Communities of Millennials Driving Change

Rituals. Reciprocity. Gratitude. Diversity. Inclusion. Respect. Teams. Time. CommUNITY! 

I have just completed week one of orientation at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, where I will be spending the next two years completing their full-time MBA program. I am already blown away by the amount I have learned, the abundance of resources available to support this process, and the inspiring classmates that will all be experiencing this roller coaster together. While the MBA pre-program earlier in the month focused mainly on preparing us for the technical side of the MBA program, including statistics, Excel mastery, and introductory finance, the orientation week is dedicated to the development of our “hot” skills, how best to manage ourselves and collaborate with one another, and fundamentals for career exploration. This is only the tip of the iceberg (I find there have been a lot of water metaphors used this week to describe the processes of lasting change, enormity of content, and so on) and I cannot wait to dive into the self-development and technical content in this program.

Before I start this new journey, I am compelled to capture and reflect on a few snapshots from the past year. So without further ado and in no particular order, here are some projects I’ve been involved with recently.

Millennials are ready. 

In late 2015 and early 2016, I was invited to participate in a documentary-style film project put together by two of my friends, Madison and Ashley, who work at McLuhan & Davies Communications. Their project aimed to showcase misconceptions about millennials, highlighting successful millennials in the workplace and sharing their experiences, with a specific focus on the value of effective communication in all aspects of the workplace. In order to prepare for my feature, I was asked to consider why I became successful, a difficult question to answer when you haven’t taken the time to step back and internalize yourself as such.

Photo credit: McLuhan & Davies

Upon reflection, I do consider myself successful based on my own definition of success. For me, this means my career or volunteer commitments include the following characteristics: the ability to try new things, consistent learning and growth opportunities, the possibility for collaboration with passionate people, and purposeful action. I have embodied a willingness to take risks and move beyond my comfort zone, always look to learn from those around me and extract lessons from my failures. Skills such as time management and continual goal setting have made it easier to say yes to opportunities that arise and I would encourage anyone to find an organizational system that works for them in order to try new things and challenge themselves. Here is a link to the series if you’re interested in checking it out.

For my involvement in this project, I was gifted an amazing Think on Your Feet workshop where I learned about and practiced various presentation and communication techniques that I have continued to implement. The most valuable takeaway was not to fear pausing when asked to respond to unexpected and/or challenging questions in order to allow yourself time to frame the best response. There are other workshops like this offered that I hope to try out moving forward. Thank you so much for including me in this process!

Change through purposeful dialogue.

In June, I was part of another inspiring group of friends, Nicole, Sylvie, Logan, and Corey, who followed through on their wish to host a Pro-Action Cafe in Waterloo. Drawing on the facilitation skills we developed through Waterlution’s Transformative Leaders of the Future program, this event brought together members of the community interested in turning their environment-themed ideas into action! Conversations and planning revolved around diverse topics, including urban irrigation, low-impact development, and river restoration, that were brought forward by attendees. These conversations were framed by the facilitation team using the Pro-Action Cafe format in order to foster innovative action plans under tight

Pro-Action Cafe - 1 of 29 - Sylvie Spraakman
Photo credit: Sylvie Spraakman

timelines. Rather than reiterate at length the goings on of the event, I urge you to read an article written by Nicole for the Alternatives Journal, Kitchener-Waterloo Blue Drinks: Conversation in Action! For me, this process was exhilarating. While I have hosted and facilitated similar events in the past, it was under the umbrella of a specific role or organization. This time, it was a group of friends inspired to bring people together to create a sense of community and effect change. I will no longer feel the need to wait for the right role or imposed structure in order to make something happen; all it takes is an idea and a group of supportive friends willing to go along for the ride.

Capacity building in the developing world. 

I was fortunate to volunteer with Hands Across the Nations for the last year, a volunteer-run charity focused on addressing health, education, and water challenges in Mali and Bolivia. This organization works with communities to form strong relationships and create solutions that will be complete and long-lasting. As Board Administrator, I learned a great deal about the complexity and intertwined nature of health, water, and education and gained a deeper appreciation for small-scale non-profits. There is currently a team of volunteers in Bolivia who have partnered with a local non-profit, Fundacion Kumi, that helps children from low-income families gain access to after-school programming and special needs assistance. While there, the team will be helping to repair infrastructure, lead educational workshops focused on nutrition, and establish the foundation for a long-term healthcare access. To read more about this or any other projects, check out the Hands Across the Nations projects page. One more thing — this October, there is a group of us running in the Toronto Waterfront half marathon to fundraise for Hands Across the Nations. In the event that you are able to chip in, here is the link to do so (and thank you so much!).

Water outreach inspiration. 

At the end of April, I ran a water education class with a group of Grade 1s in Orangeville. It was such a blast to be back in a classroom with a bunch of energetic and curious 6 year olds. I was able to utilize older water activities that I used back when I did outreach for SWIGS and impose new facilitation techniques I’ve picked up in the last few years to better engage my excitable audience. Developing content in line with the teacher’s request and curriculum, I demonstrated  to the students the myth of abundance (the difference between Canada’s existing and renewable freshwater resources) with some help from blue food colouring and led a water sounds activity where students had to guess what water-related activity it was they heard, to name a few. I also decided to talk about groundwater with their class, as Orangeville is a groundwater-reliant community and, having grown up in the area, I remember not really understanding that out-of-sight (read: abstract) concept at that age. The engagement from the students was beyond impressive, where they asked questions about how wells are drilled, what water towers do, and how drinking water is treated, even touching on the complex relationship between combined sewer systems and climate change ramifications. I left that day reminded how wonderful it is to work with kids, feeling wholly inspired by the class’s enthusiasm and eagerness to learn. A few weeks later, I was interviewed by TEACH Magazine and gushed at length about my experience. While the article isn’t perfect, it mentions some cool initiatives in the area of water education; you can read it here.

Run, jump, play – every day. 

For the first half of 2016, healthykids_logoI was invited to be part of the Region of Waterloo’s Healthy Kids Community Challenge working group. The Challenge is an initiative put in place by the Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to support the development of communities focused on healthy eating, physical activity, and healthy behaviours for children. This year’s theme, Water does Wonders, focuses on encouraging the consumption of tap water in place of sugary beverages, promoting tap water as a safe, accessible and inexpensive alternative while ensuring children receive adequate and healthy hydration. Our working group brainstormed different options, from volunteer-intensive outreach programming to infrastructure upgrade suggestions, in order to meet the specific needs of the communities in Waterloo Region. It was a valuable learning opportunity to be on a team that brought together local educators, children’s programming experts, health and nutrition professionals, and water specialists and more, and I look forward to hearing about the roll-out of the plan we developed over the next year. Here are links to Waterloo-specific programming and the province-wide initiative.

Enjoy the rest of the summer everyone! 




Great Lakes Road Trip


For the last few years, I have prioritized travel within Canada in order to see more of the country that I have learned so much about (geology, geography, history, municipal water management — the whole bit). This summer offered me the time to take a trip I have been wanting to complete for quite some time: a road trip to each of the Great Lakes in the span of ten days! I was very fortunate that my friend Erica was able to accompany me on this adventure to kick off the summer, sharing in hilarity, simplistic travelling lifestyle, insightful visits with friends and enjoying the natural wonders of impressive water and rock features.

great lakes map

Our trip started at Lake Ontario and circled counterclockwise, north then west and then south and east towards home, all in ten days.

Lake Ontario

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The photo above was taken right by the Lakeview Water Treatment Plant in Mississauga. We took the fewest photos of Lake Ontario because we were itching to go north!

Our first destination was the Limberlost Forest and Wildlife Reserve – gorgeous trails, Turtle Lake, and the most mosquitoes in all of Ontario. Encountered some swampy areas where my foot got pretty mangled but I managed to save my sandal! Then we stayed the night with my undergrad friends Liz and Kyle in Huntsville.

Lake Superior

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Our second stop took us to our friend George’s cottage near Sault Ste.Marie and the Goulais River right on Lake Superior! It was a beautiful spot for campfires, stargazing and reading on the beach. Although it rained one day we were there, yoga, bracelet making and awesome food and friends made for the perfect day.

From there, we drove the north shore of Lake Superior, one of the most beautiful stretches in all of Canada. We stopped at Old Woman Bay as we headed to Thunder Bay on Canada Day.

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We were very fortunate to spend Canada Day with my childhood friend Heather and her welcoming friends. The following day, I went for a run to the Lakehead University campus where I had spent the summer in 2006 attending Shad Valley. It was so wonderful to explore the campus and reminisce about my time there, everything looking so much the same and my life having changed so much in that time.

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We then visited the Thunder Bay farmers market and went on to hike in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. Although the skies were stormy, we managed to avoid the rain and even capped off the day with a rainbow. Heather, thank you so much for taking time to show us the beautiful city you have made your home. I look forward to visiting again soon!

Next up was our longest driving day, across the border and through Minnesota to Wisconsin.On the way, we saw the American side of Lake Superior in Grand Marais.

Lake Michigan

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We soon arrived at Point Beach State Forest. This was an unexpectedly amazing spot, as it happened to be one of the last available campsites in the state on their fourth of July weekend. The park was a mix of rocky and sandy beaches on the shores of Lake Michigan with beautiful trails and campsites throughout the forest; I highly recommend this spot to anyone wanting to visit the area!

We woke up on the fourth and had a perfect day at the beach, capped off with a run in the forest (where I had a bit of a fall that made my Limberlost swamp foot pale in comparison). Sad to leave, we remembered that Chicago lay ahead and packed up our site in excitement.

We had all of forty hours in Chicago and were determined to make the most of it. This was also the more extravagant stop of the trip, so we set aside veggies and chocolate covered coffee beans in search of excellent eats. After checking into our hostel, we headed out to watch the fireworks at the pier and returned back to plan the rest of our time in the big city.

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A la Ferris Bueller, we filled our day with a mix of must-sees and relaxed wandering, which included a boat tour of Chicago’s architecture, lunch at Au Cheval (yum!), photos at the bean, walks through the Art Institute (which included a very captivating piece that chose our trip song for us), strolls along the waterfront, and sunset drinks on the 96th floor of the Signature Lounge. I can’t wait to visit Chicago again!

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On our way eastward and away from Lake Michigan, I snapped this photo of a sign that encompasses two significant water issues within the Great Lakes basin -algal blooms to the south and lead contamination concerns to the north. Both Toledo, Ohio and Flint, Michigan’s recent and significant water issues have garnered attention that is inspiring actions that will ensure everyone has access to reliable and safe drinking water sources.

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Before reaching lake four, we spent the night in Windsor (thanks Emily) and saw a beautiful sunset over the Detroit River (that’s what I call a Group of Seven tree).

Lake Erie

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Bright and early, Erica and I headed out to see Lake Erie and Lake Huron, thus completing our Great Lakes tour. First stop up – Point Pelee National Park. I had never been there before and was blown away by the size of the park, as well as the variety of birds, insects, and wildlife that lined the paths.

The seemingly still waters with rip currents are visible in the photo above taken right at the bottom of the country.

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We were very picture-happy at Canada’s most southern point.

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Lake Huron


We hurried along our way to the last Great Lake of our journey and to meet up with our moms who met us at our honourary mom’s cottage (yay Cathy, Peggy and Laurie, thank you!). Hanging out with them and reciting our adventures from the previous ten days through endless giggles was the best end to the trip imaginable.

pic with the moms.jpg

Erica and I have known of each other for years but have only had the opportunity to become friends over the last year. This trip solidified best friend territory for us and I’m so happy we have all of these awesome memories together. Having done mainly solo travelling in the past, and never having gone on a road trip before, we’re going to plan future adventures and intend to recreate this trip in our old age – so stay tuned for that! Thank you for being such an amazing travel buddy Erica, for documenting the trip so beautifully with your photos, and for remembering to take selfies at all of the Great Lakes! And to everyone else we encountered, thank you for being such wonderful hosts and guides – wonderful to see you all!

Oh and of course, I collected jars of water from each lake which I fully intend to keep forever. I arranged the cross-section view of the jars chronologically based on our trip (Lakes Ontario, Superior, Michigan, Erie, and Huron from left to right). The clearest water appears to be from Lake Ontario, with the coldest water in Lake Superior and warmest in Lake Erie. Lake Huron is still my favourite lake simply for nostalgic reasons, but Lake Michigan definitely has a special place in my heart now.

Ultimately, a small, forgotten bag I found in my pocket at the end of the trip says it best:

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Blue Cities 2016: Thoughts on municipal water resiliency and the conference planning process


Last month, Canadian Water Network held the inaugural Canadian Municipal Water Consortium conference, Blue Cities 2016, in Toronto. Over the last year, I was fortunate to support the planning of this conference alongside my amazing coworkers and in collaboration with a myriad of remarkable speakers. This post will serve to act as a highlight reel of my conference experience and offer some of my own commentary on the planning process. Should you want to find more information on the conference, check out speaker presentations and videos here and a chronological account of the conference via the Blue Cities Storify here.

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On the eve of Blue Cities 2016, the Canadian Municipal Water Consortium Leadership Group, consisting of municipal water executives from across Canada, hosted Infrastructure Canada and others at an Infrastructure Roundtable. The purpose of this discussion was to bring people from all orders of government together to better understand shared challenges and identify how best to achieve resilient systems. With Infrastructure Canada prepared to invest heavily in green infrastructure over the coming years to address climate change impacts, support municipal capacity building and resolve water and wastewater infrastructure deficits, now is the perfect time for the municipal water voice to inform future infrastructure spending programs. Discussion at the meeting revolved around identifying opportunities that large infrastructure investments would have in improving water systems and how a green infrastructure program could place an emphasis on energy efficiency, encourage innovative approaches and build asset management capacity. Although specific challenges differ across the country and vary between water systems, there are central drivers and elements of funding program design that would appeal to municipalities throughout Canada. When a diverse group communicates ideas outwardly, whether about funding program priorities or in anything else, the importance of a cohesive, unified message is paramount. Following this Roundtable, Canadian Water Network aims to distill this message on behalf of Canadian municipalities in order to help Infrastructure Canada design the most impactful green infrastructure funding program possible.

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20160517_212756Following the Infrastructure Roundtable, everyone was excited for the conference to start — including the CN Tower, decked out in our conference colours, which I’m going to choose to imagine wasn’t a coincidence.

Blue Cities centered around four conference themes meant to encourage the exchange of knowledge, strategies and experience in order to advance resilient solutions that address drinking water, wastewater and stormwater challenges under new normal conditions. Each of these themes had a dedicated session that included brief presentations from invited speakers and a subsequent discussion period intended to engage the panel, but also the informed audience.

The conference kicked off with a Mayors Panel, moderated by Toronto City Councillor Jaye Robinson and with panel presentations from Mayor Keith Hobbs of Thunder Bay and Mayor Berry Vrbanovic of Kitchener. This conversation was supplemented by video messages from the Mayors of Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and London (Ontario). Hearing from informed politicians on the value of water, water quality and quantity challenges resulting from climate change and densification, and the inroads cities have made towards more resilient futures was hopeful. For municipal water managers experiencing difficulty gaining council approval for water rate increases or for something like the creation of a stormwater charge in order to meet service needs, listening to the political perspective brought the big picture reality of competing priorities and constituent concerns into focus.

The international panel that followed was chaired by Linda Gowman of Trojan Technologies and offered a global take on the world’s municipal water opportunities. Brendan Shane of C40 Cities provided examples of innovation from multiple continents where climate challenges like flooding and infrastructure insufficiencies have inspired social innovation, economic growth and better utilization of existing systems. Sandra Gamble of Sydney Water explained how climate challenges in Australia have required a call to action by municipalities to be sustainable, better plan and forecast changes, share information, and make evidence-based decisions. George Hawkins of DC Water spoke animatedly on how they deal with swings, from extremely hot temperatures to heavy snowfalls and high intensity rainfall events, and that communication is essential in order to quickly respond, learn and adapt strategies. Congratulations to George and his team for recently being awarded the US Water Prize for innovative resource recovery facilities that turn wastewater into electricity.

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All of the concurrent session speakers were phenomenal. I definitely encourage you to check out their presentations and the conference Storify for more details, but I wanted to share my main takeaways from each session’s discussion. As a side note, during the planning stages of these sessions all of the speakers and moderators met via teleconference in order to discuss their areas of expertise, how this pertained to the theme and what specifically they wanted to discuss. Not only were these conversations a great way to ensure the content was complimentary while avoiding redundancies, but these were some of the most fascinating conversations to be privy to over the months leading up to the conference and I felt like a very fortunate note-taker indeed.

1. The business of getting to sustainable systems: When it comes to making a change to something that impacts the public, such as water rate increases, it’s important to be proactive before the change and reactive after the change. What is essential to achieving sustainable systems is for finance and engineering departments to work together to accomplish integrated plans across silos and that information on usage patterns and infrastructure condition are needed in order to optimize existing systems.

2. Impacts and risk identification for the new normal: While I wasn’t able to attend this session as it ran concurrently with another session, there are a few key points that I overheard after the conference and through social media that are definitely worth noting here. When it comes to the prioritization of measures to address system risk, data is needed in order to make decisions based actual conditions rather than assumptions.

3. Infrastructure and planning approaches for more resilient systems: In order overcome barriers associated with green infrastructure, it is important to create value, like Singapore’s reservoir project that has revolutionized urban living. When pursuing evidence-based decision, obtaining high-confidence data that is used in combination with appropriate analytical tools can make all the difference.

4. Communications: public concerns, facts and tough decisions: Once again, this session ran concurrently with an above mentioned session. However a takeaway here was on the value of better understanding your customer base in order to increase the efficiency of operations, predict consumption patterns and garner support for change, like Mississauga has accomplished with the creation of their stormwater charge.

To kick-off the second day of the conference, Ontario Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Glen Murray, spoke to the need to change the dynamic between the economy and climate. There is great opportunity to make a positive impact to fight climate change. With technology and innovation-based productivity gains, increased energy efficiency would result in a lower-carbon economy. The pathway to progress on climate solutions will require leadership on all fronts, from government to industry in order to drive productivity, create value and accelerate charge.

The last panel of the conference included representatives from four water service providers, who collectively provide water to almost 10 million Canadians. Robert Andrews from the Ontario Clean Water Agency spoke to the importance for a holistic approach to planning with life-cycle analysis, capital management, and data utilization in order to be predictive, preventative and reactive. Susan Ancel from Edmonton-based EPCOR discussed Canada’s slow-to-evolve cold weather emergencies and the need to link monitoring tools, for better predictive tools and for increased awareness of risk management. Ville de Montréal’s Chantal Morissette commented on balancing public expectation for immediate problem solving with the importance of strategic decision making and how demand for rapid results is contrasted by the need for municipalities to plan on longer time scales for infrastructure renewals. Lou Di Gironimo of Toronto Water addressed the cultural shift for municipal water managers, from invisibility to media engagement and how to think like the customer. The overall lessons from these water leaders were instructive: water service providers need to borrow ideas from one another, work together within utilities to create and implement innovative solutions and take solace in the fact that building resiliency into systems is incremental and evolutionary.

Canadian Water Network’s CEO Bernadette Conant closed the conference with a rallying call for water leaders of all ages to encourage innovation, look for opportunities to increase efficiency and enhance productivity, and continue these conversations until they result in action.

blue-cities-2000pxBeing part of the planning process for such an inspiring conference has been a wonderful learning opportunity and I’m so thankful to have such brilliant, organized and fun colleagues at CWN. Communicating with the conference speakers on these complex and important topics taught me a great deal on how to turn challenges into solutions and look for opportunities and ideas from other industries and geographic regions. I have come away from the conference inspired by those within the water industry; together we can tackle the future challenges that so often frequent the news and accomplish great things, socially, economically and for the environment.

I felt as though the conference flew by, but I’m certainly glad to have my notes in hand and to keep these conversations going. For tips on how to make the most of your next conference experience, including open and effective networking, creating a social media presence and following through on action items post-conference, check out these two pieces by Tania DaSa, Leadership Coach and Trainer:

  1. The Art of Catalyst Conversations, a Canadian Water Network Students and Young Professionals webinar from the archive
  2. How to be an epic conference participant, posted in May 2016 on LinkedIn

Please let me know if you would like to chat more about my Blue Cities 2016 experience!

Water Waves: Finding your own creative process

WaterWavesThis past week Canadian Water Network’s Students and Young Professionals Committee members from the Waterloo area, Nicole McLellan, Corey Wells, and Matt Miller, put together an amazing event! Water Waves was a blue drinks for the ages! They pulled together a group of wonderful speakers (I’m saying that even though I’m listed and trying not to apologize for it!) to give 5-minute talks, book-ended by a water-photo-themed ice breaker activity and a local band playing some live music.

It was great to hear such a great variety of talks from people so passionate about the topics discussed. The more technical, water-focused talks were presented first, followed by talks on the way we work, encouraging interdisciplinarity, perspectives and priorities.

This event was a reminder to me about how great it is so be part of the strong water community in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. The audience, composed of friends and colleagues, new and old, were attentive and supportive people, making it all an extra special experience. To check out more highlights from this event and other’s like this across the country, check out #CWNSYP on Twitter.


Now, ahead of the event I was experiencing a little inner turmoil over my topic of choice. Nothing says “freak out and panic!” quite like the internal crisis that your presentation on creativity isn’t creative enough (there are so many possibilities, how could it ever be?!). And given a five minute timeline, those feelings were certainly expedited. While I don’t think I accomplished everything I wanted to with this talk on creativity, I think it was good practice, speaking in a non-technical way in front of peers, capturing and sharing ideas that are dear to me, and putting myself out there.

The talk I gave was inspired by many different sources; experiences I’ve had practicing unique facilitation, events I’ve attended in the community, many a Google search, and resources shared via podcasts. If you’ve spoken to me recently, you know that most of what I say is regurgitated from podcasts I listened to while commuting and I feel compelled once again to mention two that had the most distinct impact on this talk:

  • NPR’s Hidden Brain – Originals

This podcast shared the work of Adam Grant, whose book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, investigates who comes up with great ideas, how, and what we can do to have more of them. I listened to this podcast in the middle stages of content development for the talk which helped to narrow the topic of creativity to idea generation and the creative process.

  • Gretchen Rubin’s Happier – A Little Happier: The Best Teacher

The Happier podcast has been very enlightening to me over the last year, from a learning how to better work with people who have different tendencies to practical tips on how to live efficiently and happily at the same time. The morning before the event I just so happened to listened to the first mini-episode from Gretchen which beautifully articulated one of the most true statements there is: enthusiasm is the best teacher. 

As much as I wanted to channel the enthusiasm I had for this topic, I was having a difficult time condensing my thoughts into 5 minutes and felt the need to make the most of the time I had. So, for the first time, I wrote a word-for-word script for my talk. Big mistake – I had a hard time being conversational and I don’t think I engaged with the audience nearly as much as I needed to for the talk to be effective – but it sure lends itself well to being a blog post now? So here are my slides and the words that (verbatim) accompanied them:


“We have heard the terms creativity or innovative so frequently that I think they are on the cusp of buzz word territory. So I am going to start this presentation with a disclaimer: I know that many, if not all of you, are familiar with these ideas so consider this an opportunity to refresh yourselves and hopefully I will present this information in a way that helps you to internalize it. Too often, we hear “creative” or “new” and can’t imagine taking the time to add something seemingly unnecessary to our schedules or change a process that’s working just fine. I am going to take the next 5 minutes to show you how creativity can increase the effectiveness, efficiency, and enjoyment we get from our work in water, through building self awareness and finding your own creative niche.


Essentially, creativity is a way of thinking, encompassing a process or end result, big or small. It means anything new or different.But it can also be something re-purposed, a cool idea you saw somewhere else that you try to implement in a new way. Ultimately, it is any purposeful innovation.Slide3

Joy is so essential in our work and yet it is frequently undervalued. With creative, new ways of doing things, people can find a feeling of personal purpose. In the realization of an idea, you can feel fulfilled, learn more about yourself, and gather new found interest in your work from those around you. Self expression can lead to self discovery. Key to all creative processes is positivity, which will help you to express information and opinions in a way that will allow them to be better received. Slide4

Creativity can help us to tackle challenges in a world of standards and constraints. Innovation and enthusiasm in our thinking processes will make us more receptive to trying new things and allow us to overcome the natural tendency for risk aversion, which can sometimes plague technical fields. Let’s challenge the status quo in safe and constructive ways. Slide5

Everywhere! For many places within out communities, creative methods of meeting and exchanging ideas are possible, from ways to facilitate conversation, networks, or engage the public to more formal educational options. In technical settings, the use of creative thinking processes can inspire brainstorming and profound problem solving. In our volunteer lives or in a professional capacity, the opportunity to infuse fun and new in our work abounds.


There is an entire spectrum of possibility for creative thought. This can include addressing big picture challenges, like climate change, the infrastructure deficit, population growth, or implementing sustainable practices. But it can also mean increasing the everyday efficiency and interest we have in our work, from continually improving processes, to team building and personal discovery. Slide7

There are a terrifyingly huge number of examples I can provide here, so I’ll just mention a few here. Ask me about this sometime though, I have a long list. From an any workplace-perspective, maybe you can change how you structure teleconference to include games or sounds to keep things interesting, or try jazzing up emails with colours and images or the sharing of random facts. In the water sector, the bringing together of Mayors by the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Cities Initiative has allowed for cities to work together on issues like invasive species or the sharing of resources to fix frozen pipes for thousands of people. Bringing people together from different fields can provide its own creative opportunities, like the Waterloo Region Healthy Kids Challenge that aims to encourage exercise, hydration, and a positive message surrounding tap water. Slide8

There are literally millions of ways, so this is in no way an exhaustive list. But here are three key things to keep in mind when trying to find your creative rhythm:

  1. Start limitations, no consideration for capacity and them make your idea into a reality, not necessarily the other way around.
  2. Success can often be achieved through volume. Suggest all ideas and eventually one will be great. Note here to try to be socially aware and ensure that you are being encouraging to those around you. Sometimes we think we are being encouraging but in actuality, our language choices say otherwise. Try taking the improve theater’s “yes and…” approach.
  3. Learn what works best for you. It may be situation specific and remember those situational preferences will be different for everyone in your team so be sure to mix it up.


So when trying to find what works best for you for idea generation, try different creative approaches. Start with a goal! … or none at all. Take your time! … or see what happens under pressure? What about working on your own? Starting off with a team might not be the best way to get the ball rolling for you. Put away the tech! … or try something new, an app or program that you’ve never tried before. Maybe you’ll see a cool, little idea and try to think of where it could be applied? Or what if you attempt to build creativity into something that’s already established? Play around with your idea generation and the creativity will happen.

Now for a challenge! Tomorrow, pick something from your work routine that has gotten stale, like your email signature or the way you generate your daily to do list for example, and think about how to make it fun! Bonus points for roping in a coworker or two. I’m not going to provide a specific list of resources to check out because there is so much that appeals to such a variety of people, disciplines, and applications, but I want to encourage you to explore. There are a variety of mediums for thinking up or finding new ideas and I’m excited for you to find something that works well for you.”

And I’ll just wrap up by taking this opportunity to showcase my own creative attempt from yesterday – I drew spring since this April snow is disheartening and doodles are not! Here’s to the new and different everyone!


A Year in Review: The ups and downs of 2015

Well, here goes my long over due post that I will strategically disguise as a contemplative year in review. A lot has happened in my little corner of the water world since June so I will attempt to reflect and share my thoughts on everything that has gone on. For the sake of some semblance of organization, I have opted for chronological(-ish) order here.

Shortly after my most recent post, I was fortunate enough to attend the  2015 Canadian Water Summit in Vancouver. This year’s theme explored the energy-water nexus, emphasizing the interconnectedness of all the systems on which we so closely rely and the uncertainty of those systems moving forward, with information provided on the importance and challenges of long-term planning in the face of this uncertainty. You can see more of those specific conference takeaways on the Canadian Water Summit twitter account.

While this was a great opportunity to hear from those within the water industry, it was also a wonderful opportunity to see friends, new and old, who gathered from across Canada for the event. Our water community is both strong and close-knit, even though we span such a large geographic area, and I feel fortunate to learn from, meet and work with so many within this group. I was also extremely humbled to be included among the finalists announced for Water Canada’s 2015 Water’s Next Young Professional Award. A huge congratulations to Megan Kot, recipient of the award, for her research accomplishments and enthusiastic leadership in Canadian water. You can read more about her accomplishments and research focused on drinking water safety here. And if you are not doing so already, I encourage you to follow her on Twitter for a feed full of topical water content and commentary.  I must also mention fellow finalists, Muaz Nasir and Mikhail Smilovic. Between involvements with Waterlution and CWN’s Students and Young Professionals Committee I have had the privilege to work in proximity to all three of these amazing young professionals who have inspired me with their creativity, positivity and forward-thinking natures. Although many challenges line our collective path to a sustainable and resilient future for Canadian water, the inspiring mentors and eager young professionals within this community are the foundation we need to strive for a future we dare to imagine.

The last six or so months have been full and transitional. I spent any free time and extra money I had this summer on trail running and attending music festivals – an attempt to promote that whole body, mind, spirit health. And I really enjoyed taking a few photos along the way to remember the occasions. Want to see?! A lot of very awesome, Ontario-based adventure.

My summer and fall marched on with an air of finality. My formal participation in Waterlution’s Transformative Leaders of the Future program wrapped and with each month, my term of president of the CWN SYPC surely drew to a close. Working with this group of water leaders has meant so much to me. I cannot believe that the 18-month term went by so quickly. The retreats, workshops, webinars, teleconferences and Blue Drinks events held across the country have promoted skill building, networking, the sharing of research findings and ideas, as well as fostering the growth of amazing friendships spanning continents. Thank you to each and every one of you for your dedication to the committee and to CWN for creating such a unique space for such important activities to flourish. And best of luck to the next SYPC group leading the charge! I can’t wait to work with all of these amazing SYPC, past and present, in the years to come.

In a quintessentially twenty-something move, I am now living back at home. I felt this compulsion to minimize the material possessions in my life, change locations, be nearer to nature and spend less time alone . Plus, my family is pretty super cool, added bonus. In a quest for simplicity, I had also made the strategic decision to minimize my volunteer commitments in order to find more focus and balance (more on how that is going below…). However, there was one more task at hand before I could move on to that blissful serenity that was sure to follow (har har).

logo-small In October 2015, the International Association of Hydrogeologists Canadian National Chapter held it’s annual conference in Waterloo in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the University of Waterloo Earth and Environmental Sciences Department. The simple theme of Canadian Hydrogeology allowed for a broad discussion on all topics groundwater, from groundwater surface water interaction, to resource and agricultural implications for groundwater, with the technical specificity of site characterization, field methodologies and numerical modelling, from the industry, government and academic perspective.

I was fortunate to become involved in the conference, being asked to participate on the steering committee. It was so much fun working with and getting to know the members of the committee – thank you all for including me! I learned something from each and every one of you. In my role, I was responsible for the social media, volunteer coordination and development of a students and young professional mentoring program during the conference.

I was extremely pleased with how well the conference social media caught on. This may surprise you, but the hydrogeology community is not overwhelming active on Twitter, something I tried to change over the course of the conference. I think that Twitter is such a great tool for sharing conference highlights in real-time with those unable to attend in person, as well as sharing resources and generating a record of your own and other people’s experiences at the conference. To see those preserved highlights, you can check out #iahcnc15 on Twitter.

All of the other volunteers were such a joy to work with – thank you everyone for the hours spent encouraging attendee participation, manning the speaker desk, and trouble shooting AV issues during the many speaker talks. Here is a photo of many of us at the Thursday evening social event. Many of the people in this group are planning to become involved with the IAH Early Career Hydrogeoligstis Canadian Network. If you are also interested, you can access more information here.

YP group at IAH.jpg


A highlight of the conference for me was the closing plenary in which seven of the biggest names in Canadian Hydrogeology shared their most insightful moments. Dr. Cathy Ryan explained her quest to build hydrogeological capacity through the translation and availability of necessary learning materials. Her work with Hydrogeologists Without Borders and their GW2.0 textbook initiative is striving to develop international expertise through the creation of a living groundwater text document, that will undergo crowd-sources translation and allow for continuous updates. Dr. Jim Barker went on to implore the crowd to consider the importance of training and mentoring the next generation of hydrogeologists, with emphasis on the need to be proactive and improve outward communication in order to draw talent to the field and share key findings and implications of our work. Dr.Garth van der Kamp used unstated assumptions as a metaphor to explain challenges facing the field moving forward, including how the complexity of the problems we tackle will require interdisciplinary teams in order to understand real-world systems.



I was also given the opportunity to share my thesis research during one of the groundwater surface water interaction sessions. I have included a copy of my abstract below. Since I’ve already allotted a fair amount of blog space to my research in the past, I won’t go into the specifics on content, however I would like to comment on how the presentation went. This was my first time speaking at a conference and my research, which wrapped over a year prior, was a distant memory when it came time to prepare my presentation. I attempted to stay within the 20-minute time frame provided and rather than talking a warp speed as per usual, I opted to include less content and speak more slowly, with a bigger emphasis on the implications of my work rather than the technical findings themselves. Although I had slides prepared well in advance, I didn’t practice the delivery of the presentation like I should have. On the day of the presentation, my nerves and tiredness had the better of me. Being in a room full of experts, not only on hydrogeology as a whole but experts on my site in particular, was intimidating to say the least. Over the last year, I have become much more comfortable speaking to the bigger context of challenges facing water and returning to data-level conversations was a struggle. Should there be a next time, I hope to do much better.


IAH Presentation - Cailin Hillier 

This past month, I marked my one year anniversary with CWN and I received a promotion within the organization. I am now the Program Coordinator for the Canadian Municipal Water Consortium – woohoo! In my new position, I will continue to support Consortium activities by coordinating expert reviews, tracking research progress, supporting partnership development, developing knowledge mobilization opportunities and more.

A project currently in development at CWN  is the Blue Cities 2016 conference , taking place in Toronto in May 2016, which will address the impacts and risks posed by the new normal, address the business of getting to sustainable systems, discuss infrastructure and planning approaches and provide commentary on the value of communication in making tough decisions. I encourage you to check out our website as the program grows. It is sure to be an exciting conference that will bring together municipal water leaders, industry partners and experts from across Canada and internationally. If you have any questions at all, please let me know!

Oh look, a trail! Let’s get metaphorical and big picture here for a second. As I mentioned above, I attempted to be strategic and calculated in making room and time for self-growth, as well as mental and physical wellness, something that was and is more overdue that I had realized.

Looking at everything that has transpired over the last few years, I feel like so much has happened, but it is all such a blur that I see now how I should have done more to live mindfully and be in the present.  Upon being reflective, I am truly grateful for all of these opportunities afforded to me but I must do more to carry that gratitude into the present. The changes I have made in my life over the last few months have been in an effort to achieve this mindfulness; a mantra I have tried to manifest in my life – don’t try so hard. I need to stop trying to bring the future into focus since that is a futile venture at best. All I can do is to focus on the task at hand to produce my best work and give the greatest effort that I am capable of in that moment, with the acknowledgement that this level of “best” will always be in flux, and that is okay too.

It is time to trust the process and trust my own capabilities, without the need to forever prove myself. For much of my life, I was chasing a prize – gold stars, A+ grades, and a desire to impress those around me with just how busy I could make myself. I have never wanted to turn down an opportunity, which has certainly lead me to where I am today, but perhaps now I can be more strategic and focus more on my own well being. I was recently asked how I got to where I am in my career. Thinking backwards, the randomness of it all is scarily hilarious. I found out about my position at CWN from my involvement with the SYPC, which I became aware of from Waterlution, whose Innovation Lab I attended based on the SWIGS mailing list, which I joined because I attended a Blue Drinks event at UW, a school I chose for the challenge it would give me, a decision I made crying while lying on the floor of the gym hall in high school. Okay, so I zoomed backward in time there a bit, but really the serendipity of it all is astonishing and the futility of trying to plan for the future has never been more apparent. It is much more comforting, however, to be affirmed of your own capacity and ability to survive and thrive when faced with challenges.

If you’re still reading this far, first – wow thank you and I’m sorry, and second, this might all sound like something a twenty-six year old should know already. However, these are subtleties that I have only recently become consciously aware of. As I now enter a stage of life where I uncomfortably welcome time for rest, spontaneity and careful thought, I am aware of just how little I have grown personally and how naive I have been and continue to be about the world. Many of the basic and obvious facts of life are beginning to resonate with me for the first time. I have gone this long without having really been aware that I won’t get to live out every different life I can imagine but will have to choose a specific path to follow; maybe all of the risk taking and putting yourself out there has been less scary than quietly committing to any one thing; you have to like yourself, even (and especially) with imperfections; that balance means more than having good time management skills; that maybe instead of all of us being special, maybe none of us are. I know I am ridiculously lucky to have been able to go through life without these realities being at the forefront of everything I do, I know that for sure. And while I continue to be so fortunate, I’m left with this profound sadness and a need to share my thoughts. So I write this in an attempt to see if there are other young people going through the same realizations as me at this stage in life. Perhaps you too have preoccupied yourself for ten years only to realize that it’s almost 2016 and you don’t know what you actually like or want in life. Or maybe I’m still just as naive as ever, over thinking things or just need to do more yoga. How are you coping? What delayed realizations have you had? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And now, a sunset.


Lessons in Creativity: Waterlution’s Transformative Leaders of the Future Program

Logo_WaterlutionHighResCircleI am extremely fortunate to have been part of Waterlution’s Transformative Leaders of the Future program. Between September 2014 and June 2015, I was part of the Region of Waterloo TLF team, one of ten groups across the country, including Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Durham, Toronto, Guelph, Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver. The TLF program focuses on developing skills and building a network of students and young professionals through the cultivation of creativity, facilitation, and leadership training with hands-on practice and self-guided learning.

This opportunity toIMG_20150112_201512 work closely in our teams over the course of months taught me a great deal about what it means to be a leader and the importance of clear communication in addressing fears, taking risks, and trusting one another in order for a co-led team to thrive. We had monthly meetings to update one another via sharing circles, share our ongoing projects, actively discuss different facets of being a leader, and take turns running creativity exercises for the group (frequently with hilarious consequences!).

Our group also became close friends and I have been so lucky to have their support over the last year, talking through uncertainties, celebrating milestones, and sharing our ideas on anything and everything. Marie Claire, Nicole, Sylvie, Katie, Shane and Ehsan – I am so glad that we all met and I look forward to planning events and going on adventures with you in the future! What do you say – definite reunion needed in 2040?


As part of TLF, each team ran events around the theme of WaterCity 2040. WaterCity 2040 is a multi-city and multi-stakeholder scenario planning initiative that brings together community and decision makers to collaborate, envision, and design plausible scenarios 25 years into the future and identify the necessary steps to create these futures. As part of running and participating in scenario planning, I was struck by how difficult it was imagine 25 years into the future (especially considering how minute that is on a geologic timescale!).  For me, Waterlution’s Karen Kun framed this challenge best – in order to shape the future, we have to talk about the future. And to do this, we have to stretch how we think. The technological and social advancements that have happened in my lifetime are remarkable and that level of change is anticipated to accelerate. When considering life 25 years from now, something completely unimaginable will be common place – think about how much the internet has changed things! To help our ability to think about the future, examples are incredibly helpful; in the year 2040, we may be able to take a pill that will teach us a new language. Whoa, that’s crazy! Now we’re thinking. It is with this mindset, open to possibility, that scenario planning can take root.

Waterloo’s TLF team ran three events over the course of the year along the theme of WaterCity 2040 and imagining the future for our community. Our resource guests spurred on discussion as we started thinking about different possible futures, the challenges standing in the way of those realities, and the steps we need to take to realize them. Thank you to Tammy Middleton, Tony Maas, and Kevin Eby for participating as resource guests and offering your expertise and insights to our group!

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WaterCity 2040 events was where our TLF team really had the opportunity to shine and put our facilitation skills to work. For one of our events, I helped to put together an icebreaker activity that I was particularly proud of. I created puzzles for each table of participants. They had to work together to build and then answer the questions on the completed puzzle. I tried to make a team-building activity that involved a physical task and conversation, while keeping things introvert friendly (which if you know me, you understand the challenge I might have with that!). I’ve included a gallery of the puzzles at the end of the post (because I think they are pretty).

Ultimately, we distilled all of the ideas that were shared into four scenarios. Waterloo Region focused on the scenarios of ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,’ ‘Resource Aware Individuals,’ ‘Forest Region,’ and ‘Mini Cities” – all very optimistic scenarios, with an emphasis on people coming together to form strong, engaged communities. Having lived in Waterloo, and now Kitchener, over the last eight years, the emergence of this theme of community is unsurprising given how much people in the area work together to inspire action. You can read each TLF team’s scenario summary here.Scenarios

I believe that we can use creativity and inject personality into what we do to make it come alive. For a scientist, this can be a scary premise – we’re taught that if we become too personally attached to our work, biases may form. But when it comes to discussing issues at a high level, ignoring personal views and suppressing passionate responses will limit our dialogue, thus hindering progress. Learning how to channel my energy and feel confident in my ability as a facilitator has been rewarding beyond words. I am so thankful to have had this chance to grow and learn from so many people, never ceasing to be inspired by all of the TLF teams across Canada. It has been so wonderful meeting and chatting with so many of you over the last year! I look forward to continuing self reflections and applying these transferable skills to my personal and professional life. Thank you so much to Julia and Karen, for putting so much effort into making this program a reality, keeping it going strong through groan zone times, and for appealing to all of our different learning styles. It is so exciting to think about what awesome collaborative work will result from the connections we have all made! Stay in touch and #elevate.

Spring Reflections on a Busy and Remarkable Six Months

This post to intended to be a happy 2015 one, then a happy World Water Day / Canada Water Week post, and then an Earth Day post. But as you can see, time has gotten away from me and lots of things have happened, accumulating over time to make this a more and more daunting task. But its been a very wonderful, water-filled six months and it would be a shame not to document and share it. So here is a highlight reel!

CWN-Logo2015-Primary-ENI started working at Canadian Water Network this past November as a Project Officer for the Canadian Municipal Water Consortium. It has been an amazing role to get into, where my day-to-day is always different, I am constantly learning, and I get to apply my technical understanding as well as continually developing my communication, project management and creative skill sets. As a kickoff to my career, this has been more than I could have hoped for in terms of opportunities for intellectual growth, building connections throughout the country, and knowing that what I do is impactful. To explain in a sentence what CWN’s role is or what the Consortium is accomplishing is always a challenge; we operate in a unique way to solve problems that require collaboration and the most current understanding of science. I find that a lot of contextualizing goes into my explanations. As there are many resources about CWN and the Consortium available online,I encourage you to read about it and ask me questions anytime:

At the beginning of March, 2015, CWN held its Connecting Water Resources Conference, with the theme of bringing knowledge into action.There were three conference tracks: Blue Cities, Resources and Agriculture, and Small and Aboriginal Communities. I was honoured to help organize the panelists for the Blue Cities concurrent sessions with the help of Kaitlin Gibbens, Grahame Farquhar, and Erin Mahoney. The information conveyed regarding the balance of grey and green infrastructure, emerging contaminants on the environment, and international management strategies that can be applied in a Canadian context were so insightful and informative.

Personally the conference held many highlights, however seeing old friends and making new ones stands out to me. Prior to the start of the conference, we held a Students and Young Professionals Committee workshop about engagement, networking and planning outside-of-the-box events. The SYP team used this opportunity to set goals for the conference and think about how to get the most out of the following three days. For any person attending a conference in the future, I encourage you to actively consider what you want to get out of your experience, whether its as specific as meeting three people working in your field or as general as finding inspiration for a new project. I believe that heading into something having considered what is possible leverages such opportunities to their fullest.cwr2

Another personal highlight of mine was to see part of my thesis work with IBM and the Southern Ontario Water Consortium showcased. Conference attendees received pamphlets about Dr.Dave Rudolph and team’s Smart Watershed work and the video I previously featured was also playing on loop. It was a pretty proud moment for me!

There are so many other things I could include here, from the messages of empowering speakers to the meaningful conversations with friends over drinks after many hours of conferencing, to the amazing little touches that make this conference so special, but I’ll just leave it here. If you want to see more about Connecting Water Resources you can read, watch and listen all about it here:


In the last month, I also received some exciting accolades. At the risk of sounding boastful, I’m going to share these because — well, I’m excited! And why not share this joyful news! I was named as a finalist in Water Canada’s Water’s Next Awards in the Young Professional category. I’m truly honoured to be named among youth water networkmy amazing peers and friends, Mikhail, Megan and Muaz, who I have had the wonderful opportunity of working with on CWN and Waterlution initiatives over the last few years. I will be attending the Canadian Water Summit and the Water’s Next Gala on June 25, 2015 in Vancouver. Thank you Water Canada for making such an effort to recognize the amazing water work across the country! Additionally, I was contacted by the Water Youth Network in April and was featured as their Water Youth Leader of the Month. If you want to read this post or learn more about the Water Youth Network, you can do so here:

As expected, this post has gotten rather lengthy and I feel as though this is only the tip of the iceberg (#obligatorywatercliche) with respect to everything that has been going on the last six months. In my test post, I’ll share my insights from Waterlution’s Transformative Leaders of the Future Program, include images of the Oceans Bound! exhibit at the Waterloo Region Museum, elaborate more on CWN’s SYPC and much more.

But for now, I’ll stop typing and head outside. I’m participating in this month’s 30×30 Challenge organized by the David Suzuki Foundation (who incidentally liked my Instagram photo – oh yeah, I got Instagram!). If you want to learn more about this endeavour to reconnect with nature, check out their website or look for #natureiscalling.

Creatures of the Gyre take over City Hall


Let me start by saying yes, yes I know, this is long overdue but the post you have been waiting for is finally here!

Over the last 10 months, I worked on a project that seemed kind of crazy and far fetched. The project was to collect, transport, de-label, wash, sort, count, design, attach, light, and parade-down-the-street as many plastic water bottles as we could in order to make a statement. We wanted to demonstrate what Region-wide consumption of bottled water looks like and the potential environmental harm these bottles can cause. This calls for some ‘Sculptures by Numbers’ to properly explain this process:

  • 6315:  Number of bottles collected in total
  • 5716:  Number of bottles used in sculptures
  • 140 metric tonnes:  Weight of plastic bottles collected via residential pickup each month in Waterloo Region
  • 500 000:  Number of bottles collected from residences in Waterloo Region per day
  • 20 minutes:  The amount time it takes the Region to produce the number of bottles used in the exhibit

And those are just the bottles collected from people’s houses that actually end up making their way into the recycling. Consider all of those that find their way to landfills and litter our environment instead.

After several iterations of designs, our bottle sculptures took the shape of four ocean creatures: a sea turtle, a jelly fish, an octopus, and a sting ray. Every year, more and more human-made garbage makes its way to our oceans and it is estimated that plastic in the oceans contributes to the death of over 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds each year.

Blue_WI implore you to make changes in your life to combat the wasteful habit of one-time use plastic and encourage those around you to do that same. There are so many different ways to make a change! Look for goods that have less packaging when deciding on purchases. Carry reusable bags with you to the store. When you see litter, pick it up! Choose tap water over bottled water. And talk to your employer about making a similar switch. Its cheaper, safer, and more convenient! And remember to WaterlooRegionMuseum_Logo_webBYOB – Bring Your Own Bottle. Within the Region of Waterloo, look for businesses that display the Blue W sticker in their windows and encourage community events that have a Water Wagon on site instead of bottled water.

If you missed Night\Shift but would like to see the sculptures again, you will still get the chance! The Creatures of the Gyre pieces will be on display at the Waterloo Region Museum this winter. I believe it will be as part of their Oceans Bound! exhibit, opening on January 30th. Check back here for details as they become available.

I have to mention some very important thank yous for I could not have even dreamed up this project on my own. Thank you Night\Shift for helping in the creative development and funding of this idea for the last year and to Kitchener City Hall and the Kitchener Market for providing such epic building and display spaces! To the University of Waterloo, with emphatic appreciation for the amazing Plant Operations team, Engineering Orientation Week, and the Rudolph Group lab. You made bottle collection downright fun! For their encouragement and support, I must thank the Students of the Water Institute: Graduate Section and the Region of Waterloo Water Services. Messaging and man power, you guys are amazing! To all of my friends who helped for hours on end to make this a reality and for enduring the smelly bottles and sharp chicken wire – I couldn’t do anything without your help! Sondra, Stephanie, Amy, Eric, Yarko, Emma, Dede, Mina, Liz, Adriana, Graham, Peggy, Cathy, my mom Laurie, Drew, Mads, AJ, Liana, Colin, Peter, Sylvie, Victoria, Rahul, Maricor, Nathanael, Cass, Jill, Meg, Brad, Tim, Kevin, Jacob + anyone I might have missed, I am so lucky to have the opportunity to work with each and every one of you! This was such a new, big, exciting, challenging, scary, exhausting, exhilarating process and I feel so fortunate to have had the chance to bring this work to life.

Now enough talk! I think that these photos speak for themselves. I have included scans of my initial designs, messily sketched, photos from the washing and building stages, haphazardly shot, and tributes to our hard work, proudly captured. Check them out:

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Waves and thoughts on the Blue Dot Tour

The last month and a half has arguably been the most transitional time in my life — more so than leaving home for university, and certainly more so than the ultra-small lull period I had between finishing my undergrad and commencing my master’s research all under the same institutional umbrella that is UW. This has been the first time in my life that I haven’t immediately jumped to the next task, next challenge, next resume builder. I decided to leave Waterloo, having lived there for seven years, and return home to sort out my next step.

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My goal right now is to get everything off my plate, clear my mind, and allow the ideas to flow in. I have been using a water analogy to describe how I have been feeling and what it is that I seek. I have felt as though my life has been very turbulent, waves crashing, white caps happening, the whole bit. I have been reacting and keeping busy without taking time to acknowledge purpose, feel grateful for what I have accomplished, or even really process what is going on. Since the completion of my master’s, the waters are calming, the pull of the tides is weakening, and I am now waiting for stillness. I don’t know what it is that I will do next, but I feel certain that with that stillness, small ripples will begin to make sense and I can start to chart a more meaningful and fulfilling course. I want to experience that sense of nothingness, find my authentic self, and start fresh. I realize this may not be a feeling that will last, or even be possible to attain, and that this weird twenty-something process is certainly not unique to me. I do, however, have a great appreciation for the fact that I can take the time to do this at all. My mom is so supportive; I feel ridiculously blessed to have her on my team so listen (and listen and listen…), encourage, and catch me should I fall. Many friends have also put up with my frequent “am I crazy?!” questioning and your affirmations have helped me to maintain conviction to this process. After having the waves to distract me all of these years, the imminent calm seems even more foreboding at times. Right now, doing nothing feels like the biggest risk of all.

I have been borrowing such descriptors as “mini-retirement” or “spiritual awakening”  for this time in my life in an effort to categorize what I am doing – so like me to try to put everything in its own box. I have been getting very existential, which is scary because those thoughts aren’t easy to pin down and identify. And I have also found that for me, I cannot really process these things without verbalizing them. So during one particularly fruitful discussion with my mom, I found myself frantically scribbling on a scrap of paper in the middle of a crowded restaurant. I didn’t care about the venue; I was starting to make sense of all of these thoughts and get to the core of my fear and that sense of something missing. This is still such a work in progress so in an effort to keep it going, I have decided to share in this medium. Here is that piece of paper:

Purpose 2

For me, it was helpful to think about things as being part of one system, but having different tiers: at the base, the first tier where factual information lives, including scientific theory, engineering principles, or social ideas; the second tier revolves around the methods in which that information is conveyed to a given audience, by way of education, visual art, facilitation, graphic design, networking, leadership, management, events, and activism; the top tier is the purpose. Why do we do what we do? I think this has been the key piece  missing in my life, lost in the waves. I have distilled purpose into two parts: personal (or inward) and community (or outward), on a local to global scale. I think I have been undervaluing personal purpose, the part where self-fulfillment is reason enough to do something. To me, this goes hand-in-hand with spirituality, security, healthy habits, adventure, and income. Community purpose is anything that inspires others, improves someone else’s quality of life, or offers enlightenment. Having these ideals of what is important to me written in one place has helped to make things clearer, but my no means is this an exhaustive list. I have also started to internalize the sentiment that one person cannot change the world, but many people coming together sure can. If doing something for my own enjoyment can inspire a chain reaction where by other people are inspired, empowering them to find their own self-fulfillment, which goes on to inspire more people – that is enough. If I can encourage one person to be more open-minded about environmental issues and start to live more sustainably – that is enough. Taking the time to appreciate the small changes each individual has in a community – that is enough. Each little impact is progress. This shift in thinking has been so fundamental to me.

blue dot

It is with this thoughtful openness and emotional sensitivity that I attended the David Suzuki Blue Dot Tour at Massey Hall in Toronto just over a week ago. Musical acts, like Danny Michel, Chantal Kreviazuk, and the Barenaked Ladies, were interspersed with moving talks and powerful visual vignettes. The messaging of the event was very clear, making the case for why Canadians need to fight for the right to a healthy environment  and how to go about it. Speeches abounded, the most moving of which were delivered by Stephen Lewis, about the United Nations efforts to rally a collective fight against climate change, and Devon Page of Ecojustice, regarding that organizations attempts to curb the federal governments practice of loosening the protective powers of environmental regulations. Scientific and economic facts were juxtaposed with personal comment and emotive pleas, in perfect balance. And while each attendee was provided with a program containing a form requesting a donation to the David Suzuki foundation, it was not pushed. The objective of the evening was clear: spark small movements by imploring your municipal government to make the environment a priority, which will lead to change at a provincial and federal level.

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The evening culminated in a final talk from David Suzuki himself. It was so moving to see someone in person who has been such an inspiration to me and so many others across the country. The energy in the hall was electric and yet when he spoke, you could hear a pin drop. Suzuki’s talk centered around the idea of changing perspectives and how standing up for our environment can be equated to combating racism and fighting for gender equality and the rights of the LGBT community. It is something we need to do collectively and start immediately in order to ensure that our natural spaces are preserved, our food system is secure, our water is clean to drink, and our air is fit to breathe. You can read more about the ways in which you can take action within your community here: I must include the following video of a poem written for the occasion, which was the highlight of the event for me — Shane Koyczan’s ‘Shoulders’:

I woke up yesterday morning and looked around my childhood bedroom. My phone was filled with notifications from friends sending me water-related pictures, posts, and articles. On my desk lay pamphlets for Night\Shift alongside my ticket stub from Blue Dot. High on a shelf in a place of prominence, glasses with inscriptions about the benefits of drinking tap water, a gift from another water-loving friend. In my closet, the orange safety vest and mud-caked rubber boots lie in wait. I took the time to take in my surroundings and a feeling washed over me — I am thankful, I am doing my part, what I can contribute right now is enough, and purpose, however small, is the key to it all. What is your purpose?

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The Watershed: a Water-Themed Docudrama

the watershed
At the end of August, I was very fortunate to see the workshop version of a new play coming to Toronto in 2015. Titled “The Watershed,” this docudrama was commissioned as a featured piece for the Pan Am Games, taking place in the city next summer. Its content is focused on the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) and the political controversy surrounding its fate in 2012-2013. If you are unfamiliar with this particular series of events, I encourage you to read more about the political turmoil over funding and the rushed closing of the ELA that was occurring at the time. The play chronicles the researchers, activists, political, and industrial figures that were involved in this tale, including a highly critical view of Stephen Harper which I greatly appreciated. In fact, this play didn’t spare any political punches and considering its own funding sources and purpose, I found that both surprising  and refreshing.Personal anecdote: I actually went to see David Schindler speak at the University of Waterloo this past spring as a kickoff to a workshop intended to chart the future of the ELA, now under the management of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). While in the process of absolutely fan-girling out to see Professor Schinlder, a recipient of an Order of Canada and the Stockholm Water Prize, speak, I found myself seated next to Diane Orihel. Yes, Nature’s Lady of the Lake, the women who set aside her PhD work to leap into action, founding the Coalition to Save ELA. I encourage you to read about her story should you find you find yourself in need of inspiration and the willingness to act. Personally, I was never so happy to attend a talk in my entire life; the people I met and words spoken that day gave me the energy I needed to propel myself over the Master’s finish line a few months later.

Schindler’s talk and “The Watershed” touched on common themes: the intertwined nature of politics and the environment and the need for scientists to have media literacy. These ideas have been creeping into my conversations with my fellow water scientists and engineers more and more recently. Perhaps it is that I am less entrenched in the science side of things or have matured to take in more of a big picture perspective on the issues I’m working with, but it definitely appears to me that more and more when the topic of environmental science emerges, politics cannot be far behind. An example of this would be the Pass the Mic workshops help by the Canadian Water Network for young professionals and students to develop their media and public speaking prowess. There is a need more now than ever for scientists to convey not only their findings, but the significance of those findings and demand that necessary changes be made. David Schindler has been doing this for decades and we should all be following suit.

Back to “The Watershed”: I want to make people aware of the project if you hadn’t heard of it already – it is really amazing. It was validating and inspiring to see Canadian freshwater issues explained so well and in such an engaging and artistic way. I have such an appreciation for the docudrama style. As a self-titled ‘water outreach person’, I am always looking for ways to educate and inform the public, not always a willing audience. I feel like the combination of art, science, and activism portrayed in “The Watershed” is a fabulous way to entertain, educate, and inspire change.

After seeing that play, I had a chance to speak to the playwright, Annabel Soutar. Her previous work, “Seeds”, about a lengthy legal battle between a Saskatchewan farmer and Monsanto received rave reviews when it was released in 2012. I encourage you to learn more about her work here: Having only seen the first two acts of “The Watershed” thus far, I certainly know what I an excited for going into the new year. As I obtain information regarding ticket sales, I will be sure to share it along to my theatre-going and water-loving friends alike!

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