Watershed Planner Emily Davis is Not Afraid of Complexity

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Audrey Irvine-Broque: This is a story about place-based knowledge and resilience. This is a story about how success can be disguised as initial failure. This is a story about how my car got stuck in a snowbank, and Emily Davis helped me out. 

AIB: Will you tell me what we’re doing right now?

Emily Davis: Um, right now, we are standing in the snow on the side of a dirt road - of a steep dirt road - shoveling compacted snow out from under your tire, hopefully. Because, it’s winter in Vermont, and this is what we do. 

AIB: Emily Davis is a watershed planner in Southern Vermont, where storms and flooding present some of the most immediate threats of climate change. I wanted to interview Emily after attending a presentation she gave on Watershed Management and Placemaking at a Grassroots Fund’s conference last Spring.

Before I could do that however….my car got stuck in a snowbank. I’ll spare you the details except to say that there are few things more embarrassing than poor winter driving in front of a Vermont who’s already doing you a favor. 

ED: So my strategy is to like… 

AIB: Spoiler - we couldn’t get my rental car out ourselves. Instead, I called a tow truck.  He knew right where I’d gone down once he heard the street name. And Emily was like, well, this makes for a way better story than whatever you had planned.

ED: Again, you kind of, like, have to do this at this point. 

AIB: We hopped in her truck to wait and kept recording. 

AIB: I mean, what should I ask you? What did we learn today?

ED: What did we learn today? Um. We learned that if you’re driving in December in Vermont and you have a Camry with Alabama license plates on it, you’re gonna get stuck. 

ED: No, no, yeah, you could totally extrapolate it. Social capital. Resilience. Being nimble, being adaptive. I mean, here we are, in the cab of my truck, in the pull off. 

AIB: Waiting for a tow truck.

ED: Waiting for a tow truck, as it snows around us. 

So you asked an interesting question before, when we were offline, about trying to make a case for more social engagement in placemaking work in, like, people who do watershed planning or just environmental work in the state, or, not in the state, but, around. And I was thinking, in my head, I was like oh, yeah, it makes sense, because people who are brought to that work have a lense and a field of view which is around what they know. And I don’t mean to be insulting here, or belittling, I mean, we just have our frames. 

I don’t know. I think I’ve really loosened my grip on what environmentalism should look like, on what place-based work look like. Everything, everything. All of the good work that we’re trying to do, and all of the obstacles are connected. To hold all of that complexity is really what the challenge is. 

For example, I used to do a lot of work with the road foreman. When I started that work, or that program was launching, this is when I was doing regional planning work, it was under the auspices of the water quality program. And I am a young woman, with a weird haircut, and identify as very liberal, and care about environmental and social justice issues, and so I was like, “Oh, god, what is this going to look like?” and “These guys aren’t going to take me seriously,” and “How do I talk to them about water quality?” and, you know, that was just what was swimming in my head. And I started working with them, and what the work was - it was outreach work - but we had to drive around with them in their towns and identify road projects that would help improve water quality. And it was helpful that I was also there representing some funding, so I was there to facilitate them getting money to do this work. It was a helpful carrot.

But, I very quickly, again, had a little bit of a change of heart, as seeing these guys as not against the cause. Driving in the trucks with them, we would talk about, we would start and talk about, we’d kind of get in the truck and say, “What’s the work you want to do, let’s think about it from the lens of, like, when there’s a really big storm, and it rains 3 inches, where is the first place you’re going to, like, you know it’s going to wash out. Let’s start there and let’s see if we can fix that project.” So we’re already talking about rain, and storms, and floods, and what’s hard and what do they see. 

And then it gets into Irene, and what they saw during Irene. And some of these guys were like, awake for 32 hours just trying to clear out culverts and rescuing people, and you know, there with their excavators trying to rebuild roads so emergency vehicles could get to people. And the road foreman in Rockingham, he just keeps, like, a dozen cans of soup in the back of his truck and some extra clothes because he’s like, that’s just the kind of work that we do, to be on call for that kind of public service related to storms and flooding. 

So, we were already kind of hooked in and talking about resilience. And, they’re at the frontlines of flood resilience for their towns, and water quality. So we’d talk about that and I’d be like, oh, right, who knows their towns and who knows the landscape better than these guys? They know where all the beavers live, they know where the wetlands are, they know where the high water table is because that’s where it’s worse for mud season. They know which trees are coming down, they know where the emerald ash borers are, they know who lives here, and when that fire was, and who died then. They just know everything. 

If you want to think about it very transactionally and pragmatically, they would be really important allies “to the environmental cause,” but it’s not even like, trying to find who would be your support for the cause, it’s like, they are the cause. You know? It’s just like, empowering those folks, who are actively managing the landscape to say, like, yes, this is environmental and place-based work. Again, it’s just that idea of redefining who is and is not an environmentalist. Even that word, even just saying that, I’m like, ugh, I’m tired of it. We’re just people, living, here, in this place, and having our own relationships with our landscape. 

I think we need to stop defining whose relationship with a place is more valid than the others. I think that we need to kind of reframe it as hunters and backcountry skiers and road foreman and people who raise sheep and people who are vegan and just have vegetable gardens. Everybody has a valid and appropriate and really special relationship with their landscape, and that should be celebrated. I think that we need to release this paradigm of shame and blame about who’s doing what and who’s causing what. And instead, operate from a place of empathy and compassion. As issues come up, I think that working from that place, of just honoring and supporting each other is going to be so much more effective just in terms of how a project runs, than if you started from a place of blame and correction. 

AIB: So one thing I remember from your presentation is you talked about doing this physical map of Irene, and getting first responders up to tell their stories.

ED: Yeah, I like that story. Because it gets into ideas of failure, and success. "Success" and "failure." I’m air quoting again. I have to say that I’m air quoting.

This was in the town of Guilford. And they don’t have any zoning right now. And there’s a lot of people in town that are very against zoning. It taps into and inflames some valid concerns around local control over development and individual control over what they can and cannot do on their property.

Going just a little bit deeper, it gets into some really real socioeconomic concerns that we have in - probably interior New England, but I’ll just say Vermont. Where, it is hard for people right now (laughs). That’s a broad statement that I’m just going to put a period on and just let stand alone. These are hard times. And, economically, there are a lot of families who are really struggling. There are families that historically have had these big landholdings. Agriculture is a hard place to be in, and a lot of these big dairies and historic farms are having a really hard time. They’re making it work by subdividing their property and selling it off, to people that are moving to Vermont to enjoy the lifestyle and can afford to buy land here and live here which is remarkable and puts them in a whole different class in and of itself. 

And so they’re seeing the social and physical landscape around them really just change, within short periods of time and within their generation. And I think that there’s resentment there which feels really valid to me, and that’s kind of very existential fear for these families and for these folks who are trying to make their livelihood off the land, and they’re having to, at the land same, live with development pressures, or live with and deal with these regulations kind of from on high mandating what they can and cannot do on their property, and they’re having to sell off pieces of their land. And I think it’s really challenging for them in those ways. And in town when zoning is mentioned, that is kind of what is brought up, commonly, in our towns that don’t have zoning when you introduce zoning. 

So, there was a fluvial and flood erosion ordinance that was introduced, ultimately to protect the town from future flooding. And, they were careful to call it an ordinance, but it was a zoning bylaw for all intents and purposes. And people I think very quickly kind of sniffed that out. 

So the Green River Watershed Alliance, some of the steering committee members and myself, saw this as an opportunity to facilitate conversations in the town of why this ordinance is being proposed, what the benefits for the town ultimately, and how this can serve it. But we also wanted to be really neutral, and we thought that maybe it wouldn’t be quite right to host a forum, because even that’s getting kind of stale and dry, right? But we wanted to contextualize the ordinance and place it back within flooding realities because Irene now is kind of - people are forgetting about it. It’s not really becoming all that relevant and important.

So, we hosted it near the anniversary of Irene. It was a storytelling event and what’s, what the idea was, and this was really fun to work out, we hosted it in the Guilford school in the cafeteria, so we had this big floor space. I pushed all the chairs away, and I got a bunch of rolls of different masking tape, and we just charted out a map of Guilford. A to-scale map of Guilford on the floor. Which is handy, because Guilford is square. And put in the major roads, and rivers, and watersheds, because there are three watersheds in Guilford. And mapped those out too because we aren’t really able to know where the watershed boundaries are on our landscape, unless you’re freaks like me and you just stare at maps all day. 

Then, the prompt was- and we, ahead of time, just talked to folks in the community, and made sure that there were folks who supported the ordinance and who didn’t support the ordinance all there - and we shared stories of Irene. And there were different facilitated prompts for everyone to go and stand where they were in Irene and to see who their watershed neighbors are. And we had everyone from the Green River watershed stay, and then everyone from the Broad Brook watershed, and you know they can kind of see everyone that’s there, and the fall river watershed, too. That’s really powerful because it’s not just your neighbor on a road, like I know who my Bonnyvale Road neighbors are, but I also know who my broad brook neighbors are, and they live in Guilford, and that’s kind of fun. To know that the things that I do on my property are directly affecting people who live downstream. 

And that’s a weird connection to make, and one that’s not often made, especially when you have property and or political boundaries that are intersecting those natural boundaries. So we were playing with that a little bit by having this to-scale map on the floor, we were able to show people and communicate the watershed dynamics. And then we had folks come in and first responders come in and talk about what they saw and where. And that was fun, because, again you see people quickly adopting the space and moving through the space and talking about, “oh well when I was a carpenter hill road I saw this, and then we were driving down,” and kind of, like, moving through the space that way. And the idea was that through people's geographic narratives, that we can kind of see how their experiences were able to be connected geographically, which, again having that floor map facilitated that. That helped with, again looping it back to the ordinance, because I think oftentimes when those conversations are being had in a town it’s challenging to think just beyond your property boundary and the impacts to you and we were trying to contextualize that has a community effort, and as something that was really going to not just serve the town of Guilford but the broad brook watershed or the green river watershed and all of the people in those watersheds and address the different dynamics of those systems. 

The ordinance did not pass. They voted against it. And I remember, this event was funded by the High Meadows Fund, and I remember when they got in touch with me and were like, “Hey! So, how’d it go? Did the ordinance pass?” and I was like, “No! ...Your money at work! Ain’t that great?" So I appreciate the mention before about honesty with funders and learned lessons. 

I’m not convinced that it was a failure. I think that, again, in systems change, to not recognize the multiple and long term impacts of an initiative does a disservice to the work as a whole. I think if we just saw that the ordinance didn’t pass and said, “Oh my god, Guilford’s not responding to our work, this doesn’t matter, none of this matters...bah. Placemaking doesn’t work, move on,” yeah, I mean, what a bummer. 

But, in that case, what we had found, months afterward, was that, prior to this, there were a lot of open seats on the planning commission and after the discussions around the ordinance, they were all full. And they were all people who were really engaged. The select board was seeing attendance, public attendance, and turnouts, that they hadn’t ever really seen before. At the event, people were talking to each other and people were listening to each other in a way that Guilford residents who were there said that they’d never seen and that they appreciated. And I remember, I wish I had the quote, it was from Linda Lemke, one of the Guilford representatives on the Green River Watershed Alliance steering committee, and she had said that, after that, there was a place-based awareness and even a flood plain awareness in Guilford that has never been there before. And they have more people on the conservation commission now. As far as I’m concerned, those are indicators of more public engagement in the long-run, that is a way more significant win than just saying the passing of this ordinance. 

I believe, and it would probably be my conviction that in subsequent years, that’s going to just be a wave and a momentum of community conversations that - maybe I’m just a naive optimist but - I have to believe that that’s where we need to go. Immediate outcomes successful or not, we’re just getting people talking to each other and talking about the landscape. Great. Good. Success. 

AIB: Sometimes it’s hard to maintain that optimism that more democratic participation is inherently better than someone just coming in with a solution and laying it down and walking away. Because the more urgent things get, the more that people think that we just need whatever the quickest, most effective, biggest solution is. How do you make the argument for more slow, democratic participation in these things? That is a big question. I’m not asking you to answer it, but maybe to think around it. 

ED: I can think around it, yeah, I can nibble the edges of that cookie, so to speak. 

It makes me think about leadership theory and leadership ideas, which is really interesting. It makes me think about - in the studies of what makes good leaders, are people that can hold and live with discomfort and ambiguity and complexity for long periods of time. And can manage teams, and people, and hold space for their own processes through discomfort of being uncomfortable for long periods of time. I think that there is absolutely a certain efficiency that is gained when you have someone who is really smart and sharp being able to just mandate from on high. And I think that there might be a time and a place for that. That sort of direct and concise action. And I also think that really good leaders, that lead not just teams but initiatives well, are going to be able to cultivate ownership and buy-in within a diverse group of people, that I think is really going to be necessary for that to be successful. And I’m speaking in broad terms here because I think this is broadly applicable, in environmentalism, in social justice, in economic reform, in other social services. I think that’s kind of the flavor of change that we’ll have to see. That it really does come from the bottom-up. 

I also think that - the thing about the sense of urgency is really interesting. That’s something I grapple with, as somebody who drinks too much coffee and listens to more news than I should. Yeah, the sense of urgency is there. We need to dismantle the patriarchy like yesterday. We just don’t have the luxury of time to not move on these big issues. And, at the level of complexity that we are working with, you can’t rush anything.

I think to connect it back to what you’re grappling with, this idea of democratic, grassroots processing. You have to just trust the wisdom of the group, and the wisdom of the people that they’ll eventually get there. And when they do, maybe it will be more crystalline and more solid than if it did come from on high. Even though that might be the instant gratification way to be. I think it’s both. And I think that good leadership will be able to do both well. And I think that that’s really hard to do. 

This interview was a part of the Grassroots Fund Guiding Practice Community Stories. To learn more and listen to other stories, visit grassrootsfund.org.

Primary issue area:

  • Land & Water


  • Vermont