short term, and in the long term? What is the future that you dream of as an organization and what does it mean to work towards that?

Kris: It’s about the fundamental idea of people recognizing the importance of water in their lives. It’s about seeing how water flows through our lives, understanding its vital role, and realizing that we all have an impact on water, whether positive or negative. Building a relationship with water is key. This understanding extends beyond Minnesotans to encompass our broader impact in the Great Lakes region and along the Mississippi River. We’re actively involved in initiatives and coalitions at both local and regional levels. One area we’re currently exploring is establishing a regional presence that serves as an active and supportive hub for leaders across various regions of our state. Given our diverse geography and issues, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t suffice. We envision being present in these communities as a convening force, bringing together stakeholders for discussions, resource-sharing, and collaboration. Our goal is to host regional workshops or gatherings focused on water-related issues, providing a platform for all stakeholders to come together, share insights, and collaborate. By establishing ourselves in different regions, we hope to better understand local needs and opportunities for programmatic involvement, while fostering ongoing collaboration and synergy among stakeholders. In essence, our vision involves spreading ourselves out geographically to bring people together, creating a network of collaboration and support that amplifies our collective impact on water issues throughout the state.

Alex: Yeah, I think I share a very similar mindset on this. We often discuss the importance of meeting people where they are and assisting them in advancing their goals. Water is such a fundamental aspect of life for everyone, regardless of political affiliations or backgrounds. Whether it’s connecting with fishermen, farmers, or urban residents enjoying lakes for recreation, water touches us all. Our approach revolves around finding stories and connections that resonate with people and then providing support to help them along. One thing we like to emphasize is that we all essentially live on shoreline property. Even if you’re miles away from a water body, everything eventually flows into our water systems, often without treatment. I personally didn’t fully grasp this concept until I began working here, despite my background in biology. It’s those small realizations that can lead to significant changes in perspective. Once you learn something, you can’t simply ignore it. Our goal is to empower people with knowledge that transforms their understanding and prompts positive action.

Kris: We can understand that and have a voice in that thinking. For instance, alternative fuels and transportation, the water costs to producing ethanol are significant, and the water quality impact is substantial. Ethanol is seen as one of our next steps towards a clean energy environment, and we’re looking at aeronautic fuels and what we could be using for that. There is a really exciting green initiative coming out of our University of Minnesota that’s using alternative perennial crops for some of this work. But that’s a real shift from traditional farming and traditional farming support. So that’s a systems change. You have the same thing if you’re looking at how can we engage renters or people in homeowners associations or people who are living in trailer communities in our area around water-related issues when they don’t feel empowered to have an impact on the cost of their drinking water or on the impact that maybe their water efficiency efforts might have in the larger group of people. And that then goes into some justice issues and housing issues, and the beauty of being Freshwater is that we are a nonprofit totally focused, committed to water, and we don’t have to be siloed like perhaps some of our partners who are in certain governmental agencies or water districts that deal with stormwater runoff. We can kind of go and get involved in a lot of that. So our challenge is to understand all that and then focus our efforts, and then, of course, find people who want to fund us to do that work.

Ayana: Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, thank you so much for sharing. And in our last couple of minutes, if there’s anything you’re really looking forward to like this year, or in the near future. I’d love to hear that, too?

Alex: Yeah, I guess I can jump in there. So our project that actually got us connected with River Network was for installing litter collection device in somewhere in the Mississippi River watershed. I’m in our area and so we did that last summer in one of the lakes in in Minneapolis and South Minneapolis, called Lake Kaiwa, and it was really cool. We had a big community event at the Installation day, and brought together different organizations for some tabling and other. There was a big cleanup and and some just other fun activities that people could do and it was a really really successful event. And then the device itself was in from the summer through the fall. Of course it has to come out for the winters here when the lakes freeze. But and so now we got. We got the report from this those those months of of litter collection and it was really impressive and and eye opening. And we’re learning a lot about what types of trash or coming through.

And then, you know, thinking further upstream, but what we can do to prevent them from getting into the sewer systems. In the first place, And so we now we’re now this this spring summer we’re working on another lake within Minneapolis. This one’s called like the aisles. But so now we’re just in the beginning phases of that pulling people together from the city and the parks and the community to see what we wanna do in this location, and and how we can get everyone again getting everyone involved from the beginning as much as we possibly can. Getting many voices at the table and knowing what the or hearing what the community wants to do. About around this. So yeah, that’s I think that’s that’s what I’m looking forward to.

Kris: Yeah, I think even the broader implications of that, related to our litter capture experiences that we got through the River Networks granting process, is that the tangible nature of litter cleanup continues to be a very real and exciting awareness-building tool. We tend to kind of not recognize that as important as it really has appeared and become to us.

With that in consideration and looking at the community engagement that we’ve been able to spark through the litter capture device projects, we’re looking at some connections with some bigger plastics initiatives. We believe that microplastics are an emerging concern that we’re only now starting to understand the broad human impacts of, and a lot of that is waterborne, directly linked to solid waste and recycling. So that’s moving from the water silo to another silo and working cross sectors, and those sectors haven’t always worked together. So there’s that work where we’re working on in a project right now with the EPA, looking at plastics pollution up and down the Mississippi, and seeing how building a coalition in this area that can address, kind of amplify each other. See what efforts are going forward and amplify those efforts. So, we have some tools that we have in our back pockets that we’ve developed around cleanups. And how can we make those more effective and use those? How can we start bringing this together? Our organization hosted a very scary and very interesting lecture this past year or 2 years ago, this past year on microplastics and the impact of those. So I think, keeping our finger on that pulse and looking to see how all of these pieces will come together. I have no idea right now, but that’s okay because we have to keep listening like we said, and keep meeting with people and building relationships and things like the litter capture device project. It was just kind of like a really amazing opportunity we were having.

We have a relationship with an individual who started picking up litter around Lake Haiwa. As he was walking his dog and was fed up with that, and so started a coalition of friends of Lake Haiwa, and they were agitating for years, for, I got 7 years trying to get the city and the parks and everybody involved in cleanup. And it is a big problem, a big outflow pipe and everything. So they were having trouble. They were irritated and angry. So they told us, oh, we’re going to write this letter, we’d love you to sign on. And we are saying, “Well, we just got this offer for putting a device in.” I mean, we can bring everybody to the table and start talking about that. And they were game. And so this litter capture device actually helped smooth over some very gritty relationships between the city and the parks and the community and give us something to focus on. That wasn’t how come we’re not getting along. And once that started, it started to ripple out in so many areas. And, as Alex said up to, you know that the analysis aspect, the science of analyzing what we’re picking up gives everybody ideas about what we can be doing upstream, and it also now is going over to this next flake and starting to get more community groups working together and the city working and everybody’s focusing in a positive direction instead of fighting each other. We didn’t know going into this if we that would happen or not, and we are really enjoying being the conveners of this optimistic group that’s anxious to look forward into the future. And so we feel really good about that.