Who’s Energy? Our Energy! The People’s Power Program Uplifts Activism, Advocacy And Agency in Creating Just Utility Policies 

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In Fall 2021, DTE Energy, which serves 2.3 million customers across Southeast Michigan, put $50,000 in dark money into the narrative campaign which helped to tank Proposal P. Proposal P, developed through the collaboration of grassroots organizations, public comments at charter meetings, and citizen feedback, would have provided a revision to the current city charter, and would have guaranteed reliable and affordable public services to the people of Detroit, among many other deep community benefits. However, after its defeat at the polls, (a primary election in which less than 20% of the city showed up to cast a ballot) it was clear that more needed to be done to expose the way these corporations manipulate people and policy. Since then, We The People Action Fund through our Southeast Michigan coalitional team (also known as SEMIsaic)  has been digging in on uncovering DTE’s trail of dark money and how it affects both our political process and our lived realities.  

Just this year (2023), there have been upwards of five major power outages. The first outage occurred during a February winter storm where 800,000 people were out of power for up to five days–some were even out for ten days. Just forty-eight hours before the outage, DTE had celebrated record profits of $1.2B and requested a 13.3% rate increase. 

Severe weather events are growing increasingly more frequent and our electric grid is ill-prepared to both prevent and adapt to the dangers of climate change. It is clear that investor-owned utilities are not positioned to handle the responsibilities of providing clean, reliable, and affordable energy to homes, and that policy intervention is needed. Amidst frequent outages and shutoffs, low-income families are paying some of the highest rates in the country while also most of the bill to support our grid, paying up to 2.5x higher than industrial customers for electricity. 

This Spring we launched our inaugural cohort called the People’s Power Program, where we are working with six Michiganders from Detroit to Dearborn to develop shared strategy and tactics to obtain better conditions for our communities. 

Through the People’s Power Program, impacted residents are organizing community leaders of Detroit and surrounding neighborhoods to achieve a ‘Consumer’s Utility Bill of Rights’ by holding listening sessions, creating Neighborhood Energy Councils, and convening regional leaders through a Regional Energy Collective within the next year. 

Our People’s Power Program organizers are expressing public leadership through sharing reflective and vulnerable space with each other and then taking action as a collective organizing body. These community members have demonstrated their leadership in a number of powerful ways. This includes the facilitation of a recent collaborative event “We Are The Energy ” co-hosted with Riverwise Magazine, attending public hearings, taking on the challenge of strategizing at a regional level, and doing the deep ground work it will take to ensure that our community gets and stays informed. 

As our campaign evolves we want to continue to incorporate cultural strategy to shift the way we think and talk about energy in our communities. So for example, at our “We Are The Energy” event, we created a space for the community to begin imagining what our culture, our economy, and our politics would look like if it centered people and the planet over profit. Through the use of storytelling and art, we were all able to cultivate the opportunity for people to have honest and critical conversations about how DTE impacts their daily lives. People shared stories about the mounting financial challenges they face because of increasingly higher rates and because of loss of food and damaged appliances due to constant shutdowns. 

During the pandemic, it became clear to many of us that in times of crisis, what seemed impossible, can suddenly become possible. Things like rent cancellation, free and accessible covid testing, free food and water services, even direct cash payments were no longer off limits or “radical”. They simply became common sense. Just like the pandemic, we all must also start to recognize that our climate is in crisis. So, as disasters continue to worsen due to climate change that is fueled in large part by the extractive practices of companies like DTE, it’s time to make new choices, and hold such polluters and abusers accountable for their actions.  

During the “We Are The Energy” event, everyone resolved that DTE is beyond redemption and that collective action is required to move towards a future where all have access to clean, reliable, and affordable energy that does not strain our earth’s rich resources. To enact better solutions we not only need political will, but a serious cultural shift from domination to centering a politic of repair, reclamation, and healing. We hope to continue the work of building power with the artists, creatives, and cultural workers who can help move us through hard conversations and envision what is possible for the next generation. 

As we build the local power needed for our neighborhoods to improve their overall quality of life, it’s also important that we demand better policies from our elected officials. They have the power to pass laws that invest in our environment and allow Michiganders to electrify their homes safely, sustainably, and affordably. 

As of now, it is clear that DTE is only accountable to their shareholders, and not their customers. We’re coming together to hold wealthy corporations like DTE and Consumers Energy accountable to create a reliable, affordable, people-centered energy system that meets the needs of all Michiganders. 

Kamau is a community organizer & multidisciplinary artist from Detroit’s east side with passions for transforming communities and storytelling. Kamau uses political education & cultural strategy to cultivate concentrations of Environmental Justice, Leadership Development, & Co-Governance for working class Detroiters. He sincerely believes that better lives are possible “if we get on the floor & grab crayons” 

Born in Mexico, at the age of 4, Catalina Rios immigrated to Detroit, Michigan. She found her voice through poetry while also advocating for immigrant rights. Catalina’s poems have been published and anthologized in Love & Other Futures: Poetry of Untold Stories of Liberation & Love, Anhelo Anhelo, Riverwise Magazine, Mag 20/20 and more. She was selected to be featured in America’s Emerging Poets 2018 Series for Z Publishing House. Further, she is a co-founder of Untold Stories of Liberation and Love, a poetry collective that amplifies local women of color’ creative courage. She is the host of Detroit Hustle Podcast highlighting stories of hustle in her city. And, she loves visiting the Detroit river and taking walks in Belle Isle, especially during sunset.