Why Do We Need Water Equity? – Nicole Silk’s Opening Remarks – River Rally 2016

[ADAPTED FROM SPEECH DELIVERED 5/20/16, WELCOMING RIVER RALLY PARTICIPANTS IN MOBILE, ALABAMA]

On behalf of my staff and our board, it is my honor and my privilege to welcome you here to Mobile, Alabama for River Rally 2016.  Our program is packed with great content to help you in your day-to-day work, provide you with opportunities to build your personal network, and of course, have some fun.

This year’s program also intentionally introduces you to a journey on diversity, equity, and inclusion as it relates to our rivers and the waters that run through them.

Really, this is the perfect spot for this exploration, here in Alabama, the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement and home to globally significant freshwater biodiversity.

In fact, we intentionally brought Rally here to this intersection, to build upon this history, to ask ourselves whether the status quo is enough, and to prompt us to think forward.

Really significant challenges exist in this region, and of course in your backyards across the United States to building an inclusive society that is also about sustaining the ecologically health of our rivers. Truly, there is no better group of people than the ones standing here today to tackle these challenges.

My personal story that connects me to this region and to Alabama is not about growing up here or even to my personal relationship to rivers as a young child. That came later. I didn’t grow up fishing with my dad or going on family river trips. Don’t get me wrong, I loved nature like all kids do from an early age, but I just didn’t have the opportunity to fall in love with a river when I was little. But I do have a connection to this region and its history.

I grew up in a town a bit over 2,000 miles west of here – Berkeley, California. When I was growing up, rather than rivers, the Civil Rights Era played a pivotal role in my experience and ultimately my identity.

When I entered the public school system in the late 1960s, Berkeley and Oakland had become hot beds of civic engagement and social justice. The Black Panther Party and the “Black Power Movement” were part of my experience, and both have roods to Alabama and this region. My experience also included tear gas, massive student demonstrations, and lots of opinionated intellectuals. You could say it was a rather unique place to grow up.

Back then, my community was in the throes of implementing their plan for desegregating schools in the wake of the groundbreaking Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. And like most school districts, their plan was to move kids to schools outside of their neighborhoods, forcing racial, ethnic, and economic integration. And because our community was really diverse, with whites in a slight minority, they had a lot of bussing to figure out. Their plan didn’t end there though. . .

The district was really intentional about our journey as students:  We had classes in black history, African art, the slave trade, and the Civil Rights Movement. We sang “We Shall Overcome” at our school-wide assemblies. Our junior high school was renamed in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And we had “dialogue” sessions where we’d sit in circles, facilitated by teachers and sometimes sociologists, and explore racial and ethnic identity with our classmates, including the hard stuff about privilege. Anger about oppression was an accepted and encouraged part of that process.

This was not some nine-month campaign – it went on for years. When my class graduated from high school, we figured we were entering an open, inclusive, and diverse world. It didn’t take too long to realize that this wasn’t the case.

Given that backstory, you probably aren’t surprised to hear that I was looking for the same ethos when I entered the field of conservation in the late 1980s. I soon discovered that it was a pretty white world. I’m sure I am not telling you anything you don’t already know. that lack of diversity continues today.

Let’s turn to our slide of that pie. According to River Network’s just released 2016 Trends Report, over 85% of river and watershed organizations are 25% or less racially and ethnically diverse.

What does this mean? It means that this nation’s river and watershed conservation community does not yet reflect the society we are part of. Does it matter? I think it does. To remain socially relevant, we need to diversify our organizations.

But if we are also interested in equity, we’ve really got to do more. To achieve equity, we also need to transform our relationship to rivers and water. What will this transformation require? It will require that we bring people together to solve water problems, including people who have a different relationship to water and our rivers then you or I do. It will require that we learn how to communicate effectively across the differences that divide and define us.  And it will require that we empower our communities for effective civic engagement on water.

By people I mean not just the people in this room, but also farmers and fisherman, irrigators and utilities, and the people who live in neighborhoods affected by flooding and drinking water contamination. By people, I mean everyone, because everyone is affected by water.

You might ask, “do we really need this transformation?”. My answer is unequivocal: Absolutely. It is the only choice if we want a future with thriving communities and healthy rivers. It is the only choice if we are going to move beyond the language of catastrophe and crisis dominating our social discourse regarding water. And it is the only choice if we want a future where people here in Alabama and in every other state have the opportunity like each of us has had to build a personal relationship with our rivers.

Just 36% of respondents for this year’s trends survey believe that conditions are improving for our rivers and other waters that sustain all life. We can do better.  In fact, we must do better.

At River Rally, we hope that you will find lots of ways to get energized and inspired, taking home new memories, new friends, and new knowledge. We also home that you will join our journey to imagine what our organizations should look and feel like 25 years from now. Will equity will be a central tenet of what we do and how we work to care for our rivers? How will our definition of success be different than it is today?

We have a long way to go to transform our relationship to rivers and water. But like all journeys, it begins with taking that first step, or that first stroke with your paddle or oar.