March 17, 2017

Thirst for answers: Ball State students headed to the Vatican as part of global water-awareness campaign

Part of the team responsible for the Blue Roots project show off their Watershed website on March 2. From left, staff member Faith Kellermeyer, students Aiste· Manfredini and Briee Eikenberry, and advisor Dr. Jennifer Palilonis. (Photo by Katie Breidenbach)

Part of the team responsible for the Blue Roots project show off their Watershed website on March 2. From left, staff member Faith Kellermeyer, students Aiste· Manfredini and Briee Eikenberry, and advisor Dr. Jennifer Palilonis. (Photo by Katie Breidenbach)

By Katie Breidenbach (Special to The Criterion)

MUNCIE, IND.—When four graduate students at Ball State University took on an awareness campaign, they hoped it would have a global reach. Then, a global institution reached back.

“I honestly couldn’t believe it. Not because I didn’t believe we had the ability to do a successful project,” said Aistė Manfredini, who is handling social media for the group. “I guess we just didn’t expect any major iconic hub to want to take on a campaign like this.”

That “major iconic hub” is the Vatican. The four students, all of whom are earning master’s degrees in Emerging Media Design and Development, along with their professor and another Ball State staff member, will assist with an international event to be held in Rome on March 22.

The conference, titled “Watershed: Replenishing Water Values for a Thirsty World,” will gather leading thinkers, speakers, scientists and policy makers from around the world to participate in water-oriented presentations and workshops. The Ball State team will be on the ground in the Eternal City, and help to distribute information across multiple media channels.

“If there isn’t the right communication campaign around [Watershed], then a lot of really great information maybe stays in the walls of the Vatican and doesn’t actually get disseminated to the rest of the world,” explained Dr. Jennifer Palilonis, the team’s advisor.

When the Ball State students began their water-awareness campaign, christened the Blue Roots Project, no one expected it would take them to the Vatican.

The project started as a collaboration to help Circle of Blue, a research and communications hub that focuses on water-related problems and advances. However, as the Ball State project gained momentum, Circle of Blue suggested that the students should be part of Rome’s Watershed conference.

After the Vatican learned of the students’ work, which included a website and global social media outreach, they asked the four to create the official website for the Watershed event and to assist with social media for the event itself. These unexpected tasks had to be completed in just weeks.

“We’ve joked about bringing in sleeping bags for them,” laughed Faith Kellermeyer, the project manager at Ball State’s Center for Emerging Media Design and Development. “I leave around five [p.m.], and they would still be here. Sometimes, they would be here when I came in the morning.”

Co-hosted by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture and The Club of Rome to mark World Water Day, the Watershed event aims to address “the critical state of water today,” according to a press release written by the graduate students.

The organizers cite statistics from The World Bank that say 1.6 billion people live in areas with water scarcity, a number that they say will increase to 2.8 billion in the next decade. The United Nations also estimates that nearly 1,000 children die each day from water-related diseases.

To kickoff World Water Day, Pope Francis himself will speak on the water issue from St. Peter’s Square. The Holy Father has long advocated for environmental awareness and policy change, marking his papacy with “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” a 2015 encyclical focused on the environment. Just last month, Pope Francis expressed concern that, in the future, there may be a world war over water.

“When the Vatican talks about issues like this, people listen, and it’s not just the Catholic audience,” said Palilonis, a member of St. Mary Parish in Muncie, Ind., in the Diocese of Lafayette. “You don’t have to be Catholic to sort of perk up and listen when the pope and the Vatican start talking about what’s important in the world.”

“The fact that he’s highlighting these issues I think is really going to drive [world leaders] to actually building solutions and actually pushing this into policy-making,” Manfredini said.

The Ball State team wants to spread water consciousness to leaders and the public alike, engaging everyone in a conversation about water before, during and after the event. They hope to tap into individual experiences to prompt others to realize the importance of water.

The students are asking groups and individuals to share their own experiences with water on social media and mark it with the hashtag #MyWaterStory.

“We are contacting different organizations. These are water organizations local or national, schools, universities,” recounted Briee Eikenberry, the project’s producer. “We’re e-mailing them, calling them, contacting them through their social media accounts.”

The team then gathers and shares the stories, hoping that participants from more privileged societies will see the difficulties that others have with regard to water.

“Many of us wake up in the morning, we get ourselves a glass of water out of the tap, we take a long hot shower,” said Palilonis, “and there are other parts of the world where women spend their entire day walking back and forth to water sources so that their children and their families can have water.”

The team also hopes to reverse the disregard that many fellow Americans have for the value of water. Jessica Pettengill, the project’s research strategist and media producer, recalled the severe drought that gripped her home state of California three years ago.

“It was insane to me that even though we were going through this drought and the governor had declared a state of emergency, people were still watering their lawns twice a week,” she said.

Another team member, Sarah Janssen, is trying to bring home the importance of water by highlighting a crisis that happened just a state away. She designed a personal project to collect and share the stories of the residents of Flint, Mich., who were afflicted by lead-contaminated water last year. Ailments caused by this poisoning will affect some local residents for the rest of their lives.

“I think sometimes people are overwhelmed by the amount of suffering and what to do and how to help. So they don’t always seek out those outlets or find out how to help,” said Janssen in a telephone interview with The Criterion from Flint. “Being here as an outsider, people have said to me, ‘It’s good to know people still care,’ or ‘It’s nice to talk to someone who cares.’ ”

Janssen believes that just sympathizing with those who are suffering is a step on the road to a better world. She hopes that the campaign will generate a flood of support for Flint and for all areas suffering similar crises.

More information about the project, including resources for teachers to use in the classroom, can be found at

Even though the campaign caused many sleepless nights for the team, it is an effort they are proud to be part of.

“We spent a lot of time doing it. But it’s not bad. Like, it’s all great,” Eikenberry affirmed. “It’s for the pope, so who can say no?”

(Katie Breidenbach is a freelance writer in Bloomington.)

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