Rural Electric Cooperatives: A Story of Democracy Defeated and Discrimination Unchecked

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 1.55.33 PMNew Orleans   Following a lengthy research and database project, ACORN International and Labor Neighbor Research & Training Center have now released a sobering, and in some ways shocking, report called “Democracy Lost & Discrimination Found: The Crisis in Rural Electric Cooperatives in the South.” Looking at all available information on 313 cooperatives and their governance and representation structure in the twelve-state southern region, the Rural Power Project housed at LNRTC found that time had stopped and the leadership structure of many of rural electric cooperatives seemed “frozen in the fifties.”

The report examined available documents revealing governance and representation patterns in 313 cooperatives in the South and found that of the 3051 supposedly democratically elected board members, 2754 are men or 90.3% and 297 members are women or 9.7%. This compares to a South-wide gender distribution of 48.9% men and 51.1% women. Examining available information on the racial and ethnic representation was even more difficult. The project found 1946 of the members are white or 95.3% throughout the South, while only 90 or 4.4% of the members are African-American. Of the more than 2000 governing positions for which information was available, only six (6) members were Hispanic or 0.3% of the total. In the southern states, 69.23% of the population is white, while 22.32% are black, and 10.19% identify as Hispanic.

Half of the states (Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee) had three (3) or fewer African-Americans represented in cooperative governance at any level with Louisiana and Kentucky only have one (1) and Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee having only two (2). Despite the fact that Florida counts almost one-quarter (24.1%) of its population as Hispanic and Texas totals more than one-third (38.6%) Hispanic, there is only one (1) Hispanic board member in Florida and only five (5) in the whole state of Texas.

The Rural Power Project found it difficult to believe that the lack of racial or gender diversity in cooperative leadership was coincidental given the lack of transparency of many cooperatives and the obstacles placed in the path of basic democratic practice that are embedded in the avowed principles of cooperatives. Many cooperatives seem “frozen in the fifties” and have resisted continuous efforts to democratize their operations. As cooperatives have become economic development and social services intermediaries for government and other agencies as key pillars of United States rural policies, such a lack of diversity and equitable representation tend to continue bad historical practices and stand in the way of the future most would like to envision for the South.

ACORN and its partners recommend intervention to assure democratic norms, including transparency in election and reporting matters along the lines passed in Colorado in 2010, as well as more aggressive compliance and regulatory action by the states and federal government. Many state utility commissions need to exert authority and federal loans need to be conditioned on democratic procedures.

We’re hoping the outrage at these statistics felt by policy makers and members of rural electric cooperatives is as intense as our own feelings, and we are committed to the fight to make them accountable, representative, and diverse.

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