Promoting Equity and Diversity through the Water Challenge

As we celebrate Earth Day this week, we remember that Earth Day is not just about protecting the natural environment around us but ensuring that humans thrive within this natural environment as well, especially those individuals who have been most negatively impacted by the environmental challenges that Southeast Louisiana faces.

Since the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Idea Village founded the Water Challenge in 2010, the Water Challenge has been helping people and planet co-exist by highlighting and building the capacity of entrepreneurs who address challenges and leverage opportunities within urban water settings, the coastal environment, and local water economy.  Propeller took on the implementation of the Water Challenge in 2014.   Over the years, there has been an increasing emphasis on supporting water entrepreneurs that provide equitable solutions as well as entrepreneurs of color.  In the Greater New Orleans region, people of color own 36% of all firms.  However, these firms only receive 2% of the region’s sales receipts.  In 2016 and 2017, half of all ventures supported by Propeller were owned by a person of color and 59 percent were owned by women.

Last March 21st, Propeller in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Foundation held the 8th Water Challenge pitch competition awarding $15,000 to three winning ideas.  Ten businesses and non-profits pitched various ideas ranging from native plant nurseries to technologies that would help improve our region’s water quality.  Ideas that promoted social equity, environmental sustainability, and economic opportunity were also presented.  One such idea was the New Orleans Stormwater Training Corps, which seeks to provide green infrastructure and stormwater management training to opportunity youth and young adults in our City so that they could capture the various job opportunities that will come out of the $200-$300 million dollars in public contracts which will be spent on green infrastructure over the next four years in New Orleans.

The top award of the night was given to Water Block, an education and advocacy tool that uses technology to allow community members to determine the best location for stormwater management practices in their neighborhood at the block level.   Water Block aims to bridge the quantitative input that city governments use with the qualitative knowledge that community members bring. Water Block addresses a critical challenge that faces many cities across our nation where communities of color have been historically excluded from conversations involving environmental issues and planning.

This idea was started by Dr. Austin Allen and Dr. Diane Allen, Principals of the landscape architecture firm Design Jones LLC.  As an African-American-owned firm, both Austin and Diane have researched how to elevate community voice in the design process, specifically in relation to water management.  Atianna Cordova, a designer and researcher with a background in architecture, policy, and disaster risk reduction, and Kristen Lonon, a researcher, designer, and educator with a background in landscape architecture, built on that research and helped develop it into the idea that was pitched at the Water Challenge.

Water Block is using the $10,000 awarded at the Water Challenge to work with developers in creating an online tool. The tool will have different scales at which users can engage to enable greater access to a wide variety of users.   They recognize that the technology needs to be paired with educational outreach and workshops to communicate the benefits of stormwater management and have meaningful conversations about how to implement these solutions on a block level.

We at the Greater New Orleans Foundation would like to congratulate Atianna, Austin, Diane, and Kristen for being the top winners of the Water Challenge.  They are the first African American winners of the Water Challenge’s grand prize.  Moreover, Atianna, Diane, and Kristen are giving us hope that there can be greater diversity within the architecture and landscape architecture fields. In the US, only 0.3% of licensed architects are African American women, and there are similar disparities in landscape architecture and planning.  This statistic needs to increase.

Since winning the Water Challenge, Water Block has gotten a lot of exposure.  Various organizations have been reaching out to explore collaboration and partnerships.  Atianna, Diane, Kristen, and Austin recognize that winning the Water Challenge is a first important step that supports the need for Water Block.  Now, they are focused on executing this idea.   As Atianna said at the end of our interview, “It’s just now time to create the structure to get this much needed work done.”