While DC policymakers and media commentators argue over what ambitious plans like the Green New Deal and THRIVE agenda represent (hint: not a socialist takeover) and what goes in them, quietly, around the country, the same just transition to a fair and sustainable clean energy economy these frameworks aim for is already underway.
We wanted to learn more and over the next several months, we’ll be talking to the activists and community leaders driving this transition from the ground up. They’ve seen the inequity and injustice our fossil fuel economy creates and have a game plan for how we fix it.
One of the people at the forefront of this movement is Chandra Farley, the just energy director at Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE) in Atlanta, who works to bring diverse coalitions of residents, academics, activists, churches and more together to ensure both the benefits and burdens of energy production are shared fairly among all Georgians.
She’s learned a lot about how equity and energy fit together – or sadly, don’t – in her time and has a lot to say. It’s time for our leaders to listen.
We sat down to talk with Chandra last month and below is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and length.
To start, would you mind talking a little bit about your path to PSE, both practically and personally?
Oh, it's going to sound like I'm going to go way back, but I always do. I'm from a small town in Middle Tennessee and I was raised by my grandparents. They remember not being able to vote, you know.
Voting was very important to us and that has a lot of grounding, you know. They were bringing an understanding of what it was like not to have that privilege. I've also always just had an affinity to the natural environment and the built environment in particular.
My daddy for his hobby and between his full-time job and working at our family business would buy houses and rent them to single moms that worked at our restaurant or you know folks from our church. Just always having that connection between the environment built and natural and you know civil rights, I think really formed and shaped me.
It's ultimately led to my work at Partnership for Southern Equity. Just really being grounded in environmental justice and believing and understanding how buildings work. When buildings are healthier and work better, the communities the building serve and the people in those buildings are healthier and stronger as well.
Can you talk a little bit about your work now at PSE and your Just Energy approach? What do these words mean to you? And how do they shape your work?
Yes, definitely. So my path to PSE came through the Southface Energy Institute, where I worked for eight years. The majority of that time was spent working on developing nonprofit energy and water efficiency programs. The more money a nonprofit can save on utilities, the more money they have for programs and services.
Right around the time that PSE was beginning to bring on more full-time staff, I was really looking for an opportunity where I could work more directly with the people that buildings shelter and serve.
Energy means lots of things, right? We can't do anything without energy, whether that's just the energy that we get from clean water and healthy food to the energy that we need to have our lights on and be comfortable in our home.
A just distribution of benefits from energy is almost non-existent or missing, and it's really out of whack. So when we talk about being just and when we talk about fair inclusion, that’s equity.
You know, we need that with our energy systems and our method of delivering electricity. The way utilities treat their customers and people, all of these systems and monopolies have histories of systemic racism and white supremacy and inequities embedded into them.
Particularly, when we think about the extreme extraction of resources and fossil fuels from the earth. Well, we can also talk about the extreme extraction of people for profit that has its foundations in slavery and genocide. Righting those wrongs and finding justice in those unjust systems and transforming them to be equitable and democratic is really the foundation of Just Energy. And, that serves as a framework to advance energy equity and to advance climate justice.
When you see those challenges on the day-to-day level, how do you work to overcome them?
We work to overcome that through what we call the PSE Way. And the PSE Way is about leading with racial equity. We are a racial equity organization that works across energy, economy, health and land use and development.
So, we're not an environmental organization that does racial equity work. That is what the PSE Way is all about, working at the intersection of racial inequities and those three focus areas plus my team’s work on energy and climate.
Our work is about people..
For folks who are interested in building the capacity to be stronger leaders for their neighborhoods and communities, we do that work through leadership development and community organizing. So, we have organizers as the part of our staff. We also partner with organizers who work on the ground in community across, Georgia and across the South.
We do our work and advance justice and equity through coalition building. We convene the Just Energy Circle, which is really about bringing together uncommon allies. Right? So the technical expert, the environmental attorney, the policy professionals. We bring those groups together with neighborhood-based organizations, faith-based organizations, students, and academia.
To really work together to vision more equitable energy, climate and utility policies, all of that community organizing, leadership development, and coalition building is served by data and research.
We are clear about the power of research and data. We are clear about the need to ensure that we have good data and strong facts that we can provide to the community to inform their advocacy and organizing. But we work together with community to make sure that the data that we are using is staying true to their lived experiences, treating them as experts and their lived experience as expertise.
Because we know that communities can speak for themselves, right? The best person and the right people to determine the best solutions on any issue are the people who are living it and experiencing that every day.
So our work at Partnership for Southern Equity is really about building the capacity of residents to be first-person advocates for the issues that are most important to them. And we support them with the leadership development that I talked about and provide the ability to have leadership roles in the coalition that we convene as well so that they are setting the agenda.
Are there any particular success stories or anecdotes that just make you excited?
Yeah. Our Just Energy Academy! It is the crown jewel of our Just Energy portfolio and definitely the favorite thing that I get to work on at Partnership for Southern Equity.
We just graduated our second class virtually in August. We had 17 participants fully make their way through the seven months both years and it's just one of the most gratifying and inspiring things. To work with people who are so passionate about their neighborhood and so passionate about doing whatever they can to make their communities better.
You know this is an application-based opportunity and then to make that commitment to seven months on weekends, that's huge.
Some of the things that we standardize across all of our PSE academies are that we work with a really talented storyteller and artist, Liza Garza, on the importance of narrative and storytelling. We work with our staff on leadership in racial equity trainings. They also receive our values-based organizing training “Organizing for Opportunity. Then for the Just Energy Academy, we include sessions like “Energy Policy 101.” We talk about what the public service commission is and why it's important. We talk about the importance of democratizing rural electric cooperatives, climate change, and the intersection of climate change, health, and equity and environmental justice.
Our first year we actually took our class to Savannah to have an environmental justice session led by Dr. Mildred McClain, who's an environmental justice legend in the movement and co-founder and executive director of Harambee House.
It’s a really strong demonstration of how we are able to partner with communities in areas where we want to grow the base of residents and communities who are able to be positioned to take part their rightful place in the energy planning and decision-making process. A planning and decision-making process that we know is very often absent of the very people who are first and most impacted by these issues.
So those are the people that come through the Just Energy Academy. They're all required to complete a community project and that is something that they work on over the course of the seven months. Those community projects are a requirement to graduate and they have accountability partners that we assign at the very beginning so they are partnered up with someone over the seven months to check in. It's really amazing to see movement building work in action through the academy.
That’s super exciting. From your experience and from you from your work, what do you wish that policymakers in Atlanta and DC really understood about energy and bringing people into the process? To put it another way, if you were in Congress or leading a federal agency, where would you start?
I would want people to remember and realize that energy is a basic human right. We can't live without it, we can't survive without it. So that's definitely the first starting place.
The first thing I would want to work on is triage if you will, with utility shut offs. People having to make impossible trade-offs between food and electricity, medicine, or their light bill is ridiculous in this day and age.
There are very specific steps that we can do to stop those things from happening and that is where that I would begin. You know, we are experiencing truly some of the worst times ever, the demonstrations of how we treat people. Particularly our essential workers who have long been marginalized by low wages for their economy boosting work. The growth disparities for Black people, Brown people, Indigenous sovereign nations and the disparities that we see during COVID are not new.
They're only being exacerbated and highlighted and amplified, and [these are the] people that are experiencing the worst effects, whether it be through dying at three times a higher rate than White or wealthier people. Or having lost their jobs at disproportionate rates or experiencing extended loss of income due to extended furloughs. Or once again being put on the front lines because they're in essential jobs like working in the grocery store, working in the cafeterias of hospitals, cleaning hospitals.
When we look at the demographics of the workforce that hasn't been able to work from home and has had to continue going to work, they mirror the demographics of the people who experience inequities in our energy systems and in our environmental injustices.
So that's where I would start. Let's stop the bleeding. We shouldn't be shutting people off, and if we're shutting people off because they can't pay, then why can't they pay? Why can't somebody afford a light bill? These are things that just shouldn't be happening, so that's where I would start. Immediately taking steps to stop shut offs to reduce the energy burden, which then reduces energy insecurity, which is about all of the other contributing factors to making someone house insecure or food insecure. Then pushing through on the long-range planning. I'm not sure the federal government is the answer for everything when it comes to trying to move the clean energy economy forward.
I mean, obviously we're seeing that where states have had to take the lead on moving the clean energy transition forward, and local governments too.
As we hopefully move from triage to longer-term energy transition, how do we make sure that we do this right? How do we make sure that it's not just wealthier and White communities who benefit from energy transition and that it's really a just and equitable one?
Well, we need more organizations like PSE and more resources for the many grassroots organizations doing the long-game work of organizing with frontline communities. Financial and capacity building support must begin to flow directly to the organizations and groups with programs that are doing the work of putting community first and building power with communities in a manner that builds their capacity to lead energy planning and decision making in their city or public utility commission territory or at their regulatory body.
The people have to rise up for this. And that is the work that environmental justice organizations and civic organizations have been doing for decades.
A lot of people talk the game, you know. I was remarking to someone this morning about this conversation that I was on yesterday. I'm used to being one of the only Black faces when it comes to energy conversations and building efficiency.
That whole industry, clean energy, it's still very White and still very male. But being in the energy justice movement, in the social justice space, it's a welcome reprise, if you will. Of being surrounded by Black people and Brown people and Indigenous people and people of color. It was striking yesterday to see that for the first time out of a group of like 40 people, and obviously I'm just making a visual account of a Black face here and a person of color face there, and these were all of the federal DC policy folks and a lot of them were saying the right thing. Everybody's talking about the importance of environmental justice, and everybody’s talking about the critical need to resource frontline communities and grassroots leaders and in building the capacity of residents to really build a movement for change.
Because it's going to come from the ground up, right? We're depending on the people who have to go to work, to their job where they're probably making low wages or trying to get by on one salary if they've got a family. Then we need them to come to our meetings at night and come to our meetings on weekends, while the people who do this work every day often aren't there. So we've really got to have a groundswell shift in how we are doing the work, and I really believe that the way that PSE is doing this kind of work is how that's going to sustain us for the long term.
Are you hopeful?
You know it's a tough time right now. I do have these bright spots. One of my dear friends and colleagues, Jean Su at Center for Biological Diversity wrote about “energy violence.” It was a term that I hadn't really thought about before, but it is just what's happening with utility shutoffs and these crushing utility bills.
To know people like her, our organizer leading voter engagement work focused on the Georgia Public Service Commission and the many other amazing women who are really working hard on these issues at every level, that keeps me going
I just feel like right now there's so many reasons to be disgusted and I look for those
bright spots of people fighting for justice with words, marching for justice in the streets. Those are the things that keep me hopeful when I may not be able to say, “Yes, I’m hopeful.”
What’s next for you and PSE?
Our flagship event, the Just Energy Summit! Dynamic speakers leading the energy equity movement will discuss 100 percent clean energy in the South, Black women leading the movement, health equity and climate change, overcoming voter suppression, and more! We also have arts, culture and entertainment in the evenings. Register at justenergysummit.org!
On a personal level, what gets you out of bed and ready to go every morning?
What gets me up and ready to go every morning is that there's more good work to do.
I believe that myself and my team at PSE, our coalition partners, my mentors, so many inspiring people are getting up every single day because they know there is more good work to do. We've got plenty of good trouble to get in every single day.
Chandra Farley is the Just Energy director at Partnership for Southern Equity in Atlanta. Learn more about PSE’s work at http://www.psequity.org/.
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