Lack of Diversity Silences Voices
NEW ORLEANS — Eighty-one years after U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal provided federal loans and grants for establishing rural membership cooperatives to connect the “last mile” and bring electricity to almost all of rural America, 800 rural co-ops deliver electricity to some forty-two million Americans. Unlike other electric providers, residential customers use 57% of cooperatives’ power.
Rural electric cooperatives in many areas are often a significant economic presence and employers with assets and sales throughout the South of billions of dollars annually.
The membership (customer-owners) is supposed to be democratically represented on co-op boards. However, “Electric Cooperative Board Diversity is a Failure in the South,” concludes that co-op boards are overwhelmingly white and male despite demographics in service areas, even when those areas have significant Black or Hispanic populations.
The report follows “The Crisis in Rural Electric Cooperatives in The South,” an investigation of rural co-op boards in 12 southern states conducted by Labor Neighbor Research & Training Center and ACORN International five years ago in 2016. This report measures what progress was made or, in this case, not made in that period. In many cases, the report found that co-op boards made an effort on their public communications to hide the lack of diversity in their governance. Wade Rathke, Chief Organizer of ACORN, noted that “Rural electric cooperatives are touted as one of the great icons of New Deal democracy, but it appears now that they have become entrenched ‘old boy clubs’ in too much of the South, out of synch with their communities, the members, and the urgent climate issues of our time.”
“There is too much evidence of democracy lost, and discrimination found. Transparency is rare, and too many rules and procedures maintain a status quo that seems more frozen in the fifties before the civil rights and women’s rights’ movements,” investigators concluded in 2016.
The new report finds that the population is 56% white in the 12-state region. Meanwhile, whites make up 93.1% of the boards of these states’ electricity co-ops. Co-op governance has been an issue in recent years in Louisiana, North Carolina, and Texas.
Rural Co-op Boards lacking diversity and transparency seem to engage in a pattern of discrimination that leaves Blacks and other people of color without an opportunity to provide input on potential changes to energy sources, board elections, or employment and procurement matters. Many also remain uninformed about how the relationship between electric cooperatives and members works.