Today’s battle against climate change and efforts to develop clean, renewable sources of energy, have laid bare the disparities facing Black, Indigenous, and people of color in America in the energy space. Efforts like President Joe Biden’s latest executive order to address climate change aim to address inequities that have prevented underserved communities from accessing the benefits of clean energy.  

Amid this shifting landscape, Shalanda Baker sees a chance to make a positive difference as the Department of Energy’s first-ever deputy director for Energy Justice.

“I’m excited about the potential to remediate the most hazardous and harmful impacts of climate, while also creating opportunities for economic empowerment in the communities who are most impacted by climate change,” she said.  

Baker was first introduced to the concept of “energy justice” about a decade ago while living in Mexico. During her time there, she interacted with Indigenous people who were fighting for environmental justice causes in their communities. That sparked her passion to get involved.  

“It occurred to me in that encounter that we might actually replicate inequality in our transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy if we weren’t careful about how we were doing that transition,” she continued.   

The same challenges Baker saw abroad were also playing out right here in the United States. As a professor at the University of Hawaii, she saw the toll the energy sector took on residents. 

“The communities of color there, the native Hawaiian communities, had little say in energy decision-making and the siting of large-scale energy facilities, including the dirtiest energy facilities in the state,” she added. “All the environmental burdens were in these Black, Brown and Indigenous communities.”  

Working toward an equitable energy future

Throughout the course of American history, communities of color have too often been denied a voice in decisions that impact them, according to Baker. This led to the rise of the environmental justice movement in the 1980s, because these communities felt as though they were being excluded – a feeling which is now echoed by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities in relation to energy.  

Melinda Downing, an environmental justice program manager who has been with the Department for more than 40 years, said the Department would hear concerns from residents about environmental decisions that left them out of the process.  

In response, over the next several decades the Department implemented several programs to create a more inclusive, collaborative environment with communities of color.  

All of our programs are definitely beneficial, for both the communities and the Department. So, it’s like a two-way street. It’s a win-win for all of us.

Melinda Downing
Environmental Justice Program Manager

The Savannah River Site, a nuclear waste management and environmental cleanup facility in Aiken, S.C., was the first DOE location to partner with surrounding residents and local organizations toward the end of the Cold War. Local citizens were aware of the operations going on at the facility but were not a part of the decision-making process, according to Downing, prompting them to organize a community advisory project that met every month with the site manager and senior leaders to provide input on decisions being made at the facility.   

Over time, these efforts expanded into annual workshops geared toward underrepresented and underserved communities to educate residents about the site and what it does. Teaching Radiation, Energy and Technology – or TREAT – has spent the past 25 years bringing together site managers, experts and engineers with K-12 school teachers and students, and community members to the Savannah River Site for hands-on demonstrations on storing nuclear waste and lessons on the facility’s operations in easy-to-understand language.   

The Savannah River Site isn’t the only departmental entity working with local citizens. Today, eight community-driven Environmental Management Site Specific Advisory Boards comprised of a diverse membership partner with the Department to provide public input on the cleanup decisions. This public input helps the Department make decisions which are cost-effective, community-specific and environmentally sound — leading to faster, safer cleanup.

“All of our programs are definitely beneficial, for both the communities and the Department,” Downing said. “So, it’s like a two-way street. It’s a win-win for all of us.” 

The fight for energy justice

Even with these strides toward a more equitable energy world, an energy divide still exists.   

For example, African Americans have historically had challenges accessing the benefits of solar energy. In the United States, Black residents are less likely to have rooftop solar compared to their neighbors with similar home ownership rates and income, according to a recent study cited by Baker. Communities of color also face unequal access to energy generation and battery storage, which is a concern given the potential for power outages due to the rising number of major weather events caused by climate change.  

It’s not just about helping the country for Baker, it’s about helping the planet. She sees her position as an opportunity to set a global example for an equitable clean energy transition. Joining the agency will not only allow her to ensure energy justice is an element in all of the Department’s day-to-day operations, but she will also be able to use its resources to advance an equitable clean energy future.    

It’s not that the President has made a significant commitment to communities of color, he’s made a significant commitment to the rest of us, to everybody. Equity is not zero sum. We all benefit.

Shalanda Baker
Deputy Director for Energy Justice

“If I can do that, then I am not only going to help move the needle in a significant way in the United States, but I’ll be able to do it in an extraordinary way, internationally,” she continued. “There’s so much potential for global impact.”  

Baker’s start with the department comes at the same time the new Biden Administration is implementing a new focus on environmental and energy justice. In an executive order issued just days after his inauguration, President Biden announced a new government-wide Justice40 Initiative, with the goal of delivering 40% of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities. It will also track the progress of this goal through a new Environmental Justice Scoreboard. 

“It’s not that the President has made a significant commitment to communities of color, he’s made a significant commitment to the rest of us, to everybody. Equity is not zero sum. We all benefit,” Baker said. She also stressed the importance of making sure this program is integral and integrated into the country’s approach to climate change and clean energy.  

It all starts with making sure communities of color have a seat at the table. Baker’s plans to make this an essential component of her work include creating mechanisms for these stakeholders to engage with the design and implementation of this initiative, and consistently engaging her national network of community organizations, policy makers and academics.  

“I’m building on the work of so many before me,” she said. “I’m building on the work of advocates. I’m building on the work of academics. I see energy policy as a domain to advance civil rights. I see it as a domain of promise, creation and transformation. I’m only standing on the shoulders, though, of those who’ve been fighting the bad for so long. I’m now hoping that the good is actually in service of those same communities. That’s my work.”