Berneta Haynes was on track to earn her PhD in English when she switched gears to pursue the career in law that she’d dreamed of as a child. After a summer spent helping people deal with utility shut-offs, she shifted to environmental law, where she could tackle energy inequity that causes so many families financial distress. Now, as the Director of Equity and Access at Georgia Watch, she advocates for equitable and accessible healthcare, financial literacy, energy programs, and civil justice.
Groundswell caught up with her about her views on equity, and the Energy Equity Forum she’s planning for the residents of Camilla, Georgia this Fall. Here’s what she had to say:
On her path to advocacy
I grew up in Arkansas, partly in the city and partly in southeast part of the state. It was very rural. We were working class. My grandmother lived on the land, and she grew everything we ate. She tried to make do with what we had. I was always very aware as a kid that our relationship to the world around us and the outside was crucial to us. I just grew up understanding that you respect it, because it gives you life. That’s the sort of the sentimental way I talk about why I’m interested in environmental work.
On her own experience with inequity
By the time I made it to junior high, I wanted to be an attorney. But I didn’t know any attorneys. So I tried for three summers in a row to get attorneys to let me volunteer for free in their firms. And I thought, I want to be one of these awesome criminal defense attorneys and help people who need help. But it didn’t happen. For three summers I couldn’t get someone to let me work for free for them. At the time I didn’t have the language for it, but now I understand that those are the inequities of being working class – that you can’t even get your foot in the door.
On the limitations she found in practicing environmental law
At the Environmental Law Policy Center in Chicago, I was doing 50 percent energy efficiency litigation at the administrative state level, but I was also doing a lot of diesel pollution reduction work. Later, I worked at the Southern Environmental Law Center, where my work centered on solar and energy efficiency policy. And as much as I liked that work, I still felt something was missing.
One of the things I felt was missing doing energy work on the law side was a ground-level focus on the people at the center of all of our environmental issues. On the law side, I focused on getting more renewables and energy efficiency out there to protect the environment. Yes, I helped low income people. But I wanted to focus on all of the other aspects of what energy inefficient homes do to people who are living in those homes and address those problems directly. Folks have ridiculously high energy bills and either they end up shut off -- and if they have children, they could lose their children to the system -- or they can end up homeless. To avoid all this, most take out these high-interest loans, which trap them further in the cycle of debt. People forego necessary prescriptions. They don’t use air conditioning when they have health conditions that require them to, and they end up worsening their medical conditions. It’s all so multi-layered.
While I practiced environmental law, I got to work with consumer and community focused groups who centered on people, and I realized that everyone has a specific role to play in promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy -- some of us working specifically toward environmental goals and others of us working toward community and consumer protection goals. So I switched roles and decided to take off my lawyer hat to put on my consumer protection and community advocate hat.
On why environmental advocates should work with utilities
I think that utilities around the country doing a decent amount to create some fairly robust programs geared toward low-income folks. We recently got Georgia Power to implement a program here in Georgia for low-income folks. I do think utilities are starting to see the value of doing things like that. I think really it’s just a matter now of making sure that those utilities advertise those programs. It’s one thing to create those programs, but if you’re not raising awareness about them then it’s useless.
I’m a big fan of not viewing the utilities as the enemy. I’m a really big fan of realizing that there are people who work within these utilities, and you can appeal to them, and help them understand, and in a lot of ways, education is part of what is missing with them as well.
Also, the utilities by and large are much more diverse than the environmental advocates. I think this is important to consider because if it comes down to people listening to someone, they’re more likely to listen to someone who looks like them, and the utilities understand that. And they’re also the entity that folks have the longest relationship with. We all have had pretty extensive relationships with our utility provider. We trust them that when we flip the switch the lights will come on. With environmental advocates -- most folks don’t even know about the Sierra Club, never mind Southern Environmental Law Center or even Groundswell. We’re up against a hurdle of folks not knowing about us, so I think its important to utilize the relationship that utilities have already built with their customers. So, regarding the utilities, I try to say to folks, "it’s not black and white, at all."
On the biggest barrier for families who want to address their energy burdens
First and foremost, the biggest barrier is knowledge and education. A lot of folks just don’t know. They get that energy bill and they try to turn the thermostat down, and their energy bill is just as high the next month, and they think the system is rigged. They don’t know they should seal their attic, and they should unplug their power strips when the leave their home. They should keep their thermostats set to 78 in the summer. They certainly don’t know about the technologies available to them.
And the next barrier is they can't afford the technology even if they knew about it. How are you going to pay for a $150 smart thermostat? Affordability and education are the main barriers that prevent people from making those changes that really impact their bottom lines.
On what gives her hope for the future
I think what gives me the most hope is the fact that people are actually talking about it. I have people in my own family who are completely outside this sort of work who are asking me about solar and how do they do it. And there’s such a great demand for it these days, even amongst people who are not upper middle class. I think the other things that make me hopeful is that utilities around the country are showing that they are willing to do a decent amount of energy efficiency and solar for their low income customers -- and that their customers are very receptive to it. So I think if we can just keep pushing on both of those fronts, that I could see a future where we really are getting off carbon dependence in a lot of ways and helping people reduce their energy bills.
On her vision for the Energy Equity Forum
The Energy Equity Forum is going to be in Camilla in southwest Georgia on October 7. The whole purpose of the forum is to target the residents of Camilla who are struggling with very high utility bills and equip them with practical tools to immediately reduce their bills through lowering their energy usage, and to also equip them with the networks and connections they need to become their community’s best advocates. The main purpose is to get everyone in the room together – the residents of southwest Georgia, utilities and community advocates, policy makers – and get them talking to each other.
At the forum, we’ll teach people the practical changes they can make at home to lower their energy bills, and to educate them about energy saving options like like energy efficiency and solar that can reduce their energy bills and also bring job opportunities to their community. And we’ll teach them how to be their own best advocates for bringing that kind of stuff to their community.
On why the Forum is free – including the food
This forum is totally free because I don’t believe things like this should ever come at a charge for folks. I’ve already gathered a bunch of LED bulbs. We got lucky and stumbled upon a ridiculously great Memorial Day sale and we got bulbs at a dollar a piece. If you bring two of your regular bulbs, you get an LED bulb for free. I want to make sure that people leave with something they can do, and something they can use.