Why This Project?

Growing up, I was completely unaware that water was a social issue in African-American communities. Because I never struggled with access to water, I assumed that neither did anyone else. I was familiar with what happened in Flint, but I thought it was an isolated incident. It wasn’t until taking this class that I realized what a pressing issue water is. This project was made with people like me in mind. It is intended to get people to think about what water means to them and to others, and to look at where those perspectives both converge and diverge. Showcasing the viewpoints of others is one of the key points of emphasis of this project, as just knowing that there are water crises is not enough. 

A common problem that activist efforts face is that they are spearheaded by individuals outside of the affected community, and these leaders, though meaning well, focus on what they think the community needs instead of what it actually needs. Any solution that does not take into account the needs of all it intends to serve, especially the marginalized among them, is bound to fail. For instance, a solution that implements backups and quarterly inspections to ensure the integrity of water systems would be counterproductive if doing so caused a spike in water prices that made it unaffordable to lower-income residents. In solving one problem, another is worsened. Even worse, poorly considered activist projects can often sour communities to the prospect and lead to skepticism regarding future, potentially more effective, efforts. A better solution might include financial assistance or even incentives (such as tax breaks or increased federal funding) to ensure that the cost of upkeep doesn’t get pushed onto the consumer. Another idea would be to include a council of community leaders that have some authority to raise grievances and lobby for change to ensure the community’s voices are heard regarding future water issues. Both of these, while not perfect, take into greater consideration the actual needs and voices of those the solution is supposed to help. 

The Indianapolis-based Reconnecting to Our Waterways (ROW) is a good example of an effort that prioritizes community involvement. ROW is an initiative that works “to improve the quality of life and ecology along Indianapolis waterways and surrounding neighborhoods” (“Reconnecting to Our Waterways”). Community engagement is an integral part of ROW’s work, as its model is built around the community and collective impact. LaShawnda Crowe Storm, a member of ROW’s Steering Committee, visited our class and spoke about the effort they put into making sure that they meet with the community and hear their voices. She mentioned a particular instance in which they moved meeting times and allowed parents to bring their children to make sure that as many people could attend as possible. On top of this, ROW makes it a point to evaluate its own structure and operation to ensure equity and inclusion. Because of this, they have been very effective, putting together 210 environmental projects and 195 educational events since 2012 and creating 22 miles of trails along the way (“Reconnecting to Our Waterways”). The effort ROW puts into encouraging engagement from the communities it serves is something that all similar organizations should seek to emulate.

My hope is that this project plants the seed of consideration in peoples’ minds by, from their first exposure to water as a social issue, emphasizing that listening to the experiences of those affected by these crises is inseparable from actually learning about and addressing them. Obviously, this project does not delve deeply into the personal experiences of people who have faced water struggles (at least not the interactive part of it), but it is intended to ensure that the audience remains mindful of them.