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ASU alumna makes big ripples in Lake Havasu City

August 2, 2019

Biology major Briana Morgan is municipality's water conservation specialist

There aren’t any great white sharks in the Colorado River, but a picture of them captivated Briana Morgan and propelled her into a career of working on water conservation in Lake Havasu City.

Her visiting great uncle, an underwater photographer, showed her pictures of the predator he had snapped. She was 7 at the time.

“It was definitely a pivotal moment for me, and I was instantly captivated,” said Morgan, who is Lake Havasu City’s current water conservation specialist. “That captivation instantly took over me because every waking moment I watched documentaries, bought books, did research and was intrigued by underwater life and everything that had to do with water.”

Morgan, who graduated from Arizona State University at Lake Havasu in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and environmental science, said her passion for the environment and conservation was not only stoked by her uncle, but fueled by personal circumstances.

The Lake Havasu City native suffered from a growth deformity called leg length discrepancy in her youth. Morgan’s right leg was 3.5 inches shorter than her left, which didn’t allow her to participate in many physical or outdoor activities with her friends. Her parents stressed education as an avenue to a better life.

“We shared with Briana that she needed to concentrate on her studies because she was going to need a good job with insurance in case she had more medical issues,” said her mother, Cherith Morgan. “Briana also had a good attitude because if she faced a challenge, her mindset was always, ‘I’ll conquer it.’”

A series of surgeries corrected Morgan’s leg when she was a teen, but when she was about to graduate high school, a new crisis emerged: Morgan’s father was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.

“He was very strong, very stubborn but also encouraging,” Morgan said. “He fought to the very last day and one of the last things he told me was, ‘I’m not going anywhere. I will be here to see you do all of these wonderful things.’”

Sadly, that was not the case. Bill Morgan died a week before his 52nd birthday on July 13, 2012. A month later, Morgan started her freshman year at ASU.

“His death was definitely traumatic and emotional, but as far as college was concerned, it was a breath of fresh air and I needed it,” Morgan said. “I went into college highly motivated.”

Morgan blazed through her freshman year but was severely slowed down when she was a sophomore. That’s when she suffered a grand mal seizure a few days before the first anniversary of her dad’s death. Most seizures last between three and five minutes. Morgan said hers lasted between 20 and 30 minutes.

The damage was hefty. Morgan was placed on medication that slowed her down and didn’t allow her to drive for six months. She also lost a good chunk of memory and was forced to retake a calculus class.

“There were a lot of street names and routes I forgot, and to this day I still can’t remember a lot of my high school years,” Morgan said. “I don’t remember my father’s funeral at all.”

The seizure and ensuing epilepsy diagnosis not only forced Morgan to take a good look at her life, but also her future. She was studying to become a field biologist but figured she might become a liability because of her condition. So she switched her focus from biology to water conservation in her sophomore year.

One of her thesis/capstone projects focused on the Colorado River, its importance, issues it faces regarding shortages, impacts on stakeholders and a call to action for conservation.

The timing was fortuitous.

Months before Morgan graduated, Lake Havasu City’s water conservation specialist position was up for grabs. According to Doyle Wilson, water resources coordinator at Lake Havasu City and Morgan’s boss, she gave a great interview. Wilson interviewed close 50 candidates before hiring Morgan.

“She’s grown into the position, and her job has grown as well,” Wilson said. “Briana is very dependable and works well with others.”

One example of Morgan's work is an April 2017 landscaping project with Mohave State BankNow State Bank of Arizona in Lake Havasu in which she suspected there were leaks and came up with a redesign that was not only more aesthetically pleasing, but saved the city thousands of gallons a year in water consumption.

Lisa Van Ella, the bank’s vice president of community development, reached out to Morgan when she noticed the bank’s water bills were extremely high. Prior to the landscaping project their irrigation usage was averaged almost 30,000 gallons a month, or a couple of average-size swimming pools worth of water according to Van Ella.

“I kept wondering why are our water bills so high,” Van Ella said. “And our landscaping looked terrible. We definitely had some issues, which is why I called Briana.”

Morgan quickly swung into action with a mission to beautify the landscaping while conserving water. She also enlisted ASU’s Environmental Community Outreach club, a club she belonged to while attending the university. They mapped out the logistics of the transformation of the bank as part of their classwork.

They determined the bank’s irrigation system not only had major leaks, but needed a new design to include water-friendly plants and vegetation, and bioswales and other landscape elements to absorb surface runoff. They discovered the bank experienced 56,000 gallons of water running off its hard surfaces from an average annual rainfall of 4.24 inches.

The yearlong project ended on Earth Day 2017 with students and bank employees pitching in to install a drought-tolerant plant selection and green infrastructure. ASU students also made sure that whatever was taken away from the property was repurposed for another use.

Not only did the bank look better, but it was operating more efficiently. Its water usage also decreased by 76%-86% every month.

“We saw immediate results regarding our water bill,” Van Ella said. “The amount of money we invested into the project came back to us over time. We have Briana to thank for this.”

The city recognized the bank with the “Lake Havasu City Water Conservation Recognition Award” in 2018. That was the same year the Havasu News Herald selected Morgan as the youngest awardee for Havasu’s 30 under 40 Up-and-Coming Leaders. The award recognizes the city’s best and brightest young leaders.

“Briana is the right person at the right time for Lake Havasu water conservation,” said Raymond Van der Riet, director of ASU at Lake Havasu. “As an environmental science student, she always demonstrated a knack for applied solutions. Briana’s keen analytical approach to problem-solving is much needed in Lake Havasu City, where the economy is directly impacted by the ebb and flow of the Colorado River. There is no doubt the city is in good hands.”

In addition to community education, grant writing, water audits and pressure checks on homes and businesses, Morgan juggles other assignments: She facilitated Lake Havasu City’s rebate program that helped residents obtain water-saving appliances at discounted prices; is heading up a rainwater/grey water harvesting project for two of the city’s municipal facilities; established the city’s Recommended Landscaping Plant List and is in the process of converting it to a database that will soon be available on the city’s website. She was also responsible for helping Lake Havasu City win third place for 2018 in the Wyland National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation and fifth place in 2019.

She also assisted New Horizons, a nonprofit that assists persons with disabilities, with a community garden project on a vacant city lot. Morgan helped in the planning and design phase, ensuring the landscaping was desert-friendly and graded to prevent flooding in the walkway areas during storm events.

The community garden currently leases planting beds to residents who grow vegetables and share them with the community. It hopes to open a farmers market in the fall and hold events such as weddings, meetings and wine tastings.

One could argue that Morgan is finding her own success through perseverance. However, she doesn’t forget that she had to fight every step of the way.

“I get that comment a lot. ‘Wow, you’re so strong. I don’t know if I could do that,’” Morgan said. “The reality is people are built to fight, and they’re meant to fight. It’s just whether or not they’re put into that situation. I think everybody has a fighter inside of them; it’s just a matter of bringing it out.”

Top photo: ASU at Lake Havasu City graduate Briana Morgan is the municipality's water conservation specialist in the western Arizona community. Morgan poses at the city's water treatment plant, where she gives tours. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU Now


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ASU Law professor says we need new strategy in today's civil rights

August 2, 2019

New book 'Outsiders' offers insights into identity, equality and discrimination

In the modern world, everyone is a potential outsider when it comes to civil rights, according to Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law professor and associate dean Zachary Kramer.

“Each and every one of us is different in some way,” Kramer said. “Each of us has a part of our identity that, if revealed, would mark us as outsiders.”

It’s the premise on which Kramer has based his new book, “Outsiders: Why Difference Is the Future of Civil Rights.”

In the book, he states that the work of civil rights used to be about integrating marginalized groups into civic life. But today’s landscape is very different than when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. Kramer believes the concept of civil rights today is about accommodating difference, and the new targets of discrimination are those who stand out among their peers.

ASU Now spoke to Kramer about his book, which offers a new way to think about identity, equality and discrimination.

Book cover

Question: What is the premise of your new book, and why did you feel compelled to write it?

Answer: For years — perhaps even as long as I’ve been a lawyer — the civil rights community has been frustrated about the state of equality law. The gist of the concern is that civil rights law is no longer equipped to handle discrimination as it exists today. The heart of our civil rights infrastructure dates to the mid-1960s, and since then discrimination has become more personalized and harder to pin down. At the same time, our understanding of identity has evolved. The result is a civil rights system that tends to shut people out.

My goal in the book is to try to develop a new way to right wrongs, to build a system that seeks to accommodate difference in the broadest sense. Imagine a civil rights regime that seeks to carve out space for people to be themselves fully, a regime that values expressions of individuality as central to the human experience. I wanted to develop a civil rights for everyone.

Q: Who would you describe today as an “outsider”?

A: We all are. There’s something about you, about me, about all of us that casts us as different. Maybe it’s an immutable trait, like race or a disability. Maybe it’s grounded in choice, such as religion. Sometimes it’s even just a fleeting preference. Maybe it’s all of these interacting in complex ways. Whatever they are, these differences define who we are and how we relate to the world around us.

The overarching claim in the book is that we are all outsiders. The experience of being different is universal. Each and every one of us has something about us that we would not be willing to sacrifice if asked. I’m interested in redirecting civil rights law around those aspects of our identities.

In legal terms, this requires a change in how we think about equality. The standard way of talking about equality is in terms of sameness. That’s the way civil rights is taught to kids: Deep down, fundamentally, we are all the same. I’m pushing back against that. Equality can also be about difference. We are all different. We have different needs and wants. What if equality meant accounting for these differences, making it so the law protects because of our differences, not despite them?

Q: Your book’s introduction states that civil rights from the 1960s is no longer about race or religion but “identity, equality and discrimination.” Given that things have changed a lot in 50 years, who is being discriminated against these days and by whom?

A: Let me be clear, I think traditional forms of discrimination remain a persistent social problem. A lawyer for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said to me recently that he was shocked to learn how many open cases of race discrimination there are that involve nooses. How is it possible that people can still treat each other this way? Civil rights law has done a lot of good in our society, but it hasn’t done away with discrimination completely.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure that’s possible anyway. Discrimination lives in culture. It’s something people to do one another. The question becomes how can the law help to develop strong norms against discrimination, to make it so people lose the taste for discrimination.

And that’s even harder as we become more diverse as a society. Gay people and trans people were simply not on Congress’s radar in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act became law. And that’s true of a lot of other kinds of people, too. Civil rights law tends to think about identity in terms of boxes. If the person fits into the box, the person can bring a claim. But the boxes are the problem. Identity is more complicated than a box. Each of us is so many different things over the course of a day, let alone a lifetime. The box is the problem. We can do better.

Q: You also state that “the future of civil rights must be about individuals and a right to personality.” That sounds almost indefinable and utopian. How do you make a distinction for this argument?

A: Does utopian have to be a negative thing? You’re talking to a guy that has a poster on his office wall that says, “Utopia in our time.” No one can convince me that too much equality is a bad thing. It’s also going to be hard to get me to say that the actual costs of creating equality are too high. We should aim high. We should want law to do whatever it can to make equality a reality.

But, sure, there are limits. I model my right to personality on the existing protections against religious discrimination law. To be religious under American law, an identity must occupy a space in the person’s life akin to religion. It need not be faith-based. For example, vegetarianism or atheism have both been found to be “religious” for purposes of equality law. And the practice or belief must be sincere, meaning that the person actually believes it and is not just saying it’s religious to get out of a work requirement. This becomes an issue for scheduling religious employees, as you can imagine.

My proposal is that the right of personality should follow the same contours. Does the identity occupy an important place in the person’s worldview and is it sincere? If so, let’s protect it. The law should be interested in cultivating authenticity. This is how it can do that.

Q: Who should read this book?

A: Everyone. This is a book about law, but it’s not a book just for lawyers. There’s no jargon, no legalese. There’s no convoluted legal analysis.

It’s a book overflowing with stories of real people who feel wronged in ways that have not traditionally been thought of as legal problems. A vegetarian bus driver who was fired because he refused to hand out coupons for hamburgers. A dental assistant who was fired for being too pretty. A lifeguard who couldn’t work because he did not feel comfortable wearing a Speedo. The bartender who lost her job because she could not bring herself to wear makeup. An office worker who is sent home because she smells bad. And so much more.

Civil rights law is the moral compass of American law. There are few legal questions that cut closer to the heart about what it means to be an American today.

Top photo: ASU Law Professor Zachary Kramer, an associate dean at the O'Connor College of Law, talks about his recently published book "Outsiders: Why Difference is the Future of Civil Rights." The book explores the evolving nature of discrimination and the resulting need for civil rights to innovate. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU Now