For more than twenty-five years Alexa Bradley has dedicated herself to advancing social movements through community action as an organizer, facilitator, and popular educator. She has been a consultant to many social change organizations, a senior partner at Grassroots Policy Project, a co-director of the Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action, and a Bush Leadership Fellow.

Today, Bradley brings her experience and passion for social change to On the Commons, where she serves as a program director and works to support community solutions rooted in the commons principles of stewardship and equity. Her primary focus since 2010 has been the Great Lakes Commons Initiative, a grassroots effort unlike any other she has previously been involved with: “I’ve done this kind of work for roughly 25 years, and the power of the Great Lakes to tap people’s passion is just amazing,” says Bradley. Led by a growing network of leaders throughout the region, the cross-border, grassroots effort aims to establish the Great Lakes as a commons and legally protected bioregion.

I recently had the chance to ask Bradley a few questions about her evolving role at On the Commons and the Great Lakes Commons Initiative.

— Jessica Conrad

How did you first learn about the commons?

There was a time in my work when it felt incredibly difficult to inspire social change organizers to be bolder. They generally focused on getting more of what was already on the table—more jobs, more childcare, more healthcare,—and weren’t really able to imagine more transformational change or a new way of being in relationship to each other or to shared resources.

I talked about this challenge with Julie Ristau, who I knew as an organizer, and she sent me an invitation to an On the Commons gathering. The commons immediately resonated with me. It felt like “Wow, yes! This is a holistic articulation of many things I care about.” I discovered that the commons weaves together ecological concern and participatory democracy and co-creation. It brings in questions of social equity and relationship. It offered a hopeful vision for the future, but it didn’t seem utopian because it felt grounded in reality. I think that was the most powerful thing: the commons was idealistic but also possible.

Learning about the commons was exciting not only for those reasons, but also because it provided an approach for helping social change organizers in my circle take a leap forward in their thinking about how to create a vibrant, life-giving community.

Has your thinking about the commons evolved over time?

Yes, it has. I think almost everyone who encounters the commons first needs to make a list of commons. So after that first “Yay! The commons!” moment, I started asking questions like this: What is the commons? Is this a commons?

Then, over time, my focus shifted from naming the “things” that make up the commons to exploring the nature of our relationship to the commons, and I started asking a new set of questions: How do we protect and care for a commons? How do we bring a commons to life after it has been lost, appropriated, or neglected? How do you help people feel a sense of belonging and responsibility and stewardship if they no longer see their role in the care of a commons? Who is the “who” that shares a commons? This is a critical question we’ve asked over and over again in the Great Lakes work. Of course, indigenous people are part of the “who” and urban people and rural people and scientists and activists and students and teachers and artists and canoeists. The “who” became a very large group of people very quickly. This matters because a living commons depends on these “commoners” to not only share use of the water, but also to share the responsibility of caring for and making decisions about the water.

But even on a much smaller scale, I remember when On the Commons was asked to help facilitate a project in a park using the commons approach. My colleagues suggested that the grounds keepers and maintenance staff be part of the conversation, as well as park managers and park users. But for people who are used to making decisions, it’s often uncomfortable to include others in the decision-making process. In the case of the park, they said, “Wait, why would you invite the grounds keepers to be part of the conversation?” The commons assumes that we are all stewards and that we all have insights from our relationship to the commons. It turns out that the grounds keepers had a lot of really interesting things to say. In my experience, once people understand that inviting a wider circle of participation can be helpful, they are often more open to a different model of decision-making, but it can be a bit of a bumpy road. Sharing power is not easy after all.

Long story short, my engagement with the commons has become much more hands-on and much more practical over time as I’ve explored different ways to help people interact with the commons or use a commons-based approach.

I know you’ve had several roles at On the Commons over the years. Can you talk about how your work at OTC evolved into your current role with the Great Lakes Commons Initiative?

I first became involved with On the Commons in 2006, and my initial work was to introduce the idea of the commons to other organizers in the Midwest. I learned a lot during those first years while co-leading a series of gatherings with Julie Ristau and Dave Mann. Then in June 2010 we attended the U.S. Social Forum, and I think that’s when we discovered that we needed to shift our focus.

Our original idea was to introduce the commons to people who were already doing organizing work, but we had limited success. Some people were interested yet didn’t know how to integrate the commons, others just didn’t really get it. It became clear at the Social Forum, however, that a different group of people had already started to explore more collaborative strategies for social change and resource sharing. Some of them even called it commons work. So we connected and co-created a workshop that focused on commons strategies for water, food and land, education, and transportation.

The four-hour water workshop became a real turning point for me, because the power of the commons to provide solutions for water management was immediately clear. Water, by its very nature, defeats ownership: it’s fluid, it doesn’t obey boundaries, and it’s shared. It’s one of few things that people are uneasy about “owning.” At the Forum we identified emerging leadership and took the opportunity to go deep and build relationships. Partly because the Forum was held in Detroit, we honed in on the Great Lakes region, and eventually started talking about the Great Lakes as a commons. It made so much sense once we verbalized it, but it took some time to get there.

That conversation led to the Great Lakes Commons Initiative, which has probably been both one of our best and craziest ideas. The audaciousness of the idea that we could transform the model of governance for water in the Great Lakes has contributed both to its success, and, at times, its difficulty. It has been a tremendously fruitful piece of work, but the scale of it is just so daunting. It’s a really big area.

How have you advanced a commons approach to governance in the Great Lakes bioregion?

We started by forging a number of important relationships in the region. Breaking with the traditional environmental model, where you either have a policy advocacy focus or mobilize members though campaigns, our working assumption is that everyone has both a stake in what happens to the water and a role to play in its stewardship. Instead of seeing constituents in issue specific silos, we saw people facing related challenges from the violations of our commons. As a result, we’ve engaged a very broad community, including artists, scientists, public health officials, recreationalists, environmental advocates, students, and so on. This strategy has helped us create connections between water activists and all sorts of people who simply care about the Great Lakes, and to my mind, this has been central to a commons-based approach.

I’ve learned that the way you do your work must model what you’re trying to create. In other words, we have to be mindful of how we organize a community around the initiative because it will affect how the Great Lakes are eventually governed.

Our second strategy has been to create a commons charter for the Great Lakes, a people’s declaration for how we believe the water should be treated and of our rightful role in its care. We’re inviting people to participate in the Charter’s creation in a range of beautiful, meaningful ways: from the first principles drafted in indigenous languages of the region, to the principles from the Milwaukee Water Commons project, to the poetic contributions of the I AM WATER public art project. Recognizing and exploring the wisdom that indigenous communities bring to the Great Lakes region—in terms of how to be in relationship to the water and how to care for it—has been such an important piece of the work. I think it has helped build an emerging alliance in the Great Lakes across native and non-native communities, a relationship that has been strained and difficult for a long time.

What has been your biggest surprise?

I think my biggest surprise has been just how passionate and committed people are to the Great Lakes. People from all sorts of fields and backgrounds are volunteering their time and energy to the effort. It’s amazing. Environmental engineers and schoolteachers and people from municipal public health departments and young people and hip hop artists and photographers and pastors and people from different faith traditions—they all want to help. They want to get their communities involved. They want to work across sectors, across communities.

What’s even more amazing is that the initiative continues to grow through creative and often self-organized community leadership.. I could give you so many examples. Paul Baines created the Great Lakes Commons Map ; a team of regional indigenous leaders and elders are co-drafting the social charter in indigenous languages; Ricardo Levins Morales, a graphic artist and activist, is chairing the social charter team; Martin Auer, a chemical engineering professor at the Michigan Technological University, and his wife Nancy are initiating a year-long project exploring how the commons and indigenous knowledge bring fresh thinking to Great Lakes research; and the list goes on. People came up with these ideas by themselves. We’re simply supporting the work as co-creators.

Have you encountered any unexpected challenges?

Yes, one of the challenges we’ve faced, and will probably continue to come up against, is that the nonprofit model for organizing and advocacy doesn’t lend itself very well to distributed leadership. We’ve tried to break out of the “business as usual” model and invite leadership from other individuals and organizations because we believe that we must be more co-creative and equitable, both in the way we take on responsibilities and in how we share the benefits of our work. To me, that’s the beauty of what we’re doing, but not everyone is comfortable with it. Under the traditional model, nonprofits have to prove they are the best in order to receive funding, and oftentimes if there isn’t funding, the assumption is that the work can’t be done. The Great Lakes Commons, on the other hand, is made up of a growing network of leadership well beyond the bounds of a single organization.

Do you use a word or phrase to describe what you do?

I wish I had a better answer to this question, but I like the word “catalyst” because it suggests that we’re activating an existing desire to protect, care for, or create a commons instead of inventing a new desire. I still use the word “organizer” too because it implies a skill set for creating opportunities for people to come together around a common effort. And I also like the word “commoner.” I hope at some point everyone uses that word.

This interview has been edited and adapted for