Guest Column | June 8, 2020

We're Better Together

By David LaFrance, AWWA CEO


Nothing has ever felt like this.

We are all stressed by a pandemic that’s caused more than 100,000 deaths in North America and economic fallout that has left tens of millions unemployed. Many of us are working from home, we wear masks outside, and a firm handshake or a hug is off limits.

In the midst of this, we have experienced a recent wave of reminders – captured on video and shared on social media -- that racial injustice is still happening, and in many of our own communities. These compounded crises have left us feeling anxious but have also highlighted continuing racial inequities.

Racial injustice affects us all, but in very different ways. Like you, I’m wondering what I can do about it.

I’ve heard from AWWA staff, leaders and members who are wrestling with what role we might play in overcoming racial injustice as an association and as a water community. What can we do, they ask, to advance toward a culture that recognizes and celebrates the value and dignity of every human being, regardless of skin color?

One of AWWA’s five core principles is to foster diversity and inclusion. This principle has never been more important than it is now. Our Diversity and Member Inclusion Committee and its section counterparts include thoughtful water leaders from diverse backgrounds. We should listen closely to them for insights and recommendations. You can learn more about their work at AWWA’s Diversity Center.

We should actively strive for diverse workforces that reflect the communities we serve. A 2018 Brookings Institute study on the water workforce found that “people of color, in particular, tend to be underrepresented in higher-level, higher-paying occupations involved in engineering or management.” This is a longstanding issue for the water community. During my three decades as a water professional, I have seen progress, but we can do better.

Also, we should recognize where historical prejudices have led to injustices in our own communities. Just last year, AWWA published a helpful document titled “A Water Utility Manager’s Guide to Community Stewardship.” It notes that “utilities have an opportunity to design their services so that past injustices are not replicated, and services and programs are distributed equitably.” I encourage you to have a look and consider which strategies work for your communities.

Cathy Bailey, executive director of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, once observed that a water utility doesn’t just serve a community, “the utility is the community.” AWWA is also a community, and one of its greatest strengths is that it unites people for a common mission. Let’s unite for a better future.