Community Water Center: Clean Water One Grant at a Time

Laurel Firestone and Susana De Anda

By guest blogger Ruwani Ekanayake

“How do you learn about the problem and the power you have to bring about change?” This is a guiding principle of the Community Water Center (CWC), which is dedicated to education and advocacy around drinking water issues in California’s Central Valley.

Susana De Anda and Laurel Firestone, the co-founders of CWC, met in 2004 at the Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment (a long-time grant partner of the Women’s Foundation of California). Through their work at CRPE they became aware of the crisis that Central Valley inhabitants face when it comes to obtaining clean, safe drinking water. Seventy-five percent of the nitrate health standard violations that occurred in California in 2007 were found in the San Joaquin Valley. A disproportionate number of the communities affected are low–income communities and communities of color.

In 2006, when Susana and Laurel made the decision to spin off from CRPE to create their own organization as the Community Water Center, the Foundation provided their first grant.. “We took a big risk spinning off from CRPE,” says Susana, “[but] more than any other foundation, the Women’s Foundation of California really has supported us, not just with money, but by being a reference for other funders and creating a community of powerful women working for change throughout our region.”

A key reason CWC approached the Foundation for early support is because water is an issue that has particular resonance for women and girls. “Women are more often the ones that have to provide drinking water for their families and use water to cook… and make sure that children have safe water in schools,” notes Susana, so it is no surprise that over 80% of the community members who are active with CWC are women and girls.

When CWC became independent in 2006, their mission was broadly defined: to create a sustainable entity dedicated to Central Valley water issues. Over the years, their mission—and their successes—became more distinct, in both grassroots activism and policy advocacy. In the last year, CWC has worked with 30 communities in the Central Valley. In 2009 CWC was instrumental in the writing of AB 1242, California’s Human Right to Water Act (which was vetoed by then-Governor Schwarzenegger). One of their community partners was appointed to the Central Valley’s Regional Water Quality Control Board, which is responsible for protecting the quality of 40% of California’s water supply. According to Susana, it marked “the first time that a low-income woman of color has been on that board.”

Despite their original focus on the Central Valley, Laurel and Susana have found that their message ripples out further than they ever thought possible. At first, it was Coachella Valley in Southern California, where they were called to help communities address issues with arsenic contamination of groundwater. Then their youth delegation was among those featured in a news segment called “Our Thirsty World” on the children’s television network Nickelodeon. And earlier this year, an independent expert from the United Nations attended one of their community meetings to collect data in support of the 2010 UN Declaration of the Human Right to Water and Sanitation. They are pleased, but unsurprised, by the amount of attention their activism has received. “We haven’t found a community yet that doesn’t have some kind of a water challenge, and that’s really depressing in some ways, but it also means that everyone is a potential ally in this movement,” says Laurel. Despite their growth and increased reach, Laurel and Susana haven’t lost sight of what really matters. “At the end of the day, water is something that humans cannot live without.”

Reflecting on the support that CWC has received from the Women’s Foundation of Califorania, Susana noted that “having the Foundation be an advocate as well as having them take a position… that just magnifies our power so much more. And it’s very unusual for a funder.” Susana continued, “We are at the point where we need to think through what we want to be in the next five years, and we certainly wouldn’t be able to do that without the Foundation.”

The Women’s Foundation of California is proud to have supported the Community Water Center with policy advocacy training, capacity building, and grant support totaling $93,480 since 2006.

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