Santana, Axel. "The Water Equity and Arts and Culture Initiative at PolicyLink." PUBLIC: Arts, Design, Humanities volume 7, no. 1 (2022).
The Water Equity and Arts and Culture Initiative at PolicyLink


The Water Equity and Climate Resilience Caucus is a network of almost 100 organizations across the country working to advance water and climate justice for low income communities and communities of color. As part of this work, the Caucus engages with artists and creatives to bring inspiring and culturally rooted strategies to the work. In this journal entry, we share what we have accomplished so far, including a podcast series, an artist engagement tool, a virtual event, and our vision for the future of our work.

Communities across the country are facing worsening threats to their water security and ability to withstand climate change. From intensifying storms and sea-level rise causing flooding in the Gulf South, to mega droughts and increasingly frequent wildfires in the West, climate change is worsening an already-strained water landscape where many communities do not have access to safe and affordable drinking water. Structural racism and lack of infrastructure investments means that communities of color bear the brunt of these impacts and are oftentimes the least-resourced communities to be able to combat these threats.

In April 2018, PolicyLink launched the Water Equity and Climate Resilience Caucus to build a national network of organizations working to address climate and water challenges by centering frontline communities of color and low-income communities. The Caucus is comprised of dynamic leaders of close to 100 organizations from across the nation who build strategy, peer power, policy momentum, and equitable change for their communities. The Caucus includes a steering committee of national, regional, and local frontline environmental justice, human and civil rights, and Indigenous organizations; a core membership of equity-focused water and climate champions; and numerous allies supporting equity and resilience efforts nationally and internationally. In 2019, the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy joined as cochair, and now, together, we co-convene the Caucus1 to build a shared analysis and understanding of the problems, codify policy strategies, and enable members to deliver on water equity results for their communities.

With the growing awareness and urgency of the interconnected climate and water crises, advocates have been able to successfully advocate for once-in-a-generation federal and state water investments that can address the environmental justice challenges being faced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and low-income communities across our country. The Water Equity and Climate Resilience Caucus is shepherding equity and justice into these investments through federal advocacy, communications, capacity building, training, and research. We build shared understanding and analysis of issues by hosting virtual meetings, national water calls, and convening working groups on the various topics our members want to prioritize. By inviting partners to share about their work and make calls to action, we generate solidarity-building and educational opportunities not only for other advocates, but for government representatives and their staffs to learn about the water equity issues impacting their constituents. We also work closely with a consultant who helps us navigate the turbulent federal policy world and advance our equity priorities through legislative and administrative advocacy.

As we established our Caucus through outreach and meetings, we were reminded of the importance and power of creative and cultural approaches to the work. Our members shared their stories of why water equity and climate justice work is so critical and personal to them. From the drought and affordability challenges in the West, to the toxic waters plaguing the Great Lakes region, to the sea-level rise and climate disasters in the Gulf South region, these challenges are a matter of life or death for our members and their communities. As policy advocates, we tend to get wrapped up in the policy world, but this work is deeply spiritual, cultural, and poetic. For many of our Indigenous partners, water and nature are sacred and have spirits and give life, and for many others, they are sources of joy, healing, and recreation, in addition to their very basic but important role of keeping us alive.

PolicyLink believes that arts and culture are not only strategies to achieve but also core components of an equitable society; and that arts and culture can activate, amplify, and extend the power and reach of the voices of the communities we serve. Recognizing the importance of these strategies, PolicyLink established the Arts, Culture, and Equitable Development initiative as a critical part of our equity work. Over the years, arts and culture strategies have become increasingly important to other aspects of PolicyLink work. Until recently, our arts and culture team at PolicyLink was led by Kalima Rose, Victor Rubin, Jeremy Liu, Lorrie Chang, Lupe Garcia, and me. We were tasked with finding opportunities to embed arts and culture strategies into our other programmatic work at PolicyLink, while leading initiatives to work with artists and creative organizations to advance equity through creative community-development approaches. With various members of our arts and culture team also being a part of our water equity team at PolicyLink (Kalima, Lupe, and me), we recognized the opportunity to infuse creative and cultural approaches into the work.

Having engaged with creatives and cultural leaders on various other initiatives, we decided that the Caucus could benefit from an infusion of intentional artistic and cultural strategies. We launched a collaboration with cultural activists Mika Gadsden and Nana Fofie Amina Bashir, and hip-hop artist Benny Starr. We codeveloped a plan to produce a podcast and a tool for engaging artists more meaningfully in advocacy work. We debuted these works of art at a virtual event in July of 2021.

To ensure buy-in and engagement from the Caucus, the PolicyLink water equity team invited members to join a Water x Arts & Culture working group, where they could help our team strategize, advise, and provide feedback on our activities. We received feedback from members that this was a welcome new way to engage in the Caucus's work, especially for folks who were less involved or experienced in the policy advocacy or technical aspects of the water world. This became a highly valuable space for the team and working group members to not only discuss the work but also to get to know one another on a more personal, cultural, and spiritual level. For example, many of us are often asked to participate in check-ins as part of our meetings, and facilitators are more regularly opening with land acknowledgments. However, we do not often get to learn more about these lands and what they mean to the people who live on them. In one of the first working group meetings we had, we started the call not only with a land acknowledgment but with a storytelling prompt: “Share a story about the lands where you grew up and the story/message you carry with you from that place.” This led to a deep conversation about what home meant to each of us and how it impacts our lives and our work. From that point on, we continued to hold space for this restorative and healing practice of storytelling and community building, where we asked questions not just for the sake of asking, but to actually get to know one another, build relationships, and create more meaningful collaborations. Participants expressed appreciation for the space to share stories and take a moment from the intensity of our work to encourage reflection and healing.

One of our goals with the Water x Arts & Culture work was to create more awareness and help inform the general public about water equity and climate justice issues and how they impact all of us. As a Caucus, we had been deeply engaged in federal policy advocacy and working to advance equitable legislation, but we had not done sufficient public-facing, changing-hearts-and-minds work. We decided to leverage Mika’s podcasting experience and create a podcast series for the Water Equity and Climate Resilience Caucus. We wanted to highlight the great work Caucus members are leading and elevate the voices and perspectives of their communities, while also emphasizing the importance of artistic, cultural, and spiritual approaches to equity and advocacy work. We codeveloped a series that highlighted the various topics our members care about, including water affordability, sea-level rise and flooding, access to waterways, Indigenous sovereignty, and more. Each episode was anchored by a track that was relevant to the topic from A Water Album by Benny Starr. Mika also included audio clips from an interview she hosted with Benny and three youths from Charleston, South Carolina, where they discussed what resonated with them from A Water Album and how music and arts bring joy, memories, and healing.

The other main outcome of our work was a resource we called A Water Album Curriculum: Thoughtfully Leveraging Arts & Culture to Inform Policy. This materialized from conversations with Benny, Mika, and other artists PolicyLink had worked with in the past around meaningful collaborations with artists and creatives. Many of them have been part of projects with organizations, foundations, or other institutions that have felt extractive and devaluing. Oftentimes, artists are brought in to produce or perform something at the last minute, as an added element to an otherwise stale project or event. Through our various initiatives at PolicyLink, we have learned to respect and appreciate artists and creatives for more than their products, and to recognize the value they bring to planning, designing, and other processes they are typically left out of. This led us to dream up a curriculum that lays out some promising practices for engaging with artists in advocacy work in a way that is collaborative, meaningful, impactful, and respectful of all parties involved. It includes tips like involving artists early on in a process, setting ground rules for the collaboration, compensating them meaningfully for their work, and actually listening to and incorporating their opinions and perspectives. We want the resource to remind and inform institutions that artists can bring creative, innovative, and culturally rooted ideas and interventions to a process, and that diverse thinking can lead to more impactful solutions.

To debut, celebrate, and reflect on all this great work, we hosted From Artistry to Advocacy: Lessons Learned from a Collaboration Between Creatives and Advocates on July 14, 2021. Through spiritual grounding exercises, conversations, performances, and a call to action, this virtual event explored the challenges of collaborations between creatives and institutions and offered recommendations for organizations seeking to partner with artists to advance their policy advocacy work. This event was the culmination of our work together with Benny, Mika, and Nana Fofie on the podcast and the curriculum, but it does not signal the end of integrating arts and culture strategies into PolicyLink and the Caucus’s work around water equity. Many of our Caucus members have invited Benny to bring his knowledge and talents to their meetings and convenings, and our arts and culture working group members are joining forces with our communications consultants to ensure creative approaches are utilized in our Caucus’s narrative work. They will continue to seek opportunities to leverage arts and culture strategies to advance our water equity and climate resilience goals.

At PolicyLink, we have learned a tremendous amount from these artistic collaborations. One of the biggest takeaways is that artists have a way of translating technical concepts into beautiful, digestible pieces that people can more easily understand and feel—something that is often lacking in policy work. We are also reminded of the humanity, joy, and beauty of the world we are trying to create together. As Jeff Chang asserts, “Cultural change always precedes political change.”2 We need artists and creatives in this movement if we are going to make long-lasting, meaningful change.

PolicyLink is a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity by Lifting Up What Works. To advance equity, PolicyLink advocates for groundbreaking policy changes that enable everyone, especially people of color, to be economically secure, live in healthy communities of opportunity, and benefit from a just society. PolicyLink is guided by the belief that the solutions to the nation’s challenges lie with those closest to these challenges: When the wisdom, voice, and experience of those traditionally absent from policymaking drive the process, profound policy transformations emerge.