“We have a chance to learn from our friends on the West Coast and re-engineer our water systems, to clean up the Anacostia, the Potomac, and the Chesapeake waterways, all the while saving money and reducing carbon emissions.”
In honor of Parks and Recreation Month, we welcome Jim Foster, President of Anacostia Watershed Society. Anacostia Watershed Society protects and restores the Anacostia River and its watershed communities by cleaning the water, recovering the shores, and honoring the heritage.
- What motivated you to begin working with your organization?
When this job came along I jumped at it, because it gave me a chance to bring together my professional and personal lives. Professionally, I was working on a wide range of environmental issues including brownfields restoration. Personally, I was involved with local conservation groups, all focused on water. Anacostia Watershed Society gave me the chance to do what I love, and do it for a living. I also jumped at it because AWS was a solid, well led organization, with lots of room to grow. This wasn’t a rescue or a turn around, it was the chance to take the organization to the next level. And that’s a rare opportunity.
- What exciting change or innovation is on your mind?
Across the country policy makers and the public are just beginning to change their view of water, from a problem to be managed to a resource to be treasured. If you look at what’s happening in the West right now, every drop of rain is precious. Yet here in the Washington, D.C. metro area we discharge 350 million gallons of clean, high quality water every day through the Blue Plains treatment plant. We spend an enormous amount of electricity to move water around, to clean it, and ultimately just to discharge it. We have a chance to learn from our friends on the West Coast and re-engineer our water systems, to clean up the Anacostia, the Potomac, and the Chesapeake waterways, all the while saving money and reducing carbon emissions. It just makes sense.
- Who inspires you (in the philanthropy world or otherwise)? Do you have a hero?
I’m constantly impressed and inspired by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett for instituting the Giving Pledge. Folks like Gates and Buffett could have spent their wealth chiseling their name onto buildings. Instead, they’ve focused on solving problems, here and across the globe. Locally, Roger and Vicki Sant are part of the Giving Pledge, and they’ve played a tremendous and strategic role in restoring the Anacostia. Their legacy will be a significantly better Washington, D.C.
- What was your most interesting recent project/partnership?
The 11th Street Bridge Park is one of the most interesting and transformative things happening on the Anacostia River right now. First of all, bringing the community to the river is vital to its restoration and long term protection. The 11th Street Bridge Park will bring to life the banks of the river on both sides, which is our goal at AWS. Second, Scott Kratz, the director of the project, has done a terrific job engaging the communities on both sides of the river. Sometime community engagement is just a buzz word, but Scott has done the hard work of making it real. The vision for the Bridge Park isn’t Scott’s– it’s truly the communities on both sides of the river.
- What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces (besides finances) and how are you dealing with this challenge?
Our biggest challenge is getting people to put aside what they think they know about the Anacostia River. For too many, the Anacostia is the river you drive over. Or the river that divides the city. Or an environmental tragedy. We want people to see what the Anacostia River can be, and is on the way to becoming. Several weeks ago I took a group of community leaders for a tour on one of our pontoon boats. As we entered the marsh that’s part of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, I cut the engine and we drifted silently. And they were stunned by the silence. Stunned that everywhere they looked was green and lush, with no sign of development. Heron and eagles circled overhead. That’s a teachable moment. That’s when people see what this river could be for this community. We have an extensive recreation program, with paddle nights throughout the year, because when we put people out on the river, we turn them into stewards and advocates.
- What advice do you have for other people in your position?
Collaborate don’t compete. For dollars, for staff, for attention, for everything! Recently a group of Executive Directors working across the Chesapeake got together and it turned into a mutual support session. We’re all facing the same struggles, we have intelligence and experiences that can help each other advance, and we just need to be open to sharing. And as much as we all worry about competing for donors, the fact is that donors get frustrated by competition. We’re stronger when we partner in our approaches even to funders.
- What’s next/coming up for you?
What’s next for us is planning for success! The Anacostia Watershed Society is on track to have the Anacostia River swimmable and fishable by 2025. There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done between now and then, and some significant challenges still to be addressed. But we can see the goal. And that only increases our sense of urgency. The closer you get to the goal, the more important strategy becomes and that’s where we’re spending a lot of time now with our staff, our Board and our stakeholders, refining the strategy that will get us to 2025.