Rural Electric Co-ops:  Second Verse as Bad as the First

ACORN International Electricity Cooperatives Labor Neighbor Social Policy Journal
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May 4, 2022

            New Orleans      I receive the state association newsletters from cooperatives in both Mississippi and Arkansas, along with the rural electric cooperative newsletters and surveys from several local co-ops.  Reading through them allows me to keep up.  I read with special interest Arkansas Living’s March issue focusing on women.  The cover showed a picture of a young woman in training to be a lineman.  The head of the association in his editorial waxed eloquently about how much his mother meant to him as a tribute to women.  I was especially interested in what was not said, and that was how few women are in governance and elected to the boards of any of the Arkansas RECs under his leadership.  His mother would be ashamed of him.

Of course, that is also part of the pattern, since women are no more under represented than are anyone else other than white men.  That’s true in Arkansas, even in the Delta areas where Blacks are a huge part of the population.  Arkansas isn’t alone, the same is true to varying degrees in all of the traditional twelve states of the South.

I’m not surprised by this news, because in 2016 ACORN International and Labor Neighbor Research & Training Center (LNRTC) partnered to create the Rural Power Project and released a report then that shockingly revealed the lack of diversity in the governance of co-ops across the South.  Now, five years later, working with a small army of volunteer researchers, we updated the report to see what progress had been made.  The new report finds that the population is 56% white in the 12-state region. Meanwhile, whites make up 93.1% of the boards of these states’ electricity co-ops.  Even in areas that are majority Black in the southern delta region or majority Hispanic in south Texas, there are virtually no Black or Hispanic directors.  Where women are a majority throughout the south, the new report is clear that they also continue to only be marginally represented in seats on the board.  Our new report is not a surprise, but a huge disappointment.  In some cases, the biggest different in five years is that some all-white-male cooperatives now seem to make a special effort not to have the pictures of the elected board members on their websites.  The journal Social Policy highlighted the pictures of some of these unrepresented boards.

In rural areas, electric cooperatives are vital utilities.  They are often the engine for economic development, both in their claims and in reality.  They are also big employers with their managers among the highest paid people in their counties.  If the boards are not representative, not only do they betray the co-op principles they tout in all of their materials, but the economic development they support and the hiring by their co-op, also won’t be diverse and representative of the membership.

Too many cooperatives seem to be running from their membership.  Elections are no longer at meetings, or when they are, they are at mini-festivals organized to try to get member participation.  I read the election literature of one cooperative in Arkansas recently which was scheduling the election of two directors, both white men.  The vote would be by mail ballot.  Both were unopposed.  There was no program or campaign.  In small print, the co-op’s rules declared that a 4% ballot return would constitute a quorum and certify a proper election.

With such a farcical attention to membership democracy and participation, it is no wonder that rural electric cooperatives in the South continue, as both reports have underlined, to be “stuck in the fifties.” There’s been little progress over five years, because from top to bottom, too many of the bigwigs in the cooperative movement seem satisfied with the status quo.  The Rural Power Project has been gathering data for the rest of the nation’s cooperatives.  We’ll see, but so far, we don’t see much difference in the practice of governing diversity outside the South either.

It’s past time for a change.