Strengthening Communities and Shifting Power in Pursuit of a Just Transition
Cosco Jones is all about making good trouble. For this sustainability consultant, that means protesting Georgia Power—the largest subsidiary of the biggest energy provider in the United States—raising their monthly fees and imposing a mandatory fee on all ratepayers. In the city of Atlanta, the median energy burden (how much of a household’s income is spent on energy bills) is 3.5%. But for low income residents, the burden stands at 9.7%. That’s the third highest in the nation. And Black communities in the city spend up to three times more of their income on energy costs than White households.
As a part of the Fight the Hike campaign, Jones spoke at one of the few public hearings held by the Georgia Public Service Commission for the proposed rate increase in September 2019. Instead of focusing on where Georgia Power fell short in supporting the state’s most energy-burdened communities, he spoke to the fact that the hearing “is an opportunity to do good business together through workforce development.” He said it was a chance to “lean in and create smart cities.” Within minutes, Georgia public service commissioner Tim Echols contacted Jones, and a relationship sparked from there.
Along with other members of the Partnership for Southern Equity’s Just Energy Academy, Jones says “we ended up meeting down in Savannah and started a pilot program in partnership with the Harambee House,” one of the oldest community-based organizations that serves as an incubator for collective action on environmental justice.
Effective coalition-building like this, if used correctly, can be a powerful way for diverse stakeholders to work together toward a common vision. It allows for the strengthening of communities and is an incredible tactic to shift the balance of power. Two influential grassroots organizations, Atlanta-based Partnership for Southern Equity and Seattle-based Front and Centered have used the power of coalition-building to address social inequity while empowering BIPOC communities to fight for environmental and climate justice.
By engaging and bringing leaders together, building capacity, and providing coordination support, more underrepresented voices are now at these decision-making tables.
Energy Justice in the South
A clean energy economy can lower utility bills and create healthier homes as well as encourage stronger communities and wealth-building. But none of these benefits are guaranteed. Making an energy transformation equitable takes work, otherwise “we risk just replacing one extractive economy with another,” says Chandra Farley, director of Just Energy at the Partnership for Southern Equity.
PSE’s Just Energy Circle takes a “Noah’s Ark approach” to coalition-building, which means that for every “big green” organization that is brought into the circle, like the Sierra Club or the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a grassroots neighborhood-based organization like West Atlanta Watershed Alliance or Eco-Action is brought in. By ensuring that the coalition remains grounded and rooted in community, they are able to push for transparency and even more accountability from energy providers as well as bolster the self-sufficiency of people and neighborhoods through ample community engagement opportunities.
“It can be really easy to fall into the technocratic solutions and technocratic conversations in the energy and utility space,” Farley says. That’s why PSE is working to advance racial equity by centering the voices of those who are first and disproportionately affected by our extractive energy economy, including pollution caused by toxic waterways and power plants.
One major component of the Just Energy Circle is the Just Energy Academy, which aims to bring new and diverse leadership to what have long been exclusive private and public energy sectors. “I instantly applied and it was one of the best things I’ve done for my business and professional career,” says Jones, a graduate of the 2019 cohort and owner of Jones Sustainable Solutions, a sustainable lifestyle, consulting, and coaching company. He says that by helping him better understand the political side of energy, the Just Energy Academy has helped him form partnerships, receive resources, and speak up against the inequity that still exists. “I would not have been able to get into certain rooms in the energy space if it wasn’t for JEA,” says Jones, who now sits on the board of directors for both Eco-Action and the Harambee House.
Like all healthy relationships, Farley says, coalitions need “constant care and nurturing.” That means having sufficient capacity, funding, and support. Helping communities mobilize to change this system requires resources. She stresses that organizers need to be paid living wages to do this movement-building effectively, especially when the economy is as tight as it is. “We need more organizers on the ground in the community,” Farley says, “and it is critical that organizing gets the same level of resources as research and data.”
In the 13 years since PSE’s founding, this coalition-building model has been replicated around the South. For example, the Atlanta TransFormation Alliance works to ensure that public investments in the built environment respond to the climate crisis and reduce racial disparities. Their transformation academy, like PSE’s Just Energy Circle, provides resources and coalition-building opportunities to organizations working to impact public policy supporting the preservation of affordable housing near transit and investment in green spaces around Atlanta.
“PSE’s logo is a circle for a reason,” Farley says. “It’s not just because our issue areas are interconnected but also how our core strategies are constantly informing each other. Everything we do is informed by the on-the-ground community voices.”
Working for Workers
Another critical component of achieving a just transition is social interventions that push to secure workers’ rights and livelihoods. Front and Centered is a coalition of POC-led community groups across Washington state, working at the intersection of equity and environmental and climate justice. Started in 2014, the coalition comprises Washington’s leading racial justice organizations, such as Puget Sound Sage, Got Green, Community Latino Fund, Community to Community Development, and others.
“The coalition started to form partnerships with the big White-led environmental organizations, which led to discussions about climate justice and what we [communities of color] really needed,” says Rosalinda Guillen, a member of the group’s steering committee and co-leader of the community council of member organizations.
The coalition’s journey was not always smooth, because many White-led organizations eventually walked away from the table. But Guillen says building those relationships was made possible through equitable dialogue and changes in behavior from White environment leaders. “I am proud because we are building something for us, about as, and led by us,” she says.
The writing of Initiative 1631, which aimed to reverse climate impacts for its most vulnerable communities and reduce emissions, allowed Front and Centered to become clear about who they were and where everyone stood in terms of community. “I think that process of writing that initiative is what solidified that trust,” Guillen says. “This was something that was presented to voters on a statewide level. That trust was written into the policy.”
Initiative 1631 did not pass, but one result of Front and Centered’s coalition-building was the Climate Alliance for Clean Jobs and Energy, which is the nation’s broadest coalition dedicated to building a clean energy future. The alliance’s work centers on long-term resilience strategies such as creating sustainable transportation revenue, smart investment in transportation infrastructure, and promoting responsible manufacturing—all of which help contribute to a strong domestic workforce.
In 2021, one of Front and Centered’s 2021 legislative priorities is the Healthy Environment for All Act. The proposed bill seeks to incorporate environmental justice into law by establishing a permanent environmental justice council that will inform future legislation with a racial justice lens, push for direct funding to communities affected by pollution, and ensure tribal sovereignty.
Supporting Rural Workers
Guillen initially got involved with Front and Centered through her work on farms in Washington. “Environmental justice is a central component to improving the lives of farmworkers,” she says. “We’ve always been at the front lines of climate change.” In addition to her leadership roles with the coalition, she is also the director of Community to Community Development, a food justice organization based in Bellingham, Washington, and one of the founding member organizations of Front and Centered. “The farm workers of C2C are bringing that perspective into the overarching discussions about climate policy,” she says.
Guillen notes that being a member of Front and Centered allowed for a deep understanding of the many schemes governments use to keep exploiting the environment, such as cap and trade. Instead of pushing for a hard stop in greenhouse gas emissions, she says, this is a pay-to-pollute scheme that promotes energy efficiency without actually addressing climate injustice.
“It’s kind of like peeling back an onion,” Guillen says. “These structural systems have done such a good job of keeping our history away from ourselves and the reality of what’s really happening.” She recounts speaking to many farmworkers about the lack of health, social, labor protections, and the impacts of pesticide use. “This process of understanding your own oppression is difficult, but we have to do it, otherwise we’re just objects to our exploitation and profit-making,” Guillen says.
The fertile valleys along the Yakima River in south central Washington, for example, are known for their fruit production, including apples, cherries, and wine grapes. For fruit packers who work in the region, days are long and hard. C2C has worked tirelessly to ensure better farmworkers rights. For example, last year, fruit packing workers of Allan Brothers Inc. went on strike for better worker conditions because of a COVID-19 outbreak. The strike, supported by C2C and Familias Unidas Por la Justicia, Washington state’s first independent farmworkers union made up of Indigenous families, sparked the launching of Workers United for Justice/Trabajadores Unidos por la Justicia.
“They [C2C] have been our number one supporters, and I do not know where we would be without them,” says Angelina Lara, vice president of the newly formed union. Having time and access to Washington’s legislative state agencies, located primarily in Olympia, which is about a four- to six-hour drive up and over a mountain pass, are often out of reach. “Once you hit October and November, it is extremely difficult for people to get over that mountain path safely up until about April,” Guillen says.
That is why coalitions such as Front and Centered and the Partnership for Southern Equity are so important. By collaborating across geographies and demographic groups, they can pool resources and amplify voices to advance the democratization of the energy and environmental justice space together. Elevating the voices of communities of color who have historically been left out of the decision-making process can help ensure a just transition going forward.
The promise of a better life for people and the planet is a powerful organizing force. And it’s exactly what keeps Guillen going. “It’s a question of self-respect and dignity,” she says. “I can’t walk away from it.”