Ensuring Utility Accountability: The Georgia Race You Didn’t Hear About
In January 2021, while eyes across the country were watching the US Senate races in Georgia, another election very important to our communities was happening, a vote to fill a seat on our Public Service Commission. Like in most states, these positions, that seem bland and insignificant, control where our energy comes from, what kind of energy we use, how much we pay for that energy, and as we learned during COVID, if and when the gas or electricity powering our homes can be turned off. So, we can see, , as is the case with all decision-making bodies, we need to have a say.
When it comes to energy, most people do not realize that public service commissions hold tremendous power. While generally not aware of why this power matters, when Black people, Indigenous people, people of color and people with lower incomes faced having their power shut off during the COVID pandemic, knowing who was making these decisions became a matter of life-death. So we launched a campaign called We the Plug Tho to educate our community about the Public Service Commission, , their detrimental actions and what we can do to protect ourselves, and our communities,, while we build the movement for energy justice.
All across the country there are commissions like Georgia’s Public Service Commission (PSC) that regulate utilities -- what rates we pay, where our energy comes from and what kind of energy efficiency and renewable energy accessibility we have. In different states it may be called the Utility Commission, Utility Regulatory Commission, Public Utilities Commission, or some variation of these words. Members of commissions are sometimes appointed by the Legislature, or more commonly, appointed by the Governor. In Georgia the Commissioners are elected by voters.
As leaders working in community to create change, we all know from experience that it is not effective to dive into policy details. First and foremost, grassroots movement building is about addressing the structural barriers to social change.. This approach must include connecting issues like energy and climate to people’s everyday lives. For example, instead of talking about climate with our community, we talk about their immediate felt needs, what impacts their pocketbooks, home and neighborhood. We take the time to get to know one another, to talk about what our shared values are Then we get to talking about electricity and energy, and finally how it is all connected to climate justice. The movement is a universe, a galaxy of issues, not a narrow focus.
In order to shape decisions made by the Public Service Commission, like shutting off people’s power, we set out to educate and engage voters to pay attention to the race for the PSC Commissioners. This year two out of the five PSC seats were on the ballot. The stakes in these races were high, not for partisan reasons, and not only to respond to disconnections due to Covid, but because the PSC approved Georgia Power’s rate increases and Georgia Powercausing a coal ash problem that is impacting our communities’ public health.
Our We the Plug Tho campaign educated the community about the PSC and its role and informed voters about the candidates running for the two seats. Working in community means working broadly so we provided food to families in need, as well as organized actions against shut offs. We used social media, virtual teach-ins, direct mail, text banking, yard signs and PPE kits for voters that included education collateral on the PSC. We also spent a lot of time on the ground, in community. Due to COVID-19, we employed “safe” organizing activities like phone calls to let community residents know that we would be on their street the following day for food box deliveries and literature drops and to not come to the door. We put residents and neighborhood leaders front and center, people who had lost their jobs and experienced shut offs. This step was critical because we knew that bringing forward the lived experience of residents and elevating them as the experts would bring attention to what had historically been an obscure elected office.
Our campaign leveraged years of partnership with allies and the deep, values-based relationships that our organizers have built with the community. Over time, our Just Energy Circle had built consensus with traditional environmental groups, faith groups,and other social justice groups. Through years of working together we had established good relationships and agreements - a level of trust. This investment in relationship building made moving together on the We the Plug Tho campaign smoother and more effective.
How did it go? In the November 2020 election, unfortunately one seat was won soundly by the incumbent. The other race was very close so there was a runoff in January like the two US Senate races. Unfortunately, in this case the incumbent narrowly won by less than 1%, however this was a much closer margin than in 2014 when the same two candidates had faced one another before. The challenger who narrowly lost has a long history of working on environmental justice and reflects, as well as understands, the interests of Georgia’s richly diverse Blackcommunities, communities of color and rural communities.
While our community’s interests are still unlikely to be represented by the current PSC Commissioners, our organizing and education campaign, and the narrow election margin, put them on notice. We built a multi-racial, intergenerational movement that we can leverage to weigh in on hearings, decisions and the next election. We will continue to do all we can to make sure Georgia’s power companies do not cause more harm to our communities or the planet, and that energy democracy becomes a reality for all Georgians.
Given the challenges facing our communities, Wan Smith, our Just Energy Organizer explains it best. “It has not been easy maintaining focus with all the empirical injustice that is being experienced in the Black community nationally. Nothing that is happening is new or surprising to the African-American diaspora; however the compounding of trauma in such a short time frame-- COVID and the political climate-- is monumentally the single most mentally, physically and economically traumatic year for Black people, Indigenous peoples, and people of color in recent history. But through it all, we are doing this work together.”
My advice to all of you working in EJ communities is to try not to feel overwhelmed. The work you’re doing, even if people don’t understand it is important. Trust you’re on the right path because as long as we build relationships grounded in trust, center impacted communities, and build a movement for the long-haul, then we are doing what is right and good.
Chandra Farley is a board member of Just Solutions and is the Just Energy Director for the Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE). PSE, an Atlanta-based nonprofit, advances policies and institutional actions that promote racial equity and shared prosperity for all in the growth of metropolitan Atlanta and the American South.