Democratizing Mississippi's electric cooperatives

Facing South recently talked with, from left, Catherine Robinson, Benita Wells, and Oleta Fitzgerald, organizers in Mississippi who are working to democratize the state's electric co-ops. (Photos courtesy of the subjects.)

In 1932, only about 10% of rural America was electrified, as big energy companies had long avoided investing in rural areas for fear it wasn't profitable. New Deal legislation offering federal assistance to Americans living without electricity led to the formation of electric cooperatives. Thanks to their efforts, 90% of homes, businesses and farms in rural America were electrified by 1936. 

Co-ops are not-for-profit and made up of member-owners — community members who share collective ownership of the company from which they also receive electricity, and nowadays sometimes internet service as well. Co-ops are governed by a board of directors who are elected by member-owners to make policy decisions.

Today there are more than 900 electric co-ops across the U.S. powering more than 20 million businesses, homes, schools, and farms. While democratic member control is one of seven official guiding principles for co-ops, their governance has been criticized for a lack of transparency. For example, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), a trade group, kept findings from its “Electric Cooperative Governance Task Force Report” secret for two years before the report was obtained by a South Carolina newspaper.

Among other things, the report encouraged co-ops to seek out board candidates who reflect the diversity of a co-op's membership. The makeup of electric cooperative boards has been a growing concern for decades. In the South, Black member-owners struggle to gain seats on overwhelmingly white boards while elected board members collect tens of thousands of dollars in allowances and hold meetings in private.

Organizers in Mississippi, the nation's poorest state and one of its most rural, have been working for years to make the state's 31 electric co-ops more democratic — part of the broader energy democracy movement that seeks to tie the transition to renewable energy with efforts to decentralize energy systems and increase public participation in energy policymaking. Their efforts continue as co-ops face increasing pressure to address carbon pollution and to offer broadband internet service. 

To learn more about the movement to democratize Mississippi's electric cooperatives, Facing South spoke with three of its leaders. Catherine Robinson is the program manager at Mississippi's One Voice, a nonprofit formed after Hurricane Katrina to respond to the policy advocacy needs of historically disadvantaged communities in the state. As part of that work, One Voice engages member-owners of nine Mississippi electric co-ops in predominantly Black areas of the state.

Oleta Fitzgerald is the board chair of the Southern Rural Black Women's Initiative for Economic and Social Justice and Southern regional director of the Children's Defense Fund's office in Mississippi's state capital of Jackson. In the 1980s, she organized in Black communities across the South to get residents elected to their electric cooperative boards. And Benita Wells is the former CFO of Southern Echo, an organization based in Jackson that develops grassroots leaders in Black and low-wealth communities throughout the South. She has been a longtime advocate for reforming electric cooperatives in Mississippi.

The interviews, conducted separately, have been combined here and lightly edited for clarity.

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Lack of fair representation on electric cooperative boards has been an issue for decades, with member-owners feeling that board members don't represent their interests. How would you describe the boards in the Mississippi communities you work with?

Catherine Robinson: Most of these areas have a majority African American population. Right now, Swain County has one African American on the board. Similarly, other boards in the area are majority non-Black, and most do not have a woman on the board, either. In Twin County, this has been the issue since about 1938, that no woman had ever sat on the board. Our goal today is to start a petition to diversify the board. But every year it is a challenge, I can definitely tell you that. The first year, we did this with Twin County in the Mississippi Delta with Sarah Ann Hood. She received around 650 votes from about 13,000 members. That's when we realized there's a real issue of representation.

Benita Wells: The people that you put in place on the board, they represent you. They determine who's hired, they determine how much the person that's hired makes, they determine how much you're going to be charged for your electricity per kilowatt. They are the ones speaking on your behalf. So when you vote 11 white leaders in an area that is primarily African American it raises questions. How do they speak? How many excitedly represent your voice? Do they even care? A lot of our work moving forward promotes community-centered campaigning. 

Every year I do a financial analysis on electric cooperatives in the state of Mississippi. If they put up their [IRS Form] 990, I see how they spent their money, how much they're paying their employees, how much the board members make. On average, board members make around $40,000. The average person in rural Mississippi makes somewhere in the $20,000s. That's a crazy disparity. Especially in Mississippi, you know, a lot of people see this as a racial issue, but energy democracy is just as much a class issue. If you are poor, you are on the losing end. You pull the short straw every single time.

Oleta Fitzgerald: In my experience these boards have been overwhelmingly white. It's not a reflection of parts of the communities where most of the organizing in Mississippi and even in Alabama is taking place.

Especially in Mississippi, you know, a lot of people see this as a racial issue, but energy democracy is just as much a class issue. If you are poor, you are on the losing end. You pull the short straw every single time.

What kind of problems can this lack of representation create for member-owners?

Catherine Robinson: When you think about voting for presidential or local elections, we think about voter suppression. Electric cooperatives use similar tactics. They offer member-owners credits on their bills, to enter them into raffles.

In working-class communities, member-owners are away at work 9 to 5. When the board of directors schedules the annual meeting in the middle of the day, it's on purpose. They know people cannot leave work. It has worn away at community trust. What we see right now is that member-owners don't know anybody who's running, let alone that they are shareholders in this company, so they vote for whoever offers the greatest incentive or whatever and keep it moving. It takes a lot of time to build that trust back.

Benita Wells: We've faced several issues with the board members not abiding by bylaws during annual elections. Board members have been known to change bylaws last minute and to vote on new bylaws in secret. It makes board meetings disempowering, and elections are difficult. In Twin County, board members broadcasted information about petitioning for the board that conflicted with the requirements outlined by our bylaws. It caused a lot of confusion on top of the competition for the board seats. 

In the past four years, there have been concerns about what it means for someone who petitions for the board to be “in good standing.” Is that someone who has never missed a payment? Is it someone who, their lights might have been off, but they had the payment the next day? There's no clear definition on what good standing is, which obviously impacts who is eligible to petition for these board seats.

Years after NRECA's 2018 report, the fight for transparency in electric co-ops continues. How important is transparency in an electric co-op? What tools do you use to promote this?

Oleta Fitzgerald: A lot of people just don't understand how the cooperative structure operates or how it should benefit them. It should be beneficial to them from an investment in their communities, on schools and community centers and other things that they have invested in in the past that benefited the money. There hasn't been a whole lot more transparency.

Catherine Robinson:  We started hosting listening tours educating member-owners on their rights, their roles, and the policies and procedures of their electric cooperatives. The tours include PowerPoints outlining the history of electric cooperatives and the seven guiding principles. From there, we started building the literature for educating the community, so that they see they are not only members but also technically owners of this multimillion-dollar corporation.

Scorecards, initially introduced to us by [co-ops in] Tennessee and Appalachia, are also really great. They prompt member owners to ask: Is my electric power association actually fulfilling its duties? Are they abiding by their bylaws? Is the process democratic? Is there effective communication? Things that are graded on the scorecards give member-owners more of an insight into whether their electric power association is effective.

I think it's a great idea for every state to participate in the scorecards, because it also gives member-owners the chance to see areas where they are making a change. Gaining power is not about winning, but it is about change. We want member-owners to have more of a voice.

Benita Wells: A quote my dad used to tell me when I was younger — I didn't get it then — but he was always telling me, “Benita, a group of people who are uneducated are easily manipulated.” So I really believe that knowledge is the best tool we have. Scorecards are amazing. I couldn't do my community listening tours during the pandemic, but one of the members in our group, Adrienne Miller, offered to pull some data for us and share it via postcards to each and every member-owner that we had contact information for. Things like that are vital in terms of outreach. 

Data from a 2021 report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies highlighted the need for broadband expansion into Black communities in the rural South. Federal and state lawmakers acted on this with some urgency during the pandemic, and moving forward some people see an opportunity for electric cooperatives to step in and help. What role do you see electric co-ops playing in the expansion of broadband access in rural Southern communities?

Oleta Fitzgerald: I heard somebody say that not having broadband, not having access to technology in 2022, was like not having lights in 1948. The world has gone that way. We're all looking at 21st century economies, and our children need to be able to access and use technology in ways that we haven't seen before. Before everybody started talking about it, we lived and worked in these communities, so we know firsthand. I've seen firsthand kids trying to find hotspots so they could do research and homework well before COVID. The divide is just clear as day. 

Conditions at the community level kind of lit a fire within us. Hearing what children were saying, what the schools look like, the concerns of the parents and communities about opportunity for themselves and their families. We had to go find the data, so we connected with experts at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. They came in and provided an analysis of what's going on in rural communities for a soon-to-be-released report on internet access. The amount of money that could be saved in these communities if we had greater access to telehealth, the mental health issues we could address there. If we had an expansion of technology that worked beyond the hospitals, in homes, so that people could access their doctors that way — especially in rural communities where there are few physician specialties or hospitals with managed care — it would transform health care delivery. 

Benita Wells: In rural parts of Mississippi, people lack access to the internet on a basic level. And that's a necessity, especially in a pandemic world where they're trying to do things virtual and remote. That kind of infrastructure would improve everybody's quality of life. For example, some utility companies have moved to online billing. How do you pay online if you don't have access to the internet? You don't. You pay the extra fee to take it into the office.

My growing concern is that if they're already overcharging for things like this what are they going to charge for broadband access? There's potential to both break and perpetuate that cycle that so many people in rural Mississippi are caught in. Like they say, it's expensive to be poor. 

Catherine Robinson: We see broadband as the new economic wave for rural areas. And it's a great idea in terms of bringing that broader view of the world to people who don't have that. We actually just hosted a panel discussion on it, in hopes that we can encourage folks to move forward with laying some of the wiring that would bring proper access to member-owners. We have member-owners in some of the electric power associations who still use dial-up. We wondered how? In 2022? 

It would give people of rural Mississippi access to the resources that other people have been able to take advantage of during the pandemic, like grocery delivery and remote learning. We know it can help families and students, which is something to be excited about.