Rick Callender wears many hats. Small business owner, steward of water resources, attorney and, perhaps most importantly, a fighter for equity and justice.

In fall 2020, Callender (Industrial Technology, ’94) was named president of the California-Hawaii chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As the chapter’s first new president in 20 years, he’s working to build off the remarkable successes of his predecessor while also bringing new vision and embracing national momentum to confront racism and improve equity.

“People expect us to do criminal justice but we are also focused on environmental justice, education equality, and healthcare justice,” he said, noting the chapter’s 56 branches are currently tackling issues from COVID-19 vaccines to police reform. “2020 definitely showed that you need strength and power to get through the movement. My job is to not only keep the movement going but to build others behind me so we go on for another 120 years.”

The work dovetails into his day job as CEO of Santa Clara Valley Water District, where, since July 2020, Callender has overseen an integrated water resources system that includes the supply of clean and safe water, flood protection, and environmental stewardship of waterways for the district’s 1.9 million residents.

Callender is not only the first African American to serve as CEO in the district’s 90-year history, but he’s the only African American CEO of a major water and flood protection organization in the United States.

Like so much else in this country, the water industry is affected by systemic racism, he said. He’s pushing for greater equity within his industry.

“We have poison water in the Central Valley where people of color cannot even drink the water. We have flood protection issues due to climate change,” he said. “We need to make sure environmental justice affects everything we do.”

From states like Wisconsin and Texas, where flooding due to natural disasters directly impacts working-class families of color, to the invisibility of African American farmers in California, he is advocating for Black voices to be part of the reform.

“We are talking about the need for us to be a part of the political institutions, where we are able to lead and ensure that everyone has a seat at the table,” he said.

Callender credits a lot of his success and ability to tackle such significant work to his undergraduate days, where he learned how to balance life and work with academic success. Chico State was also the first place he started to fight for representation, for himself and other underrepresented groups.

He’s been an advocate of equity ever since. Among his many other hats, Callender previously worked as a field campaign organizer for the California Democratic Party and is a two-time Congressional Fellow. He completed all coursework for his MPA from San Jose State University, earned his Juris Doctorate from Northwestern California University School of Law, and is a member of the California State Bar. He has also attended and graduated from eight executive leadership programs at different universities throughout the nation.

All that and he owns a hat business, yes, a literal one. While its storefront and festival appearances are on hiatus due to COVID-19, Jorcal Hat Co.—named for his son and fellow Wildcat Jordan Callender (Business Administration, ’20)—continues online.