by Simone Lightfoot, Regional Urban Initiative for the National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Region
The majority of my colleagues in the field of conservation and sustainability are white. Many come from a rural background, love nature and share an opened mind.
Most are cool with cultural discussions which lead to a recent conversation about water – culturally speaking.
As an urban youth, it was not uncommon to watch waterways be mistreated for economic gain. Later, we discovered that our Great Lakes were not as resilient as they looked. In fact, they were and remain fragile in nature.
The urban experience in general and the African American experience more specifically, fostered a different affinity for and attraction to water.
We tended to drink it, fish in it, cooked, cleaned and gardened with it, ran through it when the water hose or fire hydrant was on and got baptized in it.
We were not allowed to get our hair wet or simply let water run. But most of all, we steered clear of any large body of it including pools, lakes and rivers.
Whether due to income, fear of drowning, beauty standards or a history of segregated access, water was culturally viewed differently.
In professional settings we discuss water access in reference to proximity or distance to a body of water for residents.
Translation in communities of color – water access includes water infrastructure, quality, affordability and shutoffs.
Barriers may include high water bills, limited income, inefficient water usage and a lack of required verification for service.
According to USA Today, residential water bills in Milwaukee have climbed 56 percent over the past 12 years.
Our discussion then moved to climate change impacts and how crops benefit from a good rain. In the urban Milwaukee experience that translates to high heat indexes induced by large amounts of concrete, flooded basements and intersections, power loss, sink holes and gas leaks.
Not to mention stories about water pressure capable of blowing off manhole covers and a 7.52 inch rainfall in one day on W. Fond Du Lac Ave.
The bottled water phenomenon was brought up and we acknowledged the direct targeting of communities of color by bottled water companies.
In fact, research from the Medical College of Wisconsin found that Latinos and African Americans are more likely to give bottled water to their children and spend up to twice as much of their household income on bottled water as do whites.
Some may go boating and swimming others may remain on shore fishing or sharing a picnic but cultural sensitivity and inquiry can go a long way when addressing our Great Lakes Region waterways, riverfronts and environmental education.
Visit the National Wildlife Federation’ Great Lakes Regional Center at http://www.nwf.org/Regional-Centers/Great-Lakes.aspx .
Simone Lightfoot heads up Regional Urban Initiatives for the National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Region. She integrates the work of the NWF with the municipal urban green efforts. Her territory includes Chicago, IL; Indianapolis and Gary, IN; Milwaukee, WI, Cincinnati, Toledo, Columbus and Cleveland, OH, Detroit, MI and Buffalo, NY. Contact her at 313.585.1052.