Catalyst Fall 2016
INQUIRY

Amplifying Less-Heard Voices on Solar Power

Interview with Derrick Z. Jackson

Derrick Z. Jackson

Derrick Z. Jackson is a UCS fellow, an award-winning journalist, and co-author and photographer of "Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock" (Yale University Press 2015). A longtime columnist, Jackson was a winner or finalist for national and regional journalism awards in 29 of his 37 years at the Boston Globe and Newsday, including being named as a 2001 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in commentary. At UCS, he is working with the climate and energy program as well as the Center for Science and Democracy.
Photo: Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center

You’ve written on a wide variety of topics. What made you decide to come on board as a UCS fellow?

Derrick Jackson: I was a columnist at the Boston Globe for 27 years, serving on the editorial board for the last several years. For a working-class kid from Milwaukee, that was a privilege and an honor. I pinch myself sometimes to think I’ve have had that kind of voice in what people read—and hopefully what they think.

UCS was one of the smallest handful of sources that I always felt I could trust. As a journalist, you almost always have to go to tertiary sources to vet the work of most advocacy groups. But I was always impressed with the information UCS put out. The organization was right up there for me with the Pew Center for the Press: I knew that whatever they put out would be grounded in well-vetted data. For me, that seriousness and credibility was a big draw.

But, even more important, I was drawn to the mission of UCS. To reduce it a little bit: UCS is here to save the earth. One of my sons said it really nicely when I told him I was going to work with UCS. He said, “That’s really cool. You write about a lot of things—racism and sports inequities, nature—but without the planet, none of it matters.”

 

You recently traveled with UCS staff to communities of color where residents have adopted rooftop solar in fairly large numbers. What did you learn?

Derrick JacksonI visited Broadway Heights, a predominantly African American community in San Diego, and Little Long Cheng in Fresno, California, which is made up of about half Latinos and half Hmong. Thanks to the work of a nonprofit in California dedicated to solar access, nearly half of the 192 homes in Broadway Heights have rooftop solar and about 35 of the 42 homes in Little Long Cheng have solar.

More recently, I visited a community in the heart of the southeast section of Washington, DC, that’s virtually all African American. About one-third of the residents there are retired on a fixed income, and two-thirds are working class—public sector teachers, DPW workers. With rooftop solar on their townhouses, their electricity bills went from around $150 to $200 per month down to, in some cases, $30 or $50.

In all these communities, I’ve found that there’s no question that when people have access to rooftop solar, they love it—people of all colors. One clear lesson is that the most powerful pathway to selling renewables to lower-income communities is cost, cost, cost.

I asked many of the people I spoke with whether they considered themselves environmentalists after getting solar. Some do. Some said they had noticed wind turbines when driving around and felt like they were part of something bigger. But, across the board, I found that what matters as much to them as being “green” is the green they’re saving.

 

Despite the experiences of the neighborhoods you visited, UCS has found that the benefits of solar are not being equally spread around.

Derrick JacksonThat’s certainly true. We specifically set out to visit some communities where one type of program or another helped make solar more accessible to these communities.

It’s an important part of the story because all the solar panels on the homes of celebrities won’t make a difference, and all the walls that might get built around wealthier communities against rising seas won’t matter if whole swaths of communities wind up being like the Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

UCS recognizes that that the disproportionate beneficiaries of reducing costs through renewables will be the Jamelias and Juans in the inner cities. Going from an electricity bill of $200 down to $20 is far more monumental for them than it is for a wealthy family.

 

Thinking about your previous reporting on this issue, have these communities given you cause for hope about the potential to spread the benefits of solar power more fairly?

Derrick JacksonYou know, sometimes you listen to the news and it can be drumbeat of downers. You can think: what in the world are we doing? And you can feel fairly hopeless.

But when I’ve gone out on behalf of UCS interviewing people about getting solar, it’s been incredibly uplifting and energizing to see that communities are ready to be part of this.

I felt the same way when I went to the environmental justice forum sponsored by the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS last September. It was fascinating—there were ministers, local leaders, environmental justice folks who came from 50 to 60 miles away just to have a moment to tell those assembled that the same kinds of issues were happening in their communities too.

One of the highest privileges of journalism is when you can amplify the voices of those who are rarely heard and, for me, this is another way of doing it. Amplifying the voices of people getting solar, such as the African American part-time special education teacher I spoke with, is important especially because that’s not who comes to mind for most people when you talk about solar.

At UCS, I’ve engaged with a range of people—of many different ages—and with an organization that’s really making an effort on diversity. I find it energizing to be working with an organization that believes, as I do, that climate change is not going to get solved unless all communities are engaged and empowered to do something about it.