I write this article on the eve of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s 14th annual Chesapeake Watershed Forum. The late timing of this year’s forum — Nov. 15–17 — at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, WV, offers me a unique opportunity to reflect on the gathering in the context of the last 11 months.

This year in particular leaves me with a lot to contemplate. I am honored to lead the forum for the first time, having also overseen the many year-round, local and interactive events that made up our ForumPlus program in 2019. As I wrap up my first year in this new role, I am interested in the common themes that tie our work together.

The Chesapeake Watershed Forum is open to individuals, communities, businesses and governments in the multistate watershed. The restoration community values the forum as an opportunity to share successful tools, techniques and the latest science for the Bay’s protection; build their capacity; invest in their personal development; foster new and existing relationships; learn about new initiatives; and celebrate the community’s successes.

The message of year’s theme, Better Together: Diverse and Innovative Collaborations for the Chesapeake Watershed, is simple: Innovation thrives with diversity. As we make the final push to meet the goals set in the Chesapeake Bay Agreement by 2025 amid the ramifications of a rapidly changing climate as well as many other challenges tied to restoring the watershed, it is more important than ever that we forge ahead in the spirit of teamwork and inclusivity.

The theme of the 2019 Chesapeake Watershed Forum was 'Better Together.' (Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)Our hope is that this year’s forum highlights the collaborative models across the watershed that accelerate the protection and restoration of its lands and waters. We want to understand what gives these joint efforts staying power, explore new roles for the veterans of the Bay restoration movement, identify opportunities to engage nontraditional stakeholders and work cross-sectors, and learn how to strengthen partnerships by following the principles of equity to create a diverse and inclusive movement.

Mamie Parker, principal with EcoLogix Group and chair of the Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries Commission, was this year’s keynote speaker. Parker is a well-respected fish and wildlife biologist and transformational speaker. Her career is hallmarked by firsts, including the first female regional director of the 13 northeastern states of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the first African-American head of Fisheries, and most recently, the first African-American to chair Virginia’s Board of Game and Inland Fisheries. Informed by her pioneering and history-making career, Parker espouses the importance of representation and diversity for the future of the conservation field.

2019 marks the sixth year of the Chesapeake Collective at the forum. The Collective is a platform for diverse voices to express their vision for a healthy Bay watershed. While it does not include all of the voices that make our watershed whole, it does provide a platform and open invitation for people whose diverse perspectives are often overpowered by the dominant narrative or even left out entirely.

Since its inception, the Collective has grown and evolved. This year, I am particularly proud that we offered the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (or DEIJ) Guide at the Chesapeake Watershed Forum. This guide was created by the Collective, the Alliance’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team, as well as our partners on the forum’s planning committee. It is a set of standards that we at the Alliance hold ourselves accountable to as we strive to make the forum a safe and inclusive space for those who attend it.

Our theme was well-integrated in nearly all of the forum’s 51 training sessions and presentations. The examples of diverse and innovative collaboration ranged from engaging the Plain Sect community in clean water, translating “Bay-speak” for local elected officials, developing an organization’s DEIJ plan, approaching a nature walk through the lens of different spiritual teachings, and regional partnership approaches to conservation. Each topic fundamentally relates back to the belief that a broad base of participation is essential for our ultimate success in the Chesapeake restoration effort.The annual Chesapeake Watershed Forum brings together environmental professionals from across the Chesapeake Bay watershed. (Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

The longer I reflect on the themes of diverse and innovative collaborations, the more I see how well they embody what we at the Alliance strived to achieve through nearly all of our ForumPlus events in 2019.

Many of our ForumPlus activities focused on engaging nontraditional stakeholders. In September, our Pennsylvania office offered the third annual Sportsmen’s Forum, a day of presentations showcasing opportunities for conservationists and sports enthusiasts to unite around a common mission of clean water.

September also saw the first Pennsylvania Sustainable Business Summit, an event that brought together business leaders from the agricultural sector to celebrate restoration successes and energize the private sector as upcoming leaders in sustainability.

In October, the Alliance hosted the Virginia Citizens for Water Quality Summit, which focused on creating more diverse partnerships to expand water quality monitoring in the state.

Some of our ForumPlus events focused on cross-sector collaboration, with particular emphasis in workforce development in green infrastructure and stormwater. This topic was the focus of the 2019 Local Government Forum presented by the Alliance and the Local Government Advisory Committee to the Chesapeake Executive Council. It also was the topic of the Alliance’s DC Workforce Development and Green Jobs Roundtable that took place in October.

I am also proud of our many other efforts to foster and nurture new and novel partnerships through ForumPlus. In Virginia, we offered quarterly green infrastructure forums of the East End neighborhood in Richmond. Our objective is to identify how we plan existing and future projects for more effective implementation and maximization of benefits to the community. It is a similar mission that has us leading forums at increasingly larger geographic scales, including the Anne Arundel Partnership Forum and the upcoming Southern Maryland Habitat Forum.

Finally, we explored new roles for two veterans of the Chesapeake Bay restoration movement in 2019. In May, we were co-hosts of the first Choose Clean Water Coalition ForumPlus at the Coalition’s annual conference in Baltimore. We will offer more in 2020 and 2021 as a way to share our organizations’ complementary competencies and stakeholders, presenting a great opportunity to cross-collaborate and leverage each other’s strengths at our annual conferences.

It is my opinion that Better Together is more than just a theme, but a fundamental tenet for how the Alliance will approach the next generation of Chesapeake restoration challenges and opportunities.

It is through this process of peer-to-peer learning, identifying areas of common concern and needs, developing shared solutions to challenges and forging ahead together that we will achieve our Chesapeake Bay restoration goals.