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Welcome to the Wandering Water Bear - A Brief Introduction to Me

Updated: Sep 19, 2021

Hello reader! Welcome to my first blog post. My name is Ari Copeland (he/him/his) and I work for in the water/wastewater industry (working largely in water and wastewater treatment operations). I have been in the industry for approximately 16 years and have worked various places within the industry such as other consulting firms, government, and non-profits including the American Water Works Association (AWWA).


My company’s name – the Wandering Water Bear – stems from my love of the water and wastewater industry. The water bear is a small micro-animal (i.e. small – like the size of a period at the end of this sentence), but has survived all 5 major extinction events on earth (i.e. mighty). Small and mighty is how I think of myself now (I am only 5’2” (157.5 cm)) and I have thrived despite not fitting into social norms when it comes to gender and sexual orientation.

I am a trans, queer man and it took almost 30 years of my life to be OK with it and embrace it. Please read below to learn more about my mission, about me person and how I can help you or your organization be more open to all kinds of people.


Me, Ari, with my awesome pair of water bears - Wal and Wanda.


My Mission

My overall mission is to help the water/wastewater industry, any industry, professional and/or anyone who wants to be more inclusive through their day to day interactions. I find a lot of organizations lack people who understanding what being inclusive really means. I am here to help. I feel that creating safe, fair and equitable workspaces is a big step to retaining and respecting all people.


I have conducted:

  • Over 50 trainings (conferences, one-on-one's, workshops, interviews, and webcasts) on inclusive behavior, language, gender equity, LGBTQIA+ issues, Pride history, my story as a transperson, and LGBTQIA+ education.

  • I am a member of NAMS (National Association of Minority Speakers) and a fascinator/contractor for Catalyst – a non-profit organization creating workplaces that work for women. Both are great organizations.

  • I have done speaking engagements for companies such as Barr Engineering, Beiersdorf- North America, Water Environment Federation, The American Water Works Association, University of Missouri - Kansas City Medical School, The Association of Boards of Certification, and Veritas.

  • Overall I really enjoy helping people who want to do better and want to learn. Education and inspiration is my primary areas of focus. I feel if people can relate to someone different, learn new skills to be more inclusive, celebrate differences and then apply those skills at work – that’s what excites me.

If you want to learn more about how to be inclusive and how your day to day interactions can shape that at work, you have come to the right place! I plan on doing a blog post a week with interesting tips and tricks for being more inclusive. If you want to learn how to be a better ally to the LGBTQIA+ community or to all people, one on one, need help with your Employee Resource Groups, or a keynote speaker for your event, feel free to reach out at info@thewanderingwaterbear.com.


My Story - From Rachel to Ari


For about half my career, I worked in the water industry as someone else, at least on the outside. For almost 30 years of my life, I lived as a woman, was named Rachel and was referred to as "she". I was assigned female at birth and confused sexual orientation and gender identity for most of my life. I went to school – including college and graduate school being perceived as female as well as spent 9 years out of my 16 years in the industry working as a woman professional. My experience as transgender and queer represents just my story and not all people within the LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual/Agender plus) community. I came out as a transman to everyone, including my employer in March of 2011 (two years after I started medically transitioning) and never looked back. Being who I actually am to the world, to my friends, family and at work has greatly improved my life.

My career really didn’t take off until I became the person I was meant to be in every aspect of my life. Prior to letting people to get to know me as Ari, I covered and hide a lot to prevent co-workers and people I volunteered with AWWA from knowing I was a trans queer person. I largely feared losing their friendship, my ability to work in the water and wastewater industry as well as my own personal safety. I lived with that fear for almost a decade and spent a lot of emotional energy from being found out. All that energy spent to cover, took away from my job performance and my ability to really make genuine connections with others – I was always guarded and to some extent fake to other people. I tell people in the water industry all the time, the day I chose me and chose to live my truth – turned my life around in the best way possible. Transitioning also really confirmed to me that people truly treat you how they perceive you. I found that people’s assumptions about me changed in terms of what I knew, what I was able to do, and how they talked to me based on if they assumed I was a woman or a man. Because of that experience, I was able to really use my influence as a male perceived person to elevate the voices of women and other underrepresented folks in our industry.



Caption: Ari in the process of medical transition and volunteer to various water professional organizations. Ari has held many leadership positions within the water industry as well as a chair of a Pride Employee Resource Group – helping folks be welcoming and supportive to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual/Agender plus (LGBTQIA+) professionals.


Regardless of who is reading this, you all have covered (down played or kept information about you a secret) some aspect of your life to prevent either people treating you differently or fear that it would prevent a job promotion or some negative impact to your career. Covering is universal but very common among LGBTQIA+ people and impacts all aspects of their wellbeing. It has been determined that people that are LGBTQIA+ that are in non-accepting or welcoming communities live 12 years less than their non-LGBTQIA+ counterparts. Other research indicates that LGBT+ folks in STEM LGBTQIA+ feel less safe, valued and less sense of belonging in STEM careers compared to their non- LGBTQIA+ co-workers. I have experienced some of this during my career – seeing LGBT+ people leave the industry largely due to fear or a bad experience with their employer connected to their sexual orientation, gender Identity and/or gender expression. There were definitely times in my career where I did fear I would not be treated fairly or was in danger due to being trans and being queer.

I will say, my lived experience taught me so much more about what inequity and equity look like in the workplace. I gained a lot of empathy and perspective on what it truly is like working as a woman in this industry; it also gave me an insight of what gender nonbinary folks go through as well as what it truly is like working in a male dominated industry as a man. Transitioning also really confirmed to me that people truly treat you how they perceive you. I found that people’s assumptions about me changed in terms of what I knew, what I was able to do, and how they talked to me based on if they assumed, I was a woman or a man. Because of that experience, I was able to really use my influence as a male perceived person to elevate the voices of women and other underrepresented folks in our industry/industries we serve.


Ari just wants everyone to be themselves, feel safe and empowered. #BeYou!


When we talk about equity at work – especially gender equity – we tend to focus a lot on how inequality impacts women in the workplace. We rarely hear how it affects others. Men, women, and people who identify outside the binary are all impacted by gender inequity.

For men, oftentimes, they don’t know their role in creating equity at work. They have a lot of power but just “don't know what they don’t know” to help. For men to be effective accomplices to women and all genders at work.


Here are some simple tips on how to be more inclusive at work:


1) Use gender neutral language: examples are “labor, staff, professionals, folks, everyone, people, and my personal favorite “you all”. Instead of using “manhours, craftsman, etc..” use “labor hours, FTE, Craft-professionals, etc”. Also using words like significant other, spouse or partner for personal relationships helps. Check out my blog post about inclusive language!


2) Make and commit to making fewer sexist statements: If you stay statements like “if it was easy, we would have the girl scouts do it” or “that’s men’s work” or many any kind of statements that makes assumptions of what people can and cannot do based on gender – reducing those will make everyone on your team feel safe and valued. When it happens, just correct it and commit to doing better. More to come on this topic.


3) Reduce assumptions and work on your personal bias (yes, we all have them including me!) – try to not assume everyone has the same interests (like sports for men, etc.) as well as straight, cis gendered or has the same background as you. Also using words like significant other, spouse or partner for personal relationships helps reduce the assumptions about sexual orientation.


4) Use your place of influence to elevate voices, express gratitude and share experiences without fear or judgement to others. Be a role model and keep others in your team accountable to being inclusive. Share times when you made a mistake or made an assumption about someone and show you corrected it, and committed to doing better. Give your team access to tools to be more inclusive.


5) Listen: If someone tells you what you did or said or what someone on your team did or said, made them uncomfortable or upset them – believe them and take action to make that person feel safe. These moments can also be learning moments. Getting defensive about it makes the situation work and does the opposite. Taking ownership of what we do and say, educating ourselves about others, and committing to doing better creates a safe and collaborative work environment for everyone. Being inclusive is a growth mindset and a personal investment.

For more useful information and resources, visit www.Catalyst.org. They have some tips on how to connect across differences and other useful information. When we look at people as individuals and what they have to contribute or going to them for their different perspectives – we, as a project team and as the industry, benefit from that collaborative group intelligence. In order to get diversity of thought – we have to work towards reducing barriers people who don’t often get at the table have and when we reduce or remove those barriers (even if they exist outside our work walls) we have the best chance to create a safe place for all.


Thanks for all you do for the industries you serve; thanks for reading my story, my passion for the water industry and making sure there is a place for everyone. Water, and this world, truly is for everyone. Let’s do our part!


If you need help with your day to day interactions or want me to help your organization with DEI related issues, feel free to email me at info@thewanderingwaterbear.com.


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