It has been over a year since the first case of COVID-19 in the U.S., and many low-income and Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities have yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel. While the interwoven pandemics of economic inequity, racial injustice and COVID-19 continue to persist, there have been various bright-shining examples of positive change.
One such example was the Energy Democracy Leadership Institute (EDLI), which launched in late June 2020 and recently graduated an intergenerational and Black and Indigenous cohort of 16 emerging leaders from 8 counties in Eastern North Carolina. This is a region where environmental racism, chronic disinvestment and climate disasters are pervasive issues. EDLI, a collaborative project of the NC Climate Justice Collective and NC WARN, was organized by a multi-racial and intergenerational team that included an indigenous youth organizer from one of the impacted communities, Jorden Revels.
As EDLI participant Chester Williams put it, “EDLI is an innovative program which provides an inter-generational approach to discussing energy and climate injustices in rural and marginalized communities within Eastern North Carolina — connecting unlike voices together for common purpose to build collective power.”
Over the course of 7 months, participants learned to organize their communities around energy justice concerns affecting them directly, such as high energy burden, fracked gas infrastructure, forest destruction for wood pellet facilities, factory farm biogas, and coal ash pollution. The EDLI approach emphasized community-led climate solutions, while building tangible skills such as community-informed policy advocacy and collective leadership development.
It is important to highlight how EDLI took a much different approach to more traditional environmental and climate education initiatives. The intentional focus on a culturally relevant process led to a more engaging, creative and equitable learning environment. EDLI participant Kennedy Goode reflects that, “The most powerful moment for me from the Institute was being able to continuously work with others living in eastern North Carolina and learn about their experiences with climate injustice. It is difficult to know about what others are going through without directly hearing their lived experiences.”
EDLI culminated with a highly successful briefing and roundtable for local elected officials, which was organized and led by EDLI participants. While this round of EDLI training has ended, in many ways — the seeds have just been planted. Already, EDLI graduates are assisting with the formation of new regional Resiliency Organizing Hubs. In addition, EDLI recently announced the launch of a 6-month EDLI Fellowship for recent graduates to lead their own energy democracy campaigns, and a 6-week Activator Internship to give emerging leaders an intensive introduction to grassroots organizing on a particular energy justice issue.
Outside of North Carolina, the EDLI leadership team is looking for and working with anchor community partners, as well as funders, that are interested in bringing EDLI to their own region, while adapting the curriculum for the local context.
While we all continue to face uncertain times ahead, it is critical that we use a holistic, community-led approach that centers and lifts up the people who are struggling the most from intersecting harms. Especially in the context of addressing the climate crisis through a just transition approach, we must invest in our people power; as EDLI demonstrates, that means education, capacity building and direct investments in Black and Indigenous communities.