The Lake Effect: Equity initiative creates a ripple throughout the community

Nelson Institute graduate student and the Clean Lakes Alliance team up to improve outdoor equity and community access at Madison area lakes

August 9, 2018

With nearly 60 miles of shoreline and 28 square miles of surface water, the Yahara lakes serve as a gathering place for the Madison community. On a beautiful summer day, locals can be seen boating, fishing, swimming or just enjoying a walk along the shoreline, but research suggests that there are members of the community who have limited access to these outdoor recreation opportunities. In fact, race and socioeconomic status have been shown to impact outdoor recreation access, an issue University of Wisconsin-Madison student Sean Kennedy is working to address through his graduate work.

A master’s candidate in the Nelson Institute Professional Environmental Conservation Program, Kennedy is in his final semester of the 15-month program, which is designed to train conservation leaders in practical interdisciplinary skills. With a blended curriculum that includes on-campus and remote learning, students gain hands-on experience through a final leadership project, which is what led Kennedy to Clean Lakes Alliance, where he has been working to improve outdoor equity in Madison.

“A large component of my project is a developmental evaluation process to determine how Clean Lakes Alliance can serve as a powerful, effective ally supporting broader efforts working toward achieving social justice and racial equity in Dane County,” said Kennedy, who serves as the organization’s Outdoor Recreation Equity Fellow. “Clean Lakes Alliance is a relatively new non-profit that has focused primarily on water quality improvement, mainly through phosphorus reduction efforts, but they are now looking to find ways for more people to engage with the lakes. Current engagement efforts are focused on improving the places where people interact with the lakes - our public beaches.”

“Since our founding in 2010, Clean Lakes Alliance has operated under the motto ‘Healthy Lakes, Healthy Community,’ and our Back to the Beach initiative reflects our focus on both the lakes and the diverse community that surrounds them,” said James Tye, Executive Director of Clean Lakes Alliance. “We all benefit from inclusive public spaces along our lakeshore, and Clean Lakes Alliance is proud to support local equity initiatives related to outdoor recreation on our lakes.”

As a member of the Clean Lakes Alliance team, Kennedy has been reaching out to community members and organizations to learn more about local efforts to confront racial disparities, including the City of Madison’s Racial Equity and Social Justice Initiative and the Race to Equity project. His efforts also include connecting with author and outdoor recreation equity advocate, James Edward Mills, who recently wrote a story for Outside Magazine on equity and outdoor recreation access. With connections to the Ice Age Trail Alliance and a number of other local organizations, Mills has become an important ally for Kennedy as they are now working together to explore how Clean Lakes Alliance can support and complement the work of local organizations advocating for a more inclusive outdoors with equitable access for all.

In addition to community engagement and outreach efforts, Kennedy has been analyzing over 5,000 pages of adopted city budget documents to learn more about local lake and beach-related investments and service provision, which will help him to better understand public investment in outdoor recreation over the last decade. Kennedy is also using geographic information system (GIS) tools to better understand the age, income, and race of individuals using park services, which will help inform future Clean Lakes Alliance advocacy.

“The lakes and the outdoor recreation opportunities that they provide are an escape and a unique natural asset that has been invaluable to me. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to work to extend those opportunities to a broader population in the Madison community,” Kennedy said. “Growing up, I was extremely lucky to have a ton of opportunities to get out into the outdoors. From camping trips to playing in local parks, those early experiences were what awoke my passion for environmental action.”

That interest in environmental action is what led Kennedy to the Nelson Institute — twice. As an undergraduate, he earned a certificate in environmental studies while completing his bachelor’s degree in political science. From there, Kennedy worked on legislative policy focused on the environment within the Wisconsin State Assembly, but when he found himself looking for opportunities to do more, he decided to return to the Nelson Institute, this time applying to be a part of the Nelson Institute Professional Environmental Conservation Program.

“I came back to focus my career on environmental policy and to gain skills I felt like I could use to become a more effective environmentalist,” Kennedy said. “I was drawn to the program because I wanted to strengthen my professional skill set and become a stronger advocate for environmental causes. So far, the experience in the program has been intense, but the cohort-based arrangement is a source of strength for everyone. I love learning alongside classmates with a broad range of experiences that were completely different than mine. I was also able to share my experiences and I think we all benefit from becoming a thinking community of reflective practitioners.”

For Kennedy, the program has been a catalyst, providing him with the opportunity to connect with students, faculty, and community members that share his interests and are working to achieve racial equity and social justice.

“I would say that a key strength of the program is the access that you gain to a broad range of faculty and beyond that to environmental leaders in the community” said Kennedy. “There are several events where they bring in professionals for career panels and casual networking events. It’s been an amazing opportunity to reflect on my own experiences and to hear others share their experiences. My understanding of many environmental challenges is so much greater since starting the program.”

Kennedy is also grateful for the experience he has gained through his final placement at Clean Lakes Alliance, which provided him with the opportunity to lay the foundation for a continued and expanded focus on equity topics within the organization, something that is deeply important to Kennedy and something he hopes will continue to be a part of his academic and professional path moving forward. The developmental evaluation process will be complete with the conclusion of Kennedy's project, but its findings will inform future Clean Lakes Alliance advocacy and will support the organization's equity-focused recruitment and community engagement efforts.

“From day one I was treated as a colleague, it was a real chance to become a part of the organization,” Kennedy said of Clean Lakes Alliance. “As I complete my time there, I’m hoping to begin the process of creating a more comprehensive alliance of local advocates that are focused on the lakes and on the people and the communities that surround the lakes. There are so many different ways that the science and policy interface can be influenced, but for me it’s about seeking out opportunities where I feel my work can have a direct, positive impact and where I feel like I can see tangible results.”