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Senior Communities Coordinator joins River Action

We are absolutely delighted to welcome Lis Gibbs as our Senior Communities Coordinator at River Action!  In our latest blog, we get to know more about Lis and the role that she will play to help rescue Britain’s rivers.

Tell us about yourself…

I fear I’m your standard grey-haired, middle-aged lady cliche – I’m interested in anything and everything to do with the natural world; I like baking and I love outdoor swimming. I’m generally mild-mannered but occasionally outraged and I express myself mainly through tee-shirt slogans. Oh yes, and OF COURSE I’ve got a dog. (I recommend a dog to anyone who’s got a teenager: that way, someone is always pleased to see you in the mornings).

Why do you love rivers and what’s drawn you to wanting to protect them?

I love being in or near water. My home town – landlocked Leicester – means sea swims are 100 miles away, so if you want to swim outdoors, it’s going to be in a river or a lake. In common with many other city-dwellers, the pandemic demonstrated to me just how vital urban waterways are – they’re the lifeblood of our cities, providing essential corridors for wildlife and huge value for people’s mental and physical wellbeing. With all the benefits that rivers bring us, why on earth wouldn’t you want to protect them? 

To the huge amusement of my running club, I recently fell in a rather grim section of my local canal while out on a group run (too busy talking, as usual). I can therefore confirm that being covered in foul-smelling brown sludge is not pleasant and I want to do something about it! (Also, it took three people to haul me out from the concrete-encased side. It wasn’t big on dignity).

You’re involved in a local campaign called Saving Saffron Brook. Can you tell us about that and how you came to be involved?

Saving Saffron Brook is a great project and I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in promoting it through my previous job as a press officer at Leicester City Council, as well as in my free time with the Leicester Environmental Volunteers. 

It’s a partnership project between the local council and Trent Rivers Trust, community groups and others, and it’s got two main aims – to improve natural wildlife habitats along the brook, and to engage local people so that they can help to protect it and benefit from it. As well as working with local schools and wildlife groups, setting up citizen science projects like otter monitoring and rewilding sections along the banks, the SSB project has included work to plant trees and create new grasslands to support the brook, helping to demonstrate how wider ‘natural solutions’ restoration work can benefit rivers – everything is connected!

On joining River Action, it’s been really interesting to learn more about the different challenges that face different catchments. Saving Saffron Brook is all about rewilding a ruthlessly urbanised watercourse which is quite different from (for example) the large-scale agricultural pollution facing the Wye. I’m really looking forward to exploring the varied issues that face our rivers up and down the country. I think what projects like Saving Saffron Brook demonstrate is that wherever you live, there will be a body of water somewhere near you that needs your help!

You’ve worked for local authorities for a number of years to effect change at a local level. What have you enjoyed most about this kind of work? 

I’ve had the chance to be involved in so many different things, so I think probably the variation is what I’ve loved the most – I was involved in everything from the discovery of King Richard III in a car park in Leicester to the city’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, where we held the dubious title of first UK city to go into local lockdown. It was a tough time! 

I also got the chance to help publicise some really quite transformative local projects. The city mayor in Leicester, Peter Soulsby, is determined to get the city’s waterways cleaned up, redeveloped and better used; he’s also a big advocate of active travel, so it’s been great to see the number of dedicated bike lanes and pedestrianised public areas that have sprung up across the city. 

What’s also great about Leicester is its diversity, which means I’ve worked with people from loads of different backgrounds and communities – that feels so completely normal in Leicester that you don’t really notice it!  So it was great to work with so many really committed, knowledgeable and dedicated people from all walks of life who are determined to make the city a better place to live for everyone. I hope now I can take some of that can-do attitude, expertise and experience in bringing lots of different people together to help River Action create positive change all across the UK.

Tell us about your new role as RA senior communities coordinator… What can we expect to see from your role in 2023?

I’m so excited to be taking on this role! I want to help support communities so that together, we can rescue Britain’s rivers from this crisis – whether that’s by helping existing grassroots organisations to increase their reach and impact, or by mobilising new groups to set up and start saving their local waterway. My first job is going to be creating a comprehensive, easy-to-use toolkit of resources for groups to use, with information on how to get publicity, how to lobby locally, and how to monitor and collect vital information. There are so many committed, knowledgeable, caring people out there who are giving up their own time to save our rivers because they care so passionately for this cause. I have huge respect for that, and I can’t wait to meet them and help amplify their work!  

In your opinion, what is further needed/what needs to change in order to rescue Britain’s rivers?

This feels like a tipping point, doesn’t it? In order to effect real change we’ve got to keep up the pressure on Government to act, particularly in increasing funding to woefully under-resourced enforcement agencies so that we can actually stop people making profit from pollution, which is disgraceful. Ultimately that pressure comes from one place – people. I’m a huge believer in people power and I know what people can do when they want change. We need to apply pressure from all angles – legally, evidentially, through the media, the ballot box AND crucially through the actions of people up and down the country who just want a safe, clean stretch of water to enjoy. Together, I totally believe we can do this. Power to the people!

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