How I Build Equity Into Energy

Janiece Watts, Senior Policy Associate/Energy Access and Equity, Fresh Energy

Equity and environmental justice have been a focal point for Janiece Watts for more than a decade — food justice, affordable housing, zero waste, healthcare, air quality, climate crisis, fair wage, labor rights. She has worked with Eureka Recycling and Neighbors Organizing for Change. Now at Fresh Energy, she offered her insights for fellow Ecolutionaries about how energy and equity are bound together.

I loved being in nature as a kid. I liked spending time outside, but I knew I was not going to make it in a heavy scientific field, like research or forestry, partly because I did not see Black women lifted in those areas. That feeling led me to equity and environmental justice, where questions are asked about why there is so little diversity — Black, Indigenous, people of color, women, LGBTQ+, and different class backgrounds — in environmental industries, nonprofits, and government. 

I have been lucky to work in so many intersecting areas of climate. Seeing the disparities that underserved communities face in so many ways gives me constant motivation to understand the reasons why, and to connect clean energy policy to the need for all people to live healthy lives. My specific role in Energy Access and Equity is to interrogate the impacts of energy and climate policy and question the process of how policy is developed. 

For far too long, we have seen the consequences of environmental and energy legislation that is crafted in spaces of exclusion that results in harm, unintentional as it might have been. 

As Fresh Energy works to electrify the economy and ensure an equitable energy transition, we ask questions that may sound simple but are complex in practice: 

  • Who will benefit? 
  • How will all benefit? 
  • Who will be negatively impacted? 
  • What will be lost? 
  • What is necessary for a just transition?

I am seeing solidarity, slow-going as it might look, in the environmental justice movement. I was able to moderate an incredible panel of advocates for an event with The Alliance, Actualizing Equity From Inclusion to Leadership: Advancing Equity in Climate and Environmental Justice.” 

When relationship building is a priority, when narratives are centered, leadership enables us to confidently challenge spaces that have excluded and dismissed lived experience.

Learning Models

I am a history buff, and I like to highlight the work, narratives, and leaders of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and anti-racism that came before. 

I have a lot of respect for the work of Shawntera Hardy, cofounder Civic Eagle and Fearless Commerce, and former Commission of Minnesota DEED. In 2014, Shawntera Hardy was Fresh Energy’s Director of Transportation and the Built Environment. 

Her work on transportation and public health is pivotal. She laid important groundwork for Fresh Energy to understand transportation in a racial justice framing — how it maintained separation by race and class, and how electrification of transportation must also contribute to breaking down racial and economic disparities. 

I am also interested in the work Fresh Energy did in 2000 with the Pimicikamak Cree Nation  to support their fight against Manitoba Hydro to honor treaty agreements. Imagine where we could be as a society if we had adhered to the framing of a just transition 20 years ago.

Fresh Energy has been a leader in the environmental and energy landscape for nearly 30 years. We have not always put the equity elements of our work front and center, however. It takes commitment of time and support from leadership to authentically strength and expand diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) with internal policies and external legislative and advocacy work. 

Now is the time for everyone to reflect and transform the way we engage with communities. It has become central to the work of Fresh Energy to grasp what DEI truly means — and to name what it means for this organization to be anti-racist.