Water Hub Blog

Briefing: Community-led infrastructure in the Great Lakes

A digital poster with a blue background that reads: Virtual Media Briefing, Community-led Infrastructure in the Great Lakes, Grassroots groups tap federal clean water and climate resilience funds. It includes headshots of four people: Yvonka Hall from Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition, Joe Fitzgerald from Milwaukee Water Commons, Tanner Yess from Groundwork Ohio River Valley, and David Ross from Junction Coalition.

Thanks to the tireless advocacy of groups working to elevate water as a political priority, historic water funding is flowing to communities! Just last week, Vice President Harris and EPA Administrator Regan announced $6 billion for clean water projects. With these big sums, it can be tempting to focus solely on the dollar signs.

But the real story isn’t the spending: it’s the outreach, planning, hiring, training, building and planting those funds facilitate. And some of the most exciting work made possible by federal infrastructure dollars is being led by grassroots groups that see water and climate projects as a way to heal long-standing harms and reconnect people to nature.

On February 22, I had the honor of being in conversation with four leaders doing this kind of work, as host of the Water Hub’s virtual media briefing on community-led infrastructure in the Great Lakes. You can watch the recording below, or read the transcript here, and I’ve dropped some of the highlights from our discussion below the video. 

Yvonka Hall, Executive Director of Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition

“And so, now, this is an opportunity for us to have true equity around the allocation of dollars… a first time, ever, opportunity for all of our organizations to apply for dollars and be able to get those dollars to use them to impact the communities that we serve.”

“We can use the work that we do to heal our communities because health doesn’t begin at a hospital. It begins at the community level. We have communities that are literally dying from the things that are going on around them. We understand that lead feeds the maternal and infant mortality rates in all of our communities… When we look at end of life, we see that if you are lead poisoned as a child, as you age, you are more likely to end up with kidney failure, hypertension, and dementia.” 

“I live in an old farmhouse, and I remember one young man sat there, and he closed his eyes, and he kept saying, ‘Is this Cleveland?’ And I didn’t really quite understand what he was asking. And then I said, ‘It’s peaceful here. You know, there’s solitude here, and that’s what our water offers us.’ My grandfather used to fish because it allowed him to be able to close his eyes and just be in heaven right?.. Being able to have these resilience projects will be important for us for years to come.”

Joe Fitzgerald, Policy and Advocacy Manager for Milwaukee Water Commons:

“I’ve seen funding from the federal government through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, through the Inflation Reduction Act, have a real, significant injection into work that’s happening here locally, but really supporting folks who have been doing this work for a long time, folks who have been organizing in their community and calling about the need for action on flooding and and tree canopy and improved air quality.”

“The Kinnickinnic River has about 97% of its watershed covered in impervious surfaces, and when it rains, it’s a flash flood almost every time. So it’s dangerous for folks to go down by that river. So, for us, it’s been a conversation then, too, about what it looks like for us to invest in restoring that waterway, not just for the ecological benefits, but to repair folks’ relationship with water.”

“There’s a major disparity in Milwaukee of who has access to employment. And so we also need in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, we have to be able to see that this is also an investment in living wage employment for communities of color, for women who have been mostly marginalized from the water sector.”

Tanner Yess, Co-Founder of Groundwork Ohio River Valley:

“This connection to nature, whether it’s through genocide, slavery, immigration, co-opted messaging, whatever has been taken from so many of us, particularly folks of color, low income folks. And this generational, this crisis opportunity that we have to reconnect through things like jobs, it’s incredible… The goal is to keep health and wealth in our communities.”

“We employ over 150 youth per year. They’re like a small green army that go around the city making it more resilient and green. And they do this off of what residents in our frontline communities have identified as potential programs, problems or projects.”

“Mind, body, soul, land is one of the ways that we reverse the historic wrongs from the prejudice and racism of the past. And say, here’s some economic opportunity, but you’re also healing the land while also healing your community and your neighborhoods at the same time. So again, that includes lead pipes, that includes vacant lots, and transforming them into community identified places that can help retain or detain water that can provide tree canopy.”

David Ross, Vice President of the Board of Directors for Junction Coalition:

“So a lot of the people in community that we address said, ‘I don’t have the luxury of thinking about water, thinking about environment,’ not knowing that that is one of the essential things to life and us having to teach them about lead, and how contaminants affect their youth, in their families, in their homes, and some of the effects are irreversible.”

“One of the things we did, where we asked youth their history, their history of violence, and the things that they have witnessed, and some of them, when they admitted their behaviors, we looked at the area codes that they lived in, and it directly tied to high concentrated areas of lead.”

“We just arm them [youth] with the tools and information for them to say, ‘I want to be a change agent… You may say we need more sports, and we need more basketball here at this park, but we also need clean water at this lake. And you fight, and then you fight, and then you fight, and then you get results, and maybe your children’s children, or you may see the benefits of it.”

The Water Hub