| Love of learning, contributing motivates new AWWA president
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Love of learning, contributing motivates new AWWA president

Cheryl Porter discovered her love for data, numbers, and the world of science through an encouraging high school chemistry teacher and a summer research program at the University of Michigan.

AWWA Water Champion Cheryl PorterPorter, who accepted the gavel earlier this week as the 143rd president of the American Water Works Association (AWWA), initially dreamed of becoming a doctor so as to give back to her African American community. But her hands-on experience working in a laboratory led to her career in water and her current position as chief operating officer of water and field services at Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) in Detroit.

“I came to realize that testing the tap water going into my home and those of my family and friends is my way of giving back,” said Porter, the first woman of color to lead AWWA. “Water found me. The lab was the door that introduced me to the water sector.”

“When you think of Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi, those are my communities,” she added. “I want to share my story and show that someone like me can be a chief operating officer at a water utility. You do not have to be subject to poor management or decision-making. You can either stay outside and complain or jump in and make a difference.”

Finding her path with water

Porter grew up in a military family as the middle child between two brothers. Her father served in the U.S. Air Force, and they lived in Florida and Nevada before settling in Detroit when Porter started high school.
“The military environment is an excellent nexus for preparing you to work in the water sector,” Porter said. “It is disciplined, you work for the common good, you develop amazing technical skills, and you respect and understand the chain of command. Military veterans and family members fit in the water world very nicely. It’s all about seeing a need and then filling it.”

Porter excelled throughout high school, earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and went to work as a quality control laboratory technician for a local solvents company. 

After seven years, she took a job as a junior chemist with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to expand her career opportunities. Her progression over the next 11 years included positions as senior water system chemist, water production and operations manager, assistant director, chief customer service officer, and chief operating officer (COO). She was part of the leadership team that helped establish GLWA in 2016.

During that time, she completed a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and a master’s degree in business administration with a concentration in human resources management from Madonna University.

Building a leadership toolkit

“When I got into a leadership role it ignited my passion for learning in a new direction,” she said. “In addition to my technical abilities, I needed a whole different skill set to inspire, motivate and coach people. One of the benefits of working in the water sector is that whatever you are curious or passionate about, you can bring it and use your talents for the overall good we’re doing. I get to bring every bit of talent and skill I have to the table every day.”

Porter also had the opportunity to learn from other leaders, including Sue McCormick, a retired GLWA chief executive officer and former AWWA board member and Michigan Section director.

“Sue came into GLWA and demonstrated how to create cultural change at a water utility by asking customers what options they’d like and providing a customer service mentality for the communities we serve,” Porter said.

“She encouraged me to think about giving back and sharing my story by deepening my involvement in AWWA,” she added. 

Prior to being selected as AWWA’s president-elect in 2023, Porter served as a director-at-large and a vice president and was on the AWWA Finance Committee.

Creating a welcoming water community

When it comes to the water community, Porter appreciates that “we have so many things in common that bring us together.” She wants to create avenues within AWWA so that a more diverse group of people connected through water can find each other and develop a sense of belonging. 

“The diverse community won’t stick around if they don’t feel welcome to network and share information,” she said. “If you don’t shepherd and guide them, they’ll go someplace else where they feel or see that belonging.”

She urged AWWA members to make an extra effort to seek out and welcome new faces into their water circle.

“Go to the person in the room you don’t know and make them feel welcome,” she said. “They are there for the same reason you are. Help them come along, figure out how things work, and find that common ground. It is the water world – come on in!”