Soundwaters: Building a Movement to Protect the Long Island Sound

Jan 27, 2020

For more than a decade, SoundWaters has turned to FCCF’s Center for Nonprofit Excellence (CNE) for accessible training and targeted support. And after successfully growing its infrastructure and impact, in 2019, SoundWaters was honored as an inaugural inductee to the Center for Nonprofit Excellence Hall of Fame. FCCF President and CEO Juanita James sat down with SoundWaters President Leigh Shemitz to find out how the nonprofit works to protect Long Island Sound through education, while striving to close the opportunity gap in Fairfield County.

Juanita James: Long Island Sound is an important natural resource. What’s happening with the Sound, and how does it affect us in Fairfield County?

Leigh Shemitz: Long Island Sound is the greatest natural resource in our region, but in Fairfield County, it’s hard to get to. There’s only one public access point: Sherwood Island State Park. And when people aren’t connected to a natural resource, they have no means of protecting it.

One important issue illustrating this is plastics. The range of plastics in Long Island Sound is dramatic – and deadly. Plastics break down into small pieces that look like food, and can be toxic to animal life.

Leigh Shemitz, President - SoundWaters
Leigh Shemitz, President – SoundWaters

So, we’re doing a lot to raise awareness. One way is through beach cleanups. In fall 2018, there were 145 bags picked up on Stamford beaches. In fall 2019, we picked up 20 bags. The big difference is that five months ago, Stamford passed a plastic bag ban. For anyone who thinks that legislation can’t make a difference, it was a powerful moment.

There’s this phrase among environmentalists, “What goes in the ground ends up in the Sound,” and it truly does. Last month, we worked with partners to put the first trash skimmer in the Sound. It’s like a big pool filter that attaches to a dock and scoops up garbage. People volunteer to take it out of the skimmer – which makes it visible exactly what goes on, because none of that stuff got thrown off the dock. You’re just seeing little bits of plastic that probably came off the soccer field or the street.

One skimmer will not clean the Sound, but like Arlo Guthrie said, “All you need is a movement.” As people look at this, we think marina operators and yacht clubs will want to buy skimmers and it will become business as usual in the Sound.

James: SoundWaters and FCCF have had a long relationship. What has working with FCCF’s Center for Nonprofit Excellence (CNE) meant for the organization, and for you personally?

Shemitz: Fairfield County’s Community Foundation has been a wonderful partner to help SoundWaters understand what’s happening in philanthropy. And of course FCCF is a strong funder, and we’re deeply appreciative.

But more than that, FCCF understands nonprofits and how to be present for our different needs over time, especially in training. We want to make our resources work better for our students and the Sound, so it’s easy to shortchange our own training and capacity for growth. Without FCCF as a resource, we would not be as strong, resilient and capable as we are.

I’ve been working with the Center for Nonprofit Excellence since its inception. It’s such a great idea – from practical trainings on creating an annual report, to structural trainings like a six-month in-depth discussion between our staff members on how to become stronger financially.

Personally, I’ve also had the gift of being part of the Executive Leadership Program, which offers peer learning and individual coaching. It’s been a powerful growth experience for me. SoundWaters has struggled with different transitions, and to have a group to learn from has been invaluable.

James: How is Soundwaters working along with FCCF to close the opportunity gap in Fairfield County, and where do you see the organization going next?

Shemitz: We are a county of tremendous range economically and socially, and our goal is to reach everybody with the same quality, programs and opportunities. We provide scholarships to thousands of students every year, in hundreds of districts. We work with preschool students and childcare learning centers, all the way up through high school and into college.

And as SoundWaters reaches its 30th anniversary, we’re doubling down on the depth and the breadth of how we teach, and engaging the public in projects to improve the Sound.

Next month, we’re partnering to open a kelp farm. As seaweed grows, it takes in nitrogen and helps address a challenge for the Sound. Our take on this is as a teaching tool: high school students will come out on a research vessel to measure growth, make hypotheses, and act as marine scientists. In our County, if you’ve got great potential, great means and care about marine life, you’re on a trajectory of success. But for many students, these resources aren’t available. Creating research opportunities of the highest caliber right off the shores of Stamford can help them get into strong schools and excel.

We also have a million-bottle-cap challenge going on now. Every middle school student in Stamford has been challenged to pick up caps as part of a project to learn about the Sound and personal agency. Young people want a better world, and giving them a means to get there on their own is exciting.

James: How can people get involved with SoundWaters, and what should people know about the Long Island Sound?

Shemitz: To get involved, get on the website and look at SoundWaters.org. We’ll be starting public programs again in March. And you can always reach out by email at volunteer@soundwaters.org. People can volunteer to work at the trash skimmer and come aboard our schooner to experience the Sound. We even rent paddle boards and kayaks, because we want adults and families to have their own way to explore. So, once the weather warms up, come back around and splash down in Long Island Sound.

Last month we started a new program called Harbor Corps that engages young people who aren’t going to college to start careers on the Sound. At the end of the program, a young man said, “It’s so exciting to have the opportunity to become proficient in repairing boats, because we’re a city that’s right on the water. I’ve lived on the water and didn’t even know it.”

And I think that’s true for many of us. Just being aware of Long Island Sound, and that every action we do impacts our greatest natural resource, is something I’d leave people with.

Subscribe to our Fairfield County Thrives podcast to listen to our full conversation with SoundWaters President Leigh Shemitz and hear other stories of impact in our region.