A conversation with Kishia Powell, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President, DC Water, and Renée Willette, Vice President, Programs and Strategy, US Water Alliance
Renée: Please introduce yourself without using your professional title or organization. Who are you?
Kishia: I’m a Black girl who rocks! I’m a Leo—a leader, strong-willed, but also compassionate and supportive of everyone winning. I’m a dog-mom (to my heartbeat Lord Louis Leo London Wyndsor), I’m an auntie, a daughter, and a sister. The Vice President of the United States is my soror. I’m fiercely passionate about equity and water policy. This past year I’ve been reflecting on my purpose and my passion, and I keep coming back to water and the many ways in which our sector can impact the quality of life.
Renée: I’d like to start by thanking you for serving as the One Water Council’s Chair. The Alliance is grateful for your leadership, and I’m wondering if you can share why you see a peer network like the Council as being a valuable space for One Water leaders?
Kishia: The Council is so important because it brings together people from different parts of the water sector—it’s not just public or private, it’s not just utilities or consultants, it’s anyone who has a passion for effectively managing water. I consider it a brain trust; all that power of thought working together. And I think that brain trust benefits the sector. It allows Council members to hear different perspectives. It’s valuable to hear people across the country talking about the same issues from different vantage points. The Council also gives members a chance to be supportive of one another and creates a safe space for us to have continuous dialogue. During the pandemic, it has connected us in a way that’s been so valuable.
Renée: As One Water Council Chair, you have identified water equity and climate resilience as two of your top priorities. Why are these issues important, both to you personally and for the water sector?
Kishia: Those two issues together are important because I don’t think you can have true resilience without achieving equity and ultimately environmental justice. The two go hand in hand. Using the water sector lens, we need to deal with issues that are impacting the most vulnerable communities. We need to deal with affordability before we can have a financially resilient community. We need to address climate challenges before we achieve a resilient city. How can we say a city is resilient if there are communities that are still struggling?
To me, resilience is important in many different respects—climate resilience, workforce resilience, cyber resilience, financial resilience, and I have come to find, even personal resilience. This pandemic has shown us we need to become resilient in so many ways—not just where our physical infrastructure assets are concerned, but also in driving towards social justice. As a country, we need to think about how we rebuild and recover in a way that moves us forward, that makes us better. That’s what Build Back Better means to me. We know water is a solution for many challenges—water puts people to work, water fuels economies, and One Water management promotes quality of life.
Renée: During your tenure at Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management, you were designated a Global Water Leader, and you’ve previously worked abroad. What lessons about water management have been most valuable from your colleagues in other countries?
Kishia: It was eye opening to find that no matter what country I was in, everyone is contemplating the same issues and opportunities: water supply challenges, flooding, water quality, water rights, affordability, governance, leveraging technology, cyber security, workforce shortages, etc. When you think of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, cities around the world are engaged in that network because there is a global need to address climate change and other water related issues. The shocks and stresses were much the same from place to place. However, how countries are dealing with those challenges and funding solutions may be different.
In America, utilities are left to our own devices to raise the necessary funding and are constrained by the limitations of what the ratepayers can raise. In Europe, there is help at the federal level. One of my goals as President of NACWA and as One Water Council Chair is making sure the conversation around infrastructure funding remains top of mind. It’s so difficult right now to fund the water projects that will drive economic opportunity and water equity.
Renée: Your first year at DC Water has been largely shaped by the global pandemic. How has that impacted your priorities in your leadership role?
Kishia: My priorities as a leader did not change. I have always been one to focus on what the team needs, but I became hyper-sensitive to the fact that our employees that have the most vulnerabilities are the ones that are the most exposed. They had to physically report to work every day—they didn’t have the option to work remotely.
I was still working in Atlanta at onset of the pandemic, and our focus from the beginning was to make sure frontline employees had everything they needed to feel as safe as possible. For example, everyone was wearing a mask before it became official guidance. Dealing with the fear and having to see individuals grapple with the need to work and the need to take care of their families means you must have compassion beyond anything that you may not have known before. Coming to the DMV, my focus was to lift the frontline workers, which prompted us starting the water heroes campaign.
Renée: Your move to DC from Atlanta was a homecoming—what were you most excited to come back to in the area?
: My family. My mom asked me to consider any opportunity that would bring me back home. This was the first time that I made a career decision based on my family, and it made complete sense for me and Louie.
Renée: What have you read recently that’s influenced your leadership style? Or just rocked your boat?
Kishia: I’m not ashamed to admit I am reading Calling in the One. Amazingly, it has helped me to put things in perspective personally and professionally because it’s all about assessing myself and my relationships with others. There’s a quote in the book that says, “the patient on the operating table is me.” I am learning to look inward for changes to manifest themselves outwardly. I’m also reading (for the first time) a collection of prayers that my ATL team gifted to me in a pink and green pearl bedazzled prayer box, and from my senior advisor a collection of daily inspirations. And lastly, I’m reading Becoming by Michelle Obama. She often recites to herself, as I and many women do, “Am I good enough? Yes, I am.”
Renée: What does “One Water” mean to you?
Kishia: To me, One Water is a holistic approach to managing the world’s most precious and essentially finite resource in whatever form it takes. One Water is the surface of that “three-legged stool.” It’s where the opportunities to have our values reflected in policy that achieves the greater good meets. One Water is us.