In celebration of Juneteenth, Black Voice News held a virtual panel conversation, Water and the Black Community: Jobs, Justice and Equity. The panel focused on the ongoing need for inclusion and diversity within the water and conservation industries. Water access policymakers and community leaders joined the dialogue and examined particular barriers of entry into the water and conservation industry.
Moderator Amber Bolden, Strategic Communications and Development Coordinator with Voice Media Ventures, set the stage for the conversation by sharing that the water industry remains one of the least diverse industries nationwide.
Noting further how the utilities industry is not known for diversity, she advised, “Utilities represent one of actually the least diverse industries in the U.S. today, being 85% white and 80% male,” she said. “Our panelists are blazing the trail.”
Bolden asked panelists what they see as the major barriers to Black people gaining and maintaining jobs in utility fields. West Valley Water District Director Channing Hawkings said that “Black folks” have reached a significant capacity working within city and county departments, but when it comes to utilities there is not a significant history.
“People don’t know that starting water operator jobs make $27 to $28 with full pensions and benefits,” Hawkings said. He added that some workers receive a raise between 4% to 7% per year.
“A lot of it starts with awareness,” Hawkings said.
West Valley Water District Board Director Kelvin Moore agreed.
“I think I knew one person of color who was in water at that time,” he said, reflecting on when he entered the workforce. “I just never even thought about it.”
Moore and other panelists echoed an issue of not only awareness, but lack of opportunity to enter the workforce even if one wanted to. He said that partnerships are a viable solution to bridge these gaps and get the word out to the community. Moore said that it is critical that programs are sustainable, funded and successful in approaching students and supporting them to foster hope, encouragement and desire for a respectable profession.
Inland Empire Utilities Agency Board Member Jasmin Hall said she is a self-proclaimed “volunteer by heart and nature,” who makes it her mission to help families utilize their tax dollars.
When discussing the idea of forging partnerships that help establish and foster opportunities, she encouraged her community to pick her brain and “take advantage” of her leadership role, welcoming them to lean on her for the support that Moore previously mentioned.
“We always want to hear what goes on at the street level,” said Dr. Nosakhere Thomas, Executive Director at the Inland Empire Black Worker Center. He has done so by implementing listening sessions to hear from and engage with the community by “inviting people in to see what’s happening; what’s good and what’s not good.”