Rahkia Nance, WEF's digital communications manager and recent Water Leadership Institute graduate, blogs about lessons learned in the leadership program.
My relationship with and connection to water is something I hadn’t thought much about until I considered applying for the Water Environment Federation’s (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) Water Leadership Institute. Then it dawned on me: I come from a long line of environmental stewards.
“We just called it common sense,” according to my mom.
My paternal grandfather, Y.C. Nance, was an extension service agent in Bullock County, Ala., and taught black farmers how to properly irrigate crops. My great-grandfather, James Evan Nance, maintained a well at his home in Enterprise, Ala. My maternal grandfather, Willie Pinkard, a sharecropper in Stewart County, Ga., knew how to preserve the health of the underground springs, the primary source of water for his community.
Tidbits of how to care for the earth and its resources were passed down to me not only by words, but also through actions. Through the examples of role models, protecting and preserving the earth has become automatic for me. Call it habit, duty, or reflex; it’s something that I believe is embedded in my DNA.
I applied for the Water Leadership Institute because I thought it would help me become a better communicator and gain a better understanding of water sector issues. I learned this and much more, including five particularly lasting lessons:
- Expect the best for yourself. I had an idea of the caliber of folks who comprised past Water Leadership Institute cohorts. But I figured, “Why not apply? About 6 weeks after I submitted my application, an email landed in my inbox from the Institute. “Gee, this is a lot of words for a rejection,” I thought. Then, I actually read the words. It was an acceptance letter.
- Rise to the occasion, then make it your own. I will always remember a moment during a program discussion about diversity and bias. I shared the “suggestions” I have received under the guise of career advancement tips that really were not-so-subtle hints to assimilate or hide parts of my identity. I do not shrink from who I am, and, as a leader in a sector that is actively trying to diversify its workforce, assimilation would be a disservice.
- Leave your comfort zone, check your mirrors, and adjust your self-reflection as needed. Water professionals, I reasoned, use pumps and pipes; I use pen and paper. But I realized the water sector has room for all of these skills, and its future depends on a workforce with a diverse and varied skillset.
- “I was rooting for you! We were all rooting for you!” These words, spoken during a rant by supermodel Tyra Banks during an episode of America’s Next Top Model, took on new meaning for me. Participating in the Water Leadership Institute has added to my network of familiar faces to seek out whenever I enter a room.
- What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. These words may be cliché, but that doesn’t make them untrue. Leadership is not always going to be comfortable. If it is, you are probably doing it wrong.
The 2018 Institute culminated at WEFTEC® in New Orleans, but that doesn’t mean it ended. In a lot of ways, it’s just begun, and I find myself asking the same questions I did the day I was accepted: Now what? What impact can I make? How am I needed?
If you’ve ever asked those questions of yourself, the Water Leadership Institute is a wonderful place to begin finding the answers. You can find out more and apply here.