The Freshwater Lab for Water Policy and Diplomacy

University of Illinois - Chicago

Professor Rachel Havrelock
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Kellen Marshall, UIC Ph.D. candidate in ecology and evolution in the department of biological sciences, and Rachel Havrelock, UIC associate professor of English and Jewish studies. Photo: Joshua Clark

Kellen Marshall, UIC Ph.D. candidate in ecology and evolution in the department of biological sciences, and Rachel Havrelock, UIC associate professor of English and Jewish studies. Photo: Joshua Clark

The planning, management, and conservation of the Great Lakes coalesce as a complex project, vital to the health and economy of the Midwest at large. Addressing pressing questions such as balancing the region’s water and energy needs, financing infrastructure improvements, the right to water vs. its privatization, and the uneven social impacts of toxins requires a multi-disciplinary approach that at once engages stakeholders in local communities, governmental agencies, the public and private sector.

The Freshwater Lab is the first research initiative on the Great Lakes rooted in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Academic centers supporting Great Lakes research and policy based in Science and Engineering proliferate across Midwest campuses, but no existing initiative interacts with the scientific research while endeavoring to address the social, economic, and political dimensions of water distribution and management. With algae blooms compromising Lake Erie, Detroit residents at risk of losing water service, Tar Sand and Fracked Gas pipelines surrounding the shores of the lakes, and drought stricken regions near and far looking to Midwestern water stores, it is a necessary moment for a humanistic and social-science based approach to water issues.

The Freshwater Lab will promote humanistic approaches to Great Lakes issues. Driven by current and historical problems and triumphs, the Freshwater Lab will convene conferences, working groups, and courses that explore solutions and creative approaches to pressing issues. The Freshwater Lab will promote innovative research on the history, policy, and politics of resource distribution and prepare students in the Humanities for work in public policy and public life.

Rachel Havrelock is the lead investigator in the multi-campus Humanities Without Walls grant, “The Great Lakes and the Global Midwest,” with partners at the University of Michigan Program in the Environment (specifically, Co-PI Dr. Gregg Crane) and Michigan State University (Co-PI Dr. Stephen Gasteyer, as well as Co-PI Dr. Kyle Whyte, of the Program in Environmental Philosophy & Ethics).

The Freshwater Lab is supported by a $75,000 Global Midwest grant from the Humanities Without Walls consortium, based at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The 15-member consortium, which includes the UIC Institute for the Humanities, is funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Lab Activities

Summer-Fall 2015: Research Project Initiation
Professor Rachel Havrelock will initiate a research project regarding transboundary systems of water and energy sharing between the United States and Canada. Specifically, she will research the history of the International Joint Commission and Great Lakes Compact in order to discern the larger trends in US-Canada water allocation, regulation, and environmental communication with citizens at large. How have the governments addressed water dispute? To what degree are local populaces engaged in processes of water management? What provisions are set for the emerging global water geography? How does/doesn’t the management of the Great Lakes set a standard for other sites of freshwater abundance? These questions intersect in crucial ways with the current energy economy in which Enbridge pipelines – many of them aging – line the Great Lakes and their tributaries to convey Alberta Tar Sands to refineries and markets in Detroit and Chicago. What, if any, standards of freshwater regulation impact the transport and processing of the heavy, chemically dense Tar Sands? How much does the public know about the shift of energy supply from global crude oil to Alberta Tar Sands? How might the public learn more about the chemical compounds mixed with tar sand in order to facilitate its conveyance? How has the publicized debate over the Keystone XL pipeline strengthened or detracted from Great Lakes pipeline research? How might extant or new standards of freshwater protection impact standards and the locations of Tar Sands refining?

PhD candidate Kellen Marshall is engaged in a dissertation project regarding the impacts of urban pollution on local Chicago agriculture. At the same time, Ms. Marshall plays an active role as a researcher and participant in environmental justice efforts on Chicago’s West and South Sides. As a research assistant, Ms. Marshall will bring her expertise in science and help Professor Havrelock with the quantitative dimension of research on transboundary water and oil. As the key graduate student involved with the research project and The Freshwater Lab as a whole, Ms. Marshall will address the socially uneven distribution of toxins and the racial and gendered dimensions of water rights and allocation. Primarily, but not exclusively, Kellen Marshall will work with African-American environmental leaders and community members to discern how these communities are engaged in decision making processes about environmental resources and to what degree water management standards replicate uneven economic distribution.

Spring 2016: Freshwater Course
This innovative “Humanities without Walls” research curriculum is driven by specific social questions about the Great Lakes, which break down the “wall” between academic research and public engagement, as well as that between professorial research and teaching. Rather than a formal lecture course, students will gain exposure to the research sites and meet with local stakeholders, appointed and elected government officials, staff at NGOs and private companies, policy writers, activists, and academic experts.

The course will bring students together from across disciplines to address the management, distribution, and conservation of local resources. An approach based in the Humanities will enable analysis of the ways in which class, culture, and gender operate in processes of resource distribution, pollution, and conservation. In addition to exposure to Great Lakes water leaders, activists, and researchers, students will be asked to carry out applied research projects that employ Social Science and Humanities methods. Faculty, students, and community members will collaborate on a later stage of the projects such as policy papers, public awareness campaigns, art shows, videos, etc.

Spring 2016: End of Course Workshop
In order for each campus’ research initiative to be realized and to reach a wider audience, each course will culminate with an onsite mini-conference. Since they enable a research forum, bring the PIs from different campuses together, and allow students and faculty to interact with policy leaders, the mini-conferences are vital to the integrity of the project. Guest speakers and local figures met during course field trips will be invited to engage student research projects.

Working Groups
Meetings among the academic, official, and public members of the Freshwater Lab working groups will convene throughout the year.

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