Blog: Pam Labadie

As you make your river, so you must row in it. Pam Labadie, marketing director for the Huron River Watershed Council, opines on the River Up! pilot project and why us residents of the Great Lakes basin aren't as flush with water as we think.

Post 3: The United Nations of the Huron River

I recently found myself in a conference room at Columbia College in Chicago surrounded by a diverse group of thoughtful, articulate, focused nonprofit communicators.  These were folks from every size and shape of nonprofit – service organizations like Women Employed, Christopher House, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy, and government coalitions like Chicago's Metropolitan Planning Council. We all had one thing in common – our desire to create strategic communications plans and use our organizational values to craft strong messages.

Our leader, the venerable president and co-founder of Community Media Workshop, was Thom Clark. CMW is an organization dedicated to providing communications coaching for grassroots, arts and other nonprofit organizations. Thom has over 35 years as an editor, photojournalist and social enterprise entrepreneur in Chicago's nonprofit sector and he was at the Making Media Connections conference to teach us how to tell people what our organization does in less than five minutes.

Fondly known as "The Elevator Speech," the idea is to state a common easily-understood problem, how your organization solves it, and the benefit to your listener. Then according to Thom, you are supposed to launch into a funny or startling metaphor that makes your work familiar. Thom advised that the metaphor could be a fairy tale, jingle or ad campaign, biblical, musical, cultural . . . the idea was try to find something memorable.

As we did the elevator speech exercise, thoughts raced through my mind. How am I going to describe an organization whose work is as varied and complex as the 10 staff members who run it in one or two minutes? What funny or startling metaphors could possibly apply? Is the Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC) like the head coach of a Big Ten football team, coordinating a win of each game and ultimately the conference title? Or is it more like a primary care practitioner working with specialists taking care of a patient with cancer? Is it like the Round Table where knights come together to pledge allegiance to King Arthur and Camelot? Or is it like Dumbledore's Army, sworn to protect the both the magical and muggle worlds from Voldemort and his Death Eaters?  Thom, to his credit, encouraged us to relax and be creative – "It's called brainstorming," he said.

So here it is. HRWC is like the United Nations for the Huron River. We are a multi-jurisdictional organization that facilitates cooperation among a varied group of Southeastern Michigan communities in protecting and revitalizing the single natural feature that we all have in common – the river. We work with elected community leaders, government employees, businesses, other nonprofits and concerned individuals that share the goal of providing clean drinking water, river-related recreation and economic and ecological prosperity to our area.

Like the UN, whose role has expanded from its original mission of stopping wars between countries, HRWC's role has expanded. HRWC was established by law in 1965 to address river pollution. Our work now includes coordinating programs and volunteer efforts that include pollution prevention and abatement, hands-on citizen education and river monitoring, natural resource planning, mass media education and information, and wetland and floodplain protection.

We have a few publicly recognized programs. For 20 years, Adopt-A-Stream has sent hundreds of volunteers out into the watershed to identify and count river bugs that are sensitive to water pollution and habitat changes. The newer Huron River Water Trail is a collaborative effort to develop recreation on the river and economic opportunity for the communities along it through better access and easy-to-get information.

But we also work on many programs that are less visible to the public. There's our work in coordinating water quality monitoring and developing outreach materials for communities managing stormwater regulatory compliance. There's our River Scouts program that teaches canoers and kayakers about the Scenic Rivers Section of the Huron and enlists their help in protecting its natural habitat as they paddle a section of the river rich in fish, wildlife, vegetation and scenic beauty. And the Bioreserve program, working to map and prioritize the remaining natural areas in the watershed for preservation.

Like the UN, we have a dedicated professional staff. HRWC staff members include watershed planners with backgrounds in environmental management, conservation biology, and public policy; and ecologists with expertise in aquatic macro-invertebrates, fish ecology, GIS analysis, and code and ordinance development. Our executive director was the first to earn a joint MBA and MS (in natural resource policy) at the University of Michigan.  Our stewardship coordinator has over 10 years experience working with and developing volunteers in environmental conservation specifically.

Like the UN, when action needs to be taken, HRWC steps in. We restore stream banks, put in rain gardens, sell rain barrels, install detention basins, hold workshops and find project funding.

Like the UN's work in world peace, HRWC remains the only environmental organization dedicated solely to the health of the Huron River. Fortunately we have a lot of help. Individuals, local businesses, and more than 40 communities currently support our work through voluntary membership. Hundreds of volunteers work with us. And over the years, HRWC has accomplished its goals through the use of technical data, factual information and citizen stewardship to influence decisions made by various local agencies, businesses, and the people who live within the watershed.