Notes From the First 'Water Tending School' at Water Bar

Last week, we had the opportunity to pilot our very first ‘Water Tending School’ workshop at Water Bar & Public Studio, with our partners Freshwater and the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (MWMO).

This workshop was designed after listening closely to our partners and community in a series of ‘water story circles’ held over the past few months. These story circles were facilitated by artists Amoke Kubat and Gustavo Lira, Northside Neighborhood Hub, social scientist and business owner Forkpayea Johnson, and volunteers with the Master Water Stewards program.

One recurring theme we heard again and again in these circles was about the different ways WE CARE for water, and more specifically — the ways we do (or don’t) recognize that others care… They just may not care in exactly the same ways we do.

Put another way, it seems that whether we’re speaking with community residents or water resource managers - each group has a way of caring for water, and specific experiences and knowledge that lead them to care in these ways - but not all care is given equal value in conversations about planning, public health, environmental advocacy, or the future of water in a given place. Individuals in each circle spoke about how they believe others “don’t care” or “don’t care about what I care about” or how things would be better if more people “just cared” — these perceptions seem to have little to do with whether people care, and much more to do with to whom we are listening.

These questions—Who cares? And how?—have become organizing questions for this new education program, which will bring together people from across different experiences with water to speak about the ways they care in an open circle format, where emphasis is placed on listening, and finding ways to be of service to community.

This is not an easy conversation to facilitate, and we’re all learning as we go through this process, but here’s a short recap and reflection from our first workshop.

Tending Our Shared Waters Through Water Story

Last week, we offered a pilot version of this new ‘Water Tending School’ workshop to a group of about 25 people, many of them from water-serving organizations or businesses. Facilitator Sung ja Shin led our group through a storytelling circle that began with everyone ‘checking-in’ by sharing a story about what brought them to the circle. We heard stories about a desire to learn more from water, to connect beyond existing networks and communities, to deepen spiritual relationships, or to find better ways of serving public constituents.

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Following these introductions, an invited group of neighbors and cultural community partners — diverse in their experiences and ways of caring for water — had a 30 minute conversation in the center of the circle as if no one else were there, while our group listened in.

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When they were finished, a few brave people on the outside of that circle came to the center to share what they heard, and how what they heard changed the way they might approach water or their own water work.

While it might seem like a slow way to start a workshop about “water tending,” when we went around to debrief from this circle conversation, everyone expressed their surprise and gratitude for the chance to slow down and to listen carefully, skills that are essential to creating social spaces and collaborations around water.

This storytelling circle also primed everyone for the next part of the workshop: Practice!

First, we had everyone break into small groups around pop-up Water Bars we’d placed around the room, joining people they did not already know. Then, artist and Water Bar Co-Director Shanai Matteson introduced everyone to the basic tools that are part of a Water Bar pop-up—social infrastructure which will be made available as a “DIY Kit” to everyone who “graduates” from Water Tending School.

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One step at a time, these small groups practiced the basic elements of serving water at Water Bar, which are also elements of convening other types of social spaces and collaborations for water:

Welcoming everyone in an open-ended way, inviting and recognizing all ways of knowing and diverse experiences with water, using water itself as a storytelling guide, serving and drinking water together, and reflecting on how differences in taste and perception can help us to navigate complex conversations, like who is at risk and who benefits in current water systems?

This part was playful and fun, but it also allowed us to receive feedback on an outline we’ve started for a “Water Tender’s Guidebook” — an in-depth resource we’re developing in tandem with this workshop project. We asked this group what information and resources they feel they might need in order to serve water and hold space for these kinds of conversations. The feedback we’re receiving is helping us to develop this new resource.

Serving Water And A Learning Community

As with all of our open process workshops, we learned so much by doing, together!

One of the main takeaways for me was that more than just a one-time workshop, the participants in this circle seemed to desire a way to stay connected and to practice creative skills with a diverse learning community like the one we created in our story circle.

This community could be a way to more openly discuss questions and challenges, or to experiment, learn, and connect without having to create a whole new program. And, importantly, it could be a place to bring back innovations and promising ideas.

As we continue working on this project with our partners over the coming months, we will be thinking of ways that Water Bar & Public Studio — as a hub, incubator, and artist community — might better serve in this critical role of convening and catalyzing learning communities and creative collaborations, in order to enable our partners and partnering orgs to better serve water in their own ways.

Many thanks to Freshwater for partnering on this pilot program, to MWMO for supporting this project through a Stewardship Fund Action Grant, and to everyone who has been joining these circles and sharing your water stories and work here.

We will be piloting this workshop again on Saturday, January 19th. To inquire about attending, send a note expressing your interest to Shanai at water-bar.org or by filling out this form.