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Illinois State’s center for water future looks for community partnerships

Three people talking at a table, with other tables in the background.

Joan Brehm, co-director of the Center for a Sustainable Water Future at Illinois State University spoke with campus and community members at a forum on local and global water issues.

Illinois State University is pulling in local partners to explore worldwide challenges to water.

The University recently established a Center for Sustainable Water Future, which will encourage long-term water solutions through academic research, and teaching, creative, and learning opportunities from across campus disciplines.

“Water is a crucial global resource, and water insecurity—or the absence of clean drinking water—has profound implications,” said Professor of Sociology Joan Brehm, who will co-direct the center.

Four people at a table talking, with several other tables full of people in the background.

Harriet Steinbach of the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning takes part in a forum with community members to discuss water issues.

In September, Brehm and co-director Professor of Politics and Government Noha Shawki invited local organizations that work with water-relevant issues to campus with the aim of building community partnerships. “The first step was really for us to listen, to hear the needs of community organizations, and understand the opportunities we have to work together,” said Shawki, who added that the center will explore everything from student internships to research projects in ways to assist organizations.

Brehm hopes the collaborative work will generate innovative ideas to help people to embrace their roles as stewards of clean water. “Water really is the linchpin of civilization. And it’s probably our resource that’s under the biggest threat,” said Brehm, who has done research on state watersheds and international lakes. “We have alternatives to oil and other energy. We can engineer our way out of some of those problems. We can’t engineer our way out of having no water. We have to be better at caring for the water we have.”

The Center for Sustainable Water Future will take a unique interdisciplinary approach that promotes a broader understanding of the values and obligations that accompany water. “Issues surrounding water weave through humanitarian work, development work, and community development,” said Shawki, who recently took a team of students to World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden, to explore innovative global work in water sustainability. “Water intersects with energy production, public health, food production, and human rights. It touches every discipline.”

Faculty and staff from across campus will be able to work with the center, noted Brehm. “We put a lot of emphasis on fine arts and humanities in addition to the more traditional biological and social sciences,” she said. Brehm added she hopes to see art installations dedicated to water along with coursework and curricular development. “We want to build an understanding of how scientific knowledge about water also needs to reflect diverse cultural and social meanings. These meanings, in turn, will influence how we approach pressing questions about water that influence conservation, health, sanitation, food, biodiversity, governance, sustainability, and artistic expression.”

The center will be housed under the Office of the Provost. More information on the developing center can be found at the website, or email watercenter@illinoisstate.edu.

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