Conversation

Creating a bright future with clean energy

Drawing on hope, compassion, creativity

A Beacon Through
Challenging Times

 

In June of 2020, Lissa Pawlisch, CERTs Statewide Director, sat down virtually for a conversation with Marie Donahue, Sustainability Storyteller with CERTs. It was just a month into Marie's time at CERTs, a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis that sparked uprisings demanding racial justice across the state and country.

Drawing on a commitment and sentiments conveyed in an earlier note of support to communities across Minnesota in these challenging times, we discussed where the work of CERTs and partners to advance clean energy in the state fits in this landscape and what might come next. The message from Lissa is clear: The commitment of CERTs to help create a bright future for all Minnesotans continues.

 

Listen to the conversation or read it below.

Both the audio and write-up have been edited for length and clarity.

I think that the energy system can be kind of a beacon in this moment. Once people start thinking about, “Okay, so what? What is a new normal?” I think clean energy can be a part of that.

Lissa Pawlisch, CERTs Statewide Director

Marie Donahue: How are you currently feeling about where clean energy stands in the challenging times we find ourselves in, as so many important issues demand our attention and action?

Lissa Pawlisch: The only way I could think to describe it is I waffle between utterly deflated and optimistic, and I'm generally an optimistic person. I know there are just so many wonderful, talented, thoughtful people in the clean energy space, which gives me a ton of hope even now.

I was having a conversation last week about how this was a moment that brought environmental justice to the fore for clean energy people. How environmental justice is related to COVID-19 and also the health disparities that people are already suffering from and now having that all compounded by COVID-19.

I think one of the things that's challenged us is when you've lost your job or you've just lost your business, or your businesses had to close—it’s hard to believe clean energy would be at the top of your list of priorities. And when you're worried about your health and your life, again you've got a lot of other things that you're thinking about.

I think that the energy system can be kind of a beacon in this moment. Once people start thinking about, “Okay, so what? What is a new normal?” I think clean energy can be a part of that.

One of the things that I'm trying to really hold close is that we're not starting from scratch. There's a ton of work that has been done [in clean energy and social justice]. People have been working on this for decades and people are so passionate about this work. I mean, I've never met anybody that does clean energy work who goes, “Nah, I’d kinda rather be doing something else.” That's not the sort of people who are doing this. And so it's all these people who are now like, yeah, let's really lean in. That feels good. That feels like the optimism that we want to help create the future that we want.

Marie DonahueAs we look to that future as CERTs and as individuals and communities, how do you think we can make sense of and integrate what’s happening in this period of rapid change?

Lissa Pawlisch: I think stories are something that we, as an organization, have been thinking a lot about for a long time. Even the initial work that formed CERTs was just a bunch of stories and case studies about projects that were happening around the state. That was such an essential component. I still remember all of those case studies being an opportunity for people to see that clean energy was just happening. Stories give voice and they paint a picture. They’re a way to really be able to see it and reflect on someone's experience, and that is huge in terms of that integration of change here. So that’s an important piece to put forward, as we move forward, to really think about what are those stories that we want to hold up.

Marie Donahue: What tangible actions, seeds of activity or inspiration have you seen in CERTs work or that of other partners in these times that give you hope?

Lissa Pawlisch: Rather than leaning back, rather than disengaging, I would say I'm inspired by how people have leaned in during these times.

This may be silly, but I have been really inspired by our team and people's ability to bob and weave and to be creative about where we want to go. CERTs is a partnership, which allows us to have lots of connections and all sorts of different spheres of work. The Regional Partnerships, our parent organization, at the University of Minnesota, really quickly after the shutdown, pivoted to provide really tremendous resources back out to communities—around curbside grocery pickup and how to transition grocery stores and create food kits. That sort of brass tacks: "Let's just get to work. How do we help? How do we serve?" And in parallel, the Regional Partnerships and our CERTs coordinators were doing really interesting engagement with communities, since they are all regionally- and community-based.

So we were reaching out, asking, “What do you need? What funding do you need? What are your gaps? What are some things we could do to fill in?”

What people mean when they say you're doing the right thing—is channeling your capacity to do the work. That's the thing that I think has resonated since the start of all of this with everyone with whom we work.

We have steering committee members in each of our seven regions, and we start hosting steering committee meetings pretty early on [during Minnesota’s Stay-at-Home Order] to just check in with people, see how people were doing and hear about what they thought were opportunities or where things were going.

Lissa goes on to explain examples of how CERTs staff and partners have explored ways to leverage federal CARES Act funding to support communities and organizations on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, from energy assistance to food shelves.

Collaborations have sprung up to aid in economic recovery and align efforts and resources to address the most pressing needs. She points out the importance of the CERTs network of partners in pivoting priorities in the energy sector and being impressed with the efforts for so many others from supporting small businesses in need in Kandiyohi County, spreading the word about solar investment in Mounds View schools, working with families through remote energy bill clinics organized by the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota, or moving forward on a clean energy workforce training center in North Minneapolis with Renewable Energy Partners.

I'm like, ‘These are the things, these are the things that we want to be doing.’ And those are just huge, huge bright spots.

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Marie DonahueWhen we think about realigning our resources and priorities collectively, how do you think the energy sector can or will help folks bounce back or inspire change or even reinvent the systems we are in?

Lissa Pawlisch: For years, we’ve been doing a lot around low income families and households, really trying to think about what the difference we can make would be. In 2018, at our last CERTs Conference, we hosted a session bringing together a wide variety of folks to help us think about what are the ways we can make a difference? We’ve been trying a lot of different things and been part of a lot of different processes. And that’s gotten us to think about how to address energy poverty and energy burdens. And the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance has done a really great job talking about this too.

We hosted the session on this and I still remember Jacob Selseth, West Central CERT Coordinator, afterward. He said, “It's really good that we're talking about weatherization. It's really good that we're talking about people's energy bills. But what we really need to be talking about is how do you get people a job.” What does that look like in the clean energy sector?

What if we invested? What if we invested in that so that the time it took to weatherize low-income homes wasn't 291 years, but 10 years? How many people would we put back to work? How many households would go from having an energy burden of over 30 percent—that’s 30 percent of their take home pay—just on paying utility bills. Getting that down to less than 5 percent?

Lissa Pawlisch, CERTs Statewide Director

Marie Donahue: As our audiences may or may not know, those pieces of clean energy jobs and addressing households’ energy burden—or the share of a household’s income spent on its energy bills—are core priorities at CERTs. Could you speak more to those topics and how we can invest in them more?

Lissa Pawlisch: The clean energy sector has been one of the fastest growing job sectors year over year for the past number of years. It’s been growing faster than any other job sector in Minnesota. We like to talk a lot about solar jobs, and I'm all for solar jobs, but a big part of that clean energy job market is in energy efficiency. I've been thinking a lot about the stimulus work and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009) and how much of that really did get channeled toward weatherization.

There have been some numbers looking at weatherization—just in the state of Minnesota and before COVID-19—we see 500,000 folks are eligible for LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program), about 100,000 actually get LIHEAP services, and a little under 2,000 actually get weatherization. Those numbers are staggering, only 2,000 get weatherization.

I mean, that's the sort of systemic stuff that would actually help lower the energy bill into perpetuity. The Department of Commerce put out a fact sheet this year that said at this rate, we'd take 291 years to weatherize all of those households. You look at that number, and it's like, are you kidding? That is unconscionable. How can we not be making that investment?

And all of the conversations that we have been having since George Floyd’s murder about the needs for investments in our community and the needs for investments that provide housing and provide jobs and provide for all of the things that we need. That just feels like one, I mean, it's a tiny thing in some ways, but such an illustrative example of what the need is, but also the opportunity.

What if we invested? What if we invested in that so that the time it took to weatherize low-income homes wasn't 291 years, but 10 years? How many people would we put back to work? How many households would go from having an energy burden of over 30 percent—that’s 30 percent of their take home pay—just on paying utility bills. Getting that down to less than 5 percent?

Marie Donahue: Given that we’ve faced other economic recessions in our past and that issues of racism have been going on for hundreds of years—since the founding of this country—how can we combine lessons learned from that history and from the weatherization and other clean energy work of CERTs to move forward?

Lissa Pawlisch: That has been our big question: “So, how do we do that?” There are some things we have been doing that are part and parcel to what has to happen. 

We've been doing work to connect Community Action Partnerships and weatherization service agency providers with local utilities, who are also interested in doing this work and helping support their customers and members to help build those bridges and strengthen those connections to get resources into those communities. I think that is absolutely work that has to keep going.

We've also really started to think about whether there are ways that you can target some types of housing stock and then be able to scale in those areas? So, manufactured housing is one example. We've been looking at manufactured housing parks or mobile home parks. We’re thinking about: What are ways that you can help folks build community and build the energy components that we're talking about with weatherization?

Lissa explains how grassroots organizing models of resourcing, training, and empowering community members to assist in energy efficiency and weatherization projects have the potential for greater success and engagement. She emphasizes learning the need to ensure that everyone’s time is valued and paid for in clean energy projects and the importance of storytelling so that people can see themselves in that work.

It’s about wanting to figure out how we show people that this isn't about somebody else. This is about you. This is your story.

To be fair, I think we have been doing that. And I think we have a lot of blind spots. I mean, we’re a bunch of white people.

And we also have a lot of work to do on that front. And I think we also want to be real about how there are some stories that aren't ours to tell, but if we can support other people in telling their stories, then let’s just support that work. But we have to show up as real allies. One of the things that we've always been really focused on is that we honestly don't really care about getting credit for work like that. That's kind of not the point. The point is about getting the work done. And that's a good lens. That's a good way to approach it. But then we also really need to do the work to make sure that we deepen our connection in all communities. Because there are lots of good people already doing this work. It's not that the work isn't happening. But we have to build those bridges to be able to really hold up those stories, as well.

It’s absolutely different, and I think it's just being real about your white privilege. That racism is something that you can look away from when you're white. And a lot of people on our team saying, “This is not a time to look away.” We just have to stay in it, stay focused.

Lissa Pawlisch, CERTs Statewide Director

Marie Donahue: Do you think this moment we're in has made those blind spots even clearer? Given the ways in which these systems are implicit and how the energy system developed and was created in these overlapping and intersecting systems of power, do you see how that may be shifting or whether that’s leading to changes organizationally?

Lissa Pawlisch: This has been something that's been front and center for us and we've been having really frank candid conversations about this. I think one of the things, over the last three weeks since George Floyd was killed, is that there's no time to waste. I don't think it's that we've been waiting, but it's like, “With urgency, people!” We've been doing a bunch of training and having a lot of conversations and digging in and building relationships and really trying to better orient our work to be good allies. To really not just say that we want to be anti-racist but demonstrate in our work that's where we're headed. And I think that we have had on nearly every call, in every conversation, and in every morning Slack daily check-in conversations about racism.

And I’ve had more conversations with random neighbors about racism than ever before. I mean, it's sort of like that, like what are we learning about it today? It’s absolutely different, and I think it's just being real about your white privilege. That racism is something that you can look away from when you're white. And a lot of people on our team saying, “This is not a time to look away.” We just have to stay in it, stay focused.

Marie Donahue: We started this conversation around how much is demanding our attention and how an ability to stay focused on things that matter is really challenging in times of change and disruption. How do we make sure we maintain some of the focus and stamina we need to move forward with clean energy work?

Lissa Pawlisch: I started this job a really long time ago. I started in 2003, and the thing that I was really most excited about was that there is a passion and an opportunity for this work and people just need to feel like they have a voice and that they have a say. We did all of this work really early on around wind energy and helping people understand what their part was in wind energy, that it was about farmers and rural landowners. And communities thinking about how this was going to be a part of their community, and not just then, but for decades. I think that same hope is there. This has felt, in some ways a different job almost every year, that there's something new that's happening. You get to really learn and dig in and forge collaborations, but also think about new project models and how it’s all going to work. And I think that's where we are. 

Lissa goes on to share some more bright spots she sees in how Minnesota can adapt and support communities hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism, whether those are in strengthening Minnesota’s community solar program, bolstering local government investment in clean energy, or doing community-based work through a regional model that enables sharing knowledge of best practices and resources across the state. Even though all of these come with their own challenges, Lissa remains optimistic about the resilience of communities to weather these challenging times.

I think one of the great things that may come out of this is that people have practiced their community muscle. How do we flex it? How do we come together to support each other? What does it look like when we do that? How do we think about supply chains and food, but also how we're getting service to the people who need it most and, and seeing where those places are.

It really requires a robust network of intermediaries and connectors and all of that. And I think, we have that in some places, and we have that in some sectors. But I think it's really being intentional about making that whole and diversifying those voices because that's the only way that you get community. It’s the only way that you can really ably support that community-based work.

There are people who are digging into what that community looks like and for community-based energy, where we talk about it being based, not necessarily about a scale, but because of decision making. This is that life moment. People are having conversations. How do we help inject this into that conversation? And that's the kind of stuff that actually gives me goosebumps, right? That’s the kind of work that we want to be doing.

I think there's a way for us to come in and come alongside and support people in what they want to be doing and help be an extra shoulder for that. And I hope that's what the next year of work looks like. Even if it's a little bit more virtual than we might want. Then also the next two, three, five years looks like. We are blessed with good partnership. We are blessed with people who are dedicated to this work, through having built bridges and from knowing that there are more bridges to build. I think that the future is bright.

We are blessed with good partnership. We are blessed with people who are dedicated to this work, through having built bridges and from knowing that there are more bridges to build. I think that the future is bright.

Lissa Pawlisch, CERTs Statewide Director
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