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To achieve racial equity in the water sector, the work of CREWS is more important than ever


Environment Senior Program Officer Jalonne L. White-Newsome delivered the following comments at the CREWS 2020 virtual convening “Changing Climate, Changing the Tide: Racial Equity, Resilience & Revitalization,” held Nov. 12 and Nov. 19, 2020.

Good afternoon. Thank you all for joining us during the CREWS (Climate Resilient and Equitable Water Systems) 2020 virtual convening.  It is so essential that we continue to dream about how we can come together, with a shared vision, melding our individual gifts, talents, and service to heal our respective communities and ultimately, this nation we live in.

I am calling from my home in southeastern Michigan, the original lands of the Mississauga and the Potawatomi, the world before extraction, genocide, enslavement and wastefulness of our natural resources. It’s important that any conversation we begin start with that acknowledgement – something we have done since the 1st CREWS Convening in Detroit, Michigan in 2017. Elder Mona Stonefish and Mamma Lilla Cabbil started us on our journey, reminding us that what we need we already have in this room, and we must get ready for our equity journey.

I want to make the space for each of you to add your name, the original lands you are calling from, and an ancestor that is no longer with us. We can never forget those who came before us, but we must also harness the power of their legacy to move us forward. I’ll start by adding my information as a model.

When I started at Kresge in early 2016, the vision of the CREWS initiative was not fully crystallized. I remember speaking with some of you, garnering your advice, learning about your work and what was needed at this intersection of climate change, water and equity – particularly urban flooding. And many of you agreed this sector had not been defined, documented, or a part of any distinct strategy by any foundation.

With the water crisis, the continuous flooding, the multiple challenges utilities were facing from costs to lack of trusts, and the solutions to flooding that needed a little ‘push,’ there was definitely a need for the CREWS Initiative to begin to transform water systems, change hearts and minds, and realize the collective strength of individual visions, actions and how we can actually do more together.

I’ve witnessed the magic that has happened across this Initiative – the partnerships, the light-bulb moments, the teaching moments, the hard conversations, the acts of forgiveness, and the spirit of working together. I’m so thankful and proud that each of you and your organizations have in some way embodied the mission and vision of CREWS. You have all pushed yourselves, your organizations, and your board members to understand that ‘water work’ without ‘equity’ – and considering our ‘climate’– won’t work for anyone, particularly the people and communities we are trying to save from the damaging effects of climate-driven flooding.

I want to thank you all for what you do, in the 33 organizations you hail from and hundreds of communities you influence and touch in some way.

Your influence and your stories of growth, humility, racial awareness, and learning are still needed today. I don’t know about you all, but 2020 has been not just an ‘emotional roller coaster’ but ‘an emotional amusement park’ where we literally get off one ride and jump on another! The vision for this country over the past four years – in my humble opinion – has been a little blurry; scary because you can’t quite focus on what’s in front of you; worried about what’s in your rear view mirror; and just the wrong ‘prescription’ for our country. As someone who has worn glasses my entire life, having the wrong prescription can make you dizzy, tired, unable to do the work you are set out to do, and miss the beauty sometimes that’s right in front of you.

But, I think I can see a little clearer now…

With the anticipation of new leadership in the highest offices in this land – who has explicitly named COVID, climate change, racial equity, and economic recovery as key priorities – the work of CREWS is more important than ever. For the past four years, we have had the opportunity to meet in person to learn, share, dance, cry, serve, and challenge together. And while the grant dollars are important, I truly believe the investment in relationships has and will continue to be priceless.  So, I offer my appreciation for the work each of you has shepherded to realize the vision of CREWS, that wasn’t quite crystalized in early 2016, but has definitely passed the vision test of 2020.

Our prescription for moving forward together requires we imagine what’s possible, that we dream together. And I’m glad we have some folks in the virtual room that are going to share their reflections, visions and wisdom, and some personal stories on equity, justice, and the environment to help us begin to dream for 2021.

I am humbled and pleased to welcome three beautiful people to the virtual stage: the amazing Ms. Angela Glover Blackwell, the Founder in Residence at PolicyLink; the Heroic Hilton Kelly of Community In-Power and Development Association, and the peaceful but passionate Dr. Pam Oatis of Mercy Health, that will kick off this dialogue.

Thank you all so much.