In honor of Clean Water Action's 50th birthday, we are lifting up voices and stories in the Clean Water movement through #CleanWater50Stories. Our story is the story of everyday people who have used their power to make a difference to create a healthier and greener future for all.
Meet Clean Water Action alumni Billy Goldsmith! Billy lives in Philadelphia with his wife Rachel and their two children. He spent eight years in the grassroots environmental movement, ultimately as Director of Clean Water’s Philadelphia Field Canvass, where he recruited, trained and developed hundreds of grassroots leaders and facilitated campaigns on national, statewide, and local issues. He also mobilized fence-line communities, organized public hearings, and led other local actions to hold polluters and politicians accountable. He still remains engaged in Clean Water Action and our goals, serving 10 years on Clean Water Action‘s Board of Directors and is a current member of our Southeastern Pennsylvania Steering Committee.
What's Your Connection to Clean Water?
I had the pleasure of working in the canvass from 2001-2009 as well as serving on the Board of Directors from 2010-2021.
What's Your Favorite Clean Water Action Memory or Story?
There are far too many wonderful memories and stories to share at one time from great experiences canvassing, van rides to turf, cross-trains, community events, lobby days, and of course leadership conferences. I'll focus on two connected ones here as what has always amazed me about Clean Water Action is our capacity to lead from behind when working to empower local groups and volunteers.
In 2004 we ran the largest GOTV site in southeastern PA as we had endorsed John Kerry for President. We were told by the coalition we were working with to expect 100-200 volunteers. As bus after bus pulled in, we wound up with nearly 1,000. We had celebrities show up to fire up the crowd (I got a hug from Susan Sarandon, which remains my claim to fame) and spent every ounce of energy we had to get people to the polls. As we sat and watched the returns come in, we were ecstatic as PA was called for Kerry.
As we know, that was not the case in enough states and George W. Bush won a second term. I got a call that night from Dave Zwick, thanking us for doing our job so well in PA and, despite all of the pessimism we were feeling, reminding us that the Clean Water Act was passed through a Nixon veto and that our work on the ground was what would determine if we were going to succeed on our issues and how we would be successful in the next election.
Fast forward to our post-GOTV party in 2008 and as we sat exhausted from another intense election season, with tears running down our cheeks as the first African American President in US history was elected, I could hear those words echoing in my mind and knew in my bones the truth of that wisdom that Dave shared with me 4 years earlier - it is grassroots people power, and our commitment to activating our communities that determines if we succeed or not.
What's Exciting for Clean Water Now & for the Future?
There is no future for environmentalism without prioritizing environmental justice, and there is no solution to climate change without centering and prioritizing climate justice and in my 21 years of being associated with the organization, there is nothing I am more proud of than Clean Water Action's commitment to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.
From the early leaders of the EJ movement who have helped lead the organization in that direction like Vernice Miller-Travis and Willie Fontenot to the institutional leadership of longtime staff like CEO Bob Wendelgass, to the courageous young canvass staff of color who challenged the organization to step up and into this space, the humble manner in which the organization shifted strategy to make this a core pillar at the national, state, and local level gives me more hope for the future of the organization and for all of us.
Anything else you'd like to share?
My path of being a career "nonprofiteer" began the day I walked into the Clean Water Action office in western MA and I couldn't be more grateful. The lifelong friendships I made aside, what I remain inspired by is the organization's unyielding commitment to developing the changemakers of the future. Now over 20 years in the sector and having worked with countless organizations in my career, I have never seen a nonprofit put so much intention, energy, and passion into the professional development of its staff.
The legacy of Clean Water Action is SO much more than the issues that we have worked on, the laws that we've gotten enacted, the officials we've helped get into office, or even in some cases the improvements in the waterways we have helped protect. I say that because you cannot find a sector in which Clean Water Action alumni are not present and driving positive change. This reach goes well beyond the environmental movement and stretches into corporate America, local/state/national government, and an incalculable number of other fights for improving people's lives.
The organization has always taken the approach that the world needs strong leaders to drive positive impact everywhere and if someone learns those skills at Clean Water Action and then finds their passion elsewhere, then they go with our blessing. To say that is rare would be an understatement and I don't believe the story of Clean Water Action is complete without looking at this legacy of leadership that is collectively making an outsized positive impact on the world.
To support our work, click here.
To submit your clean water story, click here.