WaterWheel in Surrender to the Flow, part 2!

Happy 75th issue to Surrender To The Flow!

Check out part two of their feature about WaterWheel’s 25th Anniversary below.  Be sure to pick up your free copy of STTF at Dick’s or you can download a digital copy of the full issue here.

The Celebration Continues! The WaterWheel’s 25th Anniversary
by Jessica Coughlin, Boston MA

This summer The WaterWheel Foundation is celebrating 25 years of engaging with local communities across the country. At Great Woods, we had the chance to speak with some of the very special people who keep the wheel turning through their work with the Touring Division of Phish’s nonprofit. I asked these longtime staff members what The WaterWheel has meant to them both personally and in the context of Phish’s culture, as well as the greater nonprofit world (these conversations have been edited for clarity and brevity).

Dawn Foushee started seeing Phish in 1999 and 15 years into her life as a fan, experienced a completely new side of the scene by joining WaterWheel as a volunteer in 2014, becoming a table leader in 2017. She reflected, “Waterwheel is something I have always strived for – since I was a small child, I said I was going to work in the music industry and this has allowed me to achieve my goals, my dreams. And I am still a fan behind this table, I still can’t believe that I get to work for this band.  I love meeting all the local nonprofits, it’s my favorite part of this job. We pick organizations that have no clue what they are walking into sometimes and they see that it is amazing, they leave with a whole new idea of the Phish scene. Instead of Phish just taking from these communities on tour, we are giving back. Being a participant in our community and taking care of everybody, that’s what WaterWheel is all about.”

Jeff Levi started volunteering in 2009 at the Fenway shows and has been working with WaterWheel ever since. He said, “It is a privilege to find the type of work that I can do with my heart, to learn about what is going on with nonprofits all across the country. Seeing how this community bands together and gives back is so inspiring, over the last 13 years it has allowed me to see how things are changing to become both more inclusive and sometimes more divisive. When I see or experience divisiveness out in the world, I am able to come back to this pocket of space at WaterWheel where people are thinking, ‘how can we find a more meaningful way to live our lives and come together as a community?’ After quarantine, we had to consider all the precautions for putting together a touring crew out on the road (during Covid). We are still feeling so grateful and inspired, even with the restrictions, to be able to do this again. We are still finding new ways to evolve, and be safer, and smarter. Being able to still do this is a dream come true. For me, WaterWheel is really about learning to live life in a more conscious way.”

Matthew Beck was there when it all began in 1997 and he shared his thoughts on 25 years of serving WaterWheel’s mission. “In a word, WaterWheel means community to me. Along with many others, I have found a resounding, lifelong community in the live music scene. The Touring Division of The WaterWheel Foundation was an evolution for that community into an official footprint, a sanctioned way to help organize the energy that we were creating on a nightly basis that was so palpable and undeniable to people. We strive to focus that energy in a way that is bigger than each of us as individuals. It’s a common adage to “think globally and act locally” but that’s a very base part of the ethos for WaterWheel, trying to direct funds to regional, grassroots nonprofits everywhere we go. We started to visualize these tables as actual waterwheels; the fans going through the crowd are spinning the wheel, then the energy that is created is larger than the sum of its parts. I think that is where a lot of the magic is captured.

I am deeply grateful for the countless connections that I’ve made through WaterWheel- I get to go from city to city year over year and have conversations with people in the heart of American states and waterways, the people who are fighting these micro-battles that make up our national landscape. It has helped broaden my perspective on the interconnectedness of our socioeconomic, cultural and political landscape. WaterWheel has shown me how much impact a very small group of people can make when they are truly aware of their surroundings and engaged. In the last few years, we have seen the need for nonprofit services explode – homelessness and hunger have been more rampant than ever and we are still seeing the whiplash from the (Covid) shutdowns all around us. These social causes are more important than ever, but nonprofits are now being forced to do more with less financially.”

I asked Matthew what us fans can do to stay engaged in fighting for a more just world, especially during the fallout from these last few extremely difficult years. He observed, “In terms of what we can do as individuals, we can get engaged in our local communities. If you are not sure what is happening or where to plug in, go to a city council meeting, there are going to be a lot of conversations that will pique your interest and all have direct ramifications on your day to day life and those around you. It is easy to get overwhelmed looking at the world or the nation or your state as a whole, but when you really boil it down to your local community, it’s you, it’s your neighbors. And if you’re not engaged in it, then someone else is calling the shots for you, deciding really important things for you and your family. Many of us could take just a few minutes of your week, your day, your month, and be more aware of the specific circumstances around us. Because those are the things we have the greatest ability to change. And as you make those changes, they ripple out. Rather than trying to have some lofty goal, just find a way to engage with the local community around you. See something that isn’t the way you think it should be, then try to find a way to make it better.” 

Having been part of the organization for two and a half decades, I was curious how this cause has resonated with him personally. He said, “I have been involved in WaterWheel since I was in college and it really is a family. So many remarkable volunteers over the years, serial donors and supporters, well wishers, someone who you met randomly at the WaterWheel table once in 1998 and they turned out to be one of your best friends. The serendipity and synchronicity around the organization is almost deafening at times with everything falling into the right place at the right moment. And that is through exhaustive efforts over the years of so many folks; Beth Montuori Rowles, Amy Skelton, Henry Schwab and Mike Hays, Burt Goldstein, Richard Glasgow, John Paluska, the gang at Red Light Management  – so many people have put energy into the organization in different ways that help it continue to evolve. 

While our core mission has not shifted much since WaterWheel started, I think we have evolved so much over the years and hopefully people have gained some inspiration from that. For me, it is truly a labor of love. I love the idea of community building. I love the idea of trying to activate people for a greater good. And this has allowed me the opportunity to engage with some of the finest people on the planet in a truly meaningful way. Words could never appropriately encapsulate the impact that The WaterWheel Foundation has had on me, but I am deeply grateful for it.”