Michelle Cheek’s Incoming Chair Speech

It’s hard to believe May 2019 was our last in person conference prior to Tacoma. It was so energizing and good for the soul to see our membership in person again after three long years! However, I must admit, I forgot how exhausting it is to put on real clothes and engage in face-to-face conversations all…day…long. I joked with some co-workers during the conference about crawling into a deep dark hole after the conference to decompress. I’m an introvert at heart and that hole was calling my name.

The 2022 Section Conference had a new format so most of you didn’t get to hear my Chair acceptance speech at the Board of Trustees meeting on Friday afternoon. Although I’m so thankful I didn’t have to eat my dinner on a stage in front of hundreds of people and give my speech in front of hundreds of people. For those of you that missed Chair acceptance speech, it is provided below with some minor tweaks (i.e., no silly tears; yep, that’s right, I cried during my speech. Let’s just say I cry when I’m happy and passionate about something.).

Two people (I won’t name names) gave me some advice regarding my plans for the Section. One person told me to just say “I want to put a chicken in every pot” (I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know what that meant and had to look it up) and the other person told me that once the gavel is passed, I’m officially in charge and I can speak for as long or as short as I’d like. I decided to keep it short and promise to put forth my best self over the next year to lead this Section.

Just kidding – kind of. I will put forth my best self, but I do have a short novel to share about my plans for the Section over the next year.

I’m so incredibly honored and stoked, and a wee-bit nervous, about leading our Section over the next year. During the conference I had a few people ask me what I’d like to accomplish over the next year and my first answer of course was to “put a chicken in every pot”. OK not really, but my answer was I have a lot of ideas, but they currently lack a solid plan. Here are a few areas where I would like to focus our efforts over the next year.

Financial Stability

Jason Canady shared his Treasurer’s Report at the Trustees meeting. The Section Conference is the largest source of income and largest expense for the Section. Cancelling two in person conferences definitely had an impact on our Section’s finances and we will likely be recovering from these impacts for another year or two. However, as Jason highlighted in his report, our proactive management and ability to shift to a virtual conference and other virtual training events has resulted in a financial position that is stronger than I think many of us expected. We can’t hit the gas pedal too hard just yet though. We will need to continue to be conservative in our budget development and spending until we fully recover from the impacts of COVID, and this may mean making more hard choices about what is funded over the next couple of years.

Diversity and Inclusion

In the Summer of 2020, under past Chair Ronda Farmer’s leadership, the Section established the Diversity and Inclusion subcommittee as part of the Membership Engagement and Development Committee. The subcommittee was established to help the Section further the mission of AWWA’s Diversity and Member Inclusion Committee. The subcommittee has been hard at work under Esther Chang’s leadership and hosted an excellent track at the Section conference focused on diversity and inclusion.

One of the first activities of the subcommittee was a diversity and inclusion survey to better understand the diversity and makeup of our Section and identify areas of improvement to promote an inclusive environment. The initial survey was distributed between April and June of 2021 with a plan to repeat the survey every year. Last year’s survey only had 32 participants out of 2000+ members so I’m challenging our membership to significantly improve participation this year. A link to the 2022 survey is provided below. The survey is anonymous and closes on September 2, 2022. Survey participants will be entered into a raffle to win one of two $25 e-gift cards and a homemade pasta dinner with me at my home. I encourage you to participate in this survey as the results will inform recruiting and retention efforts and you can win a cool prize!

The subcommittee also developed several recommendations and areas of improvement for the Board, committee, and subsection leaders.  I’d like to see us make some more progress to support those recommendations. The Board of Trustees recently adopted changes to the Rules of Procedure which include many important updates and additions including a Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion. I would like to take this commitment one step further by incorporating a diversity and inclusion objective into the Section’s Strategic Plan.

One of the subcommittees other recommendations was to consider supporting more focused outreach for minorities as well as high schools, paired with mentorship programs specific to marginalized groups. I love this idea for a few reasons. One – it introduces students early to the water industry and the wide variety of career opportunities available; two – I think it will help build trust in the water industry. My project work at the Portland Water Bureau includes working with our Community Engagement Liaisons (CEL program) and through that work I’ve been reminded of differing cultural beliefs around tap water and the safety of tap water. Through engagement of students from different cultural backgrounds and minority groups, I’m hoping we can help build their trust and confidence. And three – it introduces students to our organization and the fun and fulfillment that comes with volunteering which may lead to careers in the water industry and future membership. Our visiting dignitary Angela Ballard-Landers shared some of these same sentiments at the Trustees meeting so I believe this is an important part of our work going forward.

Networking Diversity

While I am on the topic of diversity, I would also like to promote more diversity in our networking activities. As some of you know, I despise golf, but golf and wine and beer drinking are the two activities that make up most of our networking and fundraising events. I certainly appreciate the skills required to play golf, but I do not naturally possess those skills (much to my father’s dismay) and I am not willing to spend time honing those skills. I also appreciate and enjoy the wine and beer drinking but I am committing to creating at least one networking event that does not revolve around golf, wine, or beer. I read on AWWA’s website that WaterOne in Johnson City, Kansas, throws the Tower 2 Tower 5K as part of Drinking Water Week. Runners follow a course that loops between two local water towers and proceeds go to Water for People. I thought this was a fantastic idea except for the running part because I also hate running. So maybe it is something different like amateur ski/snowboard (or maybe sled) races, a hiking or mountain biking event, a volunteer opportunity, or maybe some putt putt or water themed bingo.

Finally, I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to John Roth and Ronda Farmer for their leadership over the past two years. We have been operating in unknown territory the past couple of years and they both navigated it seamlessly. Updating the Bylaws and Rules of Procedure was a huge accomplishment and Ronda and John lead us through this mundane but necessary process with enthusiasm. They have been such a great leaders and mentors and will be a tough act to follow.

Ronda Farmer and John Roth missed out on their chair receptions at the Section conference, but next time you see them please give them a belated congratulations and thank them for their hard work.

It was so awesome to be back to “normal” for our conference and seeing everyone in person. Thanks to all of you for the time you commit to this organization and the great work you do.

Michelle Cheek

PNWS Section Chair

PNWS-AWWA Diversity and Inclusion 2022 Survey