In 2014, the Milwaukee Water Commons began what was to become their annual celebration of water, “We Are Water” – an event that takes place in August on the shore of Lake Michigan. On the evening of Sunday, August 14, OLB joined the celebration of water set at the South Shore Park Beach. “Somos Agua,” “Mni Wiconi,” “We Are Water” were equally highlighted on the posters and t-shirts for this “beachfront celebration of Milwaukee’s waters” and gave a good indication of the multicultural focus of both the event and its grassroots organizing agency.
Past celebrations have featured Native American speakers, drumming, poetry from local poets and youth collectives, collaborative performances and informational displays about environmental issues confronting our waterways in general, the Great Lakes, and Milwaukee specifically. OLB has participated in the past to do what light brigades do best, which is to create an organic collaboration of individual letter holders who make meaning through collective performance in the lovely deepening darkness of twilight. Past messages have also featured messages in Ojibwe, Spanish, Korean, Arabic in addition to English, with accompanying narration and activities giving context.
Sunday night was no different. Back again after a two-year COVID hiatus, people were eager to see each other and catch up. The Water Commons gave space to other groups for activities such as making rainsticks or testing ph and turbidity in water, along with conversation and information about issues like micro-plastics in the lake and lead in our urban infrastructure. These groups included Milwaukee Riverkeeper, True Skool, Plastic Free Milwaukee, Beach Ambassador, MKE County Parks, Water Restoration Partnership and Wisconsin Conservation Voices, among others. This list is an important indicator of the “bringing together” work that is an often overlooked achievement of an event like this. These relationships make all groups stronger, and the work centered around water is truly inspiring.
We chose the message “Water Unites Us” to highlight this often invisible work, this flowing together of people in flux, a coming together, and apart, and together again over time. As citizens in a troubled nation living through troubling times we are all aware these days of what divides us and we desire restorative actions, not divisive ones. The entire ceremony seemed to be a confluence of such positive vibes with drumming, poetry, some short addresses about the Water Common’s mission, and a brief talk by the newly appointed director of the Electa Quinney Institute, Mark Freeland, who spoke of the very land upon which we stood and its deep past as a place of coming together for indigenous nations, and the current present need for visibility of indigenous living languages embedded throughout the region as place names, lake names, river names, city names. He spoke of “coming together for good purpose” which resonated with our chosen message.
The night was a bit chilly for mid August and violet grey clouds were welling up in the north. As daylight diminished, participants took small reusable cups to the lake to fill with water, drop in a small battery-powered light and place the illuminated water into a design on the beach sand. It is a slow unfolding, both private in thoughtful reflection and very public in a sense of gathering with our water.
This parallel of private/public was even more apparent when towards the end of the ceremony a news crew showed up to “go live” about the event, and asked that the message remain. Our volunteers, some known to us from many past events, some absolute strangers to us, are always amazing and waited patiently on the shoreline, letters rested against the sand, while the news went live and broadcast the message acknowledging this amazing body of water in our lives.
Perhaps sometimes soon you can think about the water around you, the water that is life, and your life as an expression of water. Take a walk to a nearby lake, river, pond or puddle and center yourself between earth, air, water. Turn off your Twitter feed. Slow down for a few moments and observe human and nonhuman life. Be united, through water, in good purpose.
Additional photos from the event.