Rural electric cooperatives hold tremendous sway in rural energy systems. These cooperatives (“co-ops”) are nonprofit electric utilities governed by their customers that supply power to more than 42 million people and 22 million businesses in small cities, towns, and rural places nationwide. In total, co-op service areas cover 56% of the US land mass

Co-ops are incredibly well-positioned to transition to clean energy. They currently use a disproportionate amount of coal, among other fossil fuel sources. They’re also situated where clean energy is the most likely to succeed – rural areas where space is ample, the sun shines bright, and the wind blows strong. Co-ops serve 92% of the persistent poverty counties in the nation, making the opportunity to cut energy bills for customers via clean energy all the more appealing.

Despite all the benefits for rural communities, many co-ops have been slow to embrace clean energy. Progress has been delayed at some co-ops partly because there is little accountability and transparency with surrounding communities. It can be hard to access co-op leadership and hard to know when, where, and what decisions are being made by co-ops. In fact, many rural co-op customers, known as member-owners, don’t even realize they can attend co-op meetings and vote in co-op elections to decide who will represent them on the co-op board. 

Moreover, co-op boards are markedly homogenous relative to the diversity of communities they are elected to serve. Among co-op boards in southern states, a study found that 93% of board members are white and 87% male despite having a population that is 44% BIPOC and ~50% female. In other places, like North Dakota, where co-ops predominantly serve Indigenous communities, co-op boards are practically, if not all, white-led. 

 

Local grassroots organizations are advocating for co-op reform to address these challenges. Across the country, grassroots organizations are turning to their local co-ops to see how to spur the transition to clean energy and create more diverse co-op board leadership. The Rural Climate Partnership supports many rural organizations in their co-op advocacy efforts. 

Grassroots organizations asked for more co-op organizing support, and we listened. In conversation with our grantees and others, we heard that many nonprofits working on co-ops want additional training and a space to meet with peers to learn best practices for co-op organizing. With this in mind, we recently hosted a Co-op Reform Workshop for grassroots organizers with our partners at the Educational Foundation of America and the Cynthia & George Mitchell Foundation.

The Co-op Reform Workshop brought together 29 leaders from advocacy nonprofits across the country for a two-day intensive this past March in Austin, Texas. Organizers from Alaska to South Carolina (and everywhere in between) came together to share ideas, learn co-op organizing skills, and put their ideas into practice. Organizations present included the Northern Plains Resource Council, Prairie Rivers Network, Georgia Conservation Voters, North Dakota Native Vote, and ARISE Adelante

The energy in the room was palpable as organizers swapped ideas and stories. Some advocacy organizations are further along in their ‘co-op journey’ and are already actively engaging co-ops, while others are just getting started. Those further along in their progress shared how they’ve successfully helped communities create more representative co-op boards and moved co-ops to support clean energy efforts. Through breakout activities, participants worked together to test and refine plans for community outreach, rural communications, co-op board engagement, and clean energy advocacy.

As active facilitators, we listened and learned from the workshop participants during each session. Some of the top takeaways that further affirmed our approach to co-op advocacy include the following:

  • Co-op reform requires long-term organizing capacity. Year-round education and outreach are needed to maintain and deepen public interest and engagement in co-ops. Ongoing member-owner advocacy drives co-op policy change and different co-op board election outcomes.
  • Co-op board members and staff who advocate for change from the inside would benefit from more peer support. Along with support from organizers, co-op leaders in favor of clean energy and co-op reform need spaces where they can learn with other leaders who face similar challenges. More peer spaces would allow them to share best practices for how to advocate for change, such as updating co-op bylaws and pursuing federal funding for clean energy development.
  • Co-op organizers want more spaces to collaborate and learn from one another. Ongoing spaces to collaborate and learn from one another are critical, especially as some groups have more knowledge about organizing and others have more knowledge about co-op policies and clean energy. 

As the workshop came to a close, participants shared their excitement about continued collaboration. Despite their geographic differences, they found many places of overlap and wanted to keep the conversations going. 

It was so great to be in the same space as so many powerful and inspiring organizers and organizations.
I really felt like I am part of a movement.
Co-op organizer

This conference was such a boost to my self-esteem and feeling supported in my role. I’m so grateful and excited for the connections this workshop provided.
Co-op organizer

The Co-op Reform Workshop was just the beginning, and RCP wants to keep the collaboration and conversations going. Through our grantmaking, we are supporting an ongoing space for organizers to meet monthly to share co-op organizing and advocacy tips, tools, and advice with each other. The rich and ongoing collaboration out of the March workshop speaks to the incredible value of connecting rural organizers to one another – when rural organizers are resourced to build their technical capacity, they lean in and learn from and build upon one another’s successes. 

Capacity building and creating spaces for collaboration among rural organizers are critical parts of our work at the Rural Climate Partnership. To learn more about our rural electric cooperative work, please reach out! 

Note: Rural electric cooperatives are nonprofits and co-op reform efforts are almost always 501c(3) compliant

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