Photo: (L-to-r) Rachel Roberts and Bebe Schaefer, co-founders of “Water&” — a Wash., D.C., nonprofit water advocacy group
By Jacob Wheeler
Too often we hear that members of Generation Z, those born between 1997-2012, mistrust government, worry about the future of democracies, and feel overwhelmed by the weighty burden of climate change they are inheriting. But from the depths rise the leaders of tomorrow—our beacon of hope.
“The vibe of the youth climate movement,” writes The New York Times, is “powered by rage and distrust, it is decentralized, and it is increasingly focused on the inequitable effects of global warming.” Case in point, on March 25, the “Friday for the Future” global youth movement is organizing protests around the world to call for “climate reparations and justice.”
You’ve heard, no doubt, of Greta Thunberg, the 19-year-old Swedish environmental activist. But you have probably not heard yet of Bebe Schaefer and Rachel Roberts, two students at American University in Washington, D.C., who recently launched the nonprofit organization Water&, on a “constant journey of collective action.”
We at FLOW are thrilled to join hands with Water& and other young adult-led organizations in the Great Lakes Basin, and in our nation’s capital, to expand hope and leadership in the protection of our public waters. We intend this effort to support not just the youth climate movement, but also help feed the emerging “youth water movement” focused on a clean environment, public health, and equitable outcomes.
To celebrate World Water Day, the annual United Nations event that this year focused on “Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible,” Water& produced incisive infographics, a legislative advocacy campaign, and a powerful and inspirational video titled, “G is for Groundwater,” which weaves together a narrated poem with hand-drawn, digital imagery of gray, blue, and green colors seeping across the globe. Watch that video here:
FLOW interviewed Bebe and Rachel about their inspiration for launching Water&, their connection to FLOW, and what campaigns and initiatives we’ll see from them in the weeks and months to come.
FLOW: What inspired you to launch Water&, and why now?
Bebe Schaefer: We were inspired to launch Water& because the next generation should play a direct role in preserving our shared water resources for future generations. We have seen many youth-led organizations that focus on climate change; however, many did not encompass water’s importance within their initiatives. Growing up in Michigan, I was always surrounded by the beauty of freshwater, and moving to Washington, D.C., for college provided me with the opportunity to delve into policy solutions to protect it. However, I also noticed that we are simply not doing enough to protect water when juxtaposed with the bulk of attention on climate. We are at a turning point in our society where our freshwater resources are being bought and sold by companies that aim to make a profit off of water, instead of protecting it. We see this as an injustice that must be solved, and Water& is intent on building a movement to reverse this growing problem.
Rachel Roberts: What inspired us to launch Water& initially were discrepancies we saw in other initiatives that did not ethically and morally align with the goal of protecting and respecting water as our most crucial element. I have always had a passion to help others and create positive change in the world for future generations, and this opportunity to advocate for water rights fell into place with both my beliefs and my incentive to help our planet. We took the leap to start Water& in our second year of college, which was a lot to take on as full-time undergraduate students, but we are persistent and quite stubborn, so we have gotten incredibly far in less than a year.
FLOW: Tell us about the name. (You didn’t get cut off before registering a third word in the name, did you? LOL)
Bebe: Haha, no, but it would be quite funny if we did.
The name Water& came out of understanding water’s unique role in sustaining life. Everything comes back to water. When we were going through the names we thought “&Water,” but we recognized that water is not an afterthought. The ampersand represents futurity and connectedness. Water always has been, and will continue to be, our future, and it is connected to everything else in humanity, so it made sense to juxtapose “water” next to “&,” showing that it is water and all that water provides for humanity. As a result, the name Water& was born.
Rachel: Right, we didn’t get cut off, but more left it open-ended. While designing our initial branding, I wanted to utilize the meaning of the ampersand because it is so reflective of the mission we are on. The ampersand represents connection, community, and is an indication of the future, an expectation for something more, and excitement for what is to come. This symbol represents our mission and our vision for the future, and worked beautifully when thinking about names for initiatives as well, (for example “Water& You”).
FLOW: What connected you to FLOW? And what resonates with you about our work?
Bebe: It was actually a funny story. It was 11 p.m. one night, and I was sitting in my bed scrolling on my phone and randomly thought to look up “public trust solutions” to water problems. At this point we had been building out Water& for seven months and were looking for ways to engage with other organizations. I realized that our values closely aligned with FLOW’s, and we were eager to partner with another organization that values water in the ways that we do. We believe that water needs to stay in the hands of people and the communities that enjoy it, and not under the control of private companies that profit off of it. We loved that FLOW had waged a direct battle with Nestlé and their goal to privatize our Michigan freshwater. We also loved that FLOW expressed perspectives on water through art, policy, and community building, which is exactly what Water& does. We saw this as a perfect partnership because, as young people, we can reach an audience that FLOW might not normally resonate with as much, and vice versa.
Rachel: We connected with FLOW initially because of how aligned our organizations were together, with both our initiatives and with the things we wanted to do in the future. We kind of stumbled upon FLOW after looking into public trust solutions, and we both recognized how connected our mentalities were and decided to work together for this year’s World Water Day.
FLOW: What campaigns and initiatives might we see from Water& in the months to come?
Bebe & Rachel: Water& is working on a bunch of initiatives coming up. On April 7, we will be celebrating our one-year anniversary by unveiling an incredible art piece done by our Artistic Director Aubree Frost, announcing our Next Gen coalition spearheaded by our Director of Advocacy Kendall Kalustyan, and coming out with our “She is Water” poem by our Director of Research & Creative Expression Kaylin Lemajeur. We will also be announcing our online art gallery with features of artists who share their perspectives on water with the theme of “Repair & Restore.”
FLOW: What’s your personal call to action to protect freshwater? How do you connect with fresh water on a daily or weekly basis?
Bebe: When I was younger, going to the Great Lakes was always something I looked forward to. At the time, we had a house in Benzonia, Michigan, and whenever we faced external stresses in our life, my family would pack up the car and drive up to the Great Lakes. As I got older, I learned to appreciate water in a different way. Rather than basking in the sun on the lake, I realized that there are people who cannot enjoy water in the ways that I do. When I was in high school, the Flint Water Crisis captured the attention of everyone in the nation, and the only thing I remember thinking was, “Why do I have clean tap water while people that live 40 miles from me do not?” This realization propelled me to take political action to change the way that water is respected and valued in the eyes of the law.
Connecting with water for me means taking the time in my day to reflect on how grateful I am for water. When it rains, I take the time to thank water for nourishing the earth. I take time out of my day to recognize that I exist because of water, and it is my purpose to protect our water and its role in sustaining life.
Rachel: Growing up I spent my summers in upstate New York on a beautiful freshwater lake, and those memories of the natural beauty of the water and of the land around it always stuck with me. Knowing fresh water is largely unprotected and has faced the brunt of the poor treatment of our earth, and having core memories take place surrounded by freshwater systems, I am more drawn to working towards protecting it. I try to take time out of my day, as I am using the water resources that I have access to, to think about those who do not have the accessibility that I do, and how I can work to change that, for both the betterment of humanity and the betterment of our earth.
FLOW: Since you’re in the Beltway, what’s your read on how people in Washington, D.C., understand water protection issues in the Great Lakes Basin? And what do they misunderstand?
Bebe: When I discuss this issue with people in D.C., people’s minds often go to the Flint Water Crisis. I don’t think that people are aware that 20% of surface freshwater in the world is held in the Great Lakes. Further, the majority of people are not aware of the rapidly growing problem of water privatization. In D.C., people move so quickly and I have noticed that although people care about water, the majority of people are not acutely aware of the toxins being dumped into our water supply. Further, people do not know how to get involved to protect water and keep this shared resource safe for future generations.
Rachel: People in Washington, D.C., recognize the water protection issues that have been so prevalent in the media, for example, the coverage that Flint received on the lead-exposure crisis due to corrosive water. I do believe there is a lack of understanding, as well as misunderstanding, in D.C., of both the gravity of the water crisis and the expansiveness of the lack of water accessibility that is facing the Great Lakes Basin, not just Flint.
FLOW: What proactive role can the federal government play in helping us all understand the fragility of the Great Lakes? What gives you hope?
Bebe & Rachel: We believe the federal government has a major role to play in protecting the Great Lakes. However, we also believe that recently the U.S. has made steps in the bipartisan infrastructure law giving a billion dollars towards the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Further, Senator Gary Peters in late October 2021 announced new research facilities at Lake Superior State University geared towards responding to freshwater oil spills. [Editor’s note: Bebe Schaefer serves as an intern in the Wash., D.C., office of Sen. Peters].
Organizations and people that love and care for the Great Lakes give us hope for the future. It gives us hope that we have a team of incredible people that also support this goal and want to ensure the safety of the Great Lakes and all water resources across the globe. It gives us hope that policies and people from opposite sides of the aisle can come together and work towards a common goal as shown through the bipartisan infrastructure law and other initiatives to regulate PFAS and other toxic chemicals in our water supply.