Cheyenne Holiday: Advocating for Water Justice
In this edition of Client Voices, I interviewed Cheyenne Holliday, the Water Justice Coordinator at Verde. Verde is an environmental justice organization that serves communities by building environmental wealth through social enterprise, outreach and advocacy. I talked with her about her background, her work, and what she believes are the next steps for her and her organization. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Many of us take the water we drink for granted, but, in reality, it’s not so simple. Oregonians around the state have varying access to water, and what we water we do get differs in safety, cleanliness, and abundance. It may seem surprising that clean, safe water isn’t always just at the other end of a faucet, and that’s the same surprise Cheyenne Holliday told me she initially felt when I interviewed her.
A young Cheyenne (left) on Elk Lake in Bend, Oregon
A Background in Water
Cheyenne grew up near Mt. Hood on a small horse farm with access to all sorts of outdoor activities; hiking, riding, camping, you name it. However, what she describes was especially impactful to her was her continual access to clean and safe water, whether through her home-dug well or nearby alpine rivers.
“I would travel to Bend, Oregon and Elk Lake every summer where I spend most of my time in the water.” she describes to me. “Growing up, I had never thought about the inequities and conflicts related to water because I always had access to clean and safe water to drink and play in.”
First Steps into Environmental Justice
However, as she got older, she began to become aware of the existing inequalities around water accessibility and quality. “As I got older and left home, I heard stories about people in Oregon not having access to clean water or not feeling safe to play in their local rivers and lakes,” she tells me. Hearing these stories began to instill in her a growing drive to advocate for water in environmental justice.
When Cheyenne was a graduate from the University of Oregon, she found new opportunities. While studying conflict and dispute resolution there, a project known as Oregon Water Futures was just beginning to take off. They describe themselves as “a collaboration between water and environmental justice interests.” They aim to create an Oregon where water is an accessible resource that everyone is informed about in terms of its infrastructure, policy and management.
Two of Cheyenne’s horses on her farm in Boring, Oregon.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” she describes. “I needed an internship. I hadn’t thought about environmental justice or water before, but it sat. Growing up as an Oregonian and being surrounded by all of these lakes and rivers and nature, it was something that really interested me.”
She began doing the background work for the initiative, but she eventually moved up to an associate project manager. She helped complete the Water Futures Report before graduating shortly after. Working with the various participating organizations left her with a new sense of purpose. One of those, Verde, offered her the perfect next-step.
“Verde,” she says, “created my position, the Water Justice Coordinator, and, at that point in time, I was looking for a job, and the stars aligned and I was able to get into this work. Now, it is my career, and I love to do it.”
Seeing Action and Working with Crag
These days, she spends her time working on a few key projects at Verde. She still works with the Oregon Water Futures Collaborative while also developing related projects at Verde. She recently helped complete the 2020-2021 Oregon Water Futures Report. The report revealed that there was a significant amount of questions and confusion among Oregonians over their water.
“We learned that there were a lot of people who wanted to know more about their water, had questions about their water, or wanted to be involved in policy decisions, even at their county-level or city-level government,” she told me. “They really just wanted to be equipped to be a part of those water discussions.”
This revelation has led her to one of her newer projects, the Water Justice Leadership Institute. It will be an education initiative targeted at answering those questions.
“The hopes of the Institute are to raise awareness around water justice issues, develop community capacity to advocate for water justice, and hopefully identify project ideas around the state for local action.” She also tells me how it will act as an intersection between civic engagement, a bit of biology, and policy-making.
Crag Staff Attorney Rebeka Dawit
The more I ask her about this project, the more I can tell she’s excited to see what its results will be and how it will impact the people of Oregon.
“I really see it [the Institute] building leaders in water, whether that means going and working in the water field, utility, or water infrastructure,” she says. “I also see people leaving this Institute who maybe become part of their water policy-discussions, whether that’s at their local level or their state level. I potentially see community-driven projects around water where participants from our Institute are a part of them or leading them. But most importantly, I just see people being aware and involved with their water and feeling safe to drink it and talking to their neighbors and their community about it.”
Crag attorney Rebeka Dawit has been helping Cheyenne with this project. She helps Cheyenne with drafting the curriculum, but her main job is to provide insight into the legal side of all this. Rebeka helps out whenever there’s any confusion about water regulations or laws.
“Working for community-based organization, I have little capacity to dive into some of these big research and law-related questions, and my background is not in law or environmental law. Crag really helps me understand and get answers out to people and is really helping to shape the Water Leadership Justice Institute.”
I asked Cheyenne about what her future plans are, both at Verde and beyond. She excitedly tells me how Verde is currently in the midst of some strategic planning talks on how to proceed with carrying out their mission. “There’s some big things coming. Even though I’m a part of it, I’m excited to see where we’ll go,” she says.
I ended our talk by asking her what sort of world she and Verde are aiming to create. Her response was clear: it’s all about environmental justice. Equity, equal representation, and good, green jobs.
“I think that low-income communities and communities-of-color will have access to green jobs, as in well-paying, career-long job opportunities that are good for the environment,” she tells me. “Having communities in Portland and around the state having community-led projects that are related to the environment, whether it’s water, energy, or transportation, and also having low-income and communities-of-color being a part of policy decisions—I think that’s our big goal.”
Goran is a communications intern in the summer of 2022. During his internship he wrote about Crag’s cases and history. Goran Pope will graduate in 2023 from Riverdale High School.