Building Positive Partnerships

Delaney Russell  

When a majority white-led organization such as the Sierra Club approaches a BIPOC-led environmental justice organization with an offer “to partner,” it can land with a great deal of ambivalence and skepticism.

Case in point: recently, our Clean Energy Team (CET) decided we could help reduce fossil fuel use by advertising the financial benefits of home energy audits to low-income residents of North Minneapolis.

Thinking residents would be more open to outreach from members of their own community, we reached out to Youth N’ Power (YNP), a partnership between Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light (MNIPL) and Redeemer Center for Life. YNP mentors young people (“apprentices”) from Minneapolis to organize for environmental justice. 

We were delighted to learn that the apprentices already were doing extensive outreach on home energy audits, they were interested in partnering with us, and that residents were excited about conserving energy.

However, a problem emerged. It turned out that residents weren’t signing up for the audits. 

Rather than continuing with our assumption about what folks need, we turned to the apprentices. If outreach wasn’t increasing energy audits, what did they think could?

The apprentices identified three barriers:

  1. Audits are scheduled months in advance

  2. Someone needs to be present during the audit but many audits are during traditional working hours and residents can’t take time off 

  3. Residents are wary of the potential for microaggressions from energy auditors outside their community.

We are now working together on how to accomplish our mutual goal (increase energy audits), which involves strategies to address the barriers identified by apprentices who possess the experience and knowledge to benefit their community. By deferring to their knowledge, we build our collective power and strengthen our partnership.

One option now in the works is to collaborate with Minneapolis home energy auditors to:

  1. Schedule "Home Energy Squad in Your Neighborhood" Days, where auditors could “drop in” that day with tips and supplies for homeowners and renters in dwellings up to four units.

  2. Schedule these events on evenings and weekends.

  3. Include trained auditors who are from North Minneapolis. 

  4. Consider partnering with Xcel’s Multifamily Building Efficiency program for 5+unit dwellings. 

We would not have arrived at these solutions without closely collaborating with the apprentices. Through their on-the-ground work and ongoing research, our joint efforts resulted in outcomes that ultimately benefit the community.

Delaney Russell is the Environmental Justice Lead on the Clean Energy Team. When she’s not fighting for justice, you can find her on the pickleball court.

Youth N’ Power perspectives on partnering with white-led organizations

During the Clean Energy Team’s partnership with Youth N’ Power (YNP), our team learned (again) about our tendency to think we know what’s best for others. Luckily, the YNP apprentices were courageous enough to give us feedback and we knew enough to listen to it.

Below are some reflections and quotes directly from the apprentices. We share them in the hope that readers can also keep learning about how to be a good partner. 

Quotes are provided anonymously at the request of the youth. We honored their time and insights with small honoraria. 

“It’s hard to walk into a room where everyone else is white. I can’t necessarily relate to what people are saying or what they’re talking about has nothing to do with what I’ve experienced or gone through. And it’s hard to hear something that might be aggressive.”

“My people haven’t always had good experiences with white people so being in a white space makes me want to be quiet or not talk. And then, sometimes, when they ask me for my thoughts, they cut me off or go on to another question or look like they aren’t really listening. They don’t seem like they really want to hear my opinion, so I stop talking.” 

“If they ask my opinion and I tell them what’s important to me, they often say, ‘Oh that’s not what we’re here to talk about; we’ll have another meeting on that later.’ Or sometimes they ask me a question about what my community wants. I’d like to say, ‘If you want to hear what they want, go there and ask a variety of people!’”

“How are you supposed to trust someone when you don’t even see them twice? When an idea comes from people who aren’t from the community or who I haven’t seen before, I just don’t trust it. What do they really know about what we actually need?”

“Even after we come to their meetings, it’s hard to feel a ‘partnership’ with people if they don’t come to events or meetings we invite them to. Recently, for example, we had an event and invited everyone that says they’re our partner. And only one person came. That really hurt, when they say we’re important to them and we’ve made the effort to show up in their spaces. It makes it feel one-sided.”