Janiece Watts, Fresh Energy

Equity and environmental justice have been a focal point for Janiece Watts for more than a decade. She is now at Fresh Energy, a nonprofit focused on transitioning Minnesota to a clean energy economy.

Environmental Justice

I loved being in nature as a kid, 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.

Seeing the disparities that underserved communities face in so many ways gives me constant motivation to understand the reasons through interrogating the process of policy development and its impact.

For too long, we have seen the consequences of environmental and energy legislation that is crafted in spaces of exclusion and results in harm.

At Fresh Energy we ask questions that may sound simple but are complex in practice: Who will benefit? Who will be negatively impacted? What is necessary for a just transition?

I am seeing solidarity, slow-going as it might look, in the environmental justice movement. When relationship building is a priority, when narratives are centered, leadership enables us to challenge spaces that have dismissed lived experience.

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

Transforming Justice reporting is made possible by Alicia Gibson, who ran for Minneapolis City Council in Ward 10, who says: “Thank you to all our supporters. We did not win this time around, but we created a movement that goes on. As peacekeepers, we are called upon to model political engagement and action that leaves no one behind and that listens before leaping. Let’s keep finding ways to do the most good.”

Equity in Process

Recently, Fresh Energy has undergone changes that give me hope for our climate future. First, we have new faces on our Energy Access and Equity (EAE) team: Mari Ojeda, policy associate and Anjali Bains, lead director.

Ojeda is focusing on how to strengthen housing affordability by reducing the energy cost burden, which is defined as the percentage of household income spent on energy costs. This is higher for under-resourced households than for the average household, ranging as high as 30 percent in some areas of Minnesota. To this aim, the Energy Optimization and Conservation Act passed in the Minnesota State Legislature last spring.

Prior to joining our program team, Bains led Fresh Energy’s work to bring more electric vehicles to Minnesota. Bains joins Ojeda and me in developing strategies for elevating equity, justice, and anti-oppression in the clean energy policies Fresh Energy advocates for, as well as internally with staff.

In August, I became the new director of culture and partnerships for EAE, prioritizing the work of organizational culture and development in justice and anti- racism, as well as deepening Fresh Energy’s relationships with environmental justice leaders. Rather than merely stating equity or justice as a goal, I try to grasp what “equity in process” must mean for the energy solutions we are working to discover.

The age of climate chaos is here: extreme weather, Covid-19, and major societal shifts caused by white supremacy and the continued marginalization of vulnerable people. It is often daunting, overwhelming, and exhausting. But I must make my intentions clear, for my intentions give me hope.

I intend to both challenge the power structures designed to exclude people like me, and create pathways for many more of us to become rooted in our own individual and collective power.

With a team of women of color now leading this work at Fresh Energy and beyond, I am hopeful that we will make major strides.