Andrew Stegemann, National Director until October 2023, wrote this story before leaving Our Living Waters to start a new chapter. Thank you, Andrew, for your dedication and leadership!
Like interconnected watersheds, water groups across the country exist side by side. But, where watersheds naturally interact—their mighty rivers merging and cool groundwater feeding the whole system—organizations interact and collaborate more consistently with dedicated support. And when water groups collaborate, the results are magnificent.
Ten years ago, tremendous energy was afoot and I was lucky to be part of it. Multiple people found inspiration in the idea of an organization that could amplify the influence and impact of the many, diverse organizations that make up the water community in Canada. So much great work was happening in different places and scaling that impact up to a national scale was the goal. Fortunately, we had the support to meet consistently and ideate what was needed. From Salt Spring Island, BC to Delhi, ON and a few locations in between, discussions among dedicated (and fun!) people in inspiring locations lead us to the conclusion that a backbone organization was needed to support connectivity, networking and collective action. At the 2014 Living Waters Rally, during a plenary session, the architects of this idea—including myself—were happily booted from the room so the 110 water leaders present could vote on whether creating Our Living Waters was something they saw as necessary and welcomed. Everyone in the room gave an enthusiastic “thumbs up” (while someone managed to snap this grainy photo!). The work began in earnest with the OLW Network officially launching in 2016 with 50 members. We now have around 200.
If there has been a constant theme around OLW for me, it’s been the need to embrace emergence. That is, allowing what is needed to emerge rather than pre-determining it and adapting to ever-changing circumstances. Two mottos helped us stay true to emergence. First, we always aim to move forward when a decision is good enough for now and safe enough to try, knowing we can adapt as we learn more. The second: we always want to go where the energy is. These mottos have been invaluable in helping us adapt and gracefully allow what was needed to emerge. Here are two examples.
1) Building an effective network requires a clearly stated common goal for everyone to rally around and a road map of how we might get there. Our Shared Measurement System communicates this now, but it’s not the first one we built. We had to scrap the first version because it didn’t work so well. In fact, people kind of hated it.
Our first measurement system was based on the more common logic model (you know… inputs and activities lead to outputs and eventually to short, medium and long-term outcomes). This model works well in some cases, but not for a network. We hammered out the inputs and activities that needed to be done and then found ourselves in the awkward situation of essentially telling Network members what they needed to do. As you can imagine, it didn’t go over well. Planning, at times, can lead to an unintended arrogance and so we quickly scrapped the model. Sometimes you need to learn where the energy isn’t to be able to go where the energy is!
Over a summer I researched alternatives which led us to our current Shared Measurement System (loosely based on a model called Results-Based Accountability). Our system now posits 24 impact measures to support our ambitious goal. But, crucially, we don’t tell people what actions are needed to shift the impact measures in a positive direction. Rather, we gather groups interested in the same measure, and facilitate a process where they come up with collective actions. It’s a much more graceful way of stoking collaboration and an important lesson learned.
2) In May of 2020 we had a digital Network meetup scheduled and we were agonizing over the decision on whether to cancel it. The reality of the pandemic had just hit everyone and we weren’t sure how to proceed. We continued on and to our delight, everyone showed up. People were hungry to connect and see each other. We asked ourselves how we might best serve this amazing network in the midst of all the uncertainty. What was good enough for now and safe enough to try in a pandemic? We opted to build a list of “shovel worthy” water projects that only needed funding to be delivered quickly. We communicated the results to politicians and the BC Watershed Security Coalition did their own work to lobby the BC government (who has since invested $157 million in watershed security). What a great pivot!
In signing off, I’d like to thank all the OLW Network members, present and future, for your trust in Our Living Waters. Your energy is why we exist. It’s been a pleasure working with you in the last 10 years and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the entire Network. Above all, thank you for making my role so enjoyable and for the work you do supporting the waters that connect us all.