Episode 2: Emily Simonson | One Water and a Wind of Change
US Water Alliance’s Emily Simonson, director of strategic initiatives, discusses efforts to address inequities in water access, connect various stakeholders to “One Water,” and build a sustainable water future – and she cites sources of inspiration, such as sacred Indigenous water traditions and the Flint community’s work to transform devastating contamination through residential water testing initiatives.
[00:00:00] Emily: Stories play a huge role in accountability. But I think more than that, it’s about the connections that are made and the eyes on the issues that are made through the process of actively communicating and through the process of putting people in connection with one another. That’s the way that we hold people accountable.
This is water’s moment. We better not let it pass us by.
[00:00:29] Amy: From the Great Lakes Protection Fund, you’re listening to Great Lakes Great Stories, a six-part daily series celebrating the journalistic leaders of the Great Lakes region. I’m Amy Elledge.
[00:00:40] Steve: I’m Steve Cole. The outstanding storytellers featured on this podcast discuss their insight, influences, and inspirations for telling compelling and impactful stories about the Great Lakes—stories that earned each of them a Great Lakes Protection Fund 2020 Leadership Award for Communications Excellence.
[00:00:57] Amy: And we’ll hear about the challenges they see on the horizon for the Great Lakes region.
Today on the show we have Emily Simonson, director of strategic initiatives for the US Water Alliance. Last year, the Alliance received a Great Lakes Leadership Award for promoting innovation and leadership in freshwater issues. Their work consistently shines a light on critical topics that affect communities in the Great Lakes and across the country, including the value of water, water equity, and the need for infrastructure investment. Emily’s joining us today to talk a little more about how they tell stories about freshwater issues and solutions.
Hi, I’m Emily. Thanks for joining us.
[00:01:35] Emily: Hi, Amy. Great to be here.
[00:01:37] Steve: Emily congrats on the 2020 Leadership Award. We were really pleased to be able to recognize the US Water Alliance for communications excellence. Some of our listeners may not be familiar with your organization. Can you tell us a little bit about its history, the organization’s mission, and who the members are?
[00:01:52] Emily: I’m happy to. The US Water Alliance was formed in 2008. And at the time, there were all of these different silos in the water sector. You had the wastewater folks only talking to the wastewater folks. The drinking water folks pretty much kept to themselves. Stormwater wasn’t really even on the map yet. And we had all these other environmental groups touching water in some way, but they weren’t really coordinating. So the Alliance was envisioned as an organization that could hold the space for everyone to get together and hold the flag for our mantra, which is, “one water.”
Steve: That’s great. And could you tell us a little bit about your role there, too?
[00:02:28] Emily: I have a lovely, ambiguous title called, “Director of Strategic Initiatives.” And that means I get to both work on programs that we’ve had up and running for a long time. And it’s really about growing them and scaling them. For instance, our work on racial equity and equitable water management. But I also get to stand up some of our new work. For example, [I work on] our new work about how the water sector can recover stronger after COVID-19.
[00:02:52] Steve: Our focus is on the Great Lakes and water quality and access to water around the Great Lakes basin. How do you see that intersecting with the Alliance’s mission?
[00:03:01] Emily: The Great Lakes has been a hugely important region for the nation and the world. And so, of course, it’s a hugely important region for the Alliance as well.
I think a long time ago, you remember that the Great Lakes was an epicenter for some of the biggest water challenges that we’ve seen as a country, from the Cuyahoga River to Flint to the Toledo water shutoffs. But now what’s interesting is, it’s also a source of a lot of the promising solutions and bright spots.
The Alliance really works with a lot of leaders in the Great Lakes to surface innovations, to share them nationally, and to help our partners on the ground, who include utilities, nonprofits, and community-based organizations, to really pick up these ideas and try to run with them. And to try advance a new way of working when it comes to water management.
[00:03:48] Amy: So, Emily, let me ask you about your origin story. How did your early path lead you to where you are at the US Water Alliance?
[00:03:56] Emily: I come from a family of three [children]. I’m the youngest. And there’s that old adage that the oldest is a stable leader. The middle child’s the diplomat. And the younger kid is the revolutionary.
And I think my parents would say that that’s pretty accurate for how I’ve grown up. And I think that’s the case because from a really young age, I’ve been trying to push wherever I can to make changes that I thought were just whether it was hard conversations. For instance, me coming out as queer at a young age. Or, working to try to push them into supporting different causes that I was involved with when I was growing up. I think I really leaned into and found comfort in the space of asking for change. And I think I did that because I really cared about people, and I grew up in a really close-knit community. And I didn’t really think about water or the environmental field as my pathway.
I think water found me. And water turned out to be the medium through which I could make that change. There was someone early in my life who was part of my church community growing up, who said, Emily has a lot of fire, but she needs wind. Water ended up being my wind. And I didn’t really get involved in doing actual work with water until my very first job out of college, where I moved to Ghana in West Africa. I was working for a small nonprofit that was providing water access solutions to rural coastal communities.
And that was where I really caught the bug. I realized how much water could impact someone’s life and wellbeing. And so, I came back and I haven’t left water since.
[00:05:26] Amy: I love that fire and wind analogy. That’s so cool. I’m totally using that. Did you have a mentor at an early age?
[00:05:36] Emily: I think I had several mentors at an early age. One person who just inspired my career so much is our former CEO Radika Fox, who took me as a young researcher at EPA and was like, you’re coming with me. Let’s go do Alliance work. And I’ve just learned so much from her. On a personal level, my older sister, Rachel, is definitely a mentor to me in terms of just how to move and who I want to be in the world. Shout out to my sister if she ever clicks on this podcast.
[00:06:06] Amy: We’ll ask her to listen. That’s good. So where do you think the next generation of Great Lakes storytellers will come from and how can we continue to grow that generation?
[00:06:18] Emily: I think we are at a moment in our nation’s history where we are reflecting on all that has been lost or overlooked. And I think of that specifically, when I think of indigenous voices in the environmental space and in our national culture.
And I realize that more and more we’re becoming comfortable talking about hypotheticals. Like, what if the indigenous practice of seeing water as a relation was never lost due to colonialism? And we’re now starting to see a lot of resurfacing of storytelling in that vein and in that tradition. That’s helping everyday folks and water professionals reconnect with the work in a different way.
And so when I look at what’s happening in that space, I get a lot of hope and excitement. I see that that’s where a lot of the young energy is. Similarly, I think just the waves of young people being attracted to the climate movement right now is going to be a huge of water stories for a long time.
What’s exciting about that, is you think, “OK. Climate, carbon, air.” But, the truth is, most people experience climate change through water and changes in the water cycle. To me, this is a huge opportunity for us to harness their incredible power.
[00:07:30] Steve: The Great Lakes Leadership Award, as we said earlier, was given to the Alliance for communications excellence. Can you explain a little bit more about the role that communications plays in the Alliance’s strategy?
[00:07:40] Emily: Communication cannot be understated in its role in the Alliance’s work. It’s elemental to us. When we talk about how we do our work and what we do, we typically say, “We educate. We accelerate. And we celebrate.”
And that communication has to run through all three of those things. How can you educate people if you’re not being an effective communicator? How can you accelerate progress if you don’t have a strategy for getting people to care about it who have never tried those methods before? But I think the one that is probably the most fun and the most human is the celebration piece, where we bring out the leaders behind the innovation. We celebrate them. We recognize them. We give them a face and a name, and we help others connect to their stories and their journeys so they can see themselves maybe along the same path.
[00:08:28] Steve: How do you choose the stories that you tell? I imagine you have opportunities working with the communications team there to look at the whiteboard of maybe a half-a-dozen different ideas. What makes something bubble to the top and you guys say, “This is the story that we want to tell next?”
[00:08:43] Emily: That’s a really hard question, Steve. Thanks for that. I think the best way that we choose is we try to align the moment with the time and choose from just this wonderful font of stories. And that font is our member network. One example that comes to mind is when my colleague, Zoe Roller, was doing their research on the water access gap in the United States, a lot of the stories that they uncovered were really human and deep. When the research concluded, it was so evident that we had to lift up those, especially. They were human. They were powerful. They were motivating. They were about a topic that a lot of people don’t realize is an issue in this country.
And we went big on trying to get media and trying to get coverage of that research. I’m so glad that we did that, because those stories ended up being so compelling that now we see that research quoted in mainstream media outlets pretty consistently throughout the year. Now, those same messages and recommendations that we were putting out there about how it might be, that you close the access gap, so that the 2.2 million Americans without plumbing are connected in some way back to water in a more sustainable way. Those conversations are now being held at the White House and in Congress. That’s really rewarding and validating. And I don’t think we would’ve gotten there without really leaning into the urgency of that problem and the power of the stories that came out of that research.
[00:10:09] Steve: Do you consider the mainstream media a way to get into the dialogue in the either state or federal administrations? Is that an intentional strategy or do you have other strategies that maybe go more directly to policymakers?
[00:10:21] Emily: The mainstream media is sometimes the right avenue for certain stories – stories that are most compelling and relevant to everyday people’s lives. But we do also have programs that seek to directly educate policymakers. For example, the Alliance is actually advising the nation’s first Mayor’s Commission on water equity, which is a project led by the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.
One of the cool things that they’ve been doing is they’ve been unpacking four issues related to water equity, which are affordability, urban flooding, workforce and lead in water, and creating a policy agenda that they want to take to their state legislators. And so, we’ve done that. We’ve done a congressional briefing just this past summer where they’re able to take the messages directly to the people making the policy. So it’s absolutely part of our strategy to do that.
[00:11:11] Steve: Do you think you can also hold policymakers at all levels accountable through the stories that you tell?
[00:11:17] Emily: Stories play a huge role in accountability, but I think more than that, it’s about the connections that are made and the eyes on the issues that are made through the process of actively communicating and through the process of putting people in connection with one another. That’s the way that we hold people accountable. And I think that notion of connectivity being at the root of what’s going to drive change is really core to who the Alliance is. So, if we want, for example, utilities across the country to adopt certain practices, it really helps that we put them in connection with utilities already on the path – that we bring in those validating environmental voices who can say, “We need more of this type of leadership in the water sector – leadership that partners with us and leverages our strengths.” That connection and that storytelling and those demonstrated partnerships are really the driving force behind how we think we’re going to get to the adoption of one water in the end.
[00:12:11] Steve: There’s obviously, as we’ve already talked about, the new administration in Washington, and a lot of talk about water infrastructure. What are you and your colleagues at the Alliance hoping for over the next, let’s say three-and-a-half years.
[00:12:22] Emily: This is water’s moment. We better not let it pass us by. $111 billion as an opening overture from the Biden administration is a number that would have been laughable just a few years ago. For that to be the opening bet, I think we’re feeling optimistic, but we also know that it’s going to take continued pressure, continued energy behind this until we get it done. But I want to start off on a note of hope. And I think that’s a huge note of hope for the sector, that we can make a lot of change in this moment.
And for the Alliance, the new body of work I mentioned on how we help the water sector coverage stronger in the wake of COVID really captures some of our aspirations for what we hope can be possible. Just this past winter, we released our federal blueprint that lays out our recommendations for how we might make water more affordable, how we might make it smarter, how we might make it more resilient. I’m excited about continuing those conversations with the administration and with members of Congress for the next few years.
[00:13:21] Steve: What should we expect from the Alliance for the rest of the year and maybe going into 2022?
Emily: We’re so busy, Steve. It’s great.
Steve: It’s only a small issue that you’re chasing.
Emily: It’s only a small issue that we’re chasing.
Steve: It’s only water for the entire country and perhaps for the planet.
[00:13:37] Emily: I know, I know. I think our core priorities remain the right priorities, and you mentioned them at the top of the podcast. We are really trying to double down and making sure that infrastructure investment remains a huge drum beat at all levels of government. It’s going to take local, state, and federal partnership to get the investments we need and get those capital projects implemented the way that we want them to be.
Second, the Alliance believes that if we can scale equitable water management so much can be possible. We have a great initiative right now called the Water Equity Network that my dear colleague, Letitia Carpenter, leads. Our goal is to get 75 cities by 2025 in that network, actively participating in a community of practice where they’re looking at ways to change the everyday business of running a utility so that those decisions can lead to equitable outcomes in their communities.
To me, that project is really important because we know that systemic racism has left its mark on every sector. Water’s not immune. But this is a bright spot for the industry in terms of a place where you can look for solutions.
[00:14:44] Steve: And we should be marking our calendars on October 21 for Imagine a Day Without Water, I believe.
[00:14:49] Emily: Yes. Yes. Please do. Please do.
[00:14:52] Amy: Emily, I’d like to switch gears a little bit, and talk about your personal experiences with the lakes. Do you have a favorite place on the Great Lakes?
[00:15:00] Emily: I fell in love with Chicago at a very young age when I used to sneak onto the train without my parents knowing and come into the city. But being the broke student that was at the time, you have to do what’s free. Going to the beach along Lake Michigan is something that I’ll always have fond memories of – I still do to this day, with friends. You know, I think another hidden gem in the region is actually the dunes in Indiana. A lot of people don’t go down there, but it’s truly an incredible place.
Amy: I often think if somebody was jettisoned down to earth and landed in the dunes, it’s other worldly. It’s so cool up there.
Emily: I know it really is.
[00:15:39] Amy: Yeah. What do you think people underappreciate about the Great Lakes?
[00:15:44] Emily: I think what’s awesome about the Great Lakes and probably underappreciated might be how precarious they seem in this moment. And our relationship with the Great Lakes is changing, especially with climate change. Our streets are being flooded. What once was a great source of life and thriving, and still is in many ways, is facing a lot of threats. And I think most Midwesterners have a connection to the Great Lakes in some way. So it’s about, how do you harness that pride of place to get them to confront some of those challenges and find the will to be part of the solutions? That’s the message I’d send us. This is a place we all love and we can’t ignore what’s happening to it.
[00:16:24] Amy: Do you have a favorite Great Lakes story, either your own personal story or one that you have uncovered in your path?
[00:16:34] Emily: I’m really inspired by what the Flint Community Lab is doing to help residents test their water to begin to understand the science to protect themselves and their families, given everything that’s happened in that community. And I love how they are really grassroots leaders that are connecting the dots to other needs in the community through the work of the Flint Community Lab.
For example, the lab workers are young people from Flint, going door to door, helping residents sample their water, bringing it back, testing it, communicating their results, building skills in STEM. Who would have thought, when Flint story broke, that there would be such a source of strength and inspiration and assets from that work? I just think it’s incredible. And I think what we’re going to see in the future is that model being transferred to other cities where there’s been a legacy of mistrust around water quality.
[00:17:27] Amy: A great way to end. Emily, it was so great to talk to you today. Thank you for joining us. And can you let people know where they can find more about your work and the work of the Alliance and where they can connect with you?
[00:17:39] Emily: Absolutely. You can find more about the Alliance www. uswateralliance.org. And if you really want to chat with me or yell at me about something I said on this podcast, you can hit me up on Twitter. My handle is @EmilySimo.
[00:17:54] Steve: Emily, thanks so much for joining us today. We really enjoyed the conversation.
[00:17:58] Emily: Thanks so much, it was my pleasure to be here.
[00:18:01] Steve: Thanks for listening to Great Lakes, Great Stories. Tune in next time for another great conversation about Great Lakes storytelling. Please keep the conversation going with us. Our Twitter and Facebook handles are @ GLPFund while using the #GreatLakesGreatStories.
[00:18:16] Amy: If you enjoyed the episode, please spread the word and hit that subscribe button and be sure not to miss another conversation with an exceptional storyteller and Great Lakes Protection Fund 2020 Leadership Award recipient.
Visit our website GLPF.org to receive updates on the 2021 Leadership Award. Click the Get Updates link to stay connected with us. See you tomorrow.
Great Lakes. Great Stories.
Great Lakes Great Stories celebrates the Great Lakes Protection Fund’s 2020 Leadership Award recipients. Visit our Leadership Awards page to learn more about the recipients.
Send us your comments and feedback on Twitter using #GreatLakesGreatStories.
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