Robert B. Stewart Farewell Address – Portland, Oregon November 15, 2016

May 8, 2017 | General RCAP News

At the 2016 RCAP National Conference, Robert B. Stewart, the Executive Director of RCAP for the past 11 years, made a farewell address. He will be retiring in May of 2017.

The contents on this address can be read below:

“At one of these conferences several years ago, I gave you the historical background on RCAP, but today I’m going to give you some background on me.

I started working with water utilities in Texas back in 1984 when I was a graduate research associate at the University of Texas and we had a grant to look at water quality in the Houston ship channel, one of the most polluted bodies of water in America, and then a couple years later when I was a management consultant I worked on a project with the City of Austin and Travis County looking at municipal services, including water and wastewater.  However, it was in the fall of 1987 when at the time I was working for the Texas Department of Agriculture that I ran into RCAP.  The Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower had an interest beyond traditional farming and ranching and his environmental group that I was a part of did work on rural community issues such as on-site waste disposal, value added agriculture, efficient energy use and the colonias along the border with Mexico.  The Ford Foundation was interested in supporting the colonias work and since TDA could not take foundation funding my boss somehow found (actually met him at a conference) John Squires and Community Resource Group.  One thing lead to another and soon enough I was working for CRG.  At that time the only CRG employee in Texas was a fellow named Terry Ambrose.  Terry mainly did work in South Texas and towards the border but what was interesting was that his real passion was to help immigrants that had crossed over from Mexico.  And this wasn’t just some half-hearted commitment, he would actually load up his car with these refugees and drive them north, typically far north up to the east coast.  That was one indication for me that this was an organization staffed with people who genuinely cared about low-income people and who worked hard to make their lives better.  I soon met my new supervisor, Mark Rounsavall and I can say that over the last 30 years I have not found a more dedicated and talented professional in this business.

 

Back then there were tens of thousands of families living in the colonias along the border – these were subdivisions created by unscrupulous developers selling property on contracts for sale without running water, wastewater services, or all-weather roads.  It was distressing to see living conditions in the USA that were similar to what I had seen in extreme poverty areas in Asia when I was in the Navy.  Fortunately I was able to work with some great staff during these years including a few professionals we hired that lived in south Texas.  I also was first exposed to and worked with members of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) network – a network of local faith and community-based organizations that included Valley Interfaith, the Border Organization and EPISO, who had organizers working in the local communities and directing efforts to provide needed infrastructure and community services in these areas.  If you are not aware of the IAF, you should check it out – same group that President Obama worked for as a community organizer in the Chicago area.  During the next 9 years I worked not only along the border but with many small communities throughout Texas and helped CRG obtain state funding for capacity development work with water utilities and helped start the CRG Revolving Loan Fund with grants from Ford Foundation and RD’s IRP.  The last year at CRG I was appointed by the Texas Attorney General to be the receiver for all properties (thousands of lots in colonias) owned by a former Starr County Judge, in an effort to clear titles and obtain services.  While I was not there to finish that job, other staff at CRG were and did an excellent job in helping out thousands of families.

 

You may know that I then spent 10 years with Texas Rural Water Association in a variety of capacities, I won’t go into that other than to say that I did try to keep up with the CRG staff, met Mark Pearson when he first started at CRG and also ran into Tommy Ricks a few times at the periodic EPA Region 6 meetings in Dallas.  After a brief stint with the PUC helping the Commissioners with electric and telephone rate cases, I took the position of Executive Director of Texas Water Utilities Association – the longest standing state organization devoted to training water/wastewater operators and managers.  About a year later, I was planning to attend a niece’s wedding in NW Arkansas and thought it might be good to visit with John Squires of CRG since we had not parted under the best of circumstances and I wanted to explore opportunities for our organizations to collaborate in Texas.  During a many hour conversation John said that he was about to call me to see if I might be interested in applying for the position of ED of the RCAP national office.  Well one interview led to another and 6 months later I was in DC in this job.

 

And I have to say that the last 11 years have been some of the most rewarding years of my life and at times the most challenging; living in Washington DC, 1500 miles from my family and friends in Texas has not been easy.  With that in mind I wanted to let you know that I will be leaving this position sometime in the next 6 months or so, depending on when a replacement is found.  This is not really a retirement, and has nothing to do with the wonderful job I am giving up, but an 11 year sentence serving in Washington DC is enough for me.

 

That said, there are some additional remarks I would like to make, mention some things I am grateful for and then offer a few thank-yous  – first of all I have to say that working with the RCAP Board and all the folks in the six regions has been a wonderful, enlightening and rewarding experience.

I’ve discovered that each of our six regions is unique and responsive to the needs of that area, but there are many similarities; all have:

  • Highly trained and motivated staff
  • People with a commitment to providing excellent services to the communities they serve
  • Staff that endure many long hours of travel to do their job, spending many nights away from families
  • A sensitivity to finding the optimal way to provide services
  • A genuine commitment to low income communities
  • And a willingness to adopt new and better ways to provide T & TA

 

RCAP is the premier organization in the US providing capacity building, community infrastructure and development services and trainings to rural communities in every state and Puerto Rico

RCAP always directs the maximum amount of resources to helping rural communities in need

And we have a commitment to stay with the community until the job is completed

Perseverance is one of the most important qualities in all of you – regardless of the obstacles you continue to provide vital technical assistance and training services to low-income communities and you also have persevered in learning how to use the old and new DCS!

 

 

So that said, I want to leave you with a few challenges, some things I am grateful for and some thank-you’s.

First, never lose sight that you are providing critical services to communities who need it to maintain public health and to support their future prosperity – that in most cases these communities have no other options – that in many cases these communities are low income, and/or minority communities, communities that have suffered under various vestiges of discrimination and neglect for decades.

 

Remember that you are part of a larger team within your region and nationwide – that there are other capable people that can help you with your work

 

I encourage you to share your stories, your resources, your ideas, your materials with others; funders and elected officials like to hear stories as it directly connects the funding with a result on the ground

 

Find other staff with similar ideas, similar motivations, similar interests – develop relationships with your peers to share in these areas

Find a mentor to help guide you in your professional life, if you draw a blank, give me a call as I will always be a part of RCAP

Look for a new way to accomplish your work – remember that an approach that worked last year might not be suitable for your current work – be flexible, seek out new ways to do your job

Look for a new service you can provide to one of your communities, the needs are great and RCAP is flexible and resourceful

Be on the lookout for new technologies that can help you with your work or can help with your project communities

Find partners in/out of the RCAP network – to help you with your work; collaboration benefits not only the participants but the communities who stand to see an improvement in the services you provide to them

Remember that you are inheritors of a long, proud tradition of providing the best possible services to rural communities

 

Some things I am grateful for:

 

For John Squires letting me know of the opening for the position of RCAP Executive Director even though 12 years earlier we had parted ways under less than ideal circumstances.  That’s a reminder never to burn bridges …

I am grateful that my ten years with Texas Rural Water was not held against me.

I am grateful for the RCAP Board who hired me, and has put up with this hard headed and at times opinionated individual these past 11 years

For the opportunity to have worked for over 20 years for RCAP and over 30 years in the field of rural community assistance, including that I had the opportunity to do field work for nearly 20 years and be able to directly help communities with water and wastewater issues.

To have been able to get to know so many RCAP staff around the country, some of the finest people I have had the privilege to work with and for –

That I was able to develop relationships based on trust and mutual respect and at times lasting friendships with staff, managers, and board members at the regions and with many small water utilities.

That I was fortunate to be able to get to know so many people in rural America, unique individuals who served their communities and their nation – and you may have heard this before but among those I’ll never forget is Glenn Morgan, who after a career with Texaco spent many years as the manager and operator for a small water utility in Central Texas, performing his work without pay as a service to his neighbors and his community; I spent one of the most fascinating days of my life when he invited me to come to his home where I spent several hours sharing a meal with him and his wife and hearing his stories about his service in the U.S. Navy (you see my father was a career carrier pilot that served in WW II, Korea and Vietnam and I spent 6 years myself as a Naval Surface Warfare Officer).  Glenn was a most fascinating individual – You see he was a survivor of the USS Indianapolis, who passed away just a few years ago – for those who may not be familiar with the story of the USS Indianapolis you may want to google it sometime, in fact there’s a movie coming out about it in the near future.

 

I’m also grateful that I was able to work with so many dedicated state and federal employees, in Texas and in Washington DC whose commitment to their work, to helping rural communities and to ensuring the protection of public health and our nations waters match that of RCAP staff – in particular I would like to mention Peter Grevatt whose professionalism, passion and boundless energy as head of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water was never diminished by my periodic, I will say suggestions, on how to run his office, … his patience and forbearance was always appreciated.  Thank-you Peter and thank-you to Jacki Ponti and Ben Schuman and the RUS and EPA staff who’s tireless dedication to improving the lives of families in rural communities, and improving water quality and whose continuing support for RCAP programs has been a foundation for all we do.

 

I know when I leave that all of RCAP will continue to grow and prosper, continually reinventing itself, to find new and better ways to improve the lives of people, families and communities in rural America.

I am grateful that I have been able to visit with some of you in the field to see firsthand your community projects

And that in difficult times in my life over the last 11 years that I always had the support and grace from so many of you.  In particular when my youngest son came down with cancer while working in China, that I had the support of my Board and staff and while my identifying some and not others is in no way meant to lessen the importance of those I have not named, I have to say that the kind words of support, messages, letters and prayers from Kim Padgett, Melissa Melton and Chris Wells meant more to me than I can ever express.

 

So now for some other Thank-yous

To the RCAP Board Presidents that I have served with: Kip Bowmar, John Squires, Stan Keasling, Karen Koller and Hope Cupit – for your advice and support throughout the last 11 years

 

To the RCAP Regions’ CEOs

To Ruth Ann House – for taking over WSOS several years ago in a seamless manner and leading WSOS and the Great Lakes RCAP into many new areas of environmental protection and community development.

 

To Karen Koller – who has not only served twice as the RCAP Board President, but who regardless of the issue or changes going on with RCAP and the field we work in has always been the strongest advocate for the RCAP National Office and an unwavering supporter of the Executive Director

 

To Ines Polonius – for so ably having taken over from one of our founders (John Squires), re-energizing CU and leading it into the 21st century as a comprehensive rural community assistance provider combining environmental work with crucial community development initiatives.

 

To Mike Brownfield – for assuming command of a struggling region and through his leadership, hard work and exemplary management skills has made MAP once again a vibrant and growing RCAP partner whose staff excel in so many ways

 

To Stan Keasling – also taking over from one of our founders (Bill French), for providing me with his advice and counsel whenever needed (even if I might need it at 5 AM in the morning – he should get more sleep), for always offering the resources of RCAC to assist the partners and the national office and for his exemplary representation of RCAP in countless ways.

 

To Hope Cupit – what can I say about Hope as there is so much that should be said about this amazing person, I have never known a more caring, compassionate and dedicated leader, someone who is always sensitive to needs of low-income and minority communities; who works day and night, although those 3 or 4 am emails might be a little too much – who takes a personal interest in so many aspects of SERCAP’s work and the individual communities it serves, who has represented RCAP at the national level on innumerable occasions, and someone who has always been a strong supporter of me, another friend for life!

 

To my at-large members, Sue Crawford, Mike Taylor, Anish Jantrania, Zack Space, Frank Castellanos and Niel Ritchie for their dedication to serving on the RCAP Board, bringing their incredible energy, skills, experience and unique perspectives to the governance of RCAP.

 

To the regional RCAP program managers, Mark Rounsavall, George Schlender, Chris Fierros, Scott Mueller, Deb Martin, and Joan Douglas (and Russ Rice as well) for all the work you have accomplished with your regional organizations, for putting up with me on a weekly or daily basis (the Board members were not quite so burdened or lucky), for providing me with the information and support I need to do my job and for always being there to commiserate with me on whatever crisis was brewing – I could never possibly hope for a more professional, committed and resourceful group of managers to work with.

To my staff current and past, Joy Barrett, Bill Hogrewe, Jeff Oxenford, Bianca Poll, Dave Clark, Eleanor Lloyd and Ari Neumann, Breanna Detwiler, Stephen Padre, Aaron Fishbach and Kathryn Turner – all who made me look much better than I really am – your support and efforts will always be remembered

To my wife Becki, who could not be here this week, my spouse of 41 years and my best friend since we first met in freshman English class at the University of Texas in 1972, for her love and support whatever direction our lives have taken.

 

To those many RCAP staff whom I may not have individually named but whom I have had the pleasure and privilege to get to know over these years, you have been an important part of my life and your service to rural communities and to RCAP reflects on your professionalism, your character, your integrity, and your compassion.  I will always remember you as my co-conspirators and friends.

 

As I mentioned, I will be leaving in around 6 months so let me say to each and every one of you here today and to all the RCAP staff I have known over the last 30 years, I wish you continued success, good health and productive and fulfilling lives as RCAP employees and for wherever your life may take you in the future

It has been a distinct pleasure and honor for me to serve as the RCAP Executive Director – thank-you everyone.”