A Deep Dive in the Deep South: The Water Equity Network's Southeast Regional Cohort Meets in New Orleans
From the release of An Equitable Water Future and the launch of our seven-city Water Equity Taskforce in 2017 to the inception of the Water Equity Network in 2020, the Alliance and our members understand that equity is a major concern for water utilities and the communities they serve. Our Water Equity Network now supports over 40 communities across the country committed to building cross-sector partnerships to forge progress on the three pillars of water equity: ensuring all people have access to clean, safe, and affordable water service; maximizing the community and economic benefits of water infrastructure investment; and fostering community resilience in the face of a changing climate.
As the Water Equity Network grows, we are excited to create new opportunities to celebrate best practices and collectively advance water equity. Geography often dictates culture, history, climate, and water stress, so the Alliance has formed Regional Water Equity Network Cohorts to influence and support equitable One Water policies and practices at larger watershed, state, and regional scales. In the spring and summer of 2023, our growing Regional Cohorts are meeting to build relationships, explore shared challenges and priorities, and foster community.
Introduction to the Southeast Regional Cohort
Our 2023 convenings kicked off in March with the first-ever meeting of our Southeast Regional Cohort in New Orleans, Louisiana—an exceptionally resilient city with a history and future heavily shaped by water. With our partners from Kellogg Foundation, Total Community Action, the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, and our HBCU partner, Dillard University, we were thrilled to host almost 50 representatives from six cities: Atlanta, Kansas City, Jackson, Louisville, Little Rock, and New Orleans. Together, we shared our water equity journeys, discussed key challenges and hopes for the future, and most importantly, explored pathways to collectively advance an equitable water future.
The Southeastern United States faces an array of water equity hurdles: climate change impacts and increased instances of extreme weather, aging infrastructure, and a history of racial injustice. The region also has an abundance of powerful water stories and strong community voices dedicated to centering the needs of those most heavily impacted by water inequities—Black, Indigenous, and Communities of Color, as well as low-income communities—to achieve a sustainable water future.
Using Arts and Culture to Understand and Acknowledge History
Based on the urgent, multifaceted challenges the water sector is facing, the Alliance has found arts and culture to be powerful tools for allowing water leaders to re-center in the purpose of their work, re-imagine traditional approaches to water planning and management, and connect with communities in new ways. In recognition that relationships are infrastructure, one of the main objectives of the convening was to start to build the foundation of trust and mutual respect among our participants that is crucial for regional collaboration.
On the first day of the convening, US Water Alliance Senior Fellow Benny Starr and Arts and Culture Program Manager Erica Rawles led participants through journey-mapping and crate-digging exercises to examine the individual purpose and historical context of their work. We asked participants to reflect on their personal water stories, describing what experiences shaped their relationship to water, what pivotal moments, decisions, or events impacted their connection to water, and times they witnessed or experienced water inequity. Everyone was invited to map out their own water story through wordless drawing, allowing participants to reflect in a different way than they might through writing or speaking. Some participants drew a series of horizontal chronological events, others represented their story through a cyclical shape, and some used particular colors to designate specific meanings. When participants shared their water story maps with the small groups at their table, they learned about the unique meaning and value of water for each of their colleagues and the reasons and purpose with which they approach their work. Here is what we heard:
- Our personal stories directly impact the direction of our professional journeys. Growing up in proximity to bodies of water or experiencing water-related disasters helped lead us to the work we do today.
- There is duality in water. It can cause harm or be weaponized, but it also brings life, joy, and healing.
There is also a duality of lived experiences in many major cities. Some people experience access to clean and safe drinking water, natural resources for recreation, and high-functioning infrastructure, while other people, most often Black and/or lower-income, often experience inequitable water services and chronic underinvestment in water infrastructure, operations, and maintenance.
Drawing on the practices of musicians who build on and innovate the sounds and techniques of musical artists before them, Benny Starr then passed out record albums and prompted participants to notice the historical context of each record by carefully observing the album artwork and notes. In this round of the crate-digging exercise, participants applied this practice to engage with the historical and social context that influences water equity in their cities and used radical imagination to envision the future of their work. Participants were invited to consider themes like flooding/drought, affordability, community organizing, displacement, segregation, and more, as well as how these topics have played a role in their city. Questions like, “How do we honor the histories and lived experiences that we uncovered through crate digging?” and “How do these past histories help inform our imagination and innovations for advancing water equity?” prompted rich discussions. Optimistic but practical ideas for making the field more equitable emerged. Suggestions included:
- Engaging youth to help change narratives around the importance of water and proper waste management—seeing youth not only as our future leaders but also as today’s leaders.
- Building coalitions and participating in true power-sharing between organizations and communities to provide access to resources and information (instead of operating within monopolies and silos).
- Providing sufficient funding investments in aging infrastructure to help utilities become more proactive than reactive.
- Creating community “water centers” that serve as water education and learning centers, information and resource centers, and communal gathering spots—one public center that touches all aspects of water service and engagement.
Fostering An Equitable Water Future: One Water, One Region
Another main goal of the convening was to provide a space for City Learning Teams to share priorities for their water equity work and begin to identify opportunities for regional collaboration. Priorities that emerged included affordability, workforce development, and finding opportunities to collect climate data and invest in climate-resilient infrastructure. Cohort participants also agreed about the necessity for increased coordination and collaboration on water equity issues at all levels and between utilities and communities. We look forward to supporting emerging regional and community focus areas.
The end of the first day of the convening brought an additional playful and creative opportunity at Music Box Village, an outdoor venue in New Orleans with installations of unique musical instruments for visitors to play. In groups, convening participants used the instruments to co-create an ode to water. It turns out that not only are seemingly all the Southeast Regional Cohort members musicians, but also that the collaboration fostered throughout the convening translated beautifully into musical composition.
The excitement to be in-person with such a diverse and energetic group of water equity leaders was palpable, and the opportunities for peer-to-peer learning and exchange were abundant. Thank you to everyone who participated in the convening for bringing the sincerity and honesty that made it a success!