What clean-water operators can learn from Richard Pryor

There’s a word operators should never, ever use when talking about their treatment plants

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The late Richard Pryor, one of the greatest stand-up comics ever, also had a serious side. I was reminded of it when I recently spoke to a group of clean-water operators in Minnesota. Yes, there is a logical connection – it will soon be clear.

The topic of my talk was The Fire Chief Project – my one-man effort to help elevate clean-water operators to the same status of the local fire chief, in public respect, in budget allocation, in every way.

One thing operators need to do, I said, is talk about themselves and their profession in different ways. I suggested that perhaps “wastewater treatment plant” and “sewage plant” are not the best ways to refer to their facilities. I then asked if anyone in the audience ever used another (four-letter) word that starts with “s” when talking about their plants. In response I saw quite a few nods of the head and somewhat sheepish smiles. And that’s when I thought of Richard Pryor.

In his classic video, “Live on Sunset Strip,” Pryor interrupted a hilarious show with a story about a trip he took to Africa. He talked about how black people, in casual conversation, often referred to each other using the N-word. And he questioned whether that was a good practice.

In Africa, he said, he discovered that there were no N-people. And by extension, he realized that there were no N-people, period – that the word was so toxic and so degrading that it should never be used, by anyone of any color. And he vowed that he would never use it again.

So, what about the clean-water profession? I would suggest that there are no S-plants. The term is so offensive, so inappropriate a description of the places where operators work, that they should purge it from their lexicon. Ideally, say “clean water plant,” because clean water is what you make. Never, ever say “S-plant,” even when talking to colleagues and peers. What do you think? Share your perspectives by sending an email to editor@tpomag.com.

Cleaning up the language will help further the two aims of The Fire Chief Project:
· Raise clean-water operators to the stature of the fire chief.
· Make kids grow up wanting to be clean-water operators.


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