Rooted in experience
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?
My name is Mike, and I am currently a Sustainability Director. I am based in New York. I’ve been in the sustainability industry since 2010 and worked in energy between 2012 and 2016. I got my master’s, did some energy projects, and my thesis was also on energy.
Q: What was your thesis topic?
It was about community-shared solar and communication. I was working on a project and realized that many stakeholders needed to communicate better. So I talked to those key stakeholders and gathered feedback on what they needed from others in the industry to complete community-shared solar projects.
Q: What first drew you to energy?
I did an AmeriCorps program that led me to sustainability work. I was assigned a project in the Midwest where I’m originally from. I wanted to learn more about sustainability and work locally. I ended up working for some years on demand-response programs and community outreach around energy efficiency.
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 was essentially a community organizer around energy efficiency, working directly with people in my hometown and I’m very familiar with the area and the people. My job involved a lot; we had stringent metrics to meet. We were trying to get people to do retrofits which cost about $1,000 or more. Most people, in general, don’t have that lying around. Still, the people I worked with expected retrofit signups. I had to say I wasn’t going to recommend that to everybody. I would tell people about energy efficiency programs that would help them get audits, but most people can’t afford the cost of a retrofit; it’s a lot of money to ask.
Then, I remember being at a meeting with some of my colleagues who were more senior to me. Most of the people in the room were white. They were discussing new programs to get people to engage in energy efficiency and get rebates on their bills. One of their ideas was to create an ATM sort of system. They said, “We’ll just put them outside convenience stores all over and people can get their money from them.” I told them that was a terrible idea. I asked if they had talked to anyone to see if that was something they wanted because it’s a safety issue. They looked at me like I was out of line. I was just trying to make the case that you should talk to people and ask them how they would like to receive these payments. I was the only person in that room out on the street talking to people, but still, it felt like I was being questioned even though that’s where I grew up and lived for a large portion of my life. They didn’t go ahead with that project, but that’s one example where I felt no one was thinking about the people this program would benefit. They’re just thinking about a solution and not the context. There has to be more thought into it, and people need to be considered in the process.
Q: Did you feel you had support in the room to speak up about your experience?
If I’ve ever felt something was wrong, I point it out even if it gets me in trouble. So I had to say something. There’s no point in putting resources into something that people would likely not use and could put people in danger. There was another Black man in the room who was highly ranked in the organization, and I felt he was quietly supportive. But I faced a lot of uncomfortable and weird interactions while at that organization, so who knows?
Q: Can you share more about your time there?
Well, there was a lot of turnover on our team of outreach staff because of the grueling schedule and metrics we had to meet. I would constantly ask for professional development opportunities and not get them. I would bring up specific things I wanted to work on and wouldn’t get the chance. I noticed that some of my colleagues who were not Black were afforded opportunities to expand their work or engage in professional development. I knew it wasn’t right. Then my supervisor quit, and I don’t think I was even considered to take over that role even though I was very familiar with the organization and administration. I had leadership experience, having been one of the founding members of the junior board of a prominent environmental non-profit, and I felt I had proven I could do the job. People were surprised I didn’t get considered. They brought in another white person from outside. Before I quit, I went to the COO and said, “You need to hire more Black and Latinx people. If you want to serve people in these communities, you need people in this organization that look like the people you’re serving and can give you the perspective you need. You really need to consider making some changes and actively recruiting people.”
The percentage of Black people in the organization was low compared to the amount of work in predominantly Black communities. People would come up to me and say they were happy that someone that looked like them was talking to them about these things, someone who understood the community more. It’s crucial, especially in public-facing jobs, to have people representing the community within the organization. Otherwise, you run into issues where people create solutions for places they’ve never visited or engaged with.
Q: You’ve mentioned hiring more folks of color and investing in professional development. I’m curious about what other steps you think industry leaders can take to prevent these situations from happening again.
Do outreach with high schools or institutions like community colleges or universities. I would not have thought I would be doing what I am today. In my industry, the number of Black people at my level or position has decreased. I would have gotten involved sooner if I had seen someone doing this work. I had this long, winding path, which I’m not saying is bad, but people could be encouraged at a younger age to be more curious about this work and learn the pathways available. Even if you don’t go to college, there are ways to be involved in this work. That’s something we think about where I work now. How do we bring in people to do the justice-centered work we’re doing?
Q: Do you have a message you want to share about the importance of centering justice?
Any sustainability or environmental issue needs to be rooted in justice. It’s not a simple technological problem that we’re solving. Much of the framing we see on the news around climate change focuses on measurable impacts like sea level rise and rainfall, and rarely do we see what is happening to the people most affected. Take urban heat islands, for example. We can’t just give everyone an air conditioning unit without looking into why this issue affects Black people the most. Older Black men are likely to die at a higher rate for multiple reasons, so what are the root causes of this injustice? How do you undo them?
Everyone deserves a fair chance, an equal chance to succeed. A justice framework must consider the inequities designed into many of our systems and work to undo those systems to benefit everyone. We must concentrate on the people who have dealt with the most injustice and offer the resources necessary to support them.
Q: Do you have any advice for how leaders can better support BIPOC professionals and make a difference today?
We need mentorship and community with people looking to work in the field or who are working in the field. Many of us don’t have role models or even people to talk to about these issues. It’s exciting when I meet another Black person working in my field. We should work harder to build community and talk about our shared experiences. Then, when something upsetting happens, we can support each other professionally and emotionally.
There are a lot of people that have struggles I don’t. Women, non-binary people, and LGBTQ people are out there trying their best. Try to meet people where they are as much as possible. There’s only so much you as an individual can do when these issues are systemic. We can have compassion for each other, build community, and build political power to change policies. When you make information accessible and support people, you can move to the next level to get more politically engaged. You can’t solve it one by one; we have to look at this collectively.