Credit: Stephen Sauer (illustration) / Adam Glanzman (photography)
Ideas Made to Matter
How the first-ever U.S. energy justice leader develops ideas
Energy justice is garnering amplification under the Biden administration as policymakers confront vast demographic discrepancies in access to clean energy, ability to pay heating bills, proximity to polluted air, vulnerability to natural disasters, and more. Shalanda Baker is the new (and first-ever) deputy director of energy justice at the U.S. Department of Energy, where she works at the crossroads of environmental policy and racial justice to diminish those gaps.
Baker is also the author of “Revolutionary Power: An Activist’s Guide to the Energy Transition,” a former professor of law and public policy at Northeastern University, and co-founder of the Initiative for Energy Justice.
We talked with Baker about the importance of finding space and silence, either on a walk or when working, and the big idea of transforming how a U.S. cabinet department operates.
What inspires you?
Art inspires me — meaning good books, good music, good dance, creative things. People doing exactly what they were brought here to do inspires me, and seeing their craft.
Who inspires you?
Environmental justice advocates. They’ve been working tirelessly since the 1980s to really make environmental justice part of the national conversation, and I think their work has succeeded.
Where do you get ideas?
I actually get ideas from space and silence, and having some opportunity for stillness. I think that’s so rare in this world. I love being out in nature and sitting in meditation, when I’m able to do that. When I lived in Boston, that was Jamaica Pond. It was a 15-minute walk from my house. As I walked there, I could really feel the layers roll off. I also do a lot of writing. It’s actually an idea generator for me, just organizing my thoughts on paper.
How are new ideas discovered and developed in your organization?
I would say new ideas are discovered by the problems that we have and by questioning. In my new role, we have this problem of inequity in the energy system. We’re now asking questions about it and arranging our operations as well as our research questions around that problem. As we’re doing that, we’re discovering what we don’t know and what we might amplify, and what we might do differently to bridge that inequity gap.
I think ideas are really discovered in the questions, and sometimes they hit you from behind. Again, when I’m sitting and writing and having some space to finally digest my day or week, that’s when ideas really flood in.
How do you keep track of new ideas?
This is going to sound really messy. I keep track of new ideas on sticky notes on my desk, and I just have them out and sometimes will need to refer to them — and I’m like, ‘Oh, yes. I had that flash of brilliance!’ I track them on small pieces of paper.
How do you test ideas?
I’m really a strategic planner, and so I think big picture. I’m not an in the weeds person at the beginning. I break things down into stages, and what I want to get done but also who’s going to help me execute. I think about pulling together the right team as well as empowering that team to really execute on the vision.
How do you know it’s time to abandon an idea?
When I’m continuing to get brick walls or closed doors. And then, energetically, I just realize, ‘Oh, it’s not time for this.’ Or it’s time to move on because there’s so much work to do. And some work comes a lot more easily.
What was your worst idea?
Being too ambitious is a pattern of mine: I create a lot, and I’ve created organizations from nothing. And I think starting organizations without having a lot of institutional or other support has led to a lot of burnout in my life. Now, when I do have my big idea moments, I pull together my team as quickly as I can to help execute.
How do you know an idea is a good one?
When execution is easy and when there’s energy around it and people are excited about it. And when it grows beyond me — because I may have the spark, but people may be able to put the meat and bones on the idea to make it happen.
What is the biggest idea you’re working on right now?
I’ve mostly been afraid to say it, because it’s just so crazy. I’m trying to transform our Department of Energy to be a place where equity is essential to everything we do. I’m mapping out the plan and the strategy to make that happen.
At MIT Sloan, we talk about ideas made to matter — ideas that are carefully developed and have meaningful impact in the world. In that context — what is your idea made to matter?
A decade ago, I started doing research on the equity dimensions of our transition away from fossil fuels, and I had the audacity to suggest that equity should be central to our transition. When I began this work, I was living in Mexico. I met indigenous people from Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in Mexico, which also happens to be the windiest place in the world. Those freedom fighters had been displaced and dispossessed by the clean energy transition happening in their communities. They had signed contracts in Spanish, when they could neither read nor write Spanish, selling rights to multinational corporations and wind energy developers. When I met the folks fighting against wind development, climate advocates were in such a hurry to avert catastrophic climate change that issues of equity, indigenous rights, and human rights didn’t have space within the broader movement.
I realized in my initial interactions with leaders in Oaxaca and my subsequent research that, as long as we relied on the same logics and approaches to clean energy development that we relied on in the fossil fuel era, we were bound to replicate the inequities of the fossil fuel system. So, I dedicated the first ten years of my career to making equity a central feature of our energy transition, starting in Mexico, then moving to Hawaii, and then doing this work on a national level. And there’s now a role at the Department of Energy, which has a $40 billion-plus budget, designed to do that. I didn’t do this alone, but I was very much a part of changing the discourse of this country.