Meet the Board: Karen Sands

Friday, January 22, 2016

This is a transcript of a conversation between Martha Allen, Communications Coordinator with Sweet Water, and Karen Sands, Sweet Water board member and Director of Planning, Research, and Sustainability at MMSD.

Allen: Are you originally from Milwaukee?
Sands: No, I am originally from upstate New York. I moved to Milwaukee by way of Maine.

A: How did you originally get involved with Sweet Water?
S: I worked on the MMSD 2020 Facilities Plan, managing very widespread public involvement activities for about four years in the early 2000s. Through the overall planning effort we learned that the vast majority of pollution in area waterways comes from nonpoint source pollution. We can continue to improve the MMSD's water reclamation system, but there's only so much improvement in water resources we can expect from that because of the nonpoint source pollution. We realized that an overall coordinated effort would really help individual organizations and sectors work together efficiently.
Because of my involvement in the 2020 Facilities Plan, I think it was only natural that I'd be involved in early Sweet Water start-up efforts. Once the organization was up and running, I was involved in other ways. I stayed involved initially through the policy committee, conference planning, and mini-grant awards, but I've since transitioned much of that work to my very capable staff. I was thrilled to join the board a little over a year ago and re-involve myself in organizational development, the search for an executive director, and board reconfiguration activities!

A: What do you do now besides being a Sweet Water board member?
S: Right now I’m the Director of Planning, Research and Sustainability at MMSD and I work in three sustainability areas: green infrastructure, energy conservation and renewables, and climate change.

A: What’s your biggest point of pride about where you see Milwaukee’s water politics and water efforts today as opposed to when you first started out?
S: My biggest source of pride is the growing interest in green infrastructure here. We have a number of funding programs and we get a lot more applicants than we can ever fund and stay ahead of, so I see that as a major success story. And the green infrastructure work is a team effort. I have tremendous staff and we have exceptional working relationships with non-governmental organizations and other units of government. This type of work really takes all kinds and all interests actively participating and that’s what we’re beginning to see happening. That isn’t to say that we don’t have coordination issues, but in the end we all recognize that we’re moving in the same direction and with that recognition and cooperation, all of our individual efforts become more productive.

A: On a different note, how has your identity as a woman shaped your experience in Milwaukee and in the water sector here?
S: One place I worked for, I was managing projects and I was asked to participate in the company golf tournament and I assumed that meant I would be golfing but of course, they wanted me to wear shorts and drive the golf truck and serve beer to people who were golfing.  So it’s come a long way from that. I don’t face anything like that anymore. This is my ninth professional job and I’ve been in both the private and public sector in a number of capacities and I’ve always worked in fields that have been predominately men. In my experience, things have changed a lot in the last several decades. There’s a lot more support for being a woman than there once was and workplaces are just more women friendly. Part of that might be just my experience; the field of sustainability, especially in Milwaukee, is a very respectful environment and it doesn’t hurt that there is also a much greater balance of women in this line of work than in other fields I have been involved in, such as when I was working in the consulting field with primarily engineers. I don’t encounter much resistance or anything that I would consider gender bias. That could be because there are more women in Milwaukee’s sustainability sector, or it could be a sign of the times.

A: What’s your favorite part of your job?
S: My background is pretty interdisciplinary and I started out in the field doing GIS work, I also did a lot of highway noise studies and airport runway layouts. I’m responsible for paving a good part of the earth so I like that I’m able to help un-pave it now, so I love that aspect of it. I came into the field with an interdisciplinary background and in this job I get to do a lot of different things and work with professionals who have a lot of different backgrounds as well, and accomplished people at that. I love getting to work in an interdisciplinary group setting with people who are interested in cooperative efforts and who are multi-talented and interesting people to be around.

A: If you were granted the ability to change one thing in Milwaukee right now, what would it be?
S: I think I would change (or boost) the level of water understanding and appreciation. We have so much water directly to the east and in our rivers that people are inclined to take it for granted.  Or they may live a mile from it and never venture down to it or have mistaken perceptions about it. If I could, I would somehow help to increase water knowledge because with knowledge comes appreciation and hopefully action.

A: What is your favorite thing to do when you aren’t at work?
S: I am a backyard gardener. In the winter, I have a grow-light in the basement where I’m growing spinach. I also have pepper plants and baby kale in my living room. I also have my side projects around the house, and I still compost in the winter. I love to have something growing even in the dead of winter because it reminds me that spring is right around the corner.