Earlier in May, I attended the Healing our Waters (HOW) Coalition’s annual Great Lakes Conference. It was the coalition’s 14th (and my 4th) iteration of this conference, and this year showed a palpable shift in how things are done, who is invited to the podium and what content is highlighted. The conference booklet describes a shift in their priorities:
“Increasingly, the Healing Our Water–Great Lakes Coalition has been working to ensure that ecological restoration of the Great Lakes means that all of the region’s people can have access to affordable, clean, safe drinking water; to eat fish that are safe and not toxic; to live healthy lives that are not undermined by toxic pollutants and legacy contaminants. We know that healthy lakes and healthy lives go hand-in-hand.”
To put action behind this commitment, the coalition formed its Equity Advisory and Action Committee in 2017. The efforts of the committee and the support behind it were visible as Great Lakes advocates gathered for two days of connection, inspiration and collaboration.
A meaningful demonstration of the coalition’s commitment to equity was shown when HOW leaders decided to postpone the conference from its original dates in October due to an active strike by the workers at the hotel where the conference was to be held. In an act of solidarity with the protesting workers, HOW announced it would not be asking conference attendees to cross the picket line and would be postponing the conference to the spring. A representative from the hotel workers union came to the podium during the conference to speak about the impact of this decision and express their appreciation for this support of their efforts for better treatment and higher wages for hotel workers. While I can in no way take credit for deciding to postpone the conference, I felt proud to be part of a coalition that chose to put aside the cost and inconvenience of changing the dates in order to put action behind their stated values.
The conference took place in Detroit, Michigan and I welcomed the opportunity to return to my home state and the city that has experienced so much struggle, injustice, heartbreak, rebirth, and renewal, and has shown the world its strength and resilience.
I had the privilege of participating in a biking tour that showcased parts of the city that I hadn’t seen since my high school senior trip to Detroit, and other parts that I had never seen before – parts that have experienced dramatic changes over time and are now reawakening with vibrancy thanks to the tireless efforts and inspired vision of local leaders and organized residents. Groups like the Eastern Market Corporation are creating a future where Detroit thrives as a regional food hub with urban farms, food processing centers and markets all within one neighborhood. Community members are working together to create a city that is a desirable place to live and work with affordable housing and active transit, thriving local businesses and economic growth that benefits residents and attracts visitors.
Many of the city’s features serve to highlight the beauty of the natural and human environment, such as the riverwalk that provides access to the city’s waterfront and the murals that express the creativity of local artists and power of the community.
When I wasn’t pedaling through city blocks or along the two-mile greenway converted from rail to trail, I was connecting with other Great Lakes advocates from around the region like a young man from Cleveland who’s building robots to solve environmental problems and a woman from Flint who’s working to protect Michigan residents against harmful PFAs in their water. I was soaking in the wisdom of speakers like Mustafa Santiago Ali, Monica Lewis Patrick and Carla Walker who spoke on issues of water affordability, organizing for water liberation and environmental justice, and told stories about what happens when community members take action into their own hands when the government fails them. I was basking in the beauty of Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty’s poetry and songs by Detroit’s own Aretha Franklin. This infusion of art and creativity brought a new energy to the experience that I now firmly believe should be welcomed into every stuffy conference room or sterile hotel ballroom.
The conference’s breakout sessions — while always hard to choose between — provided a deeper dive on some of the issues, systems and projects affecting the Great Lakes region. I expanded my toolbox of actionable strategies for proactive, inclusive community engagement with the Delta Institute, learned how non-profit organizations can thrive by mimicking nature’s structures, and was inspired by stories of Detroit residents creating their own solar-powered light when the streetlights were removed from their neighborhood.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the HOW’s annual Great Lakes Conference, it’s that the reception is not to be missed. This year was no different, with a trip to the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant where original Model T’s from the 1900s are preserved to showcase Detroit’s automotive heritage and spirit of innovation. While we browsed the antique vehicles, we were entertained by live music from members of the Gathering Orchestra, a program of the Carr Center, and snacked on delicious hor d’oeuvres from local caterers. I tried to soak in this experience and push away the “What the heck did I do to deserve this A-list treatment?” thought lurking in the back of my mind. I remembered the words on biomimicry from Gloria Rivera and thought, “does nature deny the beauty of its flowers or refuse the abundance of its harvests because it’s ‘not deserving’?”…and then grabbed another tiny cup of chocolate mousse and enjoyed the music.
The last session I attended on the second day of the conference featured Kimathi Boothe, Environmental and Climate Justice Co-Chair for the Northern Oakland County Branch of the NAACP. He spoke about various water injustices experienced by residents of Oakland County and the ongoing efforts to mobilize, equip and build capacity, resiliency and resistance in frontline communities to create water warriors and achieve water liberation.
As environmentalists, clean water advocates and justice warriors we are up against big challenges, but there is overwhelming power revealed when passionate people come together around a common vision. I left Detroit feeling reaffirmed that a future of clean water, healthy families and empowered communities is already being realized through our efforts. I’m so grateful to be part of this movement, working alongside great hearts and minds for the future of our Great Lakes.