Developing leaders who will help solve California’s water challenges

A conversation with Victor Griego, founder of Water Education for Latino Leaders

At the Water Foundation, we build bridges among diverse leaders and catalyze powerful partnerships to get things done while helping shape these collaborations into lasting networks. Victor Griego, founder of Water Education for Latino Leaders (WELL) is focused on educating and developing those leaders who will help solve California’s water challenges. Elizabeth Soderstrom, the Water Foundation’s strategic partnerships officer, recently spoke with Victor about California’s future water leaders.

Elizabeth Soderstrom, Water Foundation: Good morning, Victor. Can you please tell us about WELL and the work you do with WELL?

Victor Griego, WELL: Good morning. I’m currently the managing director of WELL, Water Education for Latino Leaders. The work that I manage is in three categories: First, our annual statewide conference that alternates between the northern and southern parts of the state. Our fifth statewide conference was in San Diego last March. Second, I also manage the regional workshops that we do that are half-day sessions that alternate in different parts of the state. And then the third part is the recently launched, what we call, “WELL UnTapped.” WELL UnTapped is a water policy academy fellowship. It’s a fellowship of 17 local elected officials from throughout California that meets once a month for two days to develop a deeper understanding of California water policy and, more importantly, develop tools that can make them better leaders when it comes to acting on the challenges that the state faces over the next five years. So over the next ten months, we’re taking these elected officials from the position of leadership to the practice of leadership and we’re doing that through a series of sessions in different watersheds in California. And then of course I manage the work of the board of directors, because we’re all volunteers. And it’s my job to utilize the experience and time that the board members give to WELL.

WF: Can you say a little bit about why you founded WELL? What was the impetus for that?

VG: WELL developed out of a personal family experience. My daughter was interested in water as an undergraduate student, and I wanted to spend the rest of my public life, my public work, with my daughter. Since she was interested in water, I started researching water policy in California. So I went around talking to people and found out quickly that there was a real need for Latino leaders in California to have a better appreciation of the challenges that the state faces with water policy and that they begin to understand the challenges and solutions. I then began preparing this next generation of leaders to take on the challenges that California will face in the next five years in water policy.

WF: Would you say that WELL’s intent is to promote sustainable water management? I know you’re educating people generally about water but in terms of the bigger agenda — is it integrated water management or sustainable water management, or is there an endpoint or framework within which you’re looking to effect change?

VG: I think those are management issues, not leadership issues. And I think the answer is that as we prepare the leadership for the state as it applies to different parts of the state, how the management issues are deployed and executed will depend on that leadership. So we, as you know, are agnostic on policy and projects, but we’re not agnostic when it comes to leadership. Our belief is that if we properly train these individuals that are in positions of leadership to practice leadership as opposed to simply being in a position of leadership then they will be better prepared to decide what management strategy they want to implement in their particular city or region.

WF: Can you say a little bit more about the practice versus having a position of leadership?

VG: I think what happens many times is that local elected officials, and others, get into a position of leadership like a councilmember, mayor, chairman of a committee, etc., by personal happenstance—something happened to them, their child, their family, their neighborhood—and they want to do something about it. If the existing body that’s responsible for the solution is not acting the way they believe the solution should be dealt with, then that individual tends to want to run for the position—whether school board, or city council, or water district govern, whatever the case may be. So they run and they get elected. And then they’re now in a position of leadership, but then something terrible begins to happen to them, and that is they start voting and they stop leading. They begin to be called “honorable,” they start dealing with budgets, and they no longer are activists in their community. So they’re in a position of leadership, but it just stops there. And they stop involving people and stop involving coalitions and stop the activism that they were involved with, which is what I call “the practice of leadership.”

John Maxwell, an author and pastor on leadership, talks about the five stages to leadership, and the first stage is the position of leadership. But it’s just the first stage: that you get the position. But there are multiple stages of leadership, which gets you to the practice of leadership. And that’s what we’re doing with WELL. We’re taking these individuals, who by personal happenstance became the councilmember in their town, and now maybe the mayor because it gets rotated, and we’re teaching them the skills so that they can practice leadership. So that they can get better at getting information, making better decisions, and developing coalitions, so that they can deal with the public policy issues like water and possibly other issues that might be needed. Those are the tools that we’re training on through the WELL fellowship.

WF: Has WELL in the past had impact on existing leaders in the state?

VG: Absolutely. If you look at some of the people who came through WELL, like Speaker Anthony Rendon, look at Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, these individuals were part of WELL when we got started. Look at Congresswoman Nanette Barragán, she was part of WELL. Assemblymember Mike Gipson was part of WELL. So we have a number of examples of people who have come through the WELL training and are now in important leadership positions in California and in Congress.

WF: Do you continue to interact with them in those positions?

VG: Absolutely. In our monthly fellowship sessions, Congresswoman Nanette Barragán is going to come speak. Anthony Rendon has agreed to convene a legislative briefing in Sacramento with our fellows on the human right to water next January, just like he did a year ago in Sacramento, when we had about 17 members of WELL in Sacramento presenting their report to California legislators, both in the Assembly and the Senate. We met several times with Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia on the work that he’s done in the Coachella Valley and the Salton Sea around environmental issues, asking us for our input and our advice. So we continue to have relationships with people who come through our training and education workshops.

WF: You have a network already that you’re using to effect change.

VG: Correct, correct. And Elizabeth, I think I shared this with you the other day, when we had our retreat for fellows, we had one councilmember from the Central Valley who publicly admitted to the group that he had been fighting with [State Water Resources Control Board chair] Felicia Marcus on policy, and he realized through our training he’s got it wrong and he’s got to readjust his communications with the state because it’s not going anywhere. So the work that we’re doing, we see immediate impact and results in our leadership training, with our work. That was transformational to hear a councilmember say that, you know, “I’ve been doing it wrong. Because of WELL I realized how I could do it differently, and I look forward to that.” At our last conference we had a councilwoman who the governor appointed to the Water Resources Control Board in her region, and she credits all her ability to get on that board to her work and training with WELL. There is story after story of people coming through the WELL education and training workshops that have prepared them for the next level of leadership positions, as it relates to California water policy.

WF: As you work with local leaders, what do you see as the challenges that California will face in the coming years with respect to water?

VG: I think that one of the issues that California leaders need to think about is how do we develop a consensus leadership on what the water infrastructure needs are in California. You hear estimates of anywhere between $20 billion and $40 billion in water infrastructure needs for California. Well, where’s that political leadership going to come from? You know, we took care of the schools in the 1990s by reducing the bond vote from two-thirds to 55 percent, and we saw schools being built and remodeled throughout California like it had never been done before. It was a wonderful thing. We saw Measure M recently pass in Los Angeles County that added a half-cent sales tax for public transportation, which is going to transform Los Angeles County. It’s got the need, it’s got a plan, and it’s got a funding mechanism to implement that plan. So where’s that when it comes to water infrastructure in California? It’s not even on the map! We can’t even get people to agree on solutions, let alone figure out where’s the funding for the solutions. So I think that’s a really, really important issue that we need to address as California leaders.

WF: Yeah, that’s a really good point. And how does WELL fit into that, moving that forward?

VG: Well, it’s going to take leadership, and WELL is all about training the next generation of water leaders in California. I mean, look at what President Obama focused his time on. He spoke to young folks in Chicago, and he basically said he’s committed to the next generation of leaders. And that’s what WELL is. WELL is committed to identifying, recruiting, training, and executing projects with the next generation of California water leaders over the next five years. So that’s a big part. WELL is going to do its part to bring together the leadership that needs to move within the next five years to effectively address the challenges of water policy in California.

WF: WELL has also been active in human right to water discussion. Can you tell us a little bit about your work in that area?

VG: Yes. We’ve addressed that issue at two different conferences and in a particular workshop, because it came from one of our recent workshops. We actually met with former Assemblyman Mike Eng, who authored the bill that Governor Brown signed a few years ago on the human right to water. And he described to us that the bill didn’t have a lot of language in it to define what the human right to water was. He actually said that a certain Republican came up to him and said, “Well, Mike, you got that passed, but there’s really nothing in it.” And Mike said, “But we have a law, and we can always amend the law.” So he challenged us, and said, “What would be good, during this fellowship, is if you had discussions about what does it mean.” And so Mike is going to come to one of our regional sessions, he’s going to explain the intent of the bill, he’s going to give the history of the bill from the international perspective to a local perspective, and he’s going to say to them, “Now that you understand it, now that you understand the intent, what do you think it should mean? How does it apply to your residents, your supply, your region?” And if we get that and we develop a collective message then we can take that to the state legislative leaders and the administration and say, “This is what local leaders, from their conversations with many other local leaders in their towns, what this means to them.”

WF: And then would the intent be to amend the bill to incorporate that or…

VG: We’re not there yet, Elizabeth, but that’s sort of a clear option. There’s been movement, right? The State Water Board has language, and there’s been resolutions. I know the Central Valley Regional Water Resources Control Board has done a resolution. There’s been some movement, but we think there could be more, and that’s why we’re having those conversations.

WF: I really look forward to hearing how this plays out. It’s such a critical process that you’re bringing people through to develop leadership. What’s the best part of the work that you do?

VG: The people! The people are so great. Elizabeth, this guy who is driving at noon from a WELL meeting to get to Fresno for another meeting at 6 o’clock and then he is going to jump back in his car at 8:30 PM to drive back to the WELL training—this is a six-hour drive to and from. It’s 12 hours for a 2-and-a-half-hour meeting! Tell me that’s not empowering. Tell me that’s not motivating. That’s amazing! And he’s not getting paid for it.

WF: That is inspirational, and I think that’s part and parcel for a lot of passionate local leaders. That’s what they do.

VG: That’s right. That’s right. They don’t get paid—well, what, $100 a meeting, or $500 a month—they don’t get paid for this, they really want to do something. So they value the training. You know, leadership is about results and training people. I was in the farm workers’ union, and that was transformational for me. You know I went to college, I had a college degree, but nobody made me successful like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. They made me successful. I believed in them, they made me successful, and they trained me to train other people. To me, they gained my respect. When they trained me to train other people, I totally respected them. And that’s what leadership is about—the ability to educate somebody to be successful and they take that success and train other people to be successful. If you can do that to someone, they’ll respect you for life. What do they say in the Bible, you can either feed someone or you can teach them to fish. Right?

WF: Right.

VG: We’re teaching these leaders to fish. We’re teaching them to teach other people in their communities to fish, so that we can solve our water policy challenges in the next 5 years. But it’s going to take leadership.

WF: Right, because it is about people.

VG: That’s right, people. Because the managers have been managing the chaos, and they’ve done a pretty good job managing the chaos. But to transform the chaos into real solutions is going to take people. It’s going to take leaders.

WF: Victor, unfortunately, we’re out of time. Thank you so much.

VG: Thank you, Elizabeth.