Black History Month Energy Leaders Blog Series: Nathaniel Smith Boosts “Energy Equity” in the American South

In honor of Black History Month, SACE is publishing a blog series highlighting the efforts of African American leaders who have played key roles in the energy sector. This is the second post of this series. To read other posts in this series, go here.

Smith (C) with Berneta Haynes of Georgia Watch (L) and Amelia Shenstone (R) at the 2016 Just Energy Summit. Click image for short video recap of the Summit.

Nathaniel Smith is founder and Chief Equity Officer (CEqO)of Atlanta-based Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE). SACE worked with PSE to initiate the Just Energy Circle in 2012 and remains an active partner, most recently helping put on the first annual Just Energy Summit. I sat down with Mr. Smith to learn more about the work he dubbed “energy equity” early on.

As an equity and justice advocate, why do you care about energy?

It’s about real-life experiences. We can talk about CO2 [carbon dioxide] emissions and climate change, but at the end of the day we’ve got kids in forgotten neighborhoods who get asthma as a result of the decisions we are making about energy. There are people who have been forced to choose between groceries and paying their light bill. There are folks who need workforce development as our economy shifts toward more renewable energy options. What is going to happen to these people and to our economy, and how will we stay competitive, if we don’t train these people for those jobs? Energy equity provides a unique opportunity for us to do good and do well.

What’s the story of “energy equity”?

The movement is still evolving. I’ve learned from you, Amelia, as much as you’ve learned from me. Even though SACE was a partner with PSE already, when you and Seandra [Pope, a SACE staffer at the time] came to pitch to me collective work on energy, it sparked something new. You both came to my office to explain to me the challenge and how PSE could contribute to the cause. If SACE hadn’t made that effort PSE would not be pushing for energy equity today.

People of color must play a key role – not just have the option, but must actively play their part – in moving an inclusive energy agenda forward. To be successful we must be willing to understand how many low-wealth communities and communities of color have been exploited and experienced violence to reinforce and protect the economic system we rely on. Even some nonprofits exploit the pain of the marginalized to raise funds for their organizations. The environmental community is not exempt from this characterization. In the American South (and beyond) we have an economy that was built on the backs of slaves. We have a new economy emerging that has potential to leave those people behind, and we can’t let that happen. Energy equity is about giving people of color an opportunity to lead, not just be pawns on the board.

Why do you feel “equity” is an essential approach to energy issues?

As we try to make progress on solving energy challenges, it’ll be important to understand the politics of race in how policies are made. If the environmental movement remains overwhelmingly white, it’s going to put itself in a box. Race is a political construct created to influence decision making and make it easier for some people in our community to be more successful than others. If we know that, we have to begin to treat issues around race as political. Race, white supremacy, is the most powerful political party in this country. It crosses political ideology yet no one is proud to say they are a member. It’s not just white people who are in this party. Some people of color work to reinforce this system also. In order for the earth to have a chance, you have to make sure that everybody is involved in protecting it.

What’s the most important thing to be doing right now to solve our energy equity challenges?

One, we’ve got to broaden the base of this movement to not just be the usual suspects. I love granola as much as anybody, but we’ve got to be comfortable eating collards and black eyed peas, and tacos, as well as pho, and kimchee…. We’ve also got to begin to be conscious about how we talk about these issues, thinking differently about how we connect people to the issue through a new value proposition that’s more inclusive. Third, we must position and support new leaders to emerge from groups that have had less influence whether that be due to their gender, generation, or racial identity.

I think about back when Fannie Lou Hamer came to Chicago to speak to the Democratic National Convention (listen to her speech). The way she talked about the issues of democracy, voting rights, and the role of the party in creating opportunities for everybody was so powerful that President Lyndon Johnson did a press conference at the same time to limit the reach of her message [the evening news broadcast her speech anyway]. The more people we have telling their story, the more chances we have at finding those Fannie Lou Hamers for our movement.

What’s one thing you want our readers to know about you?

I have tried my best to live equity and not just do it. To live the sermon of inclusion, of justice, of love, of courage, versus just using it as a tool to get what we or I want. That decision that I made to live equity, and not just do it, has made all the difference in my life. It’s created opportunities to create relationships that I never would have had. It’s allowed us to remove barriers that people thought would never be removed. It’s made people more passionate about elevating our work and the leadership that I bring. It’s inspired folks to pay more attention to what the issues are because there’s a level of authenticity that I try to bring.

It’s always coming from the heart. Equity is not a thing, a tool. It is a way. When it becomes a way, it’s easier for you to put yourself in other peoples’ shoes. It’s not about outputs and outcomes, it’s about our journey, our history, and our values. Once we understand this fact as a community of servants, we will be able to get more done together.

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