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A group of people share their stories in a WaterBar story circle. (Submitted photo)

“Growing up in Jamaica, my family had a deep connection with the land and the ocean where we lived,” says Angelo Williamson. “When I moved to the United States, I felt a strong sense of identity as a Jamaican. When other people looked at me and saw me as a black, African-American man, that was confusing.”

Today, Angelo works for Minneapolis Public Schools, knows all the best fishing spots in the Twin Cities metro, and has a curiosity to learn more about the indigenous people and cultures in Minnesota.

As Williamson talks during a Watershed Partners event in December 2019, the other five members of his story circle lean in to hear more. Across the way sits Shanai Matteson, co-founder of the WaterBar and event organizer. She is a writer, public artist, and cultural organizer who grew up near the confluence of the Willow and Mississippi Rivers north of Mille Lacs. To her left, sits Jewell Arcoren, who is director of a preschool indigenous language program in Minneapolis and a member of the Sisseton Whapeton Nation. The tribal name is derived from its location along the border of South Dakota and Minnesota - Sisseton (People of the Marsh) and Wahpeton (People on Lake Traverse). Arcoren says she saw humanity at its best during protests against an oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in 2016. “People from all around the world came to show support and protect water.”

“I worry that we’ve lost the knowledge of how to care for the land,” Williamson continues, “How to manage fires and protect the soil.”

When he is done speaking, Lilah White, who sits to his left, offers a response. “The knowledge is not completely lost, but it’s hidden. The elders are old and many are dying.” In contrast, White is young, fresh out of college and working at Metro Blooms, a local nonprofit that works to promote raingardens and native plants. She is a Red Cloud woman from the Mille Lacs tribe, but grew up in Chicago, far from her roots. In her culture, she says, water is its own living being that we all relate to.

When Matteson created the Water Bar and Public Studio in 2014, she and her partner Colin Kloecker envisioned a space where people could gather to share stories about water while literally drinking water. “We serve water to build relationships that transform culture.” The pair opened a storefront on Central Ave. NE in Minneapolis with a sleek space featuring bar stools, countertops and friendly water bartenders. They also began to work with government agencies, environmental and community organizations, and business partners to engage the public in unique conversations about one of the most basic necessities of life – water.

Over the past six years, the Water Bar has expanded its programming through partnerships with artists and universities. They now offer pop-up events, workshops, consulting and storytelling circles. “The story circle is a way to slow down,” explains Matteson. “We have a tendency to rush for solutions to big problems but sometimes we need to slow down, get to know each other, and learn who in our communities can help us to discover solutions.” At the beginning of each new conversation, she urges participants to listen, practice building empathy, and avoid steering the conversation.

Yordanose Solomone, another participant in December’s story circle said she appreciated the opportunity to join the conversation. “Growing up in Addis Ababa [Ethiopia], water was always just a commodity. I never thought of it as anything else until I moved here.” Like White, Solomone is a recent college graduate, now working at Metro Blooms. “I work in a world where I have to use words like environmental justice and equity. This is a different way of speaking that feels more genuine,” she said at the end of the event.

Kris Meyer, a program coordinator at nonprofit Freshwater, said she initially felt a bit nervous about joining the story circle and speaking as a white woman. In sharing stories about her Scandinavian grandparents and their journey to Minnesota, however, she found opportunities to connect with others in the circle. “My grandparents used to drop things into the lake [up north] that they wanted to get rid of,” she said. “Later, when I thought about that, I was horrified. In recent years, I set a goal of restoring the lake’s shoreline and seeing a leopard frog in the wild before my mother died.”

White reassured Meyer that she shouldn’t feel guilty about owning land in Minnesota that was formerly native territory or about sharing her story. “I think that you should feel that you belong to the Earth. Everyone belongs to the Earth. We just want to protect it and now you do too.”

To learn more about the Water Bar and its programming, visit www.water-bar.org. You can also contact hello@water-bar.org to join an email list and get notifications about upcoming workshops and events.

Angie Hong is an educator for East Metro Water, a local government partnership with 24 members - www.mnwcd.org/emwrep. Contact her at 651-330-8220 x.35 or angie.hong@mnwcd.org.

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