A room of one
Q: Can you start by sharing your name, title, where you work, where you’re located, and how long you’ve been in the energy industry?
I’m Brandy Hyatt, I use she/they pronouns, and I’m the Energy Equity Manager at Vote Solar, a solar advocacy non-profit. I’m based in Oakland, California, and I’ve been in the energy sector for about five years.
Q: How did you first get involved in the space?
After I graduated college, I went back home to Minneapolis and helped install energy efficiency upgrades for low-income homeowners as a volunteer. It was my first entry point into energy, but my career formally started with Vote Solar. I came into the organization as an administrative assistant and didn’t have an extensive background in clean energy. I started graduate school right around that time and switched my major to focus on clean energy and environmental justice. I ended up falling in love with it, and I stayed.
Q: Can you recall a time when you had to navigate injustice and/or unfair treatment because you are Black, Indigenous, or a person of color?
I remember wanting to learn more about the sector and attending my first energy conference in San Francisco. I was quickly highly aware of how I stood out. Being Black and femme-coded, I realized that the space was not built for me. I was in a sea of cis-white men in this huge ballroom for a networking event. It was noon, and there was alcohol out, which was a red flag. Still, I was trying to engage with people and had my business cards ready as I went around the room.
I started talking to someone who, right off the bat, said, “Wow! It’s so great that someone like you is here.” I think people say this when they want to bridge a gap and make someone feel welcome when it actually just creates this hypervisibility for me. Trust me; I am fully aware that I am the only Black femme-coded person in this room. So we keep talking, and this person asks me where I’m from. I tell them I’m from Oakland, and they start talking about their Black coworkers, how they go to Oakland sometimes. They’re bringing up Black culture, making references to the kind of music they listen to, and I am just waiting for the organizers to ring the buzzer so we can move on to new people.
I bring this moment up because it’s obvious to me that there are racial undertones and this unknowing racism that’s coming through. When you’re hypervisible in culture, people are ready to talk to you about how their favorite rapper is Lil Wayne and the countries they’ve been to in Africa. People try to connect around Blackness and Black culture versus talking about clean energy. I didn’t get to talk about my role; we didn’t talk about solar. I was immediately put into this box because the person I was talking to chose to relegate the conversation to Blackness.
The same thing happened recently. I was invited to speak about our work on low-income solar at a conference, and someone came up to me wanting to talk about Oakland. In this context especially, I clearly have knowledge on a topic, and still, I am being approached about things that have nothing to do with energy. This type of interaction continues to happen, and people don’t grasp how much that impacts someone’s learning and advancement. People might think they’re allies, but they’re not. People in clean energy, especially, think they’re at this ideal level of knowledge on race and justice, but they’re not.
Q: Besides being Black and femme-coded, do you think other aspects of your identity affect how people interact with you?
I mentioned Oakland a few times. When I tell people I live here, it can bring up conversations about how dangerous it is. People associate Oakland with crime even though it is a different place now with all of the gentrification that has been happening. When I bring up Minneapolis, people will talk about George Floyd and everything that has happened in recent years. Then there’s being seen as not good enough. My upbringing and background are different from most people in energy. That’s starting to change, and it’s improved in the five years I’ve been here, but I’m not from an Ivy, and I don’t have a government background. I’ve had lots of jobs that, on paper, don’t come across as environmental or energy roles, even though I see the intersections. My experiences are still valid and relevant. I don’t need a degree from Yale to see and understand how climate change affects my community and me.
Q: Have you found spaces in the energy sector where you feel more comfortable?
These past experiences have taught me to navigate conferences. I don’t go to just any networking event now. For instance, Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE) has events, Blacks in Energy, and there’s Out in Energy for LGBTQ+ folks now. These are spaces where I feel I can build bridges and real relationships. I’ve also learned to bring people with me so that I won’t be the only person of color in a room or so that I won’t feel alone.
I’ve made these adjustments for myself, but it shouldn’t be this way. I do what I need to do to feel safe.
Q: Can you expand a bit on safety in these spaces?
Racism affects mental and physical health, so that factors into my safety. Because of racism, Black folks are more susceptible to stress-related diseases like high blood pressure and hypertension. So racism does make me unsafe; it affects my livelihood. When you think about who has been in charge in energy and who these spaces are made for, it’s cis-white men. They don’t have to think about being a target at these events because of their identity; they don’t have to consider their mental well-being in the same way. As a person of color, there’s this mental gymnastics you have to do in predominately white spaces, and it creates a violent environment that doesn’t feel good.
Q: What can industry leaders do to prevent this type of situation from happening again and better support BIPOC professionals?
Firstly, put your money where your mouth is. If you really have a commitment to supporting people of color and frontline communities, direct your funds there. We live in a capitalist society, and money is always needed. That’s a simple way to show your support today. Beyond that, folks need to take a step back and be more intentional. One-off DEI trainings are not enough. That can help with interpersonal racism, but systemic issues need to be interrogated and worked on. Evaluate the harms that this industry has caused to folks of color. How has energy policy prevented people from engaging? What can you do to make amends? Chevron, for example, has an explosion about once a year in Richmond, a predominantly Black, Asian, and Latine community. They plant some trees and move on without addressing how they systematically created dirty air for that community for decades. Where are the reparations? Be critical of the role we all play.
White folks, listen and internalize what we’re saying. You have to be ready to make mistakes, make amends, apologize, and get comfortable with the process over time. That makes it so that you can call out things when you see them. You can then draw attention to who is and isn’t in the room; you can call out when your low-income program isn’t meeting its goals. We are all learning. As a Black person, I am still unlearning internalized racism. All of us have to unlearn things. You have to actively work to be anti-racist. It’s not easy, and you are going against the status quo by doing this work.
And to Black folks and people of color – protect your peace. If you can remove yourself from a situation without losing your job, do it. This work is hard, it’s strenuous, and it will continue long after we are all gone. Find your people and find a mentor. It’s important that you not feel isolated. Do what you need to do to avoid burnout. We need you. You’re important to this work, at the forefront of this work, and things would be a lot worse without you.