Barbara McGowan, 76, was recently inducted into the 2020 class of the National Civil Rights Hall of Fame at the 33rd Anniversary MLK Dinner held by the National Civil Rights Library. | Photo provided

Barbara McGowan, 76, has been a member of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) since 1998. Currently, McGowan is the MWRD’s vice president — the first African American to serve in the role. 

She was recently inducted into the 2020 class of the National Civil Rights Hall of Fame at the 33rd Anniversary MLK Dinner held by the National Civil Rights Library at Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, 4622 S. King Drive. 

Earlier this week, McGowan — often interjecting her joyous, infectious laugh — talked about the function of the MWRD, how she feels about being in a Hall of Fame, why she loves the West Side and staying safe during a pandemic. 

On her life in Austin  

I’ve lived in the same house in Austin for 50 years. I love the West Side of Chicago. I love the people! Ain’t no people like West Side people! We are a great, great bunch of people. We really are! 

I was born in Mississippi and when you’re in Mississippi, everybody speaks. They don’t even have to know you. People in Chicago do the same thing. That’s what we do on the West Side. We speak. 

You know, the pandemic has made us more aware of each other, kinder, more courteous. And that’s important, because we have to reach out to each other. We have to wear our masks and give them to those who don’t have them. We have to be able to accomdatoe each other during this pandemic. 

On running for a seat on the MWRD 

I first ran in 1998, after working for another MWRD commissioner for seven years. After he passed, people kept calling me and asking me to run. I decided to listen to them. I ran and was blessed to win. It was the first time I’d run for anything.  

People said, ‘She can’t win. It’s a countywide seat.’ But I wasn’t listening to them. I listened to God. 

On the functions of the MWRD  

The MWRD is responsible for keeping sewage and pollution out of your drinking water. The bottom line is this: We get what you flush. It’s as simple as that. 

We try hard to educate people about what we do, but a lot of times, we take things for granted. If guess people don’t think about this stuff often. 

On learning of her induction into the National Civil Rights Hall of Fame 

I got a letter in the mail and I kept reading it and reading it and I think I started walking on air after the third reading. I am so thrilled and honored. I. Know I’m blessed. I wasn’t looking for it, but I thank the chairman of the National Civil Rights Library, William Thurman, and all of his colleagues for thinking of me.  

My mother would say, ‘You never know who is watching you.’ I’m honored. 

On living through a pandemic  

I thank God that I haven’t had any relatives get COVID-19. We’re a big family, but we didn’t go to each other’s houses on Thanksgiving. It was something we felt we had to do. It’s hard, though. The only thing the women joke about is that we have to get out of the house, because we’re getting fat! (Laughs). 

We have a humorous side to this, but we also take it very seriously. Even my neighbors know not to ring my doorbell if they don’t have a mask on.  

I love life. I really do. I like life and I like people.