There are those who dream of a socially just world and there are those who dare to make that dream a reality.
Joe Fitzgerald, a 2016 graduate, didn’t settle for a path of least resistance. Environmental justice is at the core of what he does. He isn’t just dealing with water issues as they come; he is doing his part to dismantle a legacy of systemic racism.
“The city of Milwaukee has grown a lot because of its relationship to the environment. But that has not happened evenly,” said Fitzgerald, who is a Water City Program Coordinator with the Milwaukee Water Commons. “There are communities with less tree cover, communities with more flooding, and disproportionately those burdens fall on communities of color in our city,” he said.
At Northland, Fitzgerald was an intern at the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation, and double majored in geoscience with a water science emphasis and natural resources with an ecological restoration emphasis.
At the Milwaukee Water Commons, Fitzgerald addresses water quality and creates inclusive “blue-green jobs” involving water infrastructure and ecological restoration.
“I think about really investing in community-based solutions to solve environmental justice problems, and creating jobs working on establishing sustainability so that folks aren’t forced into service industry positions,” he said. “And especially doing that in a way where we’re addressing a history of racism in the environmental sector, in the manufacturing sector, and trying to really create anti-racist, multicultural workspaces for people to get into social and environmental sustainability”.
Fitzgerald has worked with local coalitions creating access to employment replacing lead infrastructure, invested in jobs improving green spaces and planting trees (Branch Out Milwaukee Campaign), affected workplace culture and hiring practices, addressed disability and access through the Water Equity Task Force, and ensured that Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement Area of Concern funding revitalize Milwaukee’s marginalized communities.
At the Burke Center, Fitzgerald worked in the outdoors in a way he had never experienced, inspiring him to create similar opportunities in Milwaukee. He acquired a base of knowledge allowing him to participate in serious conversations about water policy and science. And he connected to the Milwaukee Water Commons through networking he did at the Burke Center.
A guiding mantra of Fitzgerald’s work is a collective impact approach, emphasizing that water is life, not a separate issue and that it connects with so many other aspects of our society.
“As people, the majority of our bodies are water. The majority of the planet is water. And if nothing else, water really does physically shape our world,” Fitzgerald said. “Specifically in the city of Milwaukee, this city would not be here without the confluence of its three rivers and Lake Michigan. I often will lead meetings or open up conversations with folks, and ask them ‘What is your relationship to water?’ And the first one you get is, generally, ‘Well, I drink water!’ And if that’s the place that you start, there’s nothing insignificant about that.