Mar 08, 2022

Working Toward a More Equal Environment

Milwaukee Water Commons aims to create a diverse environmental movement

Cynthia Zanow
Cynthia Zanow, administration & communications manager for Milwaukee Water Commons

Situated along Lake Michigan and at the confluence of three rivers, Milwaukee has always been viewed as a water city. For centuries, inhabitants have relied on our waters for fishing, commerce, transportation and more. While Milwaukee’s water is on the civic agenda, the vast majority of the city’s residents have not been included in the conversation, and the health of our waters is not always front and center. We have witnessed waterways become polluted with industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries, once-in-a-lifetime flooding events occurring every few years, and now, thousands of Milwaukeeans live in fear of lead poisoning from drinking water through the city’s 70,000 lead service lines.

Milwaukee Water Commons launched the Water City Agenda in 2016. After connecting with thousands of residents, Milwaukee Water Commons developed a 10-year, community defined vision of Milwaukee as a model water city focusing on six key initiatives: Blue Green Jobs, Water Quality, Drinking Water, Arts & Culture, Education & Recreation and Green Infrastructure. Looking at these initiatives through the lens of environmental justice, we work to develop programming and events that not only cultivate water responsibility and care, but also promote racial justice and water equity.

Through four organizing frameworks, The Commons Philosophy, Environmental Justice, Collective Impact and Community Engagement, Milwaukee Water Commons works to ensure that all people and communities have fair and meaningful participation in environmental decision-making, as well as equitable distribution of the care and benefits of our environmental commons. We believe that community resources should be actively protected and managed by all and that one of the best ways to achieve greater social change is by bringing together people from across sectors to share in a common agenda.


In a city like Milwaukee, the most segregated city in the nation, this means we must be intentional about working through segregation and bias to build a movement truly reflective of our communities. The inequalities stemming from historical segregation — lack of resources, jobs, healthcare, education — compound and continue to perpetuate injustice in communities of color today. African Americans in Milwaukee are living in areas with the highest concentration of lead laterals making drinking water unsafe, in neighborhoods where residents lack the resources to replace damaged trees resulting in a depleted tree canopy, and in areas with higher environmental toxins and poor healthcare leading to a higher prevalence of respiratory problems, which make viruses like COVID-19 deadlier. This legacy of segregation and closed decision-making compounds and self-reinforces over time, perpetuating inequity.

We believe everyone has a role to play in water’s care, and we want to make sure that people of color who have typically been excluded from this work find their place here and now. We are at a unique moment in this city and this country where there is both an openness to environmental justice as an organizing principle for environmental action and a potential for substantial equitable investment in climate resilience. To address environmental injustice, decision making processes need to be accessible to community members on decisions that affect their lives and need to become more inclusive of community input.

We’re on a mission to create a multicultural, multiracial environmental movement in Milwaukee and beyond. Since our inception, environmental justice has been centered in our work and the combined events of the last two years — the movement for racial justice highlighting the inequities in environmental solutions and the need for environmental justice, the COVID-19 crisis, which disproportionately impacted communities of color, the escalating climate crisis, and the change in federal political leadership have made it clear that being non-racist is not enough.

This is why Milwaukee Water Commons is committed to transforming our organization and evaluating our work through multicultural tenets to help us realize a just, equitable and antiracist environmental movement that protects both people and planet.

About the author

Cynthia Zanow is administration & communications manager for Milwaukee Water Commons. Zanow can be reached at