For The Stewardship Network, relationships create progress
Michigan is home to some of the most diverse and productive ecosystems in the country, and many of the people that live here feel an almost reverential connection to their natural environment. As a result, our state is home to hundreds of environment and conservation organizations that invigorate and mobilize tens of thousands of volunteers annually to clean up trash, combat invasive species, monitor water quality, and more.
Many of these groups could be collaborating to decrease workload and compound their impact but aren’t because they simply don’t have the relationships or capacity to do so. The Stewardship Network exists to lessen these barriers to effective stewardship and to connect the people who are fighting to protect land and water in their local communities.
The Michigan Environmental Council had the pleasure of getting to chat with The Stewardship Network’s founder and CEO Lisa Brush and communications director Bob Zammit this month to learn more about this innovative member organization.
First, a bit of backstory to set the scene. Lisa Brush has built her career around fighting for the environment, and back in the 1990’s, she was working with the Huron River Watershed Council (another Environmental Council member group) on water issues and nonpoint source pollution.
As she was doing this work, Lisa noticed there were many passionate groups and individuals in the area working on the same issues she was. But folks weren’t coordinating and compounding their labor, leading to a duplication of efforts and a whole lot of wasted time.
In 1998, this realization led to the creation of Huron River Watershed Volunteer Stewardship Network with support from the City of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum. This network brought together all of the groups in the Upper Huron watershed that were working on land and water issues. The group's members began to meet regularly to do things, like natural site visits together. There, they were able to learn from each other and take that knowledge back to their own organizations. They also started a monthly discussion group called the Stewards’ Circle (which continues to this day), which became an amazing professional and volunteer network and space for people to share their roadblocks, frustrations and successes.
The Huron River Watershed Volunteer Stewardship Network was so successful that it decided to scale the work up and piloted two more groups—one in Oakland County and another in Jackson and Lenawee counties—which were also well received. These projects laid the foundation to create The Stewardship Network in 2004.
Today, the now nationally and internationally award winning organization boasts 21 member communities not just in Michigan but across the country. Each member community is made up of a coordinator who is supported by a guiding committee made up of partners that all work together to decide which projects they work on.
Brush and Zammit used a metaphor to explain the role The Stewardship Network plays for its member communities. Think of each individual as a cell, each organization as a leaf, each member community as a branch, and all of the communities together as the tree. The Stewardship Network is the connective root system of the tree that nourishes, anchors, and supports the tree.
The Stewardship Network seeks to support their member communities by connecting individuals and groups with their compatriots so that they can collaborate and work together to be more effective stewards of their local land and water than they could ever be alone. The group also seeks to lessen administrative burdens on their member communities to maximize the time they can spend ‘on the ground’. Oftentimes, one of the biggest challenges in environmental organizing and volunteering is the burden of all the administrative tasks that go into a successful community event.
The Stewardship Network offers training and education services; financial and grant writing support; event registration and communications help; technology support; and a collaborative event calendar so that anyone within the network can easily identify and plug into events that are already happening.
Because The Stewardship Network is a neutral convening organization, it is able to aggregate projects. It often pulls several member communities together on one grant in order to maximize impact. Additionally, it hosts monthly webcasts that are well attended and maintains a job board on its site where one can find an extensive list of conservation and stewardship job opportunities.
The Stewardship Network also hosts two large events that it builds its yearly schedule around. The first is its annual TSN Conference, which has taken place each winter since 2008 and started as a 'science in practice' symposium. This event brings together individuals from across the state and country to network, learn from each other, and celebrate their successes.
The other major event is the TSN Spring Challenge, which challenges individuals to do more together. Over ten weeks, the TSN Spring Challenge asks volunteers to quantify the hours and impact that they make in their communities and tallies that up together.
The 2023 Challenge is just winding down now, and The Stewardship Network is proud to announce that this was one of the most successful challenges since its inception, with member communities reporting over 50,000 hours of cumulative stewardship work and 13,500 total volunteers participating.
All in all, The Stewardship Network is a unique and special organization that works tirelessly to empower communities that are working on the ground to protect their local land, water, and people. The assistance and connections that The Stewardship Network strives to facilitate across its network have made a world of difference for nature lovers across the state and the country.
If you’d like to learn more about its current projects; how to join a member community or start a new one; how to attend the TSN Conference 2024; and so much more, go to stewardshipnetwork.org.
Written by Abby Wallace. Interested in becoming an Environmental Council member? Email her at [email protected].