Developing a Vision for Water Justice

Ceremonial flowers in ocean watersThis interview has been edited for brevity with permission of the interviewee, and a version of this interview appeared in OEC’s Fall 2020 Newsletter.

Photo of Dr. Alaí Reyes-Santos near the ocean

Dr. Alaí Reyes-Santos

Over the past year, OEC’s water program has been co-developing a collaborative project centering environmental justice and community priorities for our shared water resources. Together with University of Oregon, Coalition of Communities of Color, and Willamette Partnership, we are working with community-based organizations across the state to elevate the experiences and concerns of Black, Native, Latinx, immigrant and low-income Oregonians in water policy decision-making. This effort is called the Oregon Water Futures Project.

One of our partners in this work is Dr. Alaí Reyes-Santos, faculty at University of Oregon, experienced researcher, author and facilitator, and tradition keeper of Afro-Caribbean regla de osha. Dr. Reyes-Santos grew up in Puerto Rico and moved to Eugene in 2005 after completing her degree at UC San Diego. Her community-based research and consulting work has taken her around the world, home in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and throughout rural Oregon to help lead social equity conversations. She now serves on the Governor’s Environmental Equity Committee and brings her expertise in fostering open conversations about power, solidarity, survival and resistance to this collaboration.

We caught up with Dr. Reyes-Santos to talk about her perspectives on water in Oregon.

What does water justice mean to you?

I grew up in a space where we didn’t take water for granted. My mom grew up carrying water on her head from a creek near her house. I grew up in a place where we had “potable water,” but factories were dumping in it, and we had high rates of cancer in our community.

Water justice is deeply connected to economic and racial justice. Anywhere in world, people who have money can get the water they need. Anywhere I’ve traveled, researched, or lived, this is true, especially in the U.S. Who has access, who doesn’t and what kind of water they have access to – these connections are really important to me.

Communities of color so often don’t have access to advocate for water in different ways, and don’t have their knowledge and experiences validated in academia and public policy. This is particularly true for the Indigenous guardians that have had their water taken from them and their knowledge vilified.

What would it look like to have water justice that is holistic? Not just tactical access to healthy water, but to center how we know about water, how we talk about water, how we connect with water in emotional ways.

What drew you to research and organizing around water and water policy?

Quote by Reyes-Santos from World Water Day 2019

As I learned ceremonial practices from Indigenous circles in Mexico and the Dominican Republic, I was trained as someone who took care of water in ceremony. I learned prayers for water, how to prepare ceremonial teas, how to purify water, and more. I was doing this work in the mountains where the only access to water might be a well or lake, and the quality of water was often unclear.

In ceremony, you realize how sacred and essential water is. To pray and keep our traditions alive, we need water. Water keeps our peoples alive not only physically, but also culturally and spiritually alive.

I continued to learn about water around the world from my ceremonial elders, and as a researcher I wanted to look at water through multiple lenses. When I moved to Oregon in 2005, the first event I attended was Indigenous Solidarity Day on Oct. 12, 2005, where people were talking about the Save the Salmon campaign. I knew then that I wanted to be involved in water issues in the state, but it only came into fruition in the last 3 years.

What values and experiences do you bring to this work from your life and family?

The first value I can think of is conservation. When I think of my family, I remember that everything was about how to save all of the resources you have, how to save the natural resources, care for it and not take it for granted.

When I share space with other immigrants from the Caribbean or Latin America, this is also a very shared value. There’s this idea that the value of “conservation” comes out of environmental movements. For some of us, it’s just that our families told us, you just take care of your water.

Humility is another value that I bring to this work, particularly humility in the face of those things you don’t know. My family and other community elders in my life, they have a saying: wherever you go, do as people do. It’s about respecting cultural difference and respecting that you are somewhere else. That really comes in handy talking to so many people from different cultural backgrounds and parts of the state, bringing an openness to learn where people are coming from.

What are your hopes for Oregon’s future?

Image of marsh landscapeI really dream of a time when we will be able to talk about water justice in a space that allows for everyone to be involved in the conversation. I’d love to be in a space where we can all talk about water, think long-term about what it looks like to think and care about water as communities, to love water together.

I dream for a time when many of us don’t have to live in fear because we’re in a state of emergency. That we can practice our rights, our rights of sharing expression, our thoughts, values, and experiences without fear. That I can hold ceremony in my house again. That I won’t be attacked for just being in the world.

The economy and masks have become a very racialized experience in my community. I’d love for us to be able to talk about race and racism in ways that are non-violent. There’s no easy fix for something that is engrained in our psyche and institutions. How does that inner and community work impact public policy and our society?

What’s top of mind for you about water justice in Oregon?

I’m thinking a lot about how we bridge different water interests in the state to create water practices that are just and that are not seen as a threat to economic growth or jobs. We need to have those conversations, need to think about how we bring to the table people who seem to have different interests. The truth is, caring for water quality, being concerned about toxics in the water and runoff, doesn’t mean that we don’t care about a person’s livelihood, and vice versa. This is about caring for the thing that will sustain livelihoods and the community around it.

This work is hard – especially now. What centers you and keeps you moving forward?

If we have to fight now, this is our fight. The world didn’t end with our ancestors, and it won’t end with us. That ancestral memory teaches us that this is not an exceptional time. There have been other times. This keeps me grounded.

We are trying to work through things that people have been working through for a long time. I’m not indispensable. I’m not going to save it. I’m just doing my small piece. It’s a community effort. There’s no individual that can make everything happen.

Learn more about how OEC and Dr. Reyes-Santos are working together with other partners around the state to lift up community voices and develop a collaborative understanding of water justice as part of the Oregon Water Futures Project.

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