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  • “The Power of Possibility: Cynthia McClain Hill’s Rise to Lead the Largest Municipal Utility in the Nation & How She’ll Transform the DWP and the City of Los Angeles

“The Power of Possibility: Cynthia McClain Hill’s Rise to Lead the Largest Municipal Utility in the Nation & How She’ll Transform the DWP and the City of Los Angeles

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Lisa Collins

Perhaps it is LADWP Board President Cynthia McClain-Hill’s law firm motto that best encapsulates her meteoric rise on L.A.’s civic and political landscape.

“There are forces beyond economic at work in today’s marketplace,” it reads. “We know how to use them.”

It is a bold statement from a woman who is known for making them and most importantly can back them up. 

Says McClain-Hill, “There are not that many people that look like me who have been willing to get in the arena and fight it out and have learned how to navigate in a way that can move an agenda forward”.

Her prowess at moving an agenda forward has landed her at the helm of the nation’s largest municipal utility—the L.A. Department of Water & Power (DWP) with more than 9,000 employees and an annual budget of $6 billion.

In a statement announcing her nomination, Mayor Eric Garcetti said, “Cynthia never stops fighting to move L.A. forward — and I know that she will bring those same values to the job of overseeing a DWP that powers our households, empowers ratepayers, and leads the charge toward a sustainable, clean energy future.”

In an L.A. Daily News op-ed entitled, “Who Should Be the Next Mayor of Los Angeles?”, her name was mentioned among the civic leaders who would make an extremely effective steward.

And she has the credentials to prove it, from National President of the National Association of Women Business Owners to appointments on the California Coastal Commission and California Fair Practice Commissions to the Board of the L.A. Police Commission and as founder of Strategic Counsel, a land use law firm that is well-versed on public policy and government regulations.

Many feel, however, that it is at the helm of the L.A. Department of Water & Power, that McClain-Hill will make the most impact and at the top of her list of priorities is racial equity.

“When I joined the department, I knew that it was a coveted place to work in the city of Los Angeles,” states McClain-Hill. “I also knew that there were people that called it ‘the department of white people.’”

The latter was something she set out to change, and the timing couldn’t have been better.

In the wake of social unrest in the summer of 2020, Mayor Eric Garcetti issued Executive Director No. 27.  This Directive instructed all City departments to create a Racial Equity Action Plan to foster efforts to promote equity throughout Los Angeles.  

“That caused the walls to come crashing down at DWP,” McClain-Hill recalls. “Not only did the board get seriously engaged in these issues, but we literally went into the department and surveyed our entire department about racial equity.”

Determined not to just perform the perfunctory check the box report, McClain-Hill convinced her board colleagues, the LADWP General Manager, senior leadership, as well as union leaders that the department needed to have an outside entity perform a comprehensive analysis on the culture and operations of DWP.

A team of minority consultants from Dakota Communications and Cordoba Corporation led the effort to produce the top to bottom analysis, which included focus groups, interviews, and an employee survey.  The report—which was responded to by an unprecedented 3,400 DWP employees, about one third of the entire workforce— revealed that DWP had no real enforcement policies to punish rogue managers, supervisors, or employees for discriminatory behavior.  Thus, harassment and retaliation of whistle blowers persisted.  Focus groups revealed that 53% of staff and 50% of supervisors felt DWP management did not take appropriate action in response to incidents of discrimination.  

African Americans fared much worse than other ethnic groups. Nearly 40% of Black survey participants felt they had been discriminated against for career opportunities.  Fifty-nine (59%) of Black survey participants witnessed discrimination compared to only 36% of total survey participants witnessing discrimination.  Additionally, there were currently no Black executives in management.

“On the day the mayor issued his racial equity directive, I was the only African-American that sat on the senior executive board and noted that was an issue the department needed to change,” McClain Hill adds. 

“The mayor ordered that every department create a racial equity officer, but what we’ve done is to create an office of diversity, equity and inclusion with significant resources and as many as 30 people reporting to it.” She pauses for a moment. “We’ve got to change institutions and that takes resources, and it takes focus. This new office will embody the transformative change that is needed to advance diversity and inclusion efforts for all stakeholders.”   

And it is a commitment she says that is not just top down, but bottom up.

“The department’s work around racial equity since Mayor Garcetti issued Executive Directive 27 has been nothing short of breathtaking and it’s something that I am very proud of,” said McClain-Hill of an action plan that includes a workforce development initiative that creates good paying jobs and career opportunities for historically disadvantaged communities, and spearheading LA100 Equity Strategies – a comprehensive study to ensure all Angelenos, especially residents in communities of color benefit from a just transition to 100% renewable energy. 

She is just as clear that her presence is part of that impact.

“I am unapologetically a black woman and have no difficulty being very clear about what I’m looking for in part because I don’t take no for an answer and I can be very blunt; and it’s easier to speak truth to power when you see someone modeling that and you think you’re going to be heard.” 

The L.A. native concedes that navigating the challenges haven’t been easy.

“We’re now in a place where we’re demanding that everybody squarely face the impact of systemic racism and stop pretending they haven’t benefited from it and that it has improved other groups,” McClain-Hill observes. “It’s sometimes difficult to take that in when you think, ‘oh, but I’m a good person’. I have to hear that, be patient with it and then get people on board and move them forward. We’ve been successful at doing that, but it’s a work in progress.”

She is just as determined about DWP’s transition to 100% renewable energy and the city’s climate change efforts in a way that is equitable, understanding underserved communities aren’t there yet.

“You can’t talk about solar rooftops and not talk about housing, because not everybody lives in a single family home and not everybody can afford or has access to the ability to put solar on their rooftops,” McClain-Hill explains. “You have to realize that communities that are underserved are filled with renters. You’ve also got to figure out who’s going to pay for all this stuff and what’s it going to cost? 

“People are not talking about renewable energy, because they’re talking about how they pay the rent or how to get and keep a good paying job,” she continues. So rather than talking about renewable energy, we’re really talking about what the climate change future of Los Angeles is going to be and that’s been decided. 

“We’ve got a governor saying that California is going to stop allowing the sale of gas combustion cars by a date certain. If that’s what’s going to happen, then we’ve got to start approaching communities with strategies about how they get connected to that. They might [instead] be interested in a conversation about the industries that will be recruiting and hiring and growing as a result of that transition.”

She is sensitive enough to weigh the impact of that transition through the lens and interests of those who that will have to pay for it. 

“Everyone that lives in the city of LA, pays a bill to DWP. You have no choice, so since you have no choice, this affects you and the department is committed to understanding how it affects you and making sure that it is done in a way that it enhances the community, not detracts from it.”

And she is fortunate enough to work in tandem with a board and executives like LADWP General Manager and Chief Engineer Martin L. Adams who agree.

“As LADWP expands these programs and adds many more, we must ensure that customers who are impacted by poor air quality and have the least ability to afford higher electric bills, are able to benefit from the clean energy transformation,” Adams said.

McClain-Hill’s success is equal parts strategy, opportunity and hard work.

“My firm is called strategic counsel, but in terms of my own career, I’ve worked hard and been really clear about what was important to me,” she reflects. “I just had my first grandchild, so I am very connected to the fact that opportunity for me was created by people that marched and died and that took advantage of the law and politics to open doors. My own devotion to politics and engagement in civic affairs has been to do my bit to keep those doors open and to open them a little wider. To that extent, I’ve been strategic.”

As the eldest of three daughters, McClain-Hill had no idea what was possible in the world, except that her parents told her that anything was possible. Thanks to them, she’s never questioned her capabilities, her self-worth or her place in the world and because of that she took advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves.

Learning to redefine failure, she says, was critical to her success. 

“It didn’t happen until my probably early 40s when I figured out that there’s no such thing as perfect,” the UCLA alumnus recounts. “I’ve learned over the years to push the envelope and not care what other people think, but I didn’t start out that way. [Instead it was] being cautious, being in the background, supporting other people, pushing them forward, letting them take credit. 

“Been there done that. Being resilient is probably my greatest gift and I’ve had to lean on it a lot. You don’t regret the things that you try and fail. You regret the things you don’t try.”

Always fueling her passion and drive was the desire to make a difference. So much so, she recalls, “When I was a young lawyer, my goal was to get a front page obituary in my hometown newspaper to know that I made a difference. 

“In my law practice, I make money, which helps fuel my life, but in my other areas of work, I make a difference and I always have time for that.”

It’s as if she owes it to the people who made her life possible, not just her parents, but her grandmother who was a domestic and an uncle who was a black panther. And she adds, “All of those people I don’t know who marched and died. 

“The fact that we, as Black people, survive all we have is what causes me to do what I do. In the face of that, I can’t be afraid of anything.” 

Ironically, of all the positions and appointments she’s received, it was her appointment to chair the LADWP that brought the 63-year old, once recognized among California’s “Super Lawyers” to tears.

“I thought about my mother and my beginnings,” she says. “My dad got his GED in the Navy and my mother had me when she was 19 and made it her mission to send me to college. So, the day I got that appointment, I thought about how hard my parents worked, how much they wanted for me and what an awesome responsibility and a pretty incredible amount of power came with this position.”

With that power, McClain-Hill intends to not only lead the LADWP in modeling what effective structural change in in a major municipal utility looks like, but to set a new standard of equity that can be replicated in the city and across the nation. 

“In the next two years, DWP will complete a study on equity strategies that will be the first of its kind in the nation,” she states of the Racial Equity Action Plan that can be freely assessed on the DWP website. “A study that will define and quantify what is necessary in order to have an equitable climate change transition in the city of Los Angeles and it will be a model for the rest of the country to follow. Over the next five years, the DWP, I expect to see people of color at every single level of our department. DWP will not only be a pipeline for jobs into the department in the city, but we’ll also have a pipeline for jobs with our third party contractors and that will change the game in terms of numbers of jobs people can aspire to. 

“We’re intending to lead the way, not just in terms of climate change, renewable energy, but we’re determined to lead the way in terms of how you engage with your community in a way that is equitable, that is inclusive, and that lifts all boats at the same time. So, DWP is going to be a model agency, and it’s going to model the best in terms of technology, opportunities, service and workforce development. We’re going to build a stronger L.A.” 


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