Diversifying PowerDiversifying Power: Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy

Jennie C. Stephens, PhD

(Island Press, September 2020).

If you find yourself overwhelmed trying to make sense of and track the multiple crises now confronting us — climate and energy, economic inequity, systemic racism and sexism, the COVID-19 pandemic — there is good news. Help is at hand.

“Diversifying Power: Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy” is a radical book, a call to action for restructuring society in response to these crises.  In a mere 174 pages, Jennie C. Stephens, Director of the School for Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University in Boston,  argues that the climate crisis is a failure of leadership and the remedy is antiracist, feminist leadership focused on collaboration and inclusion.

How Stephens makes the case is at least as valuable as the case itself. Speaking for a moment as a thirty-year veteran of analyzing, organizing and presenting complex information to make it readily accessible to the general reader, Stephens has succeeded in structuring this book to lead readers along a well-marked path to understanding. Moreover, she peppers her engaging text with examples of women in leadership roles across a wide variety of innovative projects undertaken in critical situations. These examples do more than inspire hope and motivate action: they model how to take the needed action.

The following overview of the content and structure serves to convey the power of the book — the temptation to call it a ‘handbook’ is strong. Stephens’s Preface follows the Foreword by Dr. Ted Landsmark, Director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University in Boston. Foreword and Preface work together to establish the historical context for racism and sexism in the United States.

In the Foreword, Dr. Landsmark traces the history of notions of ‘environmentalism’ and ‘social justice’ beginning with his childhood in the 1950s as the “postpolio black son of a single parent in East Harlem’s projects”. Notably, he observes that recent extreme weather events have not only “had devastating effects on poor communities of color”, they have also garnered widespread attention in those communities. Landsmark writes:

“The failure of largely white policy makers to prepare for — and respond adequately to — global public health and environmental threats has worsened racial disparities and social injustices. This failure has reinforced the sense that ‘The Man’ doesn’t care about supporting impoverished communities of color, even as those communities have provided the cheap labor and exploitable resources that have supported American capitalism.”

In her Preface, Stephens tells of arriving in the U.S. from Dublin, Ireland, at the age of eight with her parents and of growing up as the child of Irish immigrants in a predominantly white community in Boston, “largely unaware of the racist realities all around me.” She recounts how her awareness of sexism and her subsequent embrace of feminism came about in the wake of the improper advances of a college professor.

Growing more slowly over time, Stephens writes, has been her recognition of racism. She says her awareness of her own role in “perpetuating structural racism” has grown and deepened in an ongoing journey. It is, she adds, a journey that has “humbled” her. Testifying to the depth of her commitment is her contribution of all author proceeds from sale of the book to the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program.

Growing awareness also brought an unexpected benefit. With keen insight, Stephens observes a similarity between “how some men feel threatened by feminism” and “how threatened many white people feel when talking about racism.” The insight has deepened as Stephens has come to realize “the links between those denying climate change to sustain fossil fuel reliance and those upholding patriarchal, conservative views to sustain the systems that gave them concentrated wealth and power.” She wrote Diversifying Power, she adds, to lower the hostility toward feminism and antiracism by showing how social justice and climate action are connected.

Stephens’s graduate training centered on environmental science and engineering, and the focus of the School for Public Policy and Urban Affairs, where she serves as Director, is on energy and environment at the intersection of science, technology, and policy. Thus, both her training and position provide her with a commanding viewpoint for observing the reciprocal shift currently underway: social justice advocates linking their issues to the climate emergency; climate activists linking to such social justice movements as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. The net result is increased momentum for restructuring society to gain resilience and sustainability.

This shift did more: it also nurtured in Stephens a “distinct sense of optimism”. It is an optimism, she explains, that flows from social activists and political movements rather than from scientists or engineers. The issues relating to the climate crisis and those relating to inequity – racial and economic – require, in Stephens’s words, “transformative politics to disrupt the status quo and restructure society.”

Chapters 1 and 2 work together to introduce the protagonists and antagonists in this epic struggle:

  • Chapter 1 | Introduction: Growing the Squad refers to the four nonwhite first-term Congressional Representatives derided by Trump. Responding to President Trump’s ‘public display of racist misogyny’, Congresswoman Ayana Pressley (D-MA) notably replied “Anyone who is interested in building a more equitable and just world is a part of the Squad.”

We need to grow the Squad, writes Stephens, by electing leaders committed to social justice who recognize the linkages between our biggest challenges. In this, Stephens singles out Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who has used her global platform to advocate for a people-first approach to climate. Memorably associated with Robinson is the tagline: “Climate change is a man-made problem that requires a feminist solution.”

Robinson is on to something, to wit, writes Stephens:

“According to recently published research, countries with more women in leadership positions adopt more stringent climate policies than countries where women do not play as prominent a leadership role. This analysis of ninety-one countries concluded that increasing female political representation is an under-recognized mechanism for addressing the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This study is consistent with other research showing that women have greater awareness and concern about environmental issues and that diversity of all kinds encourages innovation.” [Emphasis added.]

  • Chapter 2 | Resisting the Polluter Elite refers to the select group of influential decision makers, including wealthy shareholders and executives at large multinational fossil fuel companies plus other high net worth individuals who profit from continued fossil-fuel reliance. Eye opening is Stephens’s compelling account of the Koch Brothers’ decades-long, multi-faceted libertarian campaign. Waged from the grassroots to think tanks, through the public school system and universities, the campaign’s single-minded focus on undermining public trust in government is sobering in light of our current political situation. Pulling it all together, Table 2.1 lists the Tentacles of ‘The Kochtopus’, complete with Descriptions and Examples.

As counterweight to Koch efforts to erode public trust, Stephens wastes no time in introducing three bold, antiracist, feminist leaders. First up is Maura Healey, elected in Massachusetts in 2014 as the first openly gay attorney general in the United States. Throughout her career, Healey has demonstrated principled leadership in multiple areas, including marriage equality, immigration rights, and resisting the polluter elite. Calling herself the “people’s lawyer”, in October 2019 her office sued Exxon Mobil — Commonwealth v Exxon Mobil Corporation — for deceiving Massachusetts consumers about the role of fossil fuels in climate change and for misleading investors about the associated financial risks. Elected officials like Healey, Stephens writes, foster trust in government when public trust in government in the U.S. is at an all-time low, yet also precisely when a trusted, competent government is essential for effecting the transformative changes required to confront the climate crisis while reducing economic and racial injustices.

Next, Stephens presents UnKoch My Campus, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve democracy by protecting higher education from those with the expressed intent to place private interests above the common good. Founded in 2013 by students at several universities who realized how Koch family donations were influencing curriculum, research, and hiring/firing of faculty on their campuses, UnKoch My Campus now supports efforts to resist corporate-backed white supremacy on campuses, corporate influence on K-12 education, and corporate efforts to influence the courts and judicial decisions. Table 2.3 ‘Grounding beliefs for UnKoch My Campus’ is a telling statement of the organization’s core principles. At the helm, executive director Jasmine Banks provides a bold example of diverse leadership taking on and resisting the polluter elite.

Last up is the NAACP’S Environmental and Climate Justice Program. Under the bold, innovative leadership of its director, Jacqueline Patterson, the program focuses on exposing how fossil fuel interests have manipulated and taken advantage of communities of color. On April Fool’s Day in 2019, Patterson’s group released a report titled Fossil Fueled Foolery. The publication reveals the ‘Top Ten Fossil Fuel Industry Tactics’ (Table 2.3) deployed by the industry in communities of color and provides resources and specific suggestions for how frontline communities can resist corporate deception, reclaim their community independence, and restructure local energy systems by advancing the shift toward energy democracy.

Summing up, Stephens pulls no punches, asserting that leaders like Healey, Banks and Patterson remind us that resistance is not a moderate position. She supports her assertion by quoting Martin Luther King, Jr:

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

It is very possible that the magnitude of the disruption occasioned by COVID-19 is creating new opportunities for transformative, radical change. In making her case for this change, Stephens relies on two key concepts and a related strategy to strengthen and clarify her argument:

Climate Isolationism defines climate change as a ‘narrow, isolated, discrete problem’ needing a ‘technological solution’. The term describes the strategy favored by the polluter elite to divert public attention from the alternative.

Climate Democracy, in contrast, describes a growing social movement envisioning a fossil-fuel-free future in which individuals, households, and communities rely on “a diverse mix of renewable energy with local ownership, local control, and local benefits.”

Resist-Reclaim-Restructure is a strategic approach for supporting Climate Democracy by informing the grassroots development of practices and systems for advancing a just, equitable, and sustainable future.

In Chapters 3-6, Stephens builds on the resist-reclaim-restructure strategic approach to address the connections between and among key issues. Each chapter positions climate and energy as the overarching concern embracing, in turn, jobs, health and well-being, transportation and mobility, and housing. Each chapter spotlights bold, innovative antiracist, feminist leaders striding out front.

  • Chapter 3 | Jobs and Economic Justice focuses on the growing strength of leaders responding to – i.e., resisting – the ever-growing economic gap. By focusing on the widespread need for better, more stable jobs and higher wages, these leaders are reclaiming the power of workers lost with the decline of union strength and influence. By linking job creation and economic justice with ambitious climate and energy action, by prioritizing investments in good jobs for all, quality education for all, and job training in the transition to a renewable economy, these innovative leaders are advocating for a restructuring of society to assure the future wellbeing of all.
  • Chapter 4 | Health, Well-Being, and Nutritious Food for All focuses on innovative leadership integrating health, nutrition, and well-being with climate and energy. Leaders responding to growing health disparities, unequal access to healthy food, and the overall decline in well-being among large segments of the US population are reclaiming public health priorities by connecting them with climate action and the renewable energy transformation. These leaders recognize that climate resilience includes public health investments sufficient to prepare for such events as the spread of new infectious diseases, like COVID-19. Simply put, they are leveraging these powerful synergies to justify a major restructuring of public health funding.
  • Chapter 5 | Clean Transportation for All responds to the harsh reality that limited transportation options lead to hardship in underserved communities. Leaders reclaiming the need for equity in transportation services are connecting with diversifying non-fossil-fuel-reliant transit options. Transportation is arguably the most blatant example of how and why a narrow technological focus (discussed earlier) limits social change and exacerbates inequities. Diversifying leadership in transportation seeks to bridge, not worsen, gaps in service; thus, the focus is on ensuring that “all transportation projects connect people to jobs, housing, education, and health services”. Innovative leaders focus on advocating for restructuring mobility systems not solely to embrace clean mass transit options, but also to include such non-car-related alternatives as infrastructure systems in support of walking and cycling.
  • Chapter 6 | Housing for All responds to housing insecurity by focusing on examples of diverse leadership linking housing, buildings, and homelessness with climate and energy. Beyond the technical potential of zero-emissions buildings, leaders and activists are reclaiming the right to housing for all and linking the issue to investments in climate-resilient housing and buildings. Such linkages can leverage the transformative potential of restructuring investments in public housing, building retrofits, and cooperatively owned housing.

The final chapter is possibly my favorite. It practically and imaginatively responds to the question plaguing many of us: what can I do?

  • Chapter 7 | Conclusion: Collective Power. We know that we have to phase out fossil fuels and transition to renewables. We know that every human being merits a wholesome lifestyle — healthy food, housing, mobility, and a living wage. Considered in these terms, says Stephens, “big change does not seem so radical.” Responding to the potential, people are joining the Squad to grow a diverse coalition of bold leaders resisting the oppressive power of the polluter elite, reclaiming the “rightful role of public investment to protect the public good, and restructuring society for a more just, sustainable, and regenerative future.”

In conclusion, Stephens lays out fifteen specific, yet quite varied, action steps that anyone can take to advance antiracist, feminist leadership. It is a fertile list. A brief description and useful resources accompany each action step. Actionable ideas include joining a local activist group in your own community, getting involved in efforts to unlearn racism and sexism, advocating for local renewable energy for low-income neighborhoods in your city or town, and focusing on systemic change rather than individual change.

The Squad is indeed growing as coalitions align around a people-first approach for resisting, reclaiming, and restructuring society. The time is now, and this highly useful, readable book includes extensive Notes that invite further exploration. Diversifying Power is just what is called for to lead the way toward a more equitable, resilient, and sustainable future.