The Milwaukee Water Commons

The Milwaukee Water Commons project has been undertaken to surface broader leadership, community partnerships, and momentum for fresh work regarding Milwaukee’s water future. Milwaukee has the ingredients to become a leader in freshwater issues, but it will require a different orientation and pattern of community leadership than is currently at the forefront of the city’s water conversations.

Our inquiry process explored the basis for an alternative focus. Building from a commons perspective, one that seeks solutions of shared benefit, shared responsibility and shared stewardship, we engaged 50 community leaders from a range of sectors (the arts, public health, law, urban agriculture, academia, faith, K-12 education, business, and water professionals) in a set of in-depth interviews and two large group working sessions.

We found that not only were we able to activate a circle of leaders around Milwaukee’s water future but that underlying their interest were some shared and motivating beliefs about water and our responsibility for it that we could work from as foundational orientation. We have drafted a set of common first principles:

1. Water is an essential element for all life on Earth. 2. Water belongs to no one and cannot be owned. 3. We recognize our inheritance of the Great Lakes; they have nurtured our ancestors and shaped us as a people and as a community. They continue to sustain us. 4. We have a responsibility to protect and pass on clean and abundant fresh water to future generations. 5. Decisions about the care and responsibility for our waters must involve all of us.

We have begun working on five interlocking strategies to lift up and live these principles here in Milwaukee:

1. Activating Citizens-We are partnering at seven neighborhood sites strategically chosen to develop local involvement with water issues and stewardship. We are working to expand beyond the familiar circle of water experts and to explore partnerships within the arts, the faith community, public health, recreation and urban farmers to name a few. Our inaugural water leadership training will begin this spring, bringing together residents from our diverse neighborhoods. Each team will then engage in a water related project that will benefit their neighborhood. We will culminate the year with a lakeshore event calling attention to the preciousness of our waters.

2. Fostering Collaboration in the Community-There is a great deal of work happening in Milwaukee. Our goal is to seek out synergies and foster collaboration among and beyond established water groups. Partner organizations will work with neighborhood groups to support their water initiatives and to provide educational, scientific, and artistic support.

3. Leveraging Existing Capacity and Resources for Local Solution Making-One of the most important connections is the interface between the University of Wisconsin’s School of Freshwater Science and the Community. We will explore ways to better leverage and integrate the research expertise and capacity of the school in local policy and community water challenges.

4. Developing a New Public Narrative of Milwaukee as a Water City-The power of narrative to shape the public conversation is increasingly recognized in social change circles. We need a story that puts community and water stewardship at the center of the Milwaukee landscape. We will work across several platforms-social media, websites, the arts, events and two documentary films to tell our story and to document the emergence of new community water leadership.

5. Linking Milwaukee to the Great Lakes Commons and Bio region-The work we are doing in Milwaukee-from organizing citizen leadership to fostering collaboration and defining a new narrative is breaking ground. We stand to gain, to learn, and to share new learning as we progress. Ultimately we need our local water efforts to encourage bold citizen leadership across the bioregion and to grow a network of Great Lakes Commons leaders that can draw strength from working together.

As our friend Ben Yahola (a member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma) sang to us:

“We take care of the water and it takes care of us”