By BCN Staff Writers Victoria Mays and Jessica Doyne — April 21, 2021 — A native of Little Rock, Tamika S. Edwards is the special advisor to the CEO on diversity, equity, inclusion and engagement at Central Arkansas Water (CAW). As an alum of the Arkansas Business “40 Under 40” class of 2010, Edwards’ passion and commitment to do what’s right for others has led her on a never-ending journey of advocacy and excellence in her philanthropic and professional life.
At an early age, Edwards was influenced by her mother, Joyce Silverman, who would always tell her, “If you do what’s right, you don’t have to worry about anything else.” This led Edwards to strive to be what she didn’t have by focusing on law and politics. Edwards earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, a Master of Arts in professional and technical writing from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a J.D. from Bowen Law School.
With over 20 years of experience in public policy and community development, Edwards has filled many roles such as director of governmental affairs at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families where her work focused on developing and implementing the organization’s legislative strategy; the community affairs specialist for U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln where she helped advance community and economic development efforts and served as the senator’s grassroots representative.
“I wanted to be what I didn’t have which is why I focused on law and politics. What I could not articulate at the time was the importance of public policy so that’s why my work has always done that. I see policy as a conditioning,” Edwards said. “Public policy says this is what you’re going to do, this is how I’m going to treat you, and this is how you will respond. Even when we change the policies, we don’t necessarily change the practices because there is not a level of accountability.
“I’ve always wanted [to be in] law and politics because of the lack of accountability I saw growing up. If people did you wrong, nothing happened to them. In no other place, nor other space, did I find holding people accountable than in law and politics,” Edwards continued. “ Not only did they make the law, politicians, lawyers had to interpret the law and they could interpret it anyway they wanted to. If [politicians and lawyers] don’t have the mind of justice, they will always retreat or default to injustice. I have always wanted to be a part of making a decision or helping influence the decisions that impact a larger group of people.”
As a community advocate, Edwards recognized that communication and strategy are essential to implementing change and ensuring equity is established. “I’ve always thought ‘what is my talent?’ I do believe my superpower and talent is memory and connection. It is connecting with people to understand where they are and remembering nuanced things. . . so, immediately I can connect [them] to the source.
“I may not be the source, but I’m aware enough to recognize sources and to connect people where they can go to another place or person for something they need. I have access and I’m willing to give that access away,” Edwards said. “Equity is about meeting people where they are and not just giving people what you think they need. If you’re able to meet people where they are, you’re having a conversation with them [about their needs].”
When Edwards thinks about being an advocate for others, she can’t help to connect with the words written by Brene Brown in “Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts,” that remind her of the lessons her mother instilled in her growing up. “One of the things she says is that, ‘She’s not seeking to be right, but to get it right.’ I don’t want to be right, I just want to get it right.”
“Even when I’m afraid, I speak because I know that other folks in the room are probably thinking it and I know that I’m not coming from a malicious place. As long as I am moved from where it’s a good place, I cannot be afraid to do it or second guess myself in doing it,” she said.
Being in the business world and positions where she’s had to advocate for individuals who couldn’t be at the table, Edwards has never lost her sense of purpose.
“I’ve established myself as a trustworthy professional. When you get something from me, you can trust it. Internally, I would be considered an activist while many who are ‘activist’ may see me more moderate, but I don’t see that. When I am in a space, I am going to be there for my people, period. I don’t have to prove that to anyone, I just have to work,” said Edwards
Currently serving as CAW’s special advisor to the CEO on diversity, equity, inclusion and engagement, Edwards’ advocacy for equity has shifted more to addressing challenges in relation to people’s access to quality water.
“I think about [my] role as internal and external. Internal in the way of how we’re treating our staff, the policies we have to ensure equitable practices and fairness, having inclusive language, and programs to make people feel a sense of belonging. Are we considering everyone’s thoughts and concerns in what we’re doing? Externally, I’m thoughtful about those equitable efforts to our diverse suppliers. Are we doing what we need to do to reach out to them? Are we doing what we need to do to make sure our checkbook lines up with our talk? It’s the way of walking out equity internally and externally.”
“We talk a lot about water equity, but what does that really mean? How do we operationalize equity instead of just having it written and people talking strongly about it? How do we conceptualize and operationalize diversity, equity and inclusion?” These are all the questions Edwards hopes to tackle in her new role at CAW.
There are many challenges that are raised when discussing water equity and ensuring that water is not only affordable, but assistance is available to those who are unable to afford it.
“What are those barriers in place that force us not to be able to do that and how do we overcome it?” Edwards said. “There are parts of our state that don’t have the same kind of drinking water that we have here in Central Arkansas. As the largest water utility [in the state] what can we do about it to raise the profile and highlight what some of those issues may be and how can we help our sister water utilities in solving that issue. And maybe we need to be the one talking more about water and how it may seem abundant, but we may have issues in the next two or three decades if we are not practicing sustainability within the utility.”
Earlier this year, Arkansas and several other states suffered from the snowmageddon that left many people without water, electricity, food and other necessities. While many residents in Central Arkansas experienced busted or leaky pipes, CAW was prepared and had the equipment necessary to deal with the issue. Compared to other areas of the state, “we had good [quality] water and didn’t have to shut anybody off because we immediately got out there and fixed those pipes and did the things we needed to do because our staff cares about what that means,” Edwards said.
“It is always this constant battle of is it our practice in place to lift our people and the community or are we saying the right things and people feel completely different? I haven’t been here a year, but this work isn’t new to me,” added Edwards. “It’s work I’ve done at every single place I’ve been. There is something inherent that happens with leadership that’s not ready to be a leader; they are not empathetic leaders, nor are they authentic leaders. I think my role here is to ensure that authenticity and that people are heard and I am here for it.”
Outside of CAW and as a member of the Arkansas Black Philanthropy Collaborative, Edwards is actively working alongside the Arkansas Community Foundation to issue grants of up to $25,000 from Building Black Communities Fund to Central Arkansas nonprofits to support programs and initiatives specifically designed to impact Black people and communities in the Little Rock metropolitan statistical area, which includes Pulaski, Saline, Perry, Grant, Faulkner and Lonoke Counties. The funds are provided by Facebook Inc. and are a part of the social media giant’s broader $1.1 billion investment in the Black communities across the U.S.
More information can be found at the Arkansas Community Foundation’s website: www.arcf.org/bbcf.
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