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For Indiana NAACP, energy justice has long been a civil rights issue

A.J. Patton, a Gary, Indiana, native who is now launching an affordable solar and housing development company in Chicago, also trains residents and lobbies legislators with the Indiana NAACP. Photo by Denise Abdul Rahman / Courtesy

The NAACP has recently encouraged state and local chapters to avoid being influenced by utilities or fossil fuel interests that donate money to the historic civil rights organization but push policies and take actions that hurt African American and other environmental justice communities.

In Indiana, a conservative state where fossil fuel interests and utilities are considered to have much influence, it’s a dynamic the NAACP state chapter is well versed in navigating. The organization has for years led a vibrant energy justice movement pushing back against companies, demanding more renewable energy, and demanding that African Americans benefit from a clean energy shift.

The Indiana NAACP chapter works with stakeholders on legislation and policy, and does extensive grassroots work to help regular residents participate in such proceedings, while taking their energy futures into their own hands with solar or energy efficiency. 

“We need to be at that table and be recognized as a voice that should be heard and as a major stakeholder in policy, academia, decisions that directly impact people’s lives,” said Denise Abdul Rahman, who has been the Indiana NAACP environmental climate justice chair for more than six years, and now also serves as the NAACP’s environmental climate justice field director for all Midwest and Plains states.

A new fight for justice

Barbara Bolling, state president of the Indiana NAACP, said appointing Abdul Rahman the state chair was the “best decision I ever made.”

Abdul Rahman’s parents were activists. Her mother worked with the group Jobs with Justice, started Indiana’s first Head Start program and organized for women’s rights in China. She died at 57 from cancer that Abdul Rahman attributes to a nearby hospital incinerator. Her father went to the first National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, in 1972. Abdul Rahman herself is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm who worked in mortgage lending until the housing crisis, and then went back to school for a master’s degree in healthcare management.

“This is us, a long line of civil and human rights activists, infinite resistance and resilient to inequities and injustices that make us more vulnerable to climate calamity and in dire need for Just Transition, transformation and liberation,” Abdul Rahman said by email. “My people have been looking for a Just Transition and transformation to liberation from the day we were captured and sent through the Middle Passage Transatlantic Slave Trade.”

Bolling said Abdul Rahman immersed herself in energy policy and soon began educating leaders and members about the opaque proceedings that often happen with little public involvement.

“Because we have not been educated on the impacts on our communities and our health, we ignorantly accept the money and the policies that the utility companies are pushing forward,” said Bolling, an attorney who compared learning the intricacies of energy policy to learning a foreign language. “Without the knowledge, we’re actually hurting our own interests. That’s why it’s so important what NAACP and other groups are doing to educate the public about what’s really in their best interest.” 

The NAACP chapter’s goal is to reduce the impact of fossil fuels on African American communities while at the same time addressing the disproportionate energy burden that African Americans face, paying a larger percent of their income for energy and benefitting less than other communities from energy efficiency measures. The NAACP talks of a “green divide,” wherein renewable energy doesn’t benefit minority and low-income communities as much as wealthier, whiter ones.

Energy and climate are increasingly priorities for the NAACP, which has a national energy justice campaign. In 2015, it published a report outlining how environmental and climate justice are integral to its historic six “game-changers”: voting rights and political representation, health, education, youth organizing, criminal justice, and economic justice. 

Power for the people 

The Indiana NAACP chapter advised the state as part of its 21st Century Energy Policy Development Task Force, a body chaired by two Republican state legislators that is examining and re-envisioning the state’s energy infrastructure and policy. 

The NAACP is pushing for more renewable energy — solar, wind and geothermal — as well as incentives for energy efficiency, affordability and fairness in energy bills, and more jobs in the clean energy economy.

Solar penetration is low in Indiana, with just 377 megawatts installed and a ranking of 23rd in the nation for solar capacity. Abdul Rahman said that for African American communities, the prevalence of solar is even lower. Under the controversial bill SB 309 passed in 2017, net metering is being seriously curtailed, and anyone installing solar after 2022 will receive only wholesale rates, plus a small premium, for energy they send back to the grid. That means they will receive much less credit for energy they produce than they pay for energy from the grid.

Abdul Rahman and Bolling said the net metering phase-out is particularly harmful for lower- and middle-income African Americans, who didn’t have the chance to build up capital for solar in time to participate in net metering.

“SB 309 changed the game because of the short time period for people to access solar with a higher rate of return,” Abdul Rahman said. “That means people of color, African Americans or of African descent who had not yet gained access, who had seen ourselves as an emerging market — by the time we’ve emerged, the credit is going to be minimized.”

Solar is “almost nonexistent in the African American community because of the cost,” Bolling added. “It works out in the long term, but many times Black people don’t have the resources to make that initial outlay.”

The NAACP chapter advises municipal and state leaders on a range of policies and programs, including working with the city of Indianapolis on its recently launched program to help low-income families obtain rooftop solar.

The chapter is also working to eventually pass legislation supporting community solar, and making sure it is accessible to nonprofits and residents in under-served and minority communities. That could include a model where residents can access community solar benefits without paying a subscription fee. 

In 2020 the NAACP chapter launched a campaign called “This is Us” that aims to spread solar, including at community institutions wherein the energy savings can ideally be used to fund solar apprenticeships for youth or citizens returning from the criminal justice system. They also want legislation to ensure that minority-owned businesses benefit from contracts for solar and energy efficiency. 

NAACP member James Dillon.

NAACP member James Dillon, an attorney and advocate in Gary, is part of the NAACP’s national NextGen program to train the next generation of leaders, and he’s heavily involved in environmental and energy issues. He’s traveled often to the Statehouse to lobby with NAACP “groups of all ages, from grade school up to old people.”

“We advocate for the issues that affect us,” he said, noting that last year they lobbied against proposed state support for carbon capture since “we don’t believe that the research is there to say it’s an effective method. … So it’s a waste of resources to do carbon capture while we allow polluters to keep polluting.” 

Energy injustice 

Indiana hosts multiple coal-fired power plants and BP’s massive oil refinery within miles of environmental justice communities, concentrated largely in Northwest Indiana just southeast of Chicago.

The NAACP chapter has been working to close the Michigan City plant, which sits on the shore of Lake Michigan. In 2018, NIPSCO announced it would close its Wheatfield, Indiana, plant in 2023, while delaying the closing of the Michigan City plant until 2028. Bolling said members were furious that the company chose to close the plant in a less-populated, predominantly white rural area rather than the Michigan City one, which has a “devastating” impact on residents.

“If you’re going to retire one, do it in the urban area where more people are affected,” she said.

There’s been much focus on providing clean energy jobs and training as part of a “just transition” for those employed in coal power and coal mining as coal is phased out. But Abdul Rahman noted that the concept of transition needs to be expanded to include those who, because of discrimination, geography or other factors, never had access to the coal economy.

“We need a just transition that is broader than just those that work within the coal community, but a just transition for particularly people of African descent who had not been participants in the energy sector at all,” she said.

Living in Gary, the once-thriving steel town that saw its population shrink and its infrastructure crumble as the steel industry imploded, Dillon has seen first-hand how African Americans suffer from both pollution and the economic burden of energy. Nearly all his friends had asthma growing up, he said. Meanwhile electricity rate hikes can be devastating for those same families who are struggling to make ends meet and who live in old, energy-inefficient homes.

“You look at the effect of coal-fired power plants in frontline communities, increased asthma rates, increased disease rates, and people dealing with energy insecurity, the idea that energy is not a right,” Dillon said.

A.J. Patton, a Gary, Indiana, native who is now launching an affordable solar and housing development company in Chicago, also trains residents and lobbies legislators with the Indiana NAACP. He said that whole communities could be uplifted by solar, since energy savings can be rolled back into higher-quality housing and helping people remain in their homes in gentrifying neighborhoods.

In a 2017 report called Lights Out in the Cold, the NAACP described the devastating impact of utility shutoffs, including fatal fires when people used candles to try to keep warm, and families locked into endless debt by unrealistic payment plans. It calls for specific reforms in utility disconnection policies, and said, “The need to incorporate human rights into the utility business model is a key component of the larger reform of the extractive energy economy and movement toward energy justice.”

The report calls for a “new economy” that literally and figuratively “puts power in the hands of the people,” and cites some utility and legislative best practices regarding bill payment and disconnection. Unlike Illinois and Minnesota, for example, Indiana does not have temperature-based restrictions on utility disconnections, the report notes.

Empowering residents

Often, utilities try to persuade communities of color to support higher demand charges, arguing that customers with solar are “not paying their fair share” for upkeep of the grid. Operators of coal-fired power plants in minority communities often invoke jobs when fighting against tighter regulations, even though those jobs are often not held by local residents.

But the NAACP is trying to make sure people don’t fall for those arguments by educating them about the nuts and bolts of the energy economy.

The NAACP offers toolkits and trainings to help local chapters and communities launch weatherization campaigns, participate in community solar, push for coal plant closures, and other specific goals. They work with the national group Solar United Neighbors and various grassroots groups hosting workshops and trainings.

At an NAACP Energy Justice Training in Saginaw, Michigan, last summer, for example, Abdul Rahman was among the presenters drawing the connections between energy and various inequities.

Abdul Rahman discussed the disproportionate impact of coal plants on African American communities, and how to fight to get them closed. The training report included a poem about Eric Garner, the New York man killed by a police officer even as he gasped “I can’t breathe.” The poem celebrated Garner’s work with plants in the parks’ horticulture department, noting that the very plants he touched are “making it easier for us to breathe.”

Gaining influence 

Dillon noted that advocacy organizations can find themselves “walking a tightrope” regarding donations from utilities or fossil fuel companies.

“Some of our polluters are often some of our biggest contributors,” he noted. “When we have a banquet, a scholarship drive, when we need to take kids to a national convention, honestly these companies who may have bad environmental records may have a good social record, they may sponsor kids and scholarships.” 

He and Abdul Rahman noted that organizations can use that money without necessarily being influenced to support positions that harm them. 

“Some [chapters or organizations] will take the funding but it doesn’t stop them from advocating in the interests of their communities, perhaps using whatever money they do take from utilities for energy efficiency programs, or using it to build solar,” Abdul Rahman said. 

At 36, Dillon has been involved with the NAACP for most of his life, and he knows the younger generation has an intersectional view of issues like the environment and civil rights, and more skepticism about companies.

“I’m right at the edge of the millennial age range,” Dillon said. “I’m finding the generation coming after me is more in tune with environmental and climate justice. They care more about the environment, it’s not as hard a sell.” 

He noted that the utility NIPSCO has sponsored the NAACP’s annual banquet, meanwhile the company was recently fined $1 million for hiring discrimination against African Americans and women. 

“So they sponsor our banquet but their labor practices are such that they discriminate against African Americans,” Dillon said. “We’re going to be involved in those conversations. Sometimes we’re going to be asking for multiple things from the same organization: You need to clean it up and in addition have fair hiring practices.”

Bolling said that while it’s only fair for African Americans and other frontline, environmental justice communities to benefit from the shift to renewable energy, it’s not a zero sum game. 

“Renewable energy benefits everybody, from health concerns to economic concerns,” she said. “It’s going to help African Americans, but it also helps everyone else.”

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