Grantee Spotlights

Engaging to protect our water

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By Sabrina L. Miller

After a string of groundbreaking environmental victories over the last 50 years – from banning phosphates in detergent to successfully lobbying Congress for the passage of 1972’s Clean Water Act – the Alliance for the Great Lakes has become the nation’s leading voice for protecting one of the world’s most precious sources of fresh water.

A half-century on, with a firm vision of what needs to be done, the Alliance is now focused more than ever on how its work is done. That means an inclusive approach to meeting its mission by advocating for access to clean water in low-income communities and communities of color throughout the Great Lakes region. Many of these communities have borne the brunt of Great Lakes problems.

“From grass-tops to grassroots, we’re working to bridge the gap, because the power to solve complex water challenges lies at the intersection of authentic community engagement and public policy making,” said Crystal M.C. Davis, the Alliance’s vice president of policy and strategic engagement.

Davis, in fact, has adopted the mantra “Shut up & listen” – an ethos she says guides the Alliance’s work with communities on the ground and shapes policy proposals that meet the direct needs of residents and stakeholders. It includes strategic partnerships with both grassroots community organizations and corporations – from the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin to Bell’s Brewery in Michigan.

In support of its frontline community partners, the Alliance is working to bring an environmental justice commitment to advocacy, ranging from replacing toxic lead service lines and ridding toxic algae blooms to banning plastics and reducing agricultural run-off across all eight Great Lakes states. It also has joined the longstanding fight against municipal water shutoffs in Great Lakes cities – an ongoing crisis for families and homeowners that came to a head during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Headquartered in Chicago, the Alliance has offices in four other Great Lakes states and a robust network of partners and 20,000 volunteers. Under the leadership of President Joel Brammeier, its program priorities are reflected in five topline policy asks for Congress and the Biden Administration in 2021:

  • Prioritizing environmental justice–Addressing the unfair and disproportionate impacts of pollution and repairing the harm it causes through changes to implementation of Great Lakes restoration and clean water programs.
  • Increasing water infrastructure funding and stopping water shutoffs—With a goal of $100 billion in funding over the next five years to fix failing water systems in the Great Lakes region.
  • Strengthening the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and clean water protections—Advocating full funding for restoration projects and fully staffing federal environmental and public health agencies.
  • Advancing efforts to stop invasive carp—Funding and implementing year one of an Illinois lock-and-dam project designed to stop invasive carp
  • Addressing agricultural pollution that drives harmful algae blooms—Using the full extent of federal clean water authority and funding to reduce toxic algae.

The pandemic quashed formal plans for the Alliance’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2020. But a year later, a virtual event in June called the “Great Blue Benefit 2021” allowed stakeholders from throughout the region to reflect on the group’s accomplishments, partnerships and ongoing work.

Many referenced the effective public and private sector partnerships that have advanced the mission of the small but doggedly dedicated organization founded in 1970 by Lee Botts as the Lake Michigan Federation. In 2005, the organization expanded its focus to include the entire lakes basin.

“They understand what it means to have a traditional environmental organization work hand in hand with a frontline organization at the intersection of environment, health and racial justice,” said Kim Foreman, executive director of Environmental Health Watch in Cleveland, Ohio.

“We look forward to what we can accomplish together.”

The Joyce Foundation has been a supporter of the Alliance for the Great Lakes since 1978.

“We’ve been so excited to see the Alliance’s expanded focus to address water challenges that are often most severe for people of color and people of lower income in our region,” said Joyce Foundation President Ellen Alberding. “None of this happens without great leadership.”


Volunteers gather for the Alliance’s "Adopt-a-Beach” clean-up program along the Lake Michigan shore in Hartigan Beach Park in Chicago. The clean-up has been held annually since 1991.
Volunteers gather for the Alliance’s "Adopt-a-Beach” clean-up program along the Lake Michigan shore in Hartigan Beach Park in Chicago. The clean-up has been held annually since 1991.
Volunteers gather for the Alliance’s "Adopt-a-Beach” clean-up program along the Lake Michigan shore in Hartigan Beach Park in Chicago. The clean-up has been held annually since 1991.

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.

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