Water Hero: Mary Dougherty

“Issues of water are not esoteric; they have real-life consequences for real people and their homes.”
Lake Superior
Bayfield, WI

How do you work to protect Wisconsin’s waters?
I’m the president of the Sustain Rural Wisconsin Network, a grassroots coalition of community groups who are working together to deal with factory farms, I’m a consultant for the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, a national nonprofit that helps commutes around the country fight factory farms, I’m the creator of the Words for Water project, and I’m the author of Life in a Northern Town, a cookbook and memoir about what it’s like to live in Bayfield on the shores of Lake Superior.

For me, these huge issues of factory farming and water pollution can be boiled down to a simple statement: all food comes from some PLACE and that place is someone’s HOME. My work as a community organizer, as an author, and as a photographer are all filtered through the idea that these issues of water are not esoteric; they have real-life consequences for real people and their homes. And their stories must be told in order to answer these three questions: Who are we? What do we value? How will we protect what we value?

When I pose these questions to people in WI, it’s become clear that the partisan divide we hear so much about is a false construct—we have a lot more in common than we think. Simply put, these questions are a way to define common ground within a community that will provide a place to start when they interact with elected officials or suggest new protections and policies.

Frederick Buechner said, “You’ll find your vocation at the intersection of the world’s greatest need and your own greatest passion” and thankfully, my love of storytelling and photography has found a good use with my community organizing work.

I believe when we ask,”tell me more,” as opposed to saying “let me tell you something,” we are not only gathering stories, we are doing the hard, but necessary, work of creating community. And that’s where things begin to change.

What are your biggest concerns right now?
My concerns are simple—water quality and quantity. Factory farms are producing millions of gallons of manure that is spread, untreated, in our rural communities. These farms use a massive amount of water to hydrate the animals, irrigate the crops and liquefy the manure.

What keeps you strong and inspired in the face of challenges?
Ric Young, a social change strategist from Canada, said, “My point is that to give up hope is not just to deny the possibilities of the future. It is also to deny the lessons of the past. The world can change. And does change. And what seemed almost impossible looking forward can seem almost inevitable looking back.”

I view my contribution to this work like how the wind fills a sail on a boat and the boat gets going. My community organizing, my photos and my stories are little breaths of air that are filling the sail of something that’s going to move us to where we need to go together. My job is just to create the space where people can contribute their own little burst of air to move us forward. It’s not about me, it’s about all of us—and that takes the pressure off.

What’s your favorite “water spot” in Wisconsin?
Lake Superior

More information:
Sustain Rural Wisconsin Network

Learn about other Water Heroes in Wisconsin:
River Alliance Water Heroes – 2018