By Nsombi Lambright-Haynes
One Voice Executive Director
Cleotra Tanner never knew he was a partial owner of Twin County Electric Power Association in rural Mississippi. Tanner, a longtime local NAACP leader, lived his entire life in Isola, a small town 80 miles north of Jackson, said that he never heard about meetings, potential changes to energy sources, or board elections, and was not informed about how the relationship between electric cooperatives and members worked. He only knew the bills were extremely high — and figured there was nothing he could do.
Four years ago, he was introduced to One Voice, a nonprofit focused on civic engagement in Mississippi that offers free training programs about how to engage, vote, and run for boards of electric cooperatives, which are not-for-profit electric utilities owned by their members. One Voice’s goal is to empower people to challenge an unequal racial and economic power dynamic among cooperatives in the state, lower costly utility bills, and push energy leaders to reinvest in rural communities.
“It angers me to see elderly people come to meetings with electric bills that are over $600 for one month. This exceeds their monthly income,” says Catherine Robinson, One Voice community organizer.
One Voice began meeting with member owners of the Twin County Electric Co-operative and eight other Mississippi co-ops that are either majority African American or have at least one majority African American district. The Electric Co-operative Leadership Institute (ECLI) has held quarterly meetings for the past four years to educate people like Cleotra Tanner about their role as member owners. This process has encouraged several to run for board positions, although not one person selected by the community has been elected to a board of a Mississippi electric co-operative.
The Twin County Electric Co-operative held its annual meeting on September 21st and each of the incumbent board members were re-elected. Tanner and two other community candidates believe that their loss is due to the unfair election practices of the co-op board. Member owners were not allowed to submit their “proxy” or “ballot” in an overnight drop box that is usually accessible to community. Nor were they allowed to bring their proxys inside of the co-op office, unless they were blank. Several members also never received a proxy or had their completed proxies returned in the mail. As a result, it’s no surprise that Tanner, Rev. Eugene Bell, and Norma Quinn only received 250 votes, while the incumbent members received over 700.
The Twin County member owners are committed to continuing the fight for power and justice in their service area and have also received support from some of their local and state elected officials. They will keep educating other member owners and bringing their issues to the existing board.