New Orleans The cover story in this issue of the quarterly journal, Social Policy, laid out the case once again on the lack of diversity and democracy in the rural electric cooperatives in the 12-state southern area. The minimal representation of African-Americans and Hispanics is region-wide despite the huge populations of both of these groups throughout the region, frequently occupying majorities in many of the service areas of the cooperatives. The regional statistics are less than 5% representation for African-Americans and less than 1% for Hispanics. Women fare only slightly better, though they represent a majority in the South when we looked at these same 313-odd electrical cooperatives.
Cooperatives ostensibly are membership-run institutions with every member getting to vote to elect their representatives and on have a say at annual meetings on matters of policy. All of these cooperatives have been the beneficiaries of extensive grants and loans of public monies, usually federal, dating back to the New Deal, and many still are receiving discounted interest rates and loans for their programs and generating facilities. The USDA and their own literature claims they are critical economic development and social service providers in rural areas, and as a multi-billion dollar set of institutions they are a significant employer and economic presence in their service areas as well. Almost all of their websites and information includes language claiming that they do not discriminate. But, here we sit with facts and figures that undermine all of these claims and provide evidence of the opposite.
Frequently the story and the earlier report speak of these cooperatives and their leadership as “frozen in the fifties,” as if they have been able to hunker down and pretend time stopped and the civil rights movement, women’s movement and other major social changes that impact the same demographics simply never happened. Being in rural areas they have believed they could escape notice.
Being big, they can get away with it. In releasing the report to news outlets throughout the region, it was depressing talking to some of the small town weeklies and other news outlets that allegedly cover the news in these rural communities. They basically didn’t want “to rock the boat.” Many pleaded that the impact of reporting the story, even when obvious and well-known to some of them, because it was the equivalent of economic suicide: they needed the ads from the cooperatives and their leadership. We had noticed this group-think and stifling collaboration earlier when we had sent letters to all of the cooperatives and, almost defying all statistical or random possibility, we received not one single response, even a refusal to provide information or a brushoff or a go-fly-a-kite, just total silence.
Meeting with various cooperative experts and advocates while I was in Madison, Wisconsin recently, it was reassuring to find out that according to inside sources the report was on the agenda at the recent meetings of the board of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. One advocate speculated that there was likely not a manager of an electric cooperative in the country that had not received a copy of the report. He also believed it was likely mandatory reading increasingly for elected members of cooperative boards. All that was good to hear. They may be hiding with their heads down, but they hear the bullets whizzing by them increasingly.
If I believed in some kind of by-the-by, trickledown theory and practice of change, then I might just say, “our work is done,” and wait to see whether there might be some gradual reforms or some jump of the needle indicating more diverse representation in coming cooperative elections.
That’s not what we believe though, so to keep the heat on we are meeting today in New Orleans with our ACORN International researchers to see what the IRS 990s for the cooperative say about what these folks in the cooperative bunkers are paying themselves for directors’ fees. So far what we’re seeing isn’t pretty, but it as the cop-shows on television say, it does establish an additional motive for this kind of anti-democratic behavior which keeps the “white, right, and ready to fight” crowd running the cooperatives without real diversity or democracy, just as they have for over 75 years.