The idea of watershed stewardship — local citizens engaged in restoration — has never gotten enough credit as a means to achieving a healthy Chesapeake.

Since the infancy of Bay restoration, the issues of habitat degradation, poor water quality and unsustainable fisheries, as well as forming the policies to address them, have drawn the attention of the watershed’s leaders. News stories continue to cover the clashes over agriculture; industry; stormwater runoff fees; new development; and limiting crab harvests.

The new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement of 2014, with its 10 goals and 31 outcomes, will guide the restoration effort for more than a decade.[one_full background_image=”” ] Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signing Chesapeake Watershed Agreement on June 16, 2014 (Chesapeake Bay Program/Flickr)Its stewardship goal includes outcomes that would increase the number of citizens directly trained and mobilized for the environment, as well as address the lack of diversity among the watershed’s stewards and the need to cultivate a new generation of diverse local leaders.

Some people may not consider these outcomes as important as those for fisheries, land conservation or water quality. And, previous agreements have included some aspects of outreach, stewardship and environmental education. But earlier efforts to reach out to citizens have been insufficient — especially when it comes to including all citizens in the restoration of rivers and Bay.

Of all the stewardship commitments, diversity may be the most challenging. Our eyes were recently opened by work done last spring by the Alliance’s Shanita Brown as a part of her Chesapeake Conservation Corps capstone project. Brown focused on engaging the Annapolis African American community on aspects of the environment and the Bay. The project involved focus groups who detailed their experiences with the Bay, streams and local environmental community. Shanita Brown conducting one of her focus groups on the African American community’s involvement in environmentalism in Annapolis, MD.Nearly all of the participants expressed a concern for degraded environmental conditions but they also acknowledged a feeling of exclusivity in restoration. One person spoke to the inequality in restoration efforts in the Annapolis area: “They’re beautifying it for certain people; they’re not beautifying it for our community.” This is clearly not what we have envisioned — a quality watershed to be enjoyed only by the privileged.

The term “environmental justice” brings to mind instances like those at work in the Annapolis community, where many in minority communities feel excluded from access to natural areas as well as groups and efforts involved in reducing pollution and restoration. This exclusivity is an affront to the essence of environmental justice: equal distribution of the environment’s benefits and equal protection from its hazards.

Findings of the focus groups suggest that minorities are indeed interested in their local streams and parks and want to take action. But groups desiring to reach them must work within the community. Houses of worship and community centers provide a great focus for creating new programs and promoting existing opportunities.

For example, with support from the state of Maryland, the Alliance has begun working with the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake and the Watershed Stewards Academy to help local churches address polluted runoff on their properties. Of the 25 or more churches enrolled in the program, RiverWise Congregations, a dozen of the partners are African American houses of worship like the Mount Olive AME Church. These churches provide a touchpoint for engaging a diverse community and mobilizing them for the environment.

The Rev. Johnny Calhoun of Mount Olive AME has passionately recruited other churches to join the AME in what he calls a “Black is the New Green” initiative.

Groups who join RiverWise work with partners to design and implement stormwater mitigation solutions. They are able to send up to two members to the academy where they learn to become stewards for that church community. Not only do participants get involved in reducing runoff and improving their church’s environment, but they are also being trained to be citizen stewards in their community.

Organizations like the Alliance have also been trying other innovative ways to reach out to new communities. Now in its third year, initiatives like the Alliance’s Restoring the Environment and Developing Youth program have been successfully engaging young adults of all races and faiths to support the Howard County stormwater program. Crews of young people from the community get job training and an environmental education while serving on construction crews building and maintaining rain gardens and other conservation practices — often in areas not previously included in restoration efforts. The Alliance is seeking funding so READY can expand to other Maryland counties. READY youth workers installing rain garden in Howard County.This kind of action-based engagement is, we hope, what the Chesapeake Bay Program will promote when management strategies to accomplish the new agreement’s goals and outcomes are released in 2015.

This may be easier said than done, though. The Bay Program has traditionally tackled quantifiable goals (e.g. total maximum daily loads for nutrient reduction). But this is not the case for measuring improvement in stewardship efforts. Currently, there is no clear baseline or measure of success for the sustainability goal or the associated diversity outcome. The Alliance is organizing discussions on how to best measure such things as behavior change, volunteerism and local leadership.

It also remains to be seen if management strategies to increase citizen action and local leadership that have an impact in minority communities will be a priority because this goal is voluntary and it is up to each region to decide how much to support it.

But each journey begins with one step and it is important that the opportunity for citizen stewardship was addressed in the agreement. By recognizing that diverse, trained and mobilized citizens and local leaders are essential to restore and sustain this watershed, we have taken that first step.

We know that minority groups are under-represented in the endeavors to restore the Bay. We have also found that citizens will take action when we meet them where they are, in their local community, on their local stream.

We urge organizations to develop programs that reach out to, and partner with, minority communities in a way that the Alliance has. On this small community-level scale, it is possible for organizations to forge relationships between people and the environment.

We all have a right to a clean environment and a restored Bay watershed and we should all be a part of realizing that right.