Building authentic relationships across diverse communities in the fight to protect Great Lakes Waters
(Sandusky, Ohio) The 12th annual Great Lakes Restoration conference kicked off this morning with a moving keynote address by Frank Ettawageshik, Executive Director, United Tribes of Michigan, and a citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. Mr. Ettawageshik introduced himself in a traditional native American manner: naming the place of his origin, and the people he was descendent from first. As a frame for his address he posed a simple, yet powerful question to the attendees “When will we be able to drink the water in our rivers and lakes?”
He made a comparison of our current relationship with water to our relationship with timber a century ago- citing the way in which White Pine was once considered a “limitless resource” in the Midwest- but was wiped out in the course of two generations. “I maintain that the White Pine of our century is water”. Mr. Ettawageshik spoke about how, traditionally, native peoples are taught to find balance in all aspects of life. He posited that the treatment of our natural world as a commodity throws life out of balance. “The gifts of clean water, clean air, clean children… belong to everyone. We must reclaim them. We must become uncomfortable with what we have done to them.” He added “This world… is not ours. We are borrowing it from our grandchildren and the other life forms on earth.” He closed by singing a ceremonial native American song, the words of which mean “Water, we love you, we thank you.” You can view the speech in its entirety by clicking here.
The plenary session that immediately followed was led by Simone Lightfoot, National Director of Urban Initiatives, National Wildlife Federation. It was titled Best Practices: An Urban View on Navigating Urban Centers
Ms. Lightfoot immediately set an open, frank tone for the panel, stating that she loved speaking about race. She joked, “As an African American its hard to be seen as an expert at anything, even being black.” And that she was excited to have a conversation about water issues through a distinctly urban lens with an all African American panel: Carla Walker, CEO & Founder, think BIG strategies, LLC, Mike Harris, The Flint Development Group, Ernest Coverson, Regional Director, Amnesty International, E. Michelle Mickens, CEO, Live 4 Change, LLC, Todd Adams, Chief of Sustainability and Innovation, Visibility Marketing, Inc.
Ms. Lightfoot opened the panel by asking panelists to speak from the lens of their specialty to the question: “How do we talk about the issues that we deal with in Great Lakes region in a way that folk in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Milwaukee, Gary, Detroit… understand and get?”
The conversation that followed put an emphasis on establishing trust, and the need to have representatives in urban centers who could listen to the unique needs of the community, and adapt to those needs. Carla Walker, CEO & Founder, think BIG strategies, LLC offered “You want to try to meet people where they are… you have to understand terminology and language and interpretation of what your saying … may have to be altered and changed … not to be condescending… but to be altered … for a person from a different background.” She added “The way that you feel about water is the way that they feel about water… they just might have a very different way of experiencing that.”
Ms. Lightfoot continued to guide the conversation along these lines, utilizing the expertise of each panelist to deepen the discussion and discuss how to build “authentic relationships” across diverse communities in the effort to improve the quality of life for all people. The result was an engagingly open, frank and in depth exploration of an urgently important, but seldom discussed issue. To watch the entire panel, click here.
A number of informative, rich break out panels took place in the early afternoon before the conference attendees took part in experiential “field trips” around Sandusky. Those panels included Better Restoration Through Tribal Involvement: a conversation about working closely with tribes on restoration projects in the Great Lakes Region, Farmers Stepping Up for Lake Erie: a discussion about how farmers work to mitigate run off and use conservation programs to reach stewardship goals and St. Clair River Habitat Restoration Sites: a panel on the massive, 5 year, collaborative effort spanning from Port Huron, Mich., to the St. Clair delta.
We’ll be at it again early tomorrow morning taking part in the conference programming and posting updates on our Twitter and Facebook pages. Check back here for a round up of tomorrow’s conference experience.