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By Kristi Eaton, The Daily Yonder

A new report from ACORN International shows that while rural America is becoming more diverse, rural electricity cooperatives fail to reflect that diversity.

The Rural Power Project–ACORN International and the Labor Neighbor Research and Training Center–surveyed the elected leadership of 888 rural electricity cooperatives (RECs) nationwide and found them to be nearly all white and all male. 

As a whole, women made up just 12.6% of REC board members. Meanwhile, people of color make up 24% of America’s rural population, but the new report found that 96% of REC board seats are held by white people. 

RECs provide the electricity to 56% of America’s landmass, some 42 million Americans, with the promise of democratic member control over utilities.

“The surprising thing is just how extreme both of those things are,” said David Thompson, research director at ACORN International, in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “And we really see it as this is an act of exclusion.”

He said women and people of color are being “badly disenfranchised” by the very institutions that are supposed to be owned and run by their members, which is everybody that consumes the electricity in their service areas.

“When you don’t have a board that represents the people that are being served and make up these cooperatives, that means that people are being denied opportunities at every turn,” Thompson added. 

According to the report, there is no state in America in which REC boards reflect the even split of the adult population. With six men and five women, New Hampshire’s one co-op board brings New Hampshire the closest. Vermont is next but far behind at 28.6% women – six of the 21 board members for its two RECs. Outside of New England, where electric cooperatives are rare, Alaska has the best rate of women’s representation. That rate is only 23.2%, with 29 women among its 125 elected board leaders. Meanwhile, West Virginia’s REC has no women on its board. 

A lack of diversity among women and minorities, Thompson said, has consequences. 

“On the most basic level, we think it means that people don’t have a real say over what their utility rates are. This is a big issue that’s more and more important with inflation and the rising cost of energy,” he said. 

Fast Facts: North Carolina’s electric cooperatives

There are 26 locally owned and operated electric cooperatives in North Carolina.

93 of North Carolina’s 100 counties are served by an electric cooperative.

Electric cooperatives are nonprofit organizations. Members elect the directors.

North Carolina’s electric cooperatives serve 1 million homes and businesses.

-Information from North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives and compiled by Carolina Public Press

He also added that there are studies showing an over reliance on coal, which the researchers believe has to do with who is making the decisions as board members. “It’s got to be that they’re benefiting from it in a way that is to a greater extent than their memberships would be,” he said. 

He also said that through a financing scheme that the government has included them in, the RECs are able to make low-interest loans for economic development. 

“A lot of times, these co-ops are some of the biggest economic players in a community,” he said. “And when you’ve got a board that is just overwhelmingly old white men serving an area that isn’t that, that means that all of those resources are just flowing to the people that they choose, it’s not going to help develop the community as a whole.”

Thompson said there aren’t any requirements for diversity involving women and minorities, but some states have created greater transparency about their meeting notices and procedures. 

The group believes a coordinated effort to reform the RECs needs to take place. “It’s great that there are local efforts that pop up, but it really needs to be on a bigger scale,” Thompson added. 

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

The Daily Yonder

The Daily Yonder is a publication of the Center for Rural Strategies and is based in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Visit The Daily Yonder at https://dailyyonder.com/

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  1. With regard to French Broad Electric Membership Corporation, there is no true election. The same people are on the nominating committee every year and they nominate only one person for each open position–usually the person who was already in the position. There have been effort some years back to gather petitions and have other names placed in nomination. The management was unhelpful with information that would have allowed more publication about the candidates and more get out the vote activities. There are other details, but the main point is that there is no democratic election, just nomination. The quorum rules allow proxy ballots(probably gathered by the employees) to be included. That is the way they get a quorum without a big turnout as most people have stopped bothering to vote for the same old appointed candidates.

  2. Not only is our Western NC French Broad Electric Corporation not diverse, its’ employees are able to vote and they know they must vote for the corporation if they want to keep their jobs. I cannot find out when they incorporated but it’s now called French Broad Corporation rather than cooperative, and it is run by all white men. Several times challengers have tried to change the system but are outvoted by the employees. This doesn’t look like a democratic process when the outcome is fixed.

  3. Why run this article, originating from KY, without identifying diversity data related to NC cooperatives? The data from NC that is included is not related to the issue of diversity.

  4. Does it ever dawn on any of you that maybe women and minorities don’t want to run for these positions? Why aren’t we thankful for those people who do want the business positions that pay the least and get the most criticism? Why don’t we show support and interest in what we have instead of stirring up the pot that somebody else is doing something wrong? Why don’t you promote the position and how people can ‘make a difference’, instead of this diversity BS?