More than a decade after Sharon Day carried water from Gulfport, Mississippi, to Lake Superior, she is still organizing Nibi (Water) Walks to honor the water and pray for its health in the future.
Walks are planned along the Kinnickinnic River in Wisconsin on Saturday, May 21, and along the Cedar and Iowa Rivers between Dodge County, Minnesota, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, starting May 23. And next year, Day plans to lead a Mississippi River walk, where water from the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico will be brought to the river’s headwaters.
“When you look around the globe, women – we are the ones who gather the water,” Day told those gathered for a recent MPR News In Focus virtual event on environmental justice. “Women are also life givers. …That life lives in a womb in water and that water purifies itself. And then we come into the world in a gush of water. So it’s then women’s responsibility to take care of the water.”
Day, executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, talked about being inspired by the late Josephine Mandamin, an environmental activist from Wikwemikong First Nation in Ontario who organized the 2011 walk, which brought ocean water from all four directions to Lake Superior.
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“Josephine said to me, ‘I had a realization that we’ve orphaned this water. We took it from its home, and now it’s our responsibility to take care of it until we put it into Lake Superior. And then who knows how long it will take that water to get back to its home, but when it does, it will confer with all the other waters, and it will tell them that there are still human beings who love and care for water,’” Day recalled.
Many of the walks start at a river’s headwaters and end in a place where pollutants from miles of tributaries come together.
“When we carry that water, we’re speaking to the spirit of the water we gathered at the headwaters where it’s cleaner, more pure. And we carry it, singing and praying every single day, and we put in the confluence of the mouth of the river or the ocean. We’re giving the water a taste of herself: This is how you began, pure and clean, and this is how we wish for you to be again,” Day said.
The Anishinaabe grandmothers carrying water reminded Francisco Segovia of the women carrying water in Central America – a region where climate change has forced people to migrate.
Studies have shown climate change has a disproportionate impact on women, and that includes additional labor to access clean water. “If you rely on farming, you rely on clean water, and that is extra work that is added,” said Segovia, the executive director of COPAL, a grassroots organization working to unite Latinos in Minnesota.
Segovia said it’s important to understand the extreme weather and other effects of climate change on migrants who arrive in the U.S. At the same time, COPAL has focused on environmental hazards Latinos and others face in Minnesota, such as in the East Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis where a concentration of pollution is linked to health problems like asthma.
Each year, air pollution plays a role in hundreds of deaths and hospitalizations in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Smoke from wildfires, many of which are fueled by climate change, has increased in Minnesota, and some neighborhoods are exposed to more pollution from industrial facilities and vehicle exhaust than others. People of color and low-income people often live in those neighborhoods.
Tee McClenty’s son has asthma, and she saw the effects of air pollution as she worked in health care. It has affected Black, Indigenous and people of color more than others, she said.
“You can’t talk about climate without talking about racial justice,” said McClenty, executive director of MN350. “At MN350 we are aware that the climate movement has been a white movement. I think the climate movement is aware of that now.”
McClenty said that’s starting to change in Minnesota, but there’s still more work to do. “I always point out to my white counterparts, if you’re working on the environment and you look around the room and everyone looks like you, that means you’ve got some work to do,” she said. “You have to be bold and you have to unapologetically go out there and have those conversations.”
More inspiration from In Focus and MPR Story Circles on environmental justice
“There are multiple layers of environmental justice, including cultural and social identities that can lead to distinct individual experiences. To me environmental justice means creating awareness and taking actions to stop detrimental or negative environmental impact that may occur in the past or is still ongoing so we can prevent it in the future, especially where people face socio-economic challenges or have been historically displaced or marginalized based on systems we created.” - May Yang-Lee, Story Circle participant
“The plants, the trees, the animals, the water…We need to make sure that they have rights as well. If you go back to our old traditional stories, we're the last ones here. We're not needed. We're just peripheral. Mother Earth is the first one. There's no grass, there's no plants, there's no oxygen. No food. So we're the last ones here. We're the most expendable.” -Hope Flanagan, Story Circle participant
“As a student in the interior design program, I've been learning a bit more about design justice. How the design and creation of neighborhoods, cities, buildings of various types and what's around them … how they have been constructed within systems of harm. And how we can undo that?” - Madeleine Hallberg, Story Circle participant
“Environment to me is being able to fully manifest my culture in a physical sense and justice is having that reciprocated back to me without obstacle, without intrusion from outside elements.” -Charles Frempong-Longdon, Story Circle participant
How you can get involved in environmental justice efforts in Minnesota
There are few simple fixes when it comes to climate change. The problem is complex and multi-faceted. But thankfully, so are the solutions.
Here are a few examples of Minnesotans starting from the ground up to combat the warming planet and increase equity for those who are hit hardest by environmental injustice.
MN350, the group McClenty leads, seeks to build a climate movement across the state of Minnesota, with the goal of ending pollution that damages the climate, hastening a transition to clean energy and creating a just and healthy future for all.
COPAL, founded by Segovia, is a grassroots organization that seeks to impact the quality of life for Latinos in Minnesota through public policy, leadership and community service.
The Indigenous Peoples Task Force, headed by Day, began in the 1980s as a way to serve Native Americans diagnosed with HIV. But since that time, it has grown to encompass many areas of wellness for Indigenous peoples in Minnesota, including a focus on urban sanctuaries and clean water.
Nibi (water) walks are Indigenous-led ceremonies to pray for the water to be healed. A nibi walk along the Kinnickinnic River in Wisconsin will happen on May 21. A longer nibi walk is planned for late May into June along the Cedar and Iowa Rivers.
Lower Phalen Creek Project is a Native-led environmental group centered on the east side of St. Paul that seeks to protect and restore wetlands from Lake Phalen to the Mississippi River. It has several restoration events scheduled for May and June at the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary/ Wakáŋ Tipi.
Project Sweetie Pie focuses on food security and environmental justice in North Minneapolis, an area that has been designated as a food desert. The project operates a garden out of North High School as well as several other urban gardens.
Community Members for Environmental Justice is a coalition of individuals and groups working toward environmental justice in Minneapolis.
The Minnesota Environmental Justice Table is a coalition of environmental and climate justice activists and groups.
Solar Bear is the only Native-American owned full-service solar installation company in the state of Minnesota.
The Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy conducts research and provides community education through an environmental justice lens.
Fresh Energy is a policy-driven organization that seeks ways to achieve an equitable carbon-neutral economy.
Renewable Energy Partners is one of Minnesota’s only Black-owned-and-operated solar developers.
Dream of Wild Health is an intertribal nonprofit that serves the Native American community in the Twin Cities. It owns a 30-acre farm in Hugo that provides educational programs to reconnect the urban Native American community with traditional native plants and their culinary, medicinal and spiritual use.
R. Roots Garden grows fresh produce on four privately owned lots in the north Minneapolis neighborhoods of Folwell, Jordan and Willard-Hay, with the goal of feeding the community and expanding urban agriculture.
The Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa’s Increasing Diversity in Environmental Careers program provides unique college-to-career pathways for underrepresented STEM college students.
Public Policy Project is a public policy firm that focuses on issues of environmental justice affecting communities of color.
The Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability is a grassroots organization based in northeast Minnesota’s Iron Range that’s dedicated to maintaining and improving the economic, environmental and social characteristics of our area so that our residents can continue to lead healthy, productive and enjoyable lives.