Less than 24 hours after newly inaugurated President Biden officially welcomed Shalanda H. Baker into his administration, the Northeastern law and racial justice professor was diving into key policy changes.
“I’m already off to the races,” said Baker, who is now Biden’s deputy director for energy justice at the Department of Energy. “I really feel that a weight has been lifted and we can get to work on some of the most urgent crises of our time.”
One of Baker’s early priorities is to address the growing home energy bills overwhelming many families that are still jobless during the COVID-19 pandemic. American energy customers could owe a combined $40 billion by this March, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. Family debts could get as high as $2,000, which is why Baker believes access to clean energy and bill assistance are the keys to a just recovery.
“Right now we have a moratorium on energy shutoffs in place, but we haven’t had a broader economic correction and the costs keep mounting. I think we should be looking for relief in that respect,” she said.
Biden created Baker’s Department of Energy role to address two seemingly disparate administration priorities—ramping up the use of clean energy and eliminating racial injustice.
“These talented and diverse public servants will deliver on President Biden’s goal to tackle the climate crisis and build an equitable clean energy future,” incoming Department of Energy chief of staff Tarak Shah said in a statement. “Guided by their expertise, breadth of experience, and following the science, these Department of Energy appointees will contribute to creating a clean energy economy that produces millions of good-paying American jobs and safeguards the planet for future generations.”
Biden has promised that more than 40 percent of all administration climate investments will go to environmental justice communities—populations near oil refineries or other fuel production plants where residents face heightened pollution. The plan is to ensure that Black and brown Americans and other marginalized groups have greater access to clean energy while reducing pollutants—the unfortunate byproducts of fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy.
“There have been long-standing impacts to communities of color when it comes to energy,” says Baker, who has taught at Northeastern since 2017. Her work to co-create and co-direct Northeastern’s Initiative for Energy Justice in 2018 was one of the key reasons she was tapped for her new post.
“The initiative I founded at Northeastern has made a national impact,” she says. The organization created a scorecard to guide communities and policymakers creating clean energy policies and ensure they account for the needs of often-marginalized voices.
“We need folks who can engage with policymakers as well as connect with these under-represented communities.,” she says of her new government role.
Baker, who is taking a leave of absence from Northeastern as she heads to Washington D.C. with her partner, says she’ll also look toward clean energy policies in California and New York for guidance. The former Air Force officer said she will miss her Northeastern community, but she’s eager to do whatever she can to help the country.
“We have a deep need to heal but we also have an opportunity to transform ourselves,” she says.
“I wouldn’t have left an amazing job with amazing colleagues to go do this if I didn’t think it was worth it.”
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