Empowering Communities for Environmental Advocacy: The CWAP Program

September 11th, 2023

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a challenge arose for many organizations – how to keep volunteers engaged and active when they couldn’t physically come together. For one dedicated group, this challenge led to the birth of the Community Water Advocacy Program (CWAP), a unique initiative aimed at training community members to become effective advocates for their local environment and waterways. 

Jim Waltman, executive director of The Watershed Institute, saw an opportunity to harness the passion and energy of volunteers who could no longer work on-site. Through surveys and focus groups, it became clear that the membership was eager to work together to advocate for their water and the environment at the local level. Furthermore, it became evident that many community members, from teenagers to senior citizens, were not familiar with the inner workings of local government. 

CWAP’s program components were carefully designed to bridge this knowledge gap and empower participants to make a difference. Participants learn the basics of how local government operates, from navigating municipal webpages to understanding the roles of elected bodies, Environmental Commissions, Planning and Zoning Boards, and municipal staff. They also delve into essential topics such as researching the health of local waterways, understanding Environmental Justice, and learning how to read site plans for proposed developments. 

The program’s impact has been nothing short of impressive. The first CWAP cohort kicked off in the fall of 2020, followed by subsequent cohorts in the spring of 2021 and the winter of 2022. A session customized for the Trenton Community concluded in September 2023. Training sessions continue, with a cohort currently in process. The commitment to annual training and the expansion of CWAP for Trenton are testament to its success. 

Since its inception, CWAP has reached more than 100 community members hailing from 44 different municipalities. Beyond adult participants, the program has also extended its reach to high school students in Trenton, Hightstown, Hamilton, and Robbinsville through specially designed advocacy training modules. 

The achievements of CWAP graduates have been remarkable. Annette Loveless, a member of the first cohort, now chairs Lawrence Township’s Environmental and Green Advisory Committee. Annabelle Wang, a high school student, received recognition from Montgomery Township’s Environmental Commission for her work in raising awareness of water-related environmental issues. Ray Purkis and Nell Haughton, both engaged in their local Environmental Commissions, have actively advocated for enhanced protections and flood mitigation. 

But perhaps the most compelling testament to CWAP’s impact lies in the words of its participants: 

  • Annabelle Wang reflects, “Being able to engage with people like you who are actively working to support our environment has been inexpressibly meaningful to me. Advocacy and activism were no longer isolating activities for me – a whole community of smart and kind people were just a township away, working hard instead of waiting. 
  • Mary Wilde shares her newfound empowerment: “I’m learning how to be more aware by accessing local government information, how to impact policy, how to identify where change can be made before it’s the last minute…’s quite empowering.” 
  • Anna Stachnik highlights her educational journey, saying, “There is so much that I have discovered and looking forward to learning more!” 
  • Chinmayi & Karunya express their enthusiasm, saying, “Last night’s CWAP session was amazing! We talked so much about how we can advocate for trees and start involving others to contribute.” 
  • Mary Wilde’s experience has inspired her to become active in the Seabrook Island Birders and dive into environmental advocacy: “The CWAP program has really helped increase my depth of understanding. I am much more tuned into the work of local groups.” 

The CWAP program is a shining example of how communities can come together, adapt to challenges, and empower individuals to drive positive change at the local level. Through education, advocacy, and shared passion for the environment, CWAP participants are making a tangible difference in their communities, proving that even during challenging times, positive change is possible. 

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