Q&A with Chandra Farley of the Partnership for Southern Equity

on October 23, 2020

Power Dynamics is an interview series highlighting the work, ideas, and voices of advocates working to build a clean energy future that is accessible, workable, and just for all.

For Chandra Farley, energy policy is a “kitchen table issue.” It’s something that affects the everyday lives of the people in her community. It’s a comfort issue. It’s a public health issue. It’s an economic issue and a civic engagement issue. Part of her job as the Just Energy Director at the Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE) is helping other people to see it that way, too.

The overlapping legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and persistent poverty, along with the heat here, is a recipe for the conditions that we see.

Through community organizing and engagement, coalition building, and leadership development, Farley and her team work with communities to promote just energy policies in Georgia and across the South. A big part of that is helping people understand where their energy comes from, how that affects them, and how they can get involved. “Connecting the energy and utility work to the work of civic engagement and democracy underlies all of our work,” she explains.

Farley took a break from planning PSE’s 2020 Just Energy Summit — hosted virtually for the first time because of the pandemic — to chat with Arcadia about PSE’s philosophy of community organizing and how she makes energy policy real to the people who stand to be most affected by it.

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Arcadia: Why is energy justice such an important issue in the South especially?

Chandra Farley: Well, it's really hot down here. And the South is still driven by racial, social, and economic injustices due to the legacy of slavery. The South is home to 80% of counties that experience persistent poverty. Three of the top five largest carbon polluters are in the South. The four states that experience the highest energy burdens are also in the South. The overlapping legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and persistent poverty, along with the heat here, is a recipe for the conditions that we see.

How do you — and PSE more broadly — engage the communities that you're working with?

Our work is all about trust, respect, and partnership. We understand that the long-term work that has to be done to deliver the change we know is important will only be achieved through these long-lasting relationships, so we take the time necessary to build relationships with communities.

What does that type of organizing look like in practice?

One of our core strategies for organizing we refer to as “chat and chews.” The chat and chews are a way for PSE to be introduced into neighborhoods and communities in partnership with a neighborhood association or community partner who is already based there, and we bring people together in conversations to chat and chew over an issue.

While we may come to that conversation with a frame around just energy and energy equity, or talking about climate justice or energy burdens, we're really there to listen. That's how we begin to build trust. We come to the community with an offer of partnership, with an offer of technical assistance to work with them to address whatever issue they decide is most pressing and important for them. Even if it isn't an energy issue in that particular moment, we have resources to support almost any issue that they might like to address.

So we begin the work that way. Then when it is time to call on the community, let's say to partner with us to push back on utility rate increases, they know us. They feel comfortable being in partnership with us. They work with us. That's how we work with communities to build power.

As you start to build that trust, how do you keep people engaged in fighting to improve the energy system, which is very complex and is in many ways designed to disenfranchise the people it purportedly serves?

That's the question, right? We work at it every day. When we are talking to a community on the energy piece, everybody gets a bill. So that's really the way that we have been able to start the conversation. I sometimes start with the question, “Raise your hand if you used an outlet to charge your phone at some point today or this morning.” Everybody's hands will go up. And I'll say, “Raise your hands if you or someone you know has ever struggled to pay the light bill or had to pay a light bill for someone else.” Some people's hands will go up. And then I will say, “How many of you thought about where the electricity came from to power your phone?” and nobody will raise their hand. And then I say, “Well, those things are connected, and here is why.”

These are issues that people are dealing with every day. They just may not be talking about it in the same way that the policy experts and technical assistance organizations are. People know what these issues are and can point out and identify injustices and inequities. We're there to provide that sort of onramp.

Black people and communities of color, rural communities, folks are used to having to be resilient and save.

When we talk about the public service commission and we talk about utility bills, we're also saying to people, “Hey, you think your bills are too high? Well, there are five people elected by you in the state of Georgia who make the decision about not just how much you're going to pay on your bills, but where that energy comes from. Call them. Talk to them. Show up to the Zoom Energy Committee meetings every three weeks and make public comments. Let them hear from you.” Just reinforcing the importance of that specific engagement process at that public service commission level, but again at the local level where there are lots of utility commissions. Connecting the energy and utility work to the work of civic engagement and democracy really underlies all of our work.

How does PSE balance the relationship building and values-based organizing, which is a long process and is crucial for making sure no one gets left out of the conversation, with the need for urgent action on some of these climate issues?

That is a constant healthy tension. You know, regulatory processes, city planning processes, run on one sort of track, sometimes super, super fast, sometimes super, super slow. The relationship-building work needs to be done on its own timeline. “Change moves at the speed of trust” is a quote that our founder and Chief Equity Officer, Nathaniel Smith, says a lot, and there's a healthy tension there. But while we're doing the on-the-ground work in communities and neighborhoods with residents, we also have our coalition work with the policy, professional organizations, environmental law organizations, faith-based communities, and grassroots organizations.

We are able to keep up with that pace sometimes through the coalition work because our organizers are in those coalitions making sure that the voice of the community is always fed into the process in some shape, fashion, or form. So that is where really PSE and our coalition partners are ready to stand in the gaps when you have to move at a moment’s notice.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed how you have to approach getting out into communities?

It's changed everything! We have made the shift to the virtual space. Our organizers were able to move to a virtual space to host virtual chat and chews. But our number one organizing strategy prior to and after chat and chews is just one on one. That continued — just making phone calls to check in on people, not necessarily asking them to come to a meeting, not necessarily asking them to do anything for us. Early on it was a matter of, “Hey, do you need anything for seniors? Do you need somebody to go grab groceries for you? Do you have your prescriptions?” Reaching out in a manner that was true to our relationship, which we try to make transformational, not transactional. And I think we were able to pivot in that manner because that is really how we do our work all the time.

In terms of other COVID effects, utility shut-offs right now across the nation are a critical issue. There are a lot of amazing people doing really hard work to make sure that Black, Latino, and Native American peoples, who are experiencing disproportionate impacts from COVID — [and who] were already experiencing disproportionate impacts from other inequities — don’t get lost. If we don’t seize this opportunity to demand implementation for a lot of things that we have always been fighting for, those same communities and our essential workers are going to continue to be disproportionately impacted after the crisis.

In your work in Atlanta, there’s a clean energy piece but there’s also a big focus on energy efficiency and reducing total energy use. Can you talk about why that piece is so important?

It really boils down to the regulatory construct in the state and the inability to launch solar programs that are specific to low- to moderate-income communities. Georgia has a lot of utility-scale solar, but not so much activity on the rooftop side. Right now it's expensive: the upfront cost, making sure people have their roofs ready, all the safety things that need to be done. So that's why we have such a strong focus on energy efficiency. We know that it is something that we can do and push immediately unencumbered by our regulatory processes.

We understand that the long-term work that has to be done to deliver change will only be achieved through these long-lasting relationships.

What sort of messaging have you found most effective in getting people on board with the need for better efficiency?

Always the bill conversation — strategies to reduce bills. Also strategies to create healthier homes and more comfort. We do have drastic temperature swings, and understanding that and reminding folks of strategies that they probably have always employed or saw their grandma use to reduce their utility bills: shut that door, you're letting the air out. Turn that light off when you leave the room. These are things that we inherently know and have grown up with. Black people and communities of color, rural communities, folks are used to having to be resilient and save and be cognizant of these things. But it's also a comfort issue and a public health issue, so connecting the dots between those things.

Where would you like to see Georgia be in five years in terms of energy policy?

I would like us to have some statewide energy policy, number one. We don’t have any sort of robust statewide energy policy. We've got some piecemeal things through various agencies, but we really need some statewide action and some statewide investment that can be an initiator of some of these business development markets. And then we start creating equitable markets that everyone has access to and everyone can participate in, and then you're creating community wealth-building opportunities.

So just some really strong statewide energy-efficiency projects that will drive our unregulated utilities, too. In addition to our investor-owned utilities, we've got 41 electric membership cooperatives, almost 50 municipal utilities across the state. When you start looking at that landscape, everybody is just kind of doing their [own] thing. Strong statewide clean energy policies that would include strong provisions for energy-savings targets would be major.

We have a territorial act here in Georgia that basically created the monopoly structure for utilities. That is a large — if not the key — piece of what is blocking rapid residential solar development. Toppling that is something that is also critical to expanding just and equitable statewide energy policy.