There’s a lot of bad news out there. While it’s probably true for every industry, we’re biased and can’t help but feel that water seems to take the brunt of the negativity. The news never seems to know how to sniff out a feel-good story related to water. And yet, there are millions of those kinds of stories happening every day in communities across America.
A news story came out this week on Water Online about new details surrounding the Flint water crisis. The Flint story continues to drop new information concerning to people passionate about exposing not only poorly handled water issues but also government corruption. For all of the darkness that came out of Flint, we’ve seen some light. We’ve been fortunate to meet some of the country’s greatest trailblazers who heard the Flint wake up call and took action.
One of these trailblazers is Cathy Bailey, executive director at Greater Cincinnati Water Works. Cathy is the first female executive director to take the helm at GCWW in the 200 years of the utility’s existence. She is also the first African American to serve in that role. Cathy embodies the idea of community. She grew up in a tight-knit community where she learned early on about the power of real human engagement. Cathy learned if you want to get things done you have to build trust with people. There’s no shortcut to this process either. You have to put in the work.
Back in December 2015, GCWW gathered around the table to discuss lead removal and what could be in done in their community. Their lead line replacement program was approved by the city council in June 2017. The two-year timeframe isn’t an indication of government ineffectiveness. Cathy and her team spent two years deeply engaged with the community this program was being designed to serve.
Cathy’s rallying cry, be it for lead line replacement or affordability, is that we, as water providers, are the community. The community isn’t an ambiguous mass of people outside the walls of the water department. We are a part of it. The GCWW team began by engaging with council members and finding a champion for the program there. Then they moved to the 52 community meetings around Cincinnati. They shared with community members the lead abatement programs they currently offered and explained they were working on a service line replacement program they wanted community feedback on.
Cathy and her team built trust with the community by delivering on what they promised. They received feedback along each step of the way and then actually took that feedback and reworked any portions the community said wouldn’t work. This showed everyone this program truly was serving the people and not just lip service. When the program was approved it was widely accepted by the community because it was a true team effort between GCWW and the people they serve.
On November 27, 2018, Cathy tweeted a significant milestone moment for their program. That date marked the 100th lead service line removed from the community’s infrastructure. The process took time and it wasn’t without challenges. At times, you will feel like you’re moving two steps forward, three steps back, especially in the beginning. Stay the course and remember you have allies in the stories like GCWW. Reach out to them, get connected, and find strength in that camaraderie. It won’t be easy, but nothing worth having ever is.