Lessons on Listening: What utilities can learn from grassroots organizers

September 27, 2022 by Sarah VanoverRachel Dortin, and Dan Moring

Slipstream launched a utility funded pilot program in 2019 to explore how a trusted community-based organization (CBO) could increase energy efficiency program participation. We partnered with a CBO that empowers people of all faiths and spiritualities to champion for environmental and racial justice in their communities and had well-developed community outreach channels.

We hired and trained organizers through the CBO to engage and educate their neighbors about energy efficiency and sustainability. The organizers, who were residents of the historically under resourced neighborhoods we wanted to reach, were our boots on the ground until the pilot wrapped in October 2020.

We started with the best of intentions. But every engineer knows intentions don't matter when the building falls.

Through hard, honest reflection we realized where our intentions and our actions didn't align. And now we give you our lessons on listening.

Lesson 1: Breaking commitments to the community breaks trust and undermines CBOs.


Be able to connect the dots. What I've discovered about working and living in Chicago, is it's a segregated community. A lot of the discussions going on with [our industry] focus on activities in the business district and to the north. And I know there are folks on the South Side having the same conversations, but we aren't listening.
- Sandra Henry, Slipstream President

The CBO was highly skeptical of the utility before the pilot began. The only point of reference most people have for their utility are unscrupulous, door-to-door energy suppliers or the person who delivers a shutoff notice.

However, the project's intended scope of work included the distribution of smart thermostats to customers who participated in the pilot, which made the CBO excited to participate despite their distrust.

Before the CBO engaged customers, the utility removed the smart thermostat incentive and didn't offer a comparable alternative. The utility instead coordinated the pilot with another utility program focused on the income-eligible sector to distribute energy efficiency kits (high-efficiency faucet aerators and shower heads, LED nightlights and bulbs, weather stripping, pipe wrap, and insulation).

Though it was a valid tactical decision for the utility program portfolio, the choice undermined the CBO's trust and showed our partner CBO that they had no reason to change their opinion about the utility, which caused a roadblock in our relationship. 

We recognize that sometimes programs incentive will change, but the utility and program administrator can maintain trust by asking the community to guide those changes.

Lesson 2: Build relationships with communities before projects so you can uplift solutions they create.


Don't walk in thinking you already have the solution. Chances are the folks living in the neighborhoods that you want to reach already have answers. They may need financial help, or they may need a little extra boost with the capacity to get stuff done, but they already have their solutions. So, remember to listen—first.
- Sandra Henry, Slipstream President

The relationship we tried to build was inequitable from the start. We needed to confront the power imbalance between the utility, Slipstream, and the CBO.

Slipstream and the utility should have built the relationship with the community before the pilot began and used the outreach approach the CBO knew from grassroots organizing in their community.

We were wrong to believe that our "tried and true" approach would work, and we hurt the people we wanted to help. At the end of the pilot, we had long, hard conversations with ourselves and the CBO.

Slipstream realized that this wasn't an isolated incident. The structure—the system we use to build relationships—needs to change.

We finally realized that "we are all swimming in the waters of white supremacy culture. We are all navigating this culture, regardless of our racial identity. We are not all affected in the same ways – some of us are encouraged to join and collude without awareness that an invitation has been extended, some are invited to participate at the cost of separating ourselves from our communities and families, some are shamed because we can never fully join no matter how hard we try, some are denied any invitation in order to be targeted or exploited or violated" (Tema Okun).

By believing the utility approach was the only way, we advanced white supremacy culture. We must build relationships outside of projects. Only then can we advance solutions that benefit everyone.

Lesson 3: Trust the community to lead with their voice.


I can't speak your words with my voice.
– A local organizer involved in the project

The pilot meant to evaluate the currency of trust: would more residents enroll in energy efficiency programs if the touchpoint was a trusted neighbor affiliated with a CBO?

To test the currency of trust the utility would have needed to trust the CBO.

The pilot used utility-branded materials and required a lengthy review process for organizer-generated message and content. CBO organizers couldn't communicate with neighbors on social media because the utility required review of all direct messages, which was too time consuming.

The CBO was supposed to be the voice of the community, and the organizers began to question the pilot's motive.

We should have asked the utility funder, Do you want do this work, or do you want to be seen doing it?

Slipstream should have asked the same question of ourselves.

If our goal is to advance climate solutions for everyone – and to make sure we advance the solutions communities need – then we should have pushed back against the funder. We should have used our voice to help the CBO use theirs.

Lesson 4: There is more than one right way.


We believe in community-driven solutions, and we believe in bringing in subject matter experts and putting them with neighbors. And lo and behold, most people aren't even hip to the concept that some of our greatest subject matter experts live where? In the ‘hood. Like somebody we know.
Naomi Davis, Blacks in Green

Fast forward to a few months left in the pilot. The community we worked had suffered high COVID-19 death tolls. George Floyd was just murdered. Residents were in the streets fighting against racial injustice and police brutality. Energy efficiency was no one's main priority.

Our CBO finally came to us and said, It's not the right time for this anymore. We can't just call up our neighbors and talk about energy right now. We need to show up for them. Our community trusts us. Will you?

The CBO forced us to recalibrate. We admitted that our pilot wasn't accomplishing its goals. We let the CBO define the community's needs and help us redefine the scope of work. We worked with the utility to provide referrals to their bill assistance program and information on their energy efficiency programs.

We reoriented the CBO organizers to support other programming that would help the community sustain itself during COVID-19. We provided:

  • Rent and foreclosure prevention resources
  • Around 4,000 food boxes to help fight food insecurity
  • 8,500 PPE (personal protective equipment) supply kits
  • Educational resources --500 backpacks to area schoolchildren without access to screen learning, including educational and STEM activities, information on utility programs
  • Pollinator gardens and information on native landscapes

There were subject matter experts in the community who knew what would work. We let go of our "right" way, helped the CBO achieve theirs, and learned to listen.

Lesson 5: Look at everything through an equity lens. Recognize your role in perpetuating white supremacy culture. Work toward change.


White-led nonprofit organizations must include communities in decision-making processes that will affect their lives. Satisfying this imperative will require enormous behavior change and massive rethinking. It demands that white-led organizations sacrifice their privilege and maybe even redistribute their resources and enable others to become the heroes…It's hard to imagine a future that is liberatory and equitable if white-led nonprofit organizations only listen with their eyes and fail to hear the people who have the solutions—but not the resources—to solve their own problems."
Kaitlyn Ram Bo

Grassroots organizing centers on respect and trust. You enter the conversation because of your audience's priorities and concerns, not your own.

The pilot would have been more successful if both Slipstream and the utility took a supporting role from the beginning.

Doing that requires real work to uproot our existing systems and redesign a framework that allows us to co-create with the community.

We all need to rethink our approach to community-based programming from serving the community to giving ownership to the community. It isn't as simple as partnering with a community. We need to design new, collaborative processes.

Lesson 6: Learn from your mistakes. Be transparent.

There are systemic issues and gatekeepers that run deep in America. Nonprofits are not exempt from this. In fact, nonprofits perpetuate white supremacy culture by upholding a set of professional ideals that prevent progress.

This is not attack on your personhood or your work.

This is a call in: what can you do to break the system? How can you be accountable to the people you want to help?

If we are transparent about how we fail, the lessons we learn, and the changes we will make, we can begin to unravel the hold white supremacy culture has over transformational change. We can give the power back to the people.

We could have kept these lessons to ourselves. In many ways, it would be easier. Admitting where we've failed takes guts, and we hope it inspires you to do the same.

If you want to tell your story, we want to hear from you. Contact Rachel Dortin to join our radical honesty revolution.