What started as conversations five years ago evolved into Milwaukee Water Commons. While science and business opportunities were important in those initial discussions, the group wanted to broaden their reach to get the entire community involved in protecting a common resource — water.
At the time, Ann Brummitt was coordinating the Milwaukee River Greenway project, a more traditional environmental effort. But stepping into this new experiment in community engagement felt like walking into thin air. “Who might be silly enough to try this thing out and see what we can do with it,” Brummitt says.
The term “commons” is land or resources belonging to or affecting the whole of a community, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. If Milwaukee is truly a global water hub, Brummitt says, water is one such resource.
“There was a lot of handwringing and anxiety in the environmental community that we have Milwaukee as a global water city and a global hub and there was a lot of handwringing and anxiety in the environmental community that that vision didn’t include the water, and didn’t really include the community and so that was intriguing to me,” Co-Director Brummitt adds, “What could we do that could be positive rather than that just the anxiety that that narrative is so narrow."
Brummitt and other organizers attempted to swing wide the doors for conversation across neighborhoods, professions, socioeconomic and religious orientations.
“We didn’t have as many people of color in the beginning – we were kind of the usual upper middle class white folks concerned about this,” Brummitt says.
Brummitt says it became clear environmental justice must be core to the their mission. “We started talking with a lot of people of color and people who are not necessarily in environmental movement, and they were saying … it really is a lot about access and about the inequality of the benefits,” she says.
The importance of an all-inclusive vision was reinforced when Brummitt and most of the rest of Milwaukee learned families living in old housing stock are at a heightened risk of poisoning. This was because lead service lines carry city water into tens of thousands of homes – many concentrated in Milwaukee’s central city.
Brummitt says the information came as a surprise.
“We had no idea it was coming. We were doing these town hall meetings and we were all like Milwaukee has great water. So, we were focused on bubblers – artfully made bubblers to celebrate water and that’s when Flint happened,” Brummitt added, “That’s when we realized wait – maybe everything isn’t as great and we started looking into the situation here in Milwaukee.”
Brummitt and Co-Director Brenda Coley met with Mayor Tom Barrett. Volunteers began attending city committee meetings at which lead issues were discussed.
“It’s been such an uphill battle. I think the city, they haven’t been able to do much about it and I think they’ve been frightened by community; FLAC [Freshwater For Life Action Coalition] and Hunger Task Force have been pushing back on this. There’s an effort to try to divide the different groups and try to pit us against each other and we take the philosophy. [We believe] the problem is the lead line laterals, so let’s focus on that," Brummitt says.
Brummitt says Milwaukee Water Commons intends to focus on education. It's hiring someone to focus on educating people about filtration.
“So, if there’s 70,000 homes that would be safer with a filter on it, let’s make that happen,” Brummitt adds, “We’ve been pitching to funders because it seems like it’s a concrete step that can buy us time for the longer, harder conversation about how do we fix these laterals."
Brummitt feels more strongly today than five years ago that Milwaukee Water Commons is important to the community.
“Building these spaces where everybody feels comfortable because I don’t think that so-called water conversation has felt like a safe place for people of color, people of different income groups and it’s been a privilege to be part of those tables," she says.
Ann Brummitt retired from Milwaukee Water Commons earlier this summer, but says the organization is in very good hands.
Have an environmental question you'd like WUWM's Susan Bence to investigate? Submit below.