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CREWS leaders working at the intersection of water, climate, equity deepen partnership to combat urban flooding


More than 70 water equity leaders representing 34 organizations across the country gathered in Tucson, Arizona, in November to discuss solutions to urban flooding. As grantee partners of the Climate Resilient and Equitable Water Systems (CREWS) initiative, these organizations came together to attend the fifth annual Kresge CREWS convening held Nov. 12-14 in concert with the US Water Alliance One Water Summit Nov. 14-16.

Led by Environment Program Officer Yeou-Rong Jih, the CREWS initiative helps cities implement climate-resilient approaches to urban stormwater and wastewater management that are grounded in the needs, priorities and knowledge of low-wealth communities and communities of color.

Objectives from the CREWS convening included:

  • Gathering diverse water leaders together to increase connections within CREWS and across the climate-water-equity field.
  • Holding space for grantee partners to explore strategy and collaboration.
  • Creating opportunities for shared learning about each organization’s work, skills and resources.
  • Celebrating progress made and strategizing about the water equity work ahead.

Speakers included:

  • Bina M. Patel, Saathi’s founder and CEO, speaker, author, anti-oppression coach & facilitator
  • Melissa Mundt, Pima County Natural Resources Environmental Educator
  • Irene Ogata, City of Tucson urban landscape manager
  • Benny Starr, US Water Alliance Arts & Culture senior fellow, Hip-Hop artist and filmmaker
Kresge Environment Program Officer Yeou-Rong Jih and Donna Stephens, an Atlanta native who co-chairs the Proctor Creek Stewardship Council, stand next to a sign that reads Welcome CREWS | Climate Resilient and Equitable Water Systems Initiative Grantee Convening. A blue banner above them says: Welcome to One Water Summit 2023 US Water ALllance | ONE: One water. One Future.
Kresge Environment Program Officer Yeou-Rong Jih (left) joins Donna Stephens, an Atlanta native who co-chairs the Proctor Creek Stewardship Council, in welcoming grantees to the 5th annual CREWS convening.

During the convening, CREWS grantee partners discussed strategies to address urban flooding and develop process changes around infrastructure development.

“We all know that low-wealth communities and communities of color across the U.S. are disproportionately vulnerable to urban flooding and extreme rainfall that is continuously and increasingly exacerbated by climate change,” said Jih during the event. “This inequity is due to a complex combination of institutions, policies, and investments that have historically marginalized these communities, and puts them at continued risk of bearing the adverse impacts of climate change.”

“The good news is our CREWS partners are helping cities to develop urban stormwater and wastewater systems that are resilient to climate change and provide equitable services to communities,” Jih added.

“These 34 organizations all have success stories with identifying methods to manage water in a way that keeps people safe, healthy, and economically unburdened.”

View the full list of CREWS partners.

Hip-Hop artist and filmmaker Benny Starr in a black God Is Good hat and blue shirt with the word Prevail on it, stand behind a lectern with a CREWS Climate Resilient and Equitable Water Systems sign on it and a CREWS illustration behind him.
Benny Starr, Hip-Hop artist and filmmaker, serves as a senior fellow of Arts & Culture with the US Water Alliance.

Through a visioning exercise, Starr invited CREWS partners to imagine the world they want to inhabit by sharing deeply personal stories of what they witnessed with climate change and environmental justice, and how they will use that experience to carry the work forward in partnership with others in the room.

“As we do this work, we must remember who we are, how we’re inspired, and that we must do it together with others to succeed,” Starr said. “It takes elasticity of spirit and creativity in how you build relationships with others. Always remember relationships are infrastructure, too.”

During her keynote address, Patel charged the group to see themselves as changemakers as she referenced excerpts from her book, Say the Quiet Part Out Loud.

A group of five people attending the Kresge CREWS initiative convening stand together with one holding a child in front of an illustration.
Saathi Founder and CEO Bina Patel (center, black shirt) stands with CREWS initiative grantees following her keynote address.

“In building on the idea of what’s possible and envisioning a better future, changemakers start with what is necessary – not with what is allowed,” Patel said. “By shifting things that are right in front of us, we can create transformative outcomes. We understand constraints are changeable. Someone made them up, wrote them down, and said, ‘do it this way.’ But this group is doing things differently. You understand it is ‘un-designable’ because it has been handed down to us.”

“As changemakers, we work toward progress, not comfort,” she added. “Our job is to acknowledge the limitations, work through them, and carry on because it is not just our liberation that we’re working for – it’s liberation for future generations.”

Following the convening, several partners shared reflections and feedback. Here is one personal testimony:

“I just wanted to express my sincere gratitude for the warm and inclusive space you and your team cultivated during our time there. The sense of community I felt was unexpected but really appreciated. Unlike other convenings I’ve attended, where interactions felt transactional and lacked a genuine focus on building connections, this experience was a breath of fresh air. I not only learned a great deal but also had the pleasure of meeting remarkable humans. As a brown Indigenous woman, artist and activist, feeling heard and valued meant a lot to me. Thank you for the incredible work you and your team are doing. Your efforts are truly making a great impact. I returned home with a renewed sense of energy and optimism, hopeful that we (together) are indeed making transformative changes and weaving a constellation of change makers. You and your team are a great source of inspiration for me.”

To learn more, view the CREWS Initiative or visit the CREWS 2023 Convening site.

Illustration credit: Brandon Black, Drawnversation