An Advocate for Building Equity into Michigan’s Climate Goals

NRDC’s Derrell Slaughter sees climate justice as one of the foremost civil rights issues of our time.

Derrell Slaughter, Michigan clean energy advocate at NRDC, speaking at a student-led Michigan March for Our Lives rally in 2018

Credit: Courtesy of Derrell Slaughter

When Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer was looking for experts to serve on her Council on Climate Solutions, clean energy advocate Derrell Slaughter was an obvious choice. Slaughter spent eight years working in state government on energy efficiency and renewable energy development and has a long history of community organizing, plus a network that transcends workplace affiliations. “I’m excited to join the council and help ensure all voices are represented, especially those of people forced to live in neighborhoods with poor air and water quality,” he said in February, after his appointment. The lifelong Michigander and champion for environmental justice calls climate change one of his generation’s greatest challenges, and has faith in the power of policy to bring the action that’s so badly needed.

NRDC sat down with Slaughter—a man who came of age during the George W. Bush era without political cynicism, who admires in equal measure the passion of Malcolm X and the skill set of Lyndon B. Johnson to get stuff done, and who loves to discuss the details of electric choice regulations—to find out what makes him tick and to learn about his vision for the Wolverine State.

Did you grow up dreaming of being a clean energy advocate?

Not exactly. I grew up around Farmington Hills and West Bloomfield, interested in normal kid stuff like football and video games. Environmental politics and climate change weren’t on my radar. But, during my teenage years at least, I did dream of working in government.

My high school hosted a debate between state representative candidates, and I was in awe. It seemed so noble for these people to give up their privacy and be scrutinized, regardless of which side they were on. I didn’t have any cynicism about politics—quite the opposite. And that continues today.

Who were your political heroes?

He came before my time, but something about Lyndon Johnson fascinated me: the way he used the Senate and his role in the civil rights movement. I didn’t learn about his racist history until later, but even now I have a soft spot for him as a person who made things happen.

Slaughter, who was second vice president of the Lansing NAACP, leading voter registration activities at a local middle school
Credit: Courtesy of Derrell Slaughter

And, of course, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Even in elementary school, I loved to hear my mom and her siblings talk about the civil rights movement and the politics behind it. My aunts sat me down to watch Eyes on the Prize. The episode about the murder of Emmett Till, in particular, stuck with me. From that moment, the fundamental question, Why are Black people treated worse than other people?, has always been in the back of my mind.

I also can’t leave out Barack Obama. I was in college when he announced he was running for president. At the time, I felt that too many people talked about the civil rights movement being over, like “We got our freedom and our right to vote already.” Obama’s announcement challenged us to keep climbing new mountains.

How did you end up in energy policy?

I began talking to one of my professors about where we could go next. I eventually recognized sustainability and climate change as the new civil rights movement—they were justice issues for me.

So I cofounded a group called Greenation. We traveled the state, talking to people about what local governments were doing to prepare for the green economy and to make sure Black people were a part of it. I would meet with anybody, talk with everybody. I learned so much about politics and the needs of people, just by traveling from city to city and listening.

I eventually got a job at the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC), where those skills really came into play. There was one particular issue concerning electric choice. Michigan law limits its citizens’ ability to choose their own electric provider, much more so than in many other states. We wanted to expand consumer choice, which allows people to buy renewable energy, and help finance new wind and solar power generators.

Not many people knew or cared about the issue at the time, but the people who did care, cared a lot. There were questions about how to ensure reliability across the grid with expanded choice, questions about whether people who had opted out of the default provider were paying their fair share of the cost of making the grid work, and more. In negotiating these issues, I learned about not only policy but about patience, taking time with people, and giving them your full attention.

What drew you to NRDC?

My roots, and my passion, are in advocacy. I wanted to get back to my Greenation days, talking to people—especially Black and brown folks—about what they need. Communities of color are often hit the hardest by the harmful emissions produced by our electric grid, and we need to push the decision makers to recognize this fact.

Working at a regulatory agency, like the MPSC, is about calling balls and strikes. That’s an important job, but we also need people from the outside to push regulators to be bolder, to do more. At NRDC, my goal is to be a voice for those people from the outside.

What are some of the new opportunities for climate action and environmental justice that you see in Michigan?

Late last year, under Governor Whitmer, Michigan rejoined the U.S. Climate Alliance and committed to carbon reduction goals. The governor established the Council on Climate Solutions to develop plans to meet those goals. What are the actions we can take in the next 10 years to ensure carbon neutrality by 2050? We’re looking at energy transmission systems, building and housing stock, transportation, forests, and factories.

In every single sector and in every single meeting, we talk about equity and environmental justice. For example, increasing electrification in the building sector and eliminating gas furnaces would reduce carbon emissions, but it would also increase electric bills. We need a way to help environmental justice communities absorb those price shocks, including helping them increase insulation and efficiency. There are a million decisions like these to be made in many different sectors.

Do you find the work rewarding?

Absolutely. When it’s over, I want people to say that “Derrell, in all his different roles, was able to make people’s lives just a little bit better.” When you work in government, you have to work in an incremental way.

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