The FLOW, Fall 2015
This is the cover article from our fall 2015 FLOW Newsletter. Download a PDF of the full Newsletter.
Citizen Advocates Central to River Alliance Business
By Denny Caneff
The work the River Alliance does is more akin to glowing embers than loud fireworks, more like long-fermenting wine than a Quik Trip latte, more comparable to 500-page novel than today’s tweets. In other words, we engage for years on one issue or with a set of groups in a particular watershed. Sometimes months go by before there is “news” to report on a particular project. Despite its slow and sometimes unglamorous nature, we know what we do matters in the long run for our rivers.
In other editions of The FLOW we have aired out big issues affecting rivers, or showcased the work of river friends and advocates from around state and country. In this issue we stretch out a bit, go deep on a few of our projects, to attempt to tell you what we do. And because what we do — invariably and by design – involves and incorporates citizen advocates, you will meet a few of more of the thousands of committed people we get the pleasure and honor of working with in our common goal to save rivers.
Helping citizen water advocates to position themselves for good policy change is at the heart of why we exist as an organization. But this poses a dilemma for an organization like ours that wants to put its members and advocates up front: how much do WE take credit for how and whether they are successful? How “deep background” do we remain to minimize the taint we may bring to them, as one of those dreaded “Madison environmental organizations?” (It’s a perception that frustrates us, but we understand why it persists.) There are many theories and schools of thought about “community organizing.” We are NOT a “community organizing organization” per se. We are not affiliated with any national community organizing consortium, nor do we subscribe to any particular techniques and strategies that typify classical “community organizing.”
In our genes
Dave Marshall (left) and Timm Zumm are leaders for the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, a group we’ve helped develop over the years. We are proud to say FLOW does not shy away from thorny issues. But citizen advocacy, and developing the full potential of citizen organizations to be able to defend their waters, is in the River Alliance’s genetic code. The organization was formed in 1993, for the express purpose of giving voice to citizens, in part by people whose positions as academics or state employees didn’t allow them to speak for the rivers as forcefully as they saw was necessary.
By 2001, when we first received funding from the Wisconsin DNR and the Environmental Protection Agency for developing citizen-led watershed and river friends groups, and developed a close working relationship with the national River Network, we began to build our muscle for building the capacity of citizen-organizations. For effective advocacy, we have found that citizens banding themselves into organizations is smart: people are more accountable to their organizations (as opposed to “lone rangers” who speak and act for themselves). There is the power of numbers in organizations – not just the members of a particular group but all the relationships those members have. And because we are an organized society (from condo associations to rod and gun clubs), organized groups lend legitimacy to the cause they are fighting for.
We highlight in this issue challenges in groundwater, polluted runoff, hydropower and invasive species. These are widely varied issues demanding specialized levels of expertise from us, the River Alliance staff. But common to all of them – and fundamental to who WE are as an organization –is our commitment to putting citizens and their organizations at the forefront of the defense of the waters they are so passionate about.