Building Dreams through Community-Building

By Dr. Henry C. McKoy

Dr. Henry McKoy headshot

As the weather gets colder, I think about the days when I was growing up in rural North Carolina. 

I was born in 1973, and for the first five years of my life, me and my three older sisters lived in what we would call a shot gun house with my grandmother.  It was a tiny home with no indoor plumbing, no telephone, and a pot belly stove. We lived on a dirt road, only a few hundred feet away from a trash dump.  

After my mother lost her job at the local factory, my sisters and I moved in with my parents to another house down a dirt road that was a bit bigger. It had indoor plumbing, but no hot water. To wash dishes and take baths, we had to boil the water on the stove. While there wasn’t a dump behind the house, there was raw sewage running above ground. 

For the next ten years, until I was 15, I lived in this house that was collapsing around me and my family, with rats as big as kittens, no hot water, and no central heating or cooling.  

The first oil crisis of the 1970s began the same year I was born. While the Oil Embargo and the overall oil crisis ended at the end of the 1970s, there was always an oil crisis when I was growing up. 

We got our heat from a blow heater connected to a large oil drum. More often than not, my parents’ money would run out at the same time as the oil. We would have to wait until my father, an Army soldier, got paid once a month to get more oil. In the winter, the three to four days between the oil running out and the money coming in made for some cold memories. I remember standing around the stove with my siblings trying to get warm before school, hating that we had to carry water from the stove to the bathroom because it was freezing.

I remember on weekends not even getting out of bed some days because it was just too cold. But mostly I remember laying in the dark of the night, in the bed that I shared with my sister, seeing our breath from the moonlight coming into the window, and hearing the chatter of my own teeth.  In those times, I had no idea what weatherization was, or energy efficiency. My home growing up wouldn’t have even qualified for weatherization assistance because of the disrepair. I had no idea what environmental injustice was. During those years, all I did was dream about a better future for me and my family.  Because even in the worst home, and community, there is still room to dream.  

As the U.S. EPA points out, “Children in overburdened and highly-exposed communities may suffer from a reduced ability to recover from harmful environmental exposures, due to lowered resilience. This can particularly affect children in low-income communities, as well as children in communities underserved by education, healthcare, and housing.” With October as Children’s Environmental Health Month, it is an excellent time to reflect on how we have a responsibility to ensure that our programs improve people’s lives, their homes, their communities. So children can grow up safe and healthy to pursue their dreams. 

Nonprofits are a critical but often overlooked group of organizations that are vital to healthy, vibrant communities. They provide services that not just can change a child’s life, but also lift people of every age, race, and class. From worship facilities, hospitals and museums, to food banks and youth services. These organizations can have such a positive impact — with energy costs often their second-largest operational expense. This month, SCEP announced the nine prime selectees for the Renew America’s Nonprofits grant, a competitive award that will provide $45 million in awards that will deliver energy improvements to 300 facilities across the country through partnering organizations and more. On October 25, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm made the announcement herself – on our behalf – at Martha’s Kitchen, a food pantry in San Jose, CA that worked with one of the selectees, Ecology Action, to install energy efficiency retrofits so they could pay less energy bills and direct more of their resources to serve meals to people in need.

State and local governments also have a crucial role in changing lives for the better. We announced the initial tranche of $30 million in funding through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) Program to 28 state, local and tribal governments to improve energy efficiency and advance crucial clean energy and infrastructure upgrades in public and private spaces. This first group of awardees will make crucial energy efficiency upgrades to schools, hospitals, multi- and single- family homes, streets, ballparks, libraries and more. Many of these upgrades will serve disadvantaged communities. With over 2,700 states, territories, local governments, and Tribes from every region of the country eligible to receive a portion of the more than $430 million in formula grant funding, transformations are happening across the country right in your community.

But not every community has the means to make these vital improvements in public facilities. Repairs and upgrades often require resources that are diverted to other pressing needs, and funding is not always readily available. It turns out that organizations can pay for today’s building upgrades with tomorrow’s guaranteed energy savings through Energy Savings Performance Contracting (ESPC), a proven, budget-neutral contracting and financing method for public sector building owners. By partnering with an energy services company, building owners can improve their buildings with little or no money down, and pay for special loans with the money saved from lower utility bills. 

With ESPC, public building owners can start much needed maintenance, manage growing energy costs, streamline the operations and maintenance of their facilities. Through building and energy improvements, they can improve air quality and the health and comfort of those in the building, also increasing energy security and resiliency. Last week, we launched the ESPC Campaign to create a network of public facilities and others to offer technical assistance and support, enhance, and expand the use ESPC. We will work with state and local governments, K-12 schools, and public universities, colleges and hospitals to share and leverage practical resources to build knowledge and technical capacity, adopt best practice approaches for projects and programs, and collectively achieve $1 billion in measured and verified savings by 2030. 

What’s even better is that ESPCs can be used in conjunction with several SCEP programs, including the State Energy Program, Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program, Energy Efficiency Revolving Loan Fund Capitalization Grant Program, and the Renew America’s Schools Program, among other federal programs.

My childhood experience – which simultaneously seems so long ago yet not very long ago at all – deeply grounds me in the community building work that I do every day in collaboration with our fantastic team at SCEP, incredible colleagues across the U.S. Department of Energy, committed partners throughout the federal government, and dedicated stakeholders across America like you all.  

Though my own dreams have taken me far from my beginnings in socioeconomic terms, I have never stopped dreaming of a world where childhood experiences like mine are a thing of the past – not just for me but for all.  To transform the lives of our youth, it is critical that the public sector makes the right investments now and in the future. Not just at this moment, not just for this time, but ongoing. It is critical that these be deep investments, broad investments, and most of all equitable investments – state by state, county by county, city by city, community by community, household by household. Together, we can build communities across the country for dreams to thrive – not just during Children’s Environmental Health Month, but every month and every day.  I hope you will join us.