In her dignity
Q: Can you start by sharing your name, title, where you work, and where you’re located?
My name is Raya Salter. I am a climate and energy attorney, professor, and author based in New Rochelle, New York. I am the founder and executive director of the Energy Justice Law and Policy Center, the nation’s first public-interest energy justice law firm. I’ve been an attorney for the NRDC, for EDF. Most recently I was the Policy Organizer for New York Renews, the coalition behind the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. I was appointed to New York’s Climate Action Council and continue to serve in this capacity.
Q: What initially drew you to the energy industry and how did you first get involved?
The energy industry can be a fascinating place to work. There are a lot of increasingly progressive opportunities to work with utilities, for engineers to get involved with infrastructure, or to get involved in law and policy. When I was a junior associate at a large law firm, I chose energy regulation and I’ve been here ever since.
Q: We’d love to hear your story of a time you had to navigate injustice because you are Black, Indigenous, or a person of color within the energy industry.
In September of 2022, I was called to testify for the second time before the House Oversight Committee. The title of the hearing was Fueling the Climate Crisis: Examining Big Oil’s Prices, Profits, and Pledges. I was brought in to talk about what the oil and gas industry is doing to the climate, to environmental justice communities, and how they have waged a campaign of lies for over 40 years around the impacts of their work. It’s an honor. It’s nerve-wracking but you study up for this and you come prepared. You expect that some Representatives are trying to get sound bites; you might get asked funky questions but still, it is an honor. You’re being asked to educate our Representatives on their work and you show up in your dignity.
His state is home to Cancer Alley, where over 150 petrochemical plants continue to poison generations of low-income and Black residents and he chose to make a mockery of that environmental injustice through this hearing. He did it to score points for the fossil fuel industry he’s a warrior for.
At one point he asked me if, from a biblical perspective, I was an environmentalist after claiming he was. I was able to say that he should think about repenting because he is not an environmentalist. The fossil fuel industry that is destroying his state is destroying the earth and the natural world. If he wanted to talk about God, he should search his heart and understand what he’s doing to the people of Louisiana.
After all of that, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) of New York stepped in to apologize and emphatically denounce Higgins’ behavior. AOC noted she had not seen such insulting treatment of a witness in all her time on the committee and supported me. She called out the harmful treatment of women outright. And frankly, the whole experience was rooted in misogynoir. Not only did he interrupt me but calling me boo? How many white congressmen who you don’t know, call you boo? Black people and people of color say boo amongst themselves so to hear it from him was ridiculous and targeted.
The hearing became this moment for people working in energy to sit with video evidence of the type of disrespect and belittling regularly endured by women of color. The hearing video went viral globally because it resonated with people. Afterward, Rep. Higgins was invited on Tucker Carlson and I received an influx of messages. They were focused on my hair, calling it a wig, telling me I needed a haircut. Very gendered, by focusing on my appearance and then also questioning my intelligence. Calling me a moron, stupid, and even nastier messages than that.
Q: Do you remember some of the thoughts going through your head as you tried to respond? It’s such an intimidating setting.
I was born to do this. I was glad to do this and as women of color, we’re used to this kind of treatment. We have lots of practice. But yes, in this situation there was more to navigate. His disrespect in a way allowed me to say things I wouldn’t have ordinarily been able to. I did have a choice. My experience and training shaped my response and it was my pleasure to take him on. It’s not right, however, that we deal with this. They disrespect us on purpose for their playbook. They call us un-American, they disparage us as part of this broader set of tactics that the racist right-wing is deploying to score points with their base. In a way, I was glad to highlight how transparent motives can be even in the most professional settings.
Q: How can leaders better support BIPOC professionals in the industry and make a difference today?
Pay Black women, pay women of color equitably, and embrace transparency. Too often organizations will take advantage of consistently underpaid people of color and neglect establishing equitable practices. It’s not uncommon to learn that your white peers are making 10 to 20 thousand more than you in the same role; it’s happened to me several times. I remember once when I brought this up, I was asked why I was upset over 10k. But as a single mother, that is significant. It adds up over time. You’re impacting my whole family and that’s not right. Leaders know the numbers on the inside; it is in their power to pay us equally.
Allies need to go beyond reading books on anti-racism to addressing structural issues with action. There needs to be more connecting of the dots between the theory people are absorbing and how that woman of color who is the only one in the office is being treated and what your interactions are like with her. Connect the dots between structural racism, energy justice, and the experience of the person sitting in front of you. Corporate entities also need to take community engagement seriously. Be a good community member and develop an inclusive workforce for the future.
Q: Do you have a message for the BIPOC folks who may be reading this?
Organizations need to address the dissonance women and femmes of color experience when we’re told how desperately we’re needed in the field and yet at every turn, there’s pushback to our leadership, vision, and ideas. These patterns undermine the confidence of women no matter how experienced and educated. I want people to be seen, to hear that it’s real. You are needed in these spaces even when the red carpet isn’t rolled out. Everything you’re bringing is what we need. Try to stay grounded in your purpose, your vision, and your confidence over time to have the impact you want to have.