When we caught up with Erin Huber, she had just landed in Tanzania and was waiting to take a 9-hour bus ride to continue her trek to Uganda.
The Northeast Ohio native and Detroit-Shoreway resident was once again on a journey to Africa, one that really began some seven years ago.
"My first few weeks of graduate school at Cleveland State's College of Urban Affairs, I was paired up with a man that would change my life forever – Dr. Nicholas Zingale," Huber says. "At the same time, Mayor Jackson held the first Sustainable Cleveland summit in 2009 and all of a sudden, my water life truly began."
That water life became Drink Local. Drink Tap., an organization Huber founded with an initial mission to encourage people to reduce plastic pollution and reconnect with tap and local water, but one that has grown since then, including work in Uganda to educate and provide sustainable access to safe water. It all comes at a time when water has become a national and international focus point, from droughts in California to algae growth on the Great Lakes to lead-tainted water in major American cities. And that's just in the United States.
"I think it's important to understand the problems of today do not end at borders, especially with water," says Huber. "It's all connected. The work is hard, rewarding and challenging, but I truly hope our work is no longer needed someday."
Years ago, a small workshop was a sort of genesis for the idea. There was a summit and a bunch of people broke out into groups. Water was one of the topics. A group of 50 suddenly became a group of 10.
"We realized it would be hard to talk about big algae blooms and invasive species and lakefront development and combined sewer overflows if people weren't thinking about the water they put in their body everyday," says Huber.
So Drink Local. Drink Tap. was born, but the mission quickly seemed narrow.
"We adopted Edgewater state park [at the time] and joined forces with other groups who were caring for the park on a monthly basis," she says. "Then teachers started hearing our message and wanted their students to learn about pollution and water." Subsequently, Huber started the Wavemaker Program, which works within schools to help educate youths on all issues pertaining to water. During one classroom session, she met a teacher from Uganda who told Huber there were 700 kids without water in her village. "That's when I knew I could tie it all together," Huber says.
She went to Africa, along with her friend Laura Blake, to try and learn about the situation firsthand. They teamed up with another friend, Tom Kondilas, to make a documentary about the children and the water and the village.
"The things I saw that first trip...," Huber says, "I can never unsee."
Since then, they've become a registered NGO in Uganda and are headquartered in Hingetown as a non-profit.
It's a natural progression stemming from her compassion and drive – she started her first organization, Covering Cleveland, at just 18 years old. That program helped provide blankets, food and conversation to Cleveland's homeless population. "When I was a teenager, I got so overwhelmed with the world's problems – I peaceful protested drilling in the Arctic, for animal rights – but I finally decided to go to college and try to tie the many things I cared about together and make a career out of it." While taking night classes at Tri-C, before CSU, she talked with Nina Turner, a mentor Huber says might not have any idea the sort of impact she made on her, about her future.
"My father, who passed away when I was 12, taught us to root for the underdog, to speak up for things and people that couldn't speak for themselves," Huber says. "And I recognized, in part from my father's passing, that environmental and pollution issues had so much injustice tied to them. I also realized my passion for water, which as we all know, is life." — Vince Grzegorek