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Growing up in Port Arthur, Texas—a historic epicenter of the modern fossil fuel industry—Shalanda Baker has long been acquainted with the consequences of environmental injustice. Like half of Black Americans today, Baker’s family experienced energy insecurity, forcing her family to make difficult decisions about resource use when they should have been able to thrive.

After serving in the Air Force, working as a project finance lawyer and taking on various professorships across the United States, Baker was tapped to become the Director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity at the U.S. Department of Energy. In this role, she spearheads efforts to ensure energy policies uplift and support communities of color across the country.

On the morning of September 27th, 2023, Baker visited the University of Michigan to speak and answer questions about her work in energy equity in an event led by the School for Environment and Sustainability and co-hosted by the Graham Sustainability Institute, Planet Blue Ambassadors, the Erb Institute, and the Ross School of Business. Almost 500 attendees including students, faculty, and Ann Arbor residents crowded into the Robertson Auditorium to learn more about the sociocultural implications of the transition to renewable energy.

As a leading voice in the development of equitable and sustainable energy policies, Baker stated that she is committed to reshaping inequitable systems and prioritizing the needs of historically ignored communities.

“It's our goal to ensure that the energy transition does not place additional social and environmental burdens on communities of color. It's also our goal to place Black and indigenous people of color and low income communities at the core of our energy transition and energy policy. And it's our goal to ensure that all communities share in the incredible wealth that is going to be created by this energy transition,” she said. “We also recognize that we operate within myriad systems that were not designed for equity. They were not designed for justice. They were not designed for freedom. They were not designed for liberation.”

Grave problems like toxic air, lead poisoning, water shutoffs and gas pollution disproportionately affect communities of color, compounding pre-existing inequality in other areas such as housing, education, and employment. Baker said paying close attention to the impact of current systems and confronting issues of racial inequity is necessary to ensure a more equitable energy future.

“We can only avoid the mistakes of the past if we grapple directly with the structural problems that created energy insecurity that created environmental injustice. We have to dig in with rigor with truth, to ensure that justice is our foundation, and not just a conceptual framework. So again, if we don't do that hard work, the new system will be built on top of all that inequality, all of that injustice,” she stated.

Baker also noted the important role of students and aspiring energy professionals in fostering an inclusive and just energy transition, encouraging the audience to get involved in local and national environmental advocacy.

“I have met so many young people in my time as a professor, but also in my current role, and I know that for you all the future is actually bright,” she said. “We are all a part of this moment. We were all born into this time, with extraordinary challenges and extraordinary opportunities. This job is the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. But I wouldn't be anywhere else. And I'm so glad to share the space with you to be in conversation about how you, too, can be a part of an equitable, clean energy future.”

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