Slide background


March - From HAP Ringleader Willie!

April 14, 2017

I had the awesome experience of participating in my first paid speaking gig as Ringleader of Human Access Project. Well, no cash necessarily, but Friends of Chicago River bought my airfare and a hotel room to speak at their 2017 Chicago River Summit.  Two HAP Board members and close friends Tommy “T- Bone” Vandel and Jonny “Motown” Ostrander, picked up their own tab and came along to support me. 


People who have followed HAP know the hard battles we have fought and continue to fight to elevate the conversation around activation of the Willamette River for access, recreation, swimming safety, and transforming how people feel about our city’s river in general. 


On the most primal level it was an amazing feeling of validation that the Friends of Chicago River – a 38-year old, first-class, effective group of doers – felt the stories of HAP’s work could be beneficial to their efforts.


My favorite speaker was David St. Pierre, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (NWRD) of Greater Chicago. He has been a lifetime worker in the water and sewer treatment world. NWRD is basically equivalent to our Bureau of Environmental Services, only with a budget 2-3 times the size. David is a major force in Chicago’s huge effort to improve its river and reduce overflows (similar to our Big Pipe). He even joined the Friends of Chicago River for a dip in the Chicago River in the Cal Sag channel last summer. What amazing leadership.

The day after the conference I had a chance to visit with Executive Director Margaret Frisbee of Friends of Chicago River. I felt like the graduating 6th grader absorbing the lessons from the graduating High School Senior. I immediately loved Margaret’s vibe, fun, energetic, passionate – it was like I discovered a new sister that was separated from birth. Margaret rattled off successful projects, “Well this one took 7 years, this one took 10, this one took 7”. 


It was humbling and grounding to consider how hard and long it can take to get things done. But also cool and reassuring to see how similar our stories of struggle and determination to get things done were. As many successes we have had in our first 7 years there will be many struggles and stories and successes to come and they likely will be counted off in years like Margaret.


We also talked about the inherent “creative tensions” that activists and a bureaucracy will always have. It’s never personal, we are just playing the roles of the hats we are wearing. Staying in the game, seeing things through and not letting the process grind you down – that is what it’s all about. Getting big, hairy, complicated things done!


The day before the conference I also had a chance to tour Chicago’s new $100 million Riverwalk with John Quail, Friends of Chicago River’s Director of Watershed Planning. I loved his passion as he talked about floating habitat that was installed and how the addition of the Riverwalk has brought more people to the river’s edge and how quickly the city has begun to use it. John will be visiting Portland this summer – hopefully we can get him out for a River Hugger swim.


I left Chicago pumped up and feeling more connected to the international urban swimming community than ever. All our communities are on this same team and in this together. Portland’s win is Chicago’s win. Boston’s win is Paris’s win. It felt like the warm connection of discovering relatives who have common stories about our crazy Aunt Lucille and good ol’ Grampa Joe. It was a common language of river activism and action, spark and hope.


Oh yeah, Chicago has a decent Blues scene too.


Willie Levenson

HAP Ringleader