A Journey of equity and diversity with the Healing Our Waters Coalition

Living in Cincinnati, I didn’t really feel connected to the Great Lakes. Distance makes that a challenge being on the other side of the state. Besides, we have the Ohio River. Granted, not the same but generally, that was my introduction to a major waterway. Lucky for me, my introduction to the Great Lakes came from working with the Healing Our Waters Coalition.

Since 2004, the coalition has been the leading voice for protection and restoration of the Great Lakes.  During their 2016 Great Lakes Restoration Conference, I was a panel participant on their first ever session showcasing the work of organizations focused on issues and challenges faced by those who are marginalized and communities of color. Little did I know, that presentation would lead to steering the coalition on a journey to develop the lens through which they integrate diversity and equity into their work.

Prior to the 2016 conference, the coalition spent several months assessing operations, policies, and practices with the board, staff, member organizations and other stakeholders. The result was a series of recommendations and necessary actions to address the inequities discovered. One recommendation was to adopt a statement on equity to help drive their work. In part it reads:

“The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition wants to play our part in ensuring that federal Great Lakes restoration investments benefit all of the people and communities in the region—particularly those who have borne the brunt of racial, environmental and economic injustice. Equity means we will strive to intentionally include those who have been historically excluded—specifically people of color and people from impoverished backgrounds—and work to break down barriers to their inclusion within the Great Lakes community.”

In order to carry out that commitment, coalition leadership organized a committee of local leaders working on water equity across the eight-state basin to help create strategies and provide guidance on policies, events, and operations. It would be the first time the coalition would form a standing committee, outside of their governance board, to provide feedback on their operations.  I had the privilege of serving as the committee coordinator since its formation.

The first few months we met were dedicated to organizing ourselves and preparing for the Great Lakes Restoration Conference. Importantly, the coalition gave the committee the time and space to determine its own name and direction rather than dictating parameters the group. This helped establish inclusion from the beginning. We settled on the Equity Advisory and Action Committee (EAAC) because we wanted our role to be more than pushing forward new rounds of recommendations. We wanted to be a part of the change that we were recommending, making ‘action’ a critical component of our name. We also crafted a Committee Charter and set a path for activities for the next year including Great Lakes Days on Capitol Hill, the annual conference, and a series of outreach meetings.

During our first full year, I became more involved with the internal operations of the coalition, participated on staff calls, weighed in on event coordination, added the perspective of the committee to decisions being made, and presented regular EAAC updates at board meetings. Committee members provided input on several initiatives including revising application documents for the annual conference. Committee members also helped promote the call for applications by sharing the opportunity with their professional networks. The engagement of the committee resulted in more than a 25% increase in applications than the previous year.

Most importantly, the committee took an active role in developing the coalition’s three-year strategic plan. We provided input at every level and held several strategic sessions ourselves to assess which elements of the plan we could own. As a result of this work, the strategic plan included equity and inclusion as one of the five core themes and a focus of two of the four strategic priorities. It is a plan that intentionally includes diversity  – a key component of the coalition’s equity statement above.

We are just beginning to implement the first year of the 2019-2021 plan and are already seeing progress. EAAC members are involved in the policy committee, organizing a Capitol Hill event with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, determining strategies for building a diverse coalition membership, and informing the coalition’s activities during major water events.  Over the next three months, we will examine how to work more closely with water advocacy groups in key Great Lake urban areas and explore creating resources for members to help them begin exploring equity within their organizations.

This has been and continues to be a journey for the coalition. I’m proud of what we have been able to accomplish in such a short time. It has also been a journey for me. While I still live in Cincinnati, I no longer feel a distance between myself and the Great Lakes.

Carla Walker, think BIG strategies

Carla Walker is a strategist, urbanist, political advisor, eco-advocate and global citizen. As the President/owner of tink BIG strategies, a strategic planning, and strategic communications consultancy, she works with organization visionaries to develop game-changing initiatives. Her clients include Healing Our Waters, the ONE Campaign, Green Umbrella, and IPREX Global Communications.

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