Water Leadership Institute celebrates graduation of new cohort of water equity advocates

Amid music, laughter and a few tears, the latest cohort in EDF and Rural Community Assistance Corporation’s Water Leadership Institute graduated Saturday, enthusiastically committing to put their learnings into practice and tackle significant water challenges in their communities. 

It’s hard to believe, but in California, the fifth largest economy in the world, approximately one million people — primarily in small, low-income, Spanish-speaking communities — lack access to clean and affordable drinking water. As the state grapples with groundwater overpumping and extreme drought, these communities are often left out of important water planning and decision-making. The Water Leadership Institute aims to change that. 

Community members have a deep understanding of local water and other resource challenges and their voices need to be at the center of helping to shape solutions that foster resilience and community wellbeing. This is the spirit behind the Water Leadership Institute: a free, bilingual training program that aims to equip community members with knowledge and leadership skills to more effectively shape local water management decisions. The Institute’s goals are to develop and support community water leaders, connect them to each other and to regional resources, and forge strong relationships that promote community interests. 

Building trust and understanding among diverse participants

We centered this year’s Institute in the Tule Subbasin in California’s Central Valley, located in southern Tulare County with a small portion in Kern County. We focused the program on exploring innovative solutions to address water challenges. The cohort was made up of 14 creative, thoughtful and committed individuals, ranging in age from 25 to 69 years old, most of whom experience significant water contamination and water scarcity issues in their communities. Some participants have been advocating for safe drinking water and environmental justice for years, while others are eager to create more resilient and equitable water strategies. 

Throughout the program, participants learned more about local water management and issues in their community from each other and guest speakers working in government, nonprofit, private and academic institutions. Other topics covered included leadership styles, strategic planning, communications and conflict resolution. Students then applied what they learned to develop ideas for projects to pursue in their communities, including a mural, a play to highlight the key role water plays in everyone’s life and flyers to educate the public on water conservation measures. 

Over the institute’s 10 sessions, the group fostered a foundation of trust and mutual understanding, leading to deep conversations, tough questions and strong relationships among participants that came from diverse backgrounds.

Participants celebrate their accomplishments as they receive their certificates.

Challenging the status quo to advance water equity

The participants’ reflections on the program filled our team with hope and renewed commitment to creating spaces for collaboration, dialogue and shared learning to ensure water is a right, not a privilege, for all. Some participants highlighted learning from each other and seeing things from a different lens as their favorite parts of the institute, while others pointed to feeling inspired from the wide range of guest speakers working to address water challenges in the region.

Through the Water Leadership Institute, EDF and RCAC will continue to support a strong network of community leaders dedicated to challenging the status quo and advancing water equity and resilience in their communities. We also hope the participants will build on the bonds they have developed with each other and will continue to rely on each other as sounding boards and collaborators. 

As we celebrate this cohort’s accomplishments, we are already looking to the future, continuing our work in California and exploring potential expansion of the Water Leadership Institute into other regions and even other states such as Arizona. Contact me at mriveratorres@edf.org if you are interested in partnering and developing more water leaders in your community through the Water Leadership Institute. 

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