Whether in times of drought or flood, Rick Callender’s work is vital to the people of Santa Clara County.

As CEO of Valley Water District, Callender (Industrial Technology, ’94) oversees an integrated water resources system that includes the supply of clean and safe water, flood protection, and environmental stewardship of waterways for Santa Clara County’s nearly 2 million residents. Having worked in other roles within Valley Water District since 1997—including as deputy officer in the Office of Government Relations and chief of external affairs—Callender became the first African American to serve as CEO in the organization’s 90-year history in July 2020. Additionally, since fall 2020, he has served as president of the California-Hawaii chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Coming to Chico State sight unseen from San Jose, Callender said he instantly fell in love with the campus, its beauty, and the role it played in the community. A two-term Associated Students president at Chico State, Callender has been an engaged citizen in government relations since earning his degree—including working as a fellow to Congressman Ron Dellums and special assistant to San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer in the mid-1990s.

This year, Callender will be honored with Chico State’s Distinguished Alumni Service Award.

Callender lives in San Jose with his son, Jordan (Business Administration, ’20), who is also a Chico State graduate.

What does the word “service” mean to you?

When you look at service and what it truly means, I think it really exemplifies what you’re taught at Chico State in terms of responsibility. I’ve long had it in my genes to be able to serve the community and to serve others that came from my ethic at home, so I think Chico State only helped to reinforce what service means. The “Today Decides Tomorrow” saying is real—what you do today decides what happens tomorrow and how the world will look. I’ve taken that to heart.

How does an industrial technology major become the CEO of a water district?

One of the things I did is I really engaged in the campus, through Associated Students and initially through backstage programming and doing concerts—and that led me to understand some of the politics on campus. I thought, “if I want to control the politics of what I’m doing, then I need to be student body president.” So I ran for student body president, with no experience. And once I learned what it took to be student body president, after I was elected, I said, “okay, you can’t finish this in one year.” So I ran for a second year and became Chico State’s first two-term president. Once you get that bug trying to make change for the good of your constituents—and my constituents were the students—you just want to keep going. After college, I never went into any kind of manufacturing, industrial technology, or engineering. When I applied for all those jobs, nobody wanted me but they said, “look at your background, it’s all politics.” I came into government relations at Valley Water because of my background—and here we are, 27 years after I joined the organization. I really came up through the side of public policy and government relations. When you do government relations, you really must understand everything, because you have to represent the entire organization on a variety of different issues.

How do you shake things up and create positive change in your work?

You have to be able to look at what you want to accomplish. You have to look at the outcomes of where you want to go and what you want to achieve. You have to make sure that everyone has the best training and you’re looking at best management practices. And you push that ethic down through the entire organization. You have to lead by example and make sure to lead in a democratic-type way where you allow everyone else to give their opinions. I make no decision without full input of others. I may not always agree with the input, but you listen to everyone. And you may not go the way that you thought you were going to go, but that will allow you to make change. With so many new folks coming into the workforce, a lot of the people who have been here longer may say, “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it.” I tell folks that that’s the one thing I don’t want anyone to ever say. We always need to look at what we’re doing and be able to find a better way to do it. You’ve got to allow for input to come from the bottom up and from the top down, and don’t just do something because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

What advice would you give your freshman self?

When it’s all said and done, your grades really count. But make sure that you have fun, enjoy school, and stay focused.