Environment Program Co-Director Elizabeth Cisar recently returned to the Foundation after serving an 18-month stint as a senior advisor in the Office of Water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She joined Joyce in 2015 to lead the Foundation’s grantmaking on Great Lakes issues. Under Elizabeth’s leadership, the Foundation’s water portfolio has expanded, working to ensure that all people in the Great Lakes region have clean water from lake to tap, improve infrastructure, and remedy water disparities in communities of color.
At EPA, Elizabeth worked for Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water Radhika Fox. Before assuming her role at EPA, Radhika was CEO of the US Water Alliance. Elizabeth’s service was facilitated through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, which allows for temporary job assignments between the federal government and eligible organizations. Elizabeth returned to her role as Co-Director of the Environment Program in January 2023. We’re grateful to have her back in Chicago at Joyce! We asked Elizabeth to reflect on her unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Joyce Foundation (JF): Tell us more about your role as senior advisor in the Office of Water. What was it like doing work on the federal level?
Elizabeth Cisar (EC): My primary role was to analyze and provide advice on policy issues and strategy relevant to the Office of Water. I also provided guidance and leadership on policy matters that required a high level of stakeholder engagement. The Office of Water’s role is to ensure that drinking water is safe, to protect waterways, and to implement federal policies like the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act among others, but none of that happens effectively without the work of state and local policymakers and advocates. My time at EPA definitely gave me a deeper appreciation of the hard work and dedication of the professionals who work at EPA and at the state level to protect public health and the environment every day.
JF: Did it surprise you how much of the heavy lifting on environmental issues is driven by state and local players?
EC: I don’t know that it surprised me, but I think my experience underscored that the federal government’s role is important but finite. EPA itself can only do so much. There’s no question that the pandemic exacerbated issues in many water systems in the Great Lakes and nationwide that had already been facing challenges. The once-in-a-generation funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will make a big difference. But so much of the work is and always has been happening in the states and on the ground.
JF: You’ve been doing this work in philanthropy and working with advocates for a long time when the “wins” are not always immediate. Was any legislation passed during your time at EPA that you’re particularly proud of?
EC: Although EPA does not have a role in passing legislation, other than providing technical assistance, I was very proud of Great Lakes advocates. They have always worked extremely well in a bipartisan way. Their work is one big reason why the landmark $1 billion investment to clean toxic pollution in the Great Lakes was included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. This boost to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is one of the most significant restoration milestones in the Great Lakes in history. It was an affirmation of work that a group of committed funders, including Joyce, and our nonprofit partners, have pursued for decades. It was an enormous win for advocates. But most importantly it was an enormous win for residents, who will benefit from protected drinking water sources and access to local waters for recreation, as well as the economic boost those bring. Now our collective job is to make sure that money is well spent.
JF: Having your unique experience and perspective from your respective roles in government and philanthropy, what are you most proud of?
EC: One of the things I’m proudest of about our Environment Program is that Joyce supports leaders early on. We make long-term investments on issues and in leaders where the “success” isn’t always immediate or visible. A particular point of pride for me in the water portfolio is our relationships with both new and veteran leaders in the sector, and the way we support women of color, like Radhika Fox, who are leading in the field, or who one day will be. I also feel a lot of satisfaction about the expansion of the Joyce Foundation’s work to include drinking water safety and affordability. The President and the Vice President of the United States are talking about replacing lead pipes! I’m not saying that’s a Joyce Foundation accomplishment. It reflects the work of national, regional, and local organizations – advocates, funders, and public health officials, including many organizations proudly supported by the Joyce Foundation. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will invest $15B over the next five years to replace these pipes - roughly $5B of that will be in the Great Lakes region. I’m proud of the investments we’ve made and the way they’ve paid off.
JF: Now that you’re back, what’s next for you and your portfolio?
EC: I’m happy to be reconnecting and making site visits with our nonprofit partners, like We the People of Detroit, and continuing to advocate for their great work and the work of all the organizations we support through our water portfolio. The role of the states in implementing policy is more important than ever. I’m committed to investing in organizations, projects, and leaders who can help make sure states can deliver clean water for everyone in our region. The impacts of water crises in communities like Flint, Benton Harbor and Cahokia Heights, and other places on residents, children and the community are long-lasting. This is not a time to relax; this is a time to keep pushing.
About The Joyce Foundation
Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.