Whatcha gonna do when the water keeps rising?” Hip-hop artist Benny Starr’s question reverberates in A Water Album, one of the works featured in PolicyLink’s Water x Arts & Culture initiative and in this special issue of PUBLIC: A Journal of Imagining America. Addressing the impact of years of inequitable governmental policies and systems on communities of color, Starr shifts the perspective on the crisis of failing water infrastructures to foreground the opportunity to radically reimagine our society.
Using water as context and concept, the artists, scholars, and organizers in this issue offer inspiration and examples of a reimagined world. Taking us on a journey that crosses oceans and carries us down rivers, we begin with an exploration of Principles and Practices of water work. In the ‘womb work’ of whale whispering, Michaela Harrison honors ancient cross-species relationships to offer a practice for releasing generational trauma. Marsae Lynette Mitchell shares a movement piece that recalls cultural memories retained and carried through water currents. Our river bends, and we shift to the application of creative thinking and practices in addressing issues around water. Kristan Cockerill draws from the properties of water to open spaces for new ways of discussing our water-related challenges. Employing Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” as an analytical framework, Ivory Council and coauthors examine the use of the Mississippi River as a conduit for environmental racism. Carolina Osorio Gil demonstrates the power of collaborative story-based theater for knowledge exchange and community building around water governance. Taking a multimodal approach to public scholarship, Caroline Imani Collins invites an extension of notions of blackness beyond the Atlantic through an investigation of Black mariners in the Pacific. Alissa Simon’s poem, “The River's Bend,” compels a contemplation of the water's significance to us and our human nature. What if we realize its importance only once it’s gone?
Under Case Studies and Resources, our authors share learnings from the diverse landscape of water work. Axel Santana offers insights into how creative and humanistic approaches amplified the work of the national Water Equity and Climate Resilience Caucus. Joel Pruce and Bridget Graham present “Beloved Work,” a podcast episode featuring women and mothers on the front line of struggles for clean and affordable water in Michigan and Appalachia. Brad Monsma converses with community leaders in Washington State fighting to clean up a Superfund site, strengthen climate resilience, and build community capacity. Todd Lookingbill and Terry Dolson take us across the country to Virginia, and the experience of a community-university partnership in implementing an eco-corridor restoration project.
We conclude our water travels with visual artworks aimed at increasing awareness of water/ways. Nancy Nowacek and Emily Blumenfeld trace the development and growth of New York’s Works on Water artist collective and movement, with a whirlwind tour showcasing over a dozen artists working with water as a medium. International water artist Basia Irland guides us through her decades-long Ice Receding/Books Reseeding project, which brings community members and scientists together in this watershed restoration effort. A visit to the Gallery extends our tour, with works on exhibition by Winoka Yepa, Lacey Goldberg, Jayeesha Dutta, and Athena LaTocha. Winoka Yepa’s work asks us to consider life without running water and, through her installation, Lacey Goldberg shows us how water species in Pennsylvania have been affected by climate change. Inspired by Michaela Harrison’s whale whispering project, Jayeesha Dutta’s fascinating visual work inspires us to consider the importance of listening even if through water. Using large pieces of paper and gallons of water, ink, and natural materials, Athena LaTocha makes large-scale visual-based work to trigger memory and evocation of a place. Time and space allow consideration not just of geography and typography, but also the history of that place through improvisation.
As you move through the pieces in this issue, we invite you to consider Starr’s provocation. What are you going to do as the water keeps rising? And how might water—creator, healer, sustainer, survivor, remaker—serve as a guide in the long-haul work that lies ahead?