At first glance, the roles of police officer, TV show host, and water district CEO may seem disparate.
Yet, they all require a passion for serving others and a love of people — and these threads run through the entire career of Joone Kim-Lopez, General Manager and CEO of the Moulton Niguel Water District as well as host and producer of the award-winning PBS TV show OC World, and a former Pasadena police officer who earned a Medal of Courage.
“There is a lot of commonality. It’s about public service. It’s about people,” she said. “There is no profession I can think of, unless you are truly working by yourself, where it’s not about people and relationships. In that way, law enforcement is really a perfect training ground for just about everything you can imagine.”
Business partners say Kim-Lopez shines on camera.
“When Joone and I sat down for lunch and she shared her backstory,” recalls TV producer and OC World founder Scott Hays, “that solidified why I wanted to work with her. She had all the traits of making a great host, first and foremost, but her backstory was so compelling for me that it was necessary to invite her into the fold if she was open to it. And she was.”
Empathy for the human experience
Kim-Lopez emigrated with her parents to the United States from South Korea when she was a young child, and neither she nor her parents spoke any English.
“It was a big culture shock back in 1979,” she said. “There was no ESL, there was no K-pop, so not knowing the language and the culture was very difficult growing up at school.”
Kim-Lopez was bullied in school. Back then, she says, she was overweight, clumsy and unathletic, and struggled with speaking English. Her parents saved money and eventually bought a shoe store in Los Angeles, in a predominantly Hispanic area.
“That’s when I started learning Spanish, selling shoes at a young age,” she recalls. “I just really had an affinity for the Latin culture, just because I was surrounded by it so much. My English and my Spanish kind of all evolved simultaneously for me.”
After graduation, she studied communication with a minor in Spanish literature at Revelle College at UC San Diego. Her goal was to become a journalist.
“I thought I could help people by telling their stories,” Kim-Lopez said, recalling, “just a lot of pain that I experienced growing up, I thought had the compassion and the empathy, and I loved writing so journalism sounded perfect for me.”
She started working at a start-up newspaper. Shortly after, her parents lost their shoe store in the Los Angeles Riots in 1992 and suddenly she needed a job that would support all three of them. She was hired as a grant administrator for the City of Pasadena, with an office inside the police station. Her hard work, kindness and dedication were quickly noted by the officers who worked late at night.
“The command staff approached me and said, ‘You’re a good worker, you work well with people. You should be a police officer,’” she recalls. “I took a chance because I realized that was a better path for me career-wise, financially to take care of my parents as well.”
She started as a reserve officer and found that she loved the work. So, she went into the academy and was hired on full time. Eventually she became a field training officer, worked in vice/narcotics doing undercover drug buys and related work, and became the first female firearms instructor, and promoted to corporal.
“I really enjoyed being a police officer because you get to be a superhero every day,” Kim-Lopez said. “It really taught me so much about myself, people, and the world around me.”
“I realized that everyone has a story,” said the former journalist. “I saw the dignity and the humanity, even in the worst situations. I really tested my limits as well.”
A winding path
While working at the police department, she attained her master’s in public administration from Cal State Northridge, and earned the silver Medal of Courage for valor under fire during an officer-involved shooting with an armed suspect.
Kim-Lopez responded to a call about a man with a shotgun and found the suspect hiding in a park. She and the assisting officer exchanged fire with the gunman and took him into custody. She reflects that her training as a firearms/defensive tactics instructor prepared her for this moment.
“It wasn’t that I’m fearless, but because of things that I’ve been through, I know that situations or experiences might seem risky or uncertain — or even scary — that I know I have what it takes to pull through and it’ll be OK,” she said.
She left law enforcement for her relationship at the time, and landed a job at a water agency.
“I have so much gratitude for the seven years that I served,” she said. “I would have stayed (at the police department) had it not been for love.” Now divorced, she advises with a smile, “Don’t make career decisions based on relationships.”
Once at the water district, Kim-Lopez rose quickly through the ranks to become assistant general manager at Apple Valley Ranchos Water Company, then general manager of Calaveras County Water District in Northern California, and later was recruited for the job at the Moulton Niguel Water District.
“When it comes to water, it’s a precious resource,” she said. “We have to connect with our communities and our customers. There are equity issues … not all communities have access to safe, clean drinking water. We have to look at it with a really human lens no matter what we do.”
Bright TV personality
One night, she was at a restaurant with some friends, waiting at the bar for their table, when she struck a conversation with the stranger sitting next to her who mentioned they were doing a podcast.
“I’m always pitching water ideas,” Kim-Lopez recalls. “And she said, ‘Why don’t you send me something? Give me an angle.’”
So she did. Her idea was forwarded to Hays as a documentary idea. Kim-Lopez invited Hays to lunch, where he mentioned he needed a host for an upcoming show.
“It was a good two-hour, back-and-forth, really engaging conversation,” Hays recalls. “She’s a dynamic person. By the end of the conversation I looked at her and said, ‘It’s too bad you have a full-time job because you’d make a great host.’ I don’t even think she paused and she said, ‘I’ll do it.’ ”
OC World launched during the pandemic, Hays recalled, and started with documentary shorts, which later evolved into the public affairs show.
“Not one person turned us down for an interview,” Hays said. “These were members of congress and state senators, these were entrepreneurs, these were philanthropists… Ultimately what OC World is attempting to do is bring value back to Orange County.”
OC World is a nonprofit multimedia company sponsored by Charitable Ventures and based in Orange County. Shows are aired on PBS from Santa Barbara to San Diego, as well as online. The OC World website states that its mission is, “to provide residents with critical information to learn more about themselves and their communities, and to provide them with the opportunity to make informed decisions.”
“I just enjoy helping people,” Kim-Lopez said. “And that’s what OC World does, is it tells the story through a personal lens that resonates better than if you’re just talking about the topic itself.”
The show has tackled large issues ranging from healthcare to groundwater to domestic violence to the epidemic of hate, interviewing leaders in all sectors. The show, now in its third season, won Best Long Form Programming or Documentary at the 73rd annual Golden Mike Awards for the documentary, “Hope Dies Last.”
“It’s all about trying to be respectful to our guests and responsible to our viewers,” Hays said.
“We’re all people at the end,” Kim-Lopez said. “Especially right now, when society seems so polarized and opinionated, I think it’s good to pause and hear someone else’s perspective in a nonthreatening way…we can take some big topics and distill it to where it just is more connecting.”