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The Making of A Water Woman: Maura’s Superhero Origin Story

June 6, 2023

Green 2.0 Team

The Making of A Water Woman: Maura’s Superhero Origin Story

By Maura Jarvis

Maura is a real-life Black woman superhero! While her day-to-day work includes public engagement and communications at the Philadelphia Water Department, she also serves as PWD’s superhero mascot, Water Woman. A proud Philadelphia native, Maura holds a custom degree in Sustainable Product Development from Drexel University and is passionate about advocating for environmental justice and equity in her local community. She finds joy in exploring the role art and creative interventions play in engaging historically underinvested communities in conversations around water quality and climate resilience. Maura strives to be a community connector in the world of water and beyond, building an “Environmental Justice League” with leaders who look like the communities they serve. In this blog, she shares her superhero origin story and how it has shaped her approach to community engagement with the Philadelphia Water Department.

When you hear the word ‘superhero’ what comes to mind? Most likely, a spandex-clad person with superhuman abilities and a cape billowing in the wind as they strike a power pose after saving the day. Or do you imagine an everyday person, passionate about their work and protecting resources that are vital in our daily lives? For me, the answer is quite literally both!

Working for the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), I’m fortunate to serve my community by facilitating public engagement and fostering stewardship around our most precious natural resource. I’m even luckier to be able to say that my identity in this wonderful world of water is two-fold; I have an alter ego as a real-life superhero – Water Woman!

As PWD’s superhero mascot, I rally support for our innovative programs around green infrastructure, tap water, and environmental education with residents of all ages. Working in community engagement means that no two days are ever the same, especially at PWD, which has a long history of employing art interventions and non-traditional communications to deliver our message to our customers. 

We use creative placemaking, storytelling, and even a superhero persona to build trust and connect authentically with communities that have traditionally been left out of these conversations.

Water Woman leads a pledge to drink more tap at the Philly Water Bar debut in 2019. Photo by Justin Mayer of JPG Photography. 

But how does one plan to get into this career? I refer to my career trajectory as an origin story because of the unexpected (and extraordinary!) journey that led me to being the superhero that I am today. 

Since childhood, I’ve always had a passion for environmental issues, but with no obvious affinity for math or science, I did not see a pathway to a career in sustainability without a STEM degree. When it came time to decide on college, I set my sights on the Design & Merchandising major at Drexel University, believing that fashion was a more realistic direction for me.

After a couple years of valuable design training, but an unfortunate emphasis on perpetuating consumption, it became clear that this program was not the right fit for me.  I learned that Drexel has a Custom-Designed major program, offering students the ability to create an interdisciplinary major that encompasses their diverse interests that wouldn’t otherwise be fulfilled by a traditional major. I developed a curriculum that combined elements of design, environmental studies, and, most importantly, communications.

Penrose Playground © 2019 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Calo Rosa, Penrose Playground, 2211 North 12th Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

How do you engage with diverse communities about enormous environmental challenges in a way that’s approachable and inspires action? This is what led me to pursue an internship with the Philadelphia Water Department through Drexel’s Co-op program

What started as a temporary position on the Public Engagement team turned into a full-time opportunity to communicate with residents about our core services and sustainability initiatives. Today, my team specializes in harnessing the power of art to communicate and inspire change in communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and economic hardship. 

A taste of this work includes the Philly Water Bar, Drink More Tap murals, and WingoWHAT?! Water Poetry initiative. All were designed to address disparities in access to water services, climate resilience, and restore confidence in our utility. Most importantly, these creative interventions provided the opportunity to build trust and cultivate relationships through healing mediums, such as music, painting, poetry, and meaningful conversation.

In order to break down generations of distrust, inequities built into the foundation of our country, and complex environmental challenges, we need to meet people where they are. Finding myself in this work today is the culmination of every defining moment in my origin story. 

I’m grateful for how my unconventional journey into water unexpectedly prepared me to interpret messages in a way that resonates with my community. What I hope aspiring sustainability professionals will take from my experience – your origin story isn’t all that defines you, but it’s an invaluable asset that you should proudly carry into this work.

Follow Water Woman’s adventures with the Philadelphia Water Department on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter at @PhillyH2O! Learn more about PWD programs and initiatives on the PhillyH2O Blog.