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Lessons Learned

The purpose of the U.S. EPA Urban Waters grant is to:

  • Develop new partnerships, with special attention to low-income, non-English speaking Environmental Justice communities;
  • Test stormwater messaging for effectiveness and applicability with diverse populations and age groups;
  • Develop a stormwater education program that works for all groups;  and
  • Create a How-To-Manual and Train-the-Trainer Program

This grant served nine communities in the Northern Middlesex Region of Massachusetts, ranging from the City of Lowell to more rural towns.

The City of Lowell, MA is a gateway community, and home to immigrants from around the world. The City has an estimated Cambodian population of 30,000 residents, who arrived from a culture of political persecution. Cambodians have a history deeply tied to a river, be it the Mekong from their home nation or the Merrimack, and many have an agrarian background. The City also has a large Hispanic population of 18,000 residents (17 percent).  More recent immigrant populations in the City include Burmese, African, and Iraqi refugees who have fled war-torn areas.

This section provides you with a step-by-step approach to stormwater education for YOUR community.

STEP ONE: Identify what people care about in your area.  Develop an in-depth understanding and appreciation of the background, history and culture of community members. Reach out to neighborhood organizations and diverse groups that care about rivers, including recreational users. What are their main day-to-day and environmental concerns? How do these relate to stormwater?  Are you having difficulty reaching diverse audiences? Consider different approaches to reaching out.

  • We contacted ESL classes at community colleges with many Hispanic students, and offered to give a brief talk with a discussion period on stormwater. The discussion helped us find out what this audience thought about stormwater, and how they were connected to the river.
  • We reached Hispanic audiences also through a partnership with RUMBO, a local bilingual newspaper, and worked with the Cambodian community through the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association.
  • We reached teenagers through the YWCA and with interactive workshops in schools.
  • We attended local ethnic festivals to engage community members, and reached out to local community leaders and organizations to help us connect with the Cambodian community.
  • We attended local neighborhood association meetings to understand residents’ concerns.
  • We worked with rowing and fishing associations to reach recreational users, and to the Chamber of Commerce to reach developers and business leaders, among others.
  • We reached out to Town Planners, Town Engineers, and Conservation Agents to determine what their needs were for stormwater education.

Create partnerships that can help you reach new audiences. We established a formal partnership with 13 communities and organizations including: The City of Lowell, the Towns of Tewksbury, Tyngsborough, Chelmsford and Dracut, the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, RUMBO (the Hispanic Bilingual newspaper), Mill City Grows (a community-gardening nonprofit), Lowell National Historical Park, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust (a nonprofit urban land trust), the Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce, American Public Works Association, and the Tsongas Industrial History Center.

STEP TWO: Research the main stormwater problems in your area. Remember that stormwater impacts can include sediment from poorly operated construction sites, pollutants, nutrients, thermal stress (i.e., heat), combined sewer overflow and bacterial problems.

STEP THREE: Start your campaign by focusing on issues identified in both Steps 1 and 2

STEP FOUR: Don’t reinvent the wheel. See if messages others have prepared can be tweaked to work in your community! Feel free to contact us for our messages, as well as those of others.

STEP FIVE:  Make sure your message is simple and clear. As noted by Water Words That Work, the public just doesn’t understand “stormwater,” “watershed,” or “water quality.” Use “polluted runoff,” “our rivers” or “clean water” instead.

STEP SIX: Conduct focus groups to see which approaches, messages and visuals people respond to.  We presented each group with randomly assigned materials that included approaches, messages (i.e., tag lines), and visuals and participants picked their top three in each message category. The process was iterative: based on the feedback, messages and visuals were sequentially modified and tested again.

We learned that the effectiveness of a particular message varied greatly, depending on age and cultural differences.

STEP SEVEN:  Determine how your message is being perceived. This is particularly important for culturally diverse groups. Understand and respect cultural differences. Test your message out on individuals or groups.

For PowerPoint presentations to Conservation Commissions, we worked closely with the town’s Conservation Agent to ensure that the message would be well-received.

STEP EIGHT: Short on time? Use values-based messages and/or humor. If you can’t conduct focus groups, our research shows that people respond most favorably to value-based messages (particularly stewardship) and humor.

Stewardship was a highly effective messaging style for all. The desire to make this world a better place for our children and grandchildren is universal, and appeals to all age groups, cultures, and ethnicities.

Humor was the most effective messaging style for younger audiences.

STEP NINE: Link your visual and tagline with a solution! It’s not enough to provide education on the message. If you want people to act, let them know what they can do to help. It also helps to show other people doing what you want your audience to do!

STEP TEN: Refine your messages. Try to have friends or colleagues review the messages. Ask yourself: will the average person understand this message? Will they understand the solution? Will they know what you are asking them to do? A critical eye here is invaluable.