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Grassroot Effort Grows to Create Milwaukee Water Commons

S Bence


The idea is to get the entire community involved in Milwaukee's freshwater future. Alexa Bradley started the conversation almost three years ago.

Bradley is a long time activist - and Milwaukee native, - who helped “incubate” the “Commons” idea in Minneapolis. Bradley went on to help create the Great Lakes Commons, that is taking shape in places like Toronto and Cleveland and especially in Milwaukee.

The idea attracted 24 people to a church basement off Fond du Lac last March.

Credit S Bence
Alexa Bradley and Ann Brummitt lead a Water Commons Town Hall event at the Zilber School of Public Health early in June to pull more people into the conversation.

  Bradley now lives in Brooklyn, New York, so it’s Ann Brummitt’s job to keep the momentum going day to day. She comes to Milwaukee Water Commons by way of having coordinated the Milwaukee River Greenway project.

Brummitt says Water Commons planning started in earnest in early 2013.

“And we were really interested in talking with people about the proposal that Milwaukee is becoming a freshwater hub; we prefer to say ‘a freshwater city’. And what does that mean across the city and who is engaged in that conversation,” Brummitt says.

Many conversations later, representatives from six neighborhoods agreed to commit to the effort.

“They can in turn get residents connected to some form of stewardship,” Brummitt adds, “today is the very first session.” 

Melanie Ariens at the first Milwaukee Water Commons workshop.

 Art is key to the Commons project; and its Melanie Ariens job – as artist in residence – to inspire the group to create and experiment.

“In my studio work all of the work focuses on the Great Lakes and freshwater issues,” Ariens says.

She brought her Great Lakes “alter” as an inspiration! Ariens’ bejeweled concoction incorporating mirror, water-filled goblet, even a scull – displayed on a small – silver-gilded table.

She invites the group to create their OWN mini-shrine, out of an Altoid tin.

Angela Kingswan join in at the tables strewn with art supplies. She wears more than one hat in her community, including the American Indian Council on Alcoholism. She serves as its yoga instructor and native herbalist.

Kingwan says she’s excited to join in the Water Commons project.

“Our Native community has been segmented for a very long time and because I do outreach to all of the different Native Nation throughout Milwaukee I want to start this project and get people involved and coming together. I think that’s the only way our environment is really going to heal,” Kingswan says.

I hoped to check in on Kingswan’s outreach progress a couple of months later, when I stop in at another Milwaukee Water Commons gathering, This time, it includes a tour of Jones Island.

The Commons circle seems to be growing – I see faces I didn’t in the church basement. Among them is Cheri Johnson. She has the unique distinction of being “spiritual caretaker” of another Milwaukee Water Commons partner - Alice’s Garden located off Fond du Lac and North.

She learned “connecting to our water” is new to many of the people with whom she works. So Alice’s jumped into Water Commons projects with gusto.

“We’re going to have some water art projects in the garden this summer. On July 27th we’re going to walk from Alice’s Garden to Lake Park. We want to walk there and talk about water and even walk along the Milwaukee River part of the way,” Johnson says.50cheriCUT We are going to have some…..that ecosystem.

Johnson is baffled by some of the things SHE has learned.

“A number of times I’ve heard that there are a lot of people who don’t go to the lake because it’s a foreign place, or it’s dirty, or they don’t feel welcomed. So if we manage to create access to our waterways that is truly open to everyone in our community, that would be amazing. That would be a step toward health,” Johnson says.

Credit S Bence
Freshwater student Bobby Baker with his mom (left), grandmother and aunt.

There’s a young person on the sewage treatment tour who is raptly taking in its every sight and sound, five year old, Bobby Baker.

As it turns out, Bobby comes by his keen interest naturally. His mom Jayme Montgomery Baker is a member of the Milwaukee Water Commons team. She says her previous work as a civic organizer drew her to its mission.

“It’s an issue that’s not really being focused on in the communities I’m from. I was born and raised in Milwaukee. You’re trying to put food on your table, you’re trying to find good employment. You just assume Lake Michigan is going to be there and is going to be clean,” Montgomery Baker says.

Early this week, a crew of 10 to 13 year olds are in high artistic production at another of Milwaukee Water Commons’ partners - CORE/E Centro. Located in Walker’s Point, part of its focus is health and wellness for people in the neighborhood.

Credit S Bence
CORE/El Centro summer campers at work, and play around water.

  CORE/El Centro’s nutrition director Stephanie Calloway enlisted her summer camp kids to cultivate stewardship around reducing the use of throw-away plastic water bottles in the building.

“We’ve separated the recycling bin and said we’re collecting bottles of water for the kids camp. And it’s scary to see how quickly they’ve accumulated but it’s also the reminder of why we’re focusing on bottled water and reducing bottled-water consumption,”

The kids are having a blast with the accumulated bottles. They’ve been colorfully painted in hues of blue by another group of campers. Now the crew cuts them into beautiful spirally tendrils.

Calloway says teaching the kids about where our water comes from was something most had never heard before.

Milwaukee Water Commons artist in residence Melanie Ariens is in the thick of it here. She’s here working her magic on the kids – helping them decorate their own personal “not to throw away” water bottles.

Before the week is out, Ariens planned to corral the campers to help transform the hundred plus disposables before our eyes into a work of art, a spirally sculpture.

In case you wondered: The hike from Alice’s Garden to Lake Park was a success. Fifty people made the five-mile hike. For many, it was their first time walking along the Milwaukee River - part of their watershed.

This Sunday, August 3, Milwaukee Water Commons is hosting an event called “We Are Water” at the north end of Bradford Beach from 6:30 pm until 9 pm.  It features an "illuminating" experience at sundown. All are welcome.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.