NARUC Diversity Leaders Ask Tough Questions Amid National Reckoning
Utility regulators must address diversity and social justice, said leaders of a NARUC diversity initiative in interviews this week. Amid a national reckoning after the May 25 death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, NARUC President Brandon Presley last week said he asked Supplier Workforce and Diversity Subcommittee Chair Sadzi Oliva and Consumers and Public Interest Committee Chair Maida Coleman to lead an effort that will include “intentional actions” (see 2007220053).
Commit to change and do the hard work, said Coleman, from the Missouri Public Service Commission. “That means asking the right questions and making sure the right things are done in our roles as commissioners and industry leaders.” Utility regulators “touch every area of a person's life,” she said. "Many industries don't know how to deal with" societal disparities, she said. "This is an opportunity ... to talk about how we can make things better."
"What we hope to do is get utility leaders together, stakeholders together, to address these issues and find out what we're all going to do to address bias, inequity, intolerance in our own organizations and in those that we regulate,” said Oliva, from the Illinois Commerce Commission. The work will include defining best practices, she said. "It's an opportunity to see what we're doing so we can all do better."
Oliva and Coleman will lead “tough conversations to bring forward issues in which we can have a practical effect,” Presley said. State regulators should be “proactively” inclusive and find areas “where we can speak out” on social justice issues for utility service, access and affordability, said the Mississippi commissioner, noting people of color disproportionately face poverty and may struggle to pay bills.
"We need to wake up and realize that if we don't fix this problem, we're going to destroy our country," said Coleman, who previously directed Missouri’s Office of Community Engagement, created in 2014 by then-Gov. Jay Nixon (D) after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. “As the lone woman and minority on my commission, I've tried to bring forth what I've learned” from the Ferguson experience, including that “the only way we're going to dig ourselves out of this hole we've created as Americans is that we face our issues, address our issues and solve the problems associated with them. It's a hard row to hoe because people are uncomfortable dealing with race issues and understanding that ... it's about equity."
Even with outrage over major events, it can be challenging to teach that racial discrimination occurs daily, often subtly, Coleman said. The Missouri commissioner said she boarded with the A group on a Southwest Airlines flight earlier this year when she was approached by an older white male passenger. He asked to see her ticket to confirm she had a lower number that allowed her to board before him. She showed him the ticket and the man took his seat farther back, she said. Coleman decided not to confront him, as the man was her elder and because "I did not want that negative energy on that plane,” she said. “These kinds of things are what lead to the distrust and the feelings of helplessness and anger that people of color have for the type of inequities we experience daily.”
“It is different this time,” in part because so many people could see the video of what happened to Floyd, Coleman said. "You'd have to be really from another world if you couldn't understand the pain and the suffering that we all witnessed with someone kneeling there with their knee on someone's neck, listening to this man call out to his mother.”
NARUC is developing the diversity effort. Talks began immediately after Floyd's death, as the association was simultaneously planning its July conference. Coleman and Oliva spoke and presented Presley with a draft overview about two weeks before the event; now that the conference is done, they aim to make quick progress. Coleman expects Presley to approve a plan in the next couple of weeks, then the diversity leaders will schedule webinars with NARUC stakeholders, likely in early fall, she said. Commissioners and others offered Coleman and Oliva assistance, she said.
“We want to take specific action to take people through what it's like to be dealing with poverty and social justice,” said Coleman. NARUC held a poverty simulation at last year's summer meeting in which participants took on the role of low-income families, which we watched. NARUC recently sought to reduce prison phone rates (see 2007230065), said Coleman, noting an overrepresentation of people of color behind bars.
"We don't want to tell a business how to run their business," Oliva said. "We can ask questions, and we can say this matters to us." Her subcommittee viewed presentations on "addressing bias, intolerance and inequity in our industry" at last week’s meeting, the chair noted. Its focus "has been and will continue to be job opportunities for candidates from diverse backgrounds" and best practices for how commissions can encourage that at investor-owned utilities, she said.
Many regulated utilities and corporations responded to recent social unrest with social media messages or philanthropic charitable donations, Oliva said. "Those are all great, but what are they actually doing to address this within their organizations? Are they holding bias trainings with their employees, with their recruiters? How do they recruit from diverse backgrounds?” Illinois requires utilities annually report on their diversity spending and goals, she said. California is the only other state with such a mandate, though some other states hold workshops or have task forces, she said.
Commissions should consider what they are doing to ensure that when a customer calls a company to request a bill extension or to report a service issue, “there is not an existing animosity,” said Presley. Commissions should ask regulated companies what they're doing to ensure leadership diversity including on boards, he said. “Is there intentional outreach to communities of color?”
NAACP’s President Derrick Johnson challenged commissioners at their summer meeting to think about their own diversity.
Coleman and Oliva acknowledged the issue. The Illinois Commerce Commission is majority women and racially diverse, but Oliva noted she's the first Latina in its 106 years. Across the country, "the number of Hispanic commissioners is very low -- I think now we're at six." Illinois made diversity a priority in leadership positions and it’s up to other state administrations to do similarly, she said.
Coleman “can count the people of color that we have on probably one hand” on the Mid-America Regulatory Conference. Commissioners play a role in staff hiring and that will be discussed.
NARUC’s commitment to diversity has been strengthened, said Presley. Since becoming president in November, he said he made an effort to appoint more women and people of color to leadership roles. “Look, I’m a white male from Mississippi, and I want to make sure that the efforts in which we undertake as a national organization are led by individuals that are from communities that are most affected by this scourge,” said Presley. “I realize a part of my job is to sit back and listen and not talk as much.”
Editor's note: This is one in an ongoing series of stories in this publication on diversity and protests. Several articles looked at police actions against journalists; the most recent is publicly available here. An article looked at corporate diversity and also is in front of our pay wall here (like other diversity news). Other related articles have looked at difficulties for those imprisoned to communicate with the outside. Recent articles on that subject also are in front of our pay wall here.