People stand and hold signs in protest.
Community members and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) workers protest TVA's attempt to outsource 250 IT jobs at the TVA headquarters in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of Knisley.)

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

We’re all familiar with Labor Day, that federal holiday set aside every September to celebrate the contributions of American workers, but what often gets lost in the celebration—in the barbecues and recreation, in the dog days of summer—is an acknowledgment of all the ways workers and communities are linked. We tend to forget that workers have organized and continue to organize for better lives, better wages, safer work environments, and brighter futures in their small towns.

The American workforce is made up of people from all backgrounds and geographies, people with stories and traditions, children and friendships, contributing to their communities. It’s hard to separate that humanness from the jobs we perform everyday—and we would do well to talk about that tension more often, the hands and feet that propel our communities and our economies. How we balance our country’s drive for productivity at all costs with worker civil rights and human dignity is key to building a more inclusive nation.

Here in the Tennessee Valley, there has been a long history of outside interests building their fortunes on the backs of underpaid and overworked people. An unregulated energy industry built upon a long history of predatory land acquisition allowed a small group of wealthy elites to, quite literally, extract life from the land and people of the Valley. In this context, the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933 was, by many accounts, a step towards a better future. TVA was a federal utility that offered affordable power to millions throughout the Valley while generating thousands of good, union jobs for those in desperate need of employment. It became the largest public utility in the country and a model of how public institutions could provide large scale economic development. A public institution for the public good.

Fast forward to today. We are faced with the many foreseen and unforeseen consequences of an extractive energy industry. Even public utilities like TVA, which provided major advancements for the economic well-being of many Appalachian communities, must reckon with the long-term damage that extraction has dealt. With the complexities of our current crisis, there is much debate about how (and whether) we can muster the collective will to transition away from an extraction economy, to one that centers the well-being of people and planet. The stakes are extremely high for millions of people across Tennessee, the U.S. and the world. And yet, the people who have most to lose are the very folks routinely ignored when it comes time to make hard decisions. This has led many in the Tennessee Valley to wonder whether public institutions like TVA, actually value a “public” voice in shaping the future of energy and economy.

The good news is, there are many individuals and organizations asking these hard questions. Folks fighting to build the collective voice of those who will be most impacted by the decisions made about our energy future. Just before the pandemic hit, a network of grassroots organizations led by Appalachian Voices, hosted a statewide listening tour. This tour focused on gaining a grassroots perspective on the future of energy in the Tennessee Valley from everyday Tennesseans in mostly rural counties. Bri Knisley, Campaign Manager for Appalachian Voices, sat down with us to share a few learnings that emerged from this tour, and where she finds hope moving forward.

Whitney Kimball Coe & Austin Sauerbrei, The Daily Yonder: Tell us a bit about your own background, and what drove you to get involved in this work.

Bri Knisley: I got into activism and organizing as a first generation college student. It was a Quaker school so I learned about social change movements through the lens of nonviolent action. Coming from a conservative rural community in southern Ohio, my first time on an airplane took me to a Quaker work camp on a rez in South Dakota. I learned a lot about indigenous sovereignty, class solidarity and collective liberation during that trip and through other experiences, and those values have informed my personal approach to community organizing today.

Bri Knisley is the Tennessee Campaign Manager for Appalachian Voices. Over the last several years, she has been working with families and union leaders to fight for coal ash worker safety and to protect union jobs from outsourcing attempts at the Tennessee Valley Authority. (Photo courtesy of Knisley.)

In 2017 Appalachian Voices hired me to work on our Energy Savings program in East Tennessee, which was focused on reducing emissions and high energy burdens (the percentage of income spent on energy bills) by advocating for inclusive home weatherization programs at rural electric cooperatives. I had very little experience working on energy issues at the time, but the work looked fulfilling and relatable because I grew up in a working class family and knew how hard it was to deal with utility disconnections.

In the last four and half years the program has grown to focus on energy democracy and energy justice issues with a more intersectional approach – it’s still about reducing carbon emissions and high energy burden, but it’s also about empowering marginalized communities to make decisions about their utilities, building local wealth and protecting public health through clean energy projects and cleaning up coal ash, and by demanding safe, well-paying union jobs in the energy transition.

There are a number of steps between generation and consumption for energy in the Tennessee Valley. (Illustration courtesy of Knisley.)

DY: Just before the pandemic hit, you worked with a number of organizations to conduct a statewide listening tour focused on gaining a grassroots perspective on the future of energy in the Tennessee Valley. How did this project come about and why did this group choose to focus on “energy democracy” in particular?

BK: The 2019 “Tennessee Valley Energy Democracy Tour” was a project that involved a lot of hands. At Appalachian Voices, we had just launched our Energy Democracy program and wanted to kick it off with a deep community listening project. Meanwhile, other groups like Science for the People had been convening public meetings about the Green New Deal and what it could look like in Tennessee. Ultimately we all decided it was an important time for communities to write their own vision for the energy future of the Tennessee Valley, because our public power system had been largely undemocratic and caused real harm through top down decision making. You can read about some of those impacts in the People’s History of the Tennessee Valley Authority timeline that we collected. Energy Democracy is about bringing justice and clean and safe power to our communities via equitable and democratic decision-making around energy.

More than 20 organizations, grassroots groups and even some of our local (distributor) power companies came together to host those Energy Democracy Tour stops in 13 urban and rural communities throughout the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) service area. We distilled the information from the listening sessions in a summary report, and many of the organizing groups continued to meet after the tour to coordinate campaigns and share resources in a collaboration called the Tennessee Valley Energy Democracy Movement. We plan to release a policy platform soon that is informed by our findings from the listening tour and subsequent information gathering from key groups.

A group discussion during the Tennessee Valley Energy Democracy Tour stop in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of Knisley.)

DY: Decision-making processes in large public institutions like TVA can be a challenging and complex topic. What have been some of the barriers and challenges to meaningful public participation that folks have identified? What are some of the actions that folks would like to see TVA take?

BK: This was a big topic during the tour. We heard people talk a lot about TVA’s public input processes being disempowering. The public listening sessions that TVA used to offer before board meetings involved a mostly one way communication format – folks could sign up to give a three minute public comment before the board, with board votes on major issues happening on the same day or the day after they received those comments. But most TVA board votes are informed by recommendations from board committees whose meetings take place well before public listening sessions and are not open to the public. I think this model of public input feels really performative for folks.

For many projects, TVA is also required to conduct Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements which ask for public comment. Unfortunately these function like most federal rulemaking processes – comments are collected and most are filed away under explanations for why the concerns raised are a nonissue or how TVA has already addressed them.

There’s also a larger issue around TVA’s board structure. Before the early 2000s, TVA had a 3 person, full time board of directors that had a lot of influence over the direction of the utility. TVA later moved to a part time, 9 person board with a CEO, and many folks think that this shift resulted in a more corporate style of management. Board members are nominated by the POTUS and confirmed by the Senate, and TVA ratepayers have almost zero influence over these decisions.

During the tour, folks said they wanted to see more transparency and accountability in TVA decision making. They said public input should happen earlier in the decision making process and consistently throughout, and people raised ideas around a more participatory style of decision making where groups could submit their own project proposals to TVA. In terms of representation, local folks want more control over who is on the TVA board, perhaps through direct voting for these seats. There was also a lot of focus on TVA staff integrating more closely with communities by bringing education to local institutions and working with local groups on outreach and gathering input. (You can read a more detailed account of these conversations in the listening sessions summary linked above.)

In some interviews that we conducted with various union leaders after the Tour, we heard similar statements around unions wanting to be at the decision making table rather than just being called in for projects when TVA needs workers.

DY: There is a lot of debate about how (and whether) we can transition away from an extraction economy, to one that centers the well-being of people and the planet. Obviously this is a huge topic with many nuances. What are some of the real anxieties, hopes, and fears that came up when talking with folks in the Tennessee Valley?

BK: TVA talks a big game about its clean energy performance, but in reality TVA has not been moving quickly enough to meet climate goals or enable local communities to benefit from the clean energy transition. TVA doesn’t allow net metering and has gutted many of its residential solar programs, so most folks don’t have access to rooftop solar. Meanwhile, nearly half of TVA’s generation still comes from fossil fuels and TVA is one of the worst performing utilities on energy efficiency in the region. TVA recently announced its intention to retire its remaining coal plants, but there’s a lot of indication that the utility will try to replace that capacity with investments in fossil fuel gas.

Folks want TVA to be a national leader in clean energy and energy innovation and have been putting a lot of pressure on the utility to meet these expectations for years. TVA is a massive public utility that employs more than 10,000 annual employees and 11,000 contract workers, many of whom are represented by unions in our right-to-work region. There are nuances of course, but historically, TVA has demonstrated an immense capacity for transforming our infrastructure in a way that brought communities out of poverty and diversified local economies. The pieces are all there, which is why I think people have expectations for TVA to be a national leader on just transition.

DY: In reading through the report, the safety and livelihood of energy workers in the TVA system is placed on par with the need to address the larger environmental impacts of our energy future. What are a few of the ways this theme emerged in your conversations? What have been some of the significant areas of alignment between labor and the energy democracy movement?

BK: When we kicked off the Energy Democracy Tour, one of the major political conditions surrounding TVA was the threat of distributor utility defection. There were, and still are, local utilities looking for different electricity providers that could supply cheaper and cleaner power than TVA has been willing to provide. Some groups in the Energy Democracy Movement have been concerned that mass defection could lead to the eventual privatization of TVA’s assets and a huge decline in the number of well paid union jobs here in the Tennessee Valley. So in many ways the fight to bring energy democracy and clean energy transition to TVA is inseparable from the fight to grow and expand union jobs in our region.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get a lot of participation from the 17 unions that represent TVA’s employees during the Energy Democracy Tour, in part because we didn’t have great connections with those unions at the time. But in the months following the tour the (Tennessee Valley) Energy Democracy Movement began reaching out to various unions for informal interviews to get a better understanding of their needs and concerns as workers at TVA. Those perspectives have heavily influenced the people’s policy platform for TVA that we plan to release this year. 

While TVA does provide a lot of union jobs here in the Valley, the utility has also done some real damage to workers. The Kingston coal ash spill of 2008 is a prime example – workers who cleaned up that major industrial disaster for six years following the spill were deliberately denied proper PPE and have been sickened or killed from their exposure to the coal ash. TVA continues to do business with the contractor who denied those workers PPE and refuses to support the Kingston workers with health care coverage. Many groups in the Energy Democracy Movement have been partnering with the families of the Kingston workers to demand better worker protections and enforcement in upcoming clean up projects.

A protest at Jacobs Engineering Headquarters on the anniversary of the Kingston Spill in December of 2019. (Photo by John Todd Waterman.)

The Energy Democracy Movement has also been supporting workers with fights against outsourcing attempts at TVA. In 2020 TVA tried to outsource roughly 250 annual, union represented IT jobs and we collaborated with a number of organizations to push back against this with local protests. I think environmental and community groups in the movement are really dedicated to building solidarity with workers and they’ve been demonstrating that by showing up. 

Ultimately a major energy transition at TVA is going to have a big influence on the kinds of jobs that are available and it’s not going to be as simple as all of the existing workers being trained to install solar or energy efficiency. Environmental groups will have to push for new jobs to go to union workers and for diverse pre- apprenticeship programs to support that job growth, for early retirement packages for some existing workers and well paid training and transition time, and for safety to be a priority in all of this. We have an opportunity to build a really bright future here in the Valley if community groups and labor unions stand together and fight for it.

Throughout the month of September our partner organization, the Rural Assembly, is spotlighting the importance of labor organizing and labor movements in the lives of rural, Native, and immigrant Americans and their communities. 

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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