Brandon Tizol, Elizabeth Oh, and Susan Kang at St. Nicholas Park in Harlem. Photographs by Gioncarlo Valentine for Hammer & Hope.
After New York State passed the Build Public Renewables Act in May 2023, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò spoke with three organizers from the NYC-DSA Ecosocialist Working Group who campaigned for the legislation.
Olúfẹ́mi: To start off, what is public power? Why is it a big deal? Why was it an important struggle? Could you speak specifically to its implications for racial justice and class politics?
Brandon: When crises hit anywhere in this country — in the world, really — Black people are made to suffer the most. And we have a climate crisis that is not looming — we’re living in it. On top of trying to help people’s current material conditions, anything we can do to stave off the worst of the climate crisis for as long as we can is going to benefit Black and brown people who are thrown on the front lines of this. And people understand that. That’s not abstract to people. When we were doing canvasses in Gun Hill homes after Hurricane Isaias in 2020, I talked to someone about how whenever there’s a storm, they lose power. This is a low-income person, and they have to find a motel to stay in, because they are on ventilation and their mother’s on ventilation; all their kids have asthma. They’re not able to stay in that place. And when we talk about how we’re trying to rework the energy system and move to renewables, they get it immediately. A lot of climate activism does feel highfalutin, where you buy your Prius and go composting, and a lot of people just don’t do that. But when I’m tabling in the Bronx, saying, “Hey, don’t you hate ConEd?” that just connects. Everyone understands that; everyone knows their energy bills are too high and keep going up. You know there are proposed rate hikes all the time but never accompanied by improved service, so what are we paying for? Whenever there is stress on the energy grid and they have these planned blackouts, they do them in predictable neighborhoods — Canarsie, the Bronx, or somewhere like that. Not the West Village. Not Gramercy. People get it. Being able to change that reality is a direct hit on class politics.
Elizabeth: Socialists in New York City spearheaded the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA) to authorize and mandate our public power authority, the New York Power Authority (NYPA), to build, develop, and own renewable energy in the state to meet the climate goals set in 2019 to decarbonize our energy system. We also wanted to create discounted utility rates for low- to moderate-income communities because people are struggling to pay their energy bills, as well as close down all of NYPA’s gas peaker plants, which are primarily located in Black and brown neighborhoods, like where I live in Astoria, as well as the South Bronx.
Energy politics can be hard to translate, but we wanted to talk about the impact of fossil fuels on our neighbors in terms of health and environmental racism. Brandon and I live along one of the neighborhoods called Asthma Alley because of all the power plants and polluting infrastructure that were intentionally built here. In the context where our energy system is owned by private utility companies that are able to raise rates at any point, building renewable energy has to benefit impacted communities. So it was important not only to include the fossil fuel phaseout and discounted utility rates but also to connect that to everyday people’s lives and say, “If we build renewable energy, we can not only meet our goals and stave off the worst of the climate crisis in New York but also better your material conditions as a low-income person, as a Black and brown person living in these parts of New York.”
Susan: It’s going to be really hot this summer in New York and all over the country. When it’s a hot day, we get a text message from ConEd saying, “Don’t use power.” Because our energy grid is overextended, the existing system cannot provide energy for our needs, which ironically is made worse by its reliance on fossil fuels. And everybody gets that. Everyone needs air-conditioning. We have lights in Times Square that never get cut. We have empty office buildings in midtown that are air-conditioned to 65 degrees. They never are told to stop. It’s always individual households, working families, who are told to sacrifice during these inhumane summer months. And people forget, but those are terrifying times.
Elizabeth: The other important aspect of our bill is that it’s a just transition bill — the AFL-CIO helped us write the labor provisions in BPRA so that any job that’s going to be created under NYPA will be a union job. For us to believe in a just transition, jobs need to be protected, and quality jobs under the public sector must be given to fossil fuel workers who are transitioning out of those jobs and also to working-class people in frontline communities.
Olúfẹ́mi: You talked about the AFL-CIO; you talked about canvassing in particular neighborhoods. Could you all say more about what the crucial alliances were to getting BPRA passed and how you made those alliances?
Elizabeth: From the start, the bill was DSA-coded; we had a lot of trouble getting the bigger climate organizations on board. We did build relationships with environmental justice organizations like WE ACT, other DSA chapters who were with us, organizations like Sane Energy Project, For the Many, Food & Water Watch, and Sunrise NYC. But we had to hustle and power map to get labor unions and other organizations to support our bill and get it over the finish line. It’s really from the strength of us challenging power and making this seem like it was the most important climate legislation that we built strong alliances toward the tail end of our campaign. I want to give a special shout-out to not only the teachers union, UFT, which co-sponsored a rally with Representative Jamaal Bowman to call for “Green Schools, Not Charter Schools,” but also 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, which supports climate legislation because the union sees how health care workers struggle on the front lines of the climate crisis. It’s no coincidence that the unions that do care work and are on the front lines of their communities bearing witness to the effects of the climate crisis, especially in Black and brown communities, are aligned with the broader movement and socialist legislation.
Susan: The unions in New York are a little bit politically and socially conservative. They don’t take bold steps. Our municipal unions were not at the front line of fighting privatization of retiree health care, for example. So there’s a lot of risk aversion despite the fact that New York has one of the highest union densities in America — around 20 percent of public and private sector workers are unionized. But many unions don’t take a progressive, frontline approach toward full policy changes, so it was difficult to get some unions on board. My union, the PSC-CUNY, which represents the faculty and professional staff at the City University of New York, signed on in 2021. But we’re not 1199SEIU, we’re not 32BJ, we’re not the biggest union. We’re not the teachers [UFT, United Federation of Teachers]. The NYC teachers’ union has almost 200,000 workers. But our union is part of this broader statewide coalition called NYSUT, the New York State United Teachers. Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli announced a phase-out decarbonization plan for New York state pensions in 2020, but internal activists — local unions and members of NYSUT — continue to advocate for NYSUT to take immediate and decisive action. A nice thing about a union coalition is that you can get them to pass things. But leadership may not necessarily use their political capital to support a resolution. Yet our union and other NYSUT Bernie-type folks throughout the state helped to pass a resolution in support of the Build Public Renewables Act. We got it passed unanimously at the statewide convention in 2022, which is a big deal because now we could say, “We’ve got statewide labor support.”
Elizabeth: We tried really hard to build with the impacted trade unions, but we also didn’t wait for them to come around. We shifted the material conditions. We passed this piece of legislation. And now they’re like, “Let’s have a meeting. Let’s talk about this.” We were the ones who led with the policy and the vision, and now the trade unions are included in the planning and implementation process. And honestly, the role of the left is to say, “Our vision does include you all, and you don’t have to be with us every step of the way. But now we are here— let’s build together.” That’s what BPRA is doing: creating a path for green workers and the left to build a coalition to guarantee high-quality jobs and put more power at the hands of workers and the movement in the long term.
Olúfẹ́mi: You have this vision that included labor, and you didn’t wait around for them to figure that out. It’s moved forward now. And so now you’re at the stage where NYPA has this new public authority, but the way that it’s written into the budget language, NYPA has to hold public hearings on its clean energy projects. That will involve you and various unions potentially being involved in the planning stages, but NYPA is in the driver’s seat. What does the next step look like in terms of organizing to make sure that you try to push NYPA in the right kind of direction, aligned with the broader vision that BPRA came out of?
Brandon: We only got this far by organizing regular, normal people, organizing labor, organizing politicians into the vision. That’s how we got to where we are right now. So it only makes sense to keep that going. We understood that from the beginning, and it was important for there to be democracy in this process, and that requires constant organizing. It’s not like we get to a point and then we drop it off.
Elizabeth: We are continuing to do outreach with labor unions, so that we are aligned on what we want NYPA to do, which is to make sure that NYPA builds and that these jobs are union jobs. And we will continue organizing and building up socialist chapters across the state, so when projects are proposed, there is already a base of people who say, “Yes, we want this. We want these jobs. This is good for us and the future of our community.” We’re going to continue to pressure NYPA so that we have a firm hand on the implementation of this bill. We have to implement this thing. And that’s going to be a lot of work. So I’m aware of and feeling the burden of organizing labor and organizing people across the state to make sure this happens.
Susan: Plenty of laws get passed in New York that don’t get implemented. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act that passed in 2019 was a gold standard climate change protection act. It put us at the front of the map, a better law than anything California passed, and for years, New York State didn’t do anything to implement it, which is part of one of our talking points: We haven’t passed any climate legislation in four years. This law means nothing if nothing happens behind it. But there’s a movement behind it that won’t allow the state and its agencies to just kick the can down the road, because we have nothing better to do except to be a pain in their asses until we hit our goals plus new ones, because BPRA is not enough. It’s a first step toward decarbonization; there’s so much more left to do to reach climate justice. We hit our first goal, but the goalpost just keeps moving. I’ve got two kids, and I’m like, “Why did I have two kids while the world is burning? Unless I’m actively trying to stop them from being on the front lines of the water wars 2040?” So I think that our political enemies are right to be skeptical, but they’re wrong to underestimate just how annoying we can be.
Olúfẹ́mi: That’s a perfect segue to the strategic power of being the right measure of annoying. I want to ask about balancing the need for alliance and antagonism. When you’re canvassing and talking to regular folks, you probably hear a range of opinions — some people are aligned with you, other people aren’t. And then the same thing was true across the different union leaderships and among the different elected officials. How do you balance the need to find some connections with people who might not have the same vision that you all had with the BPRA but also the need to be a pain in the ass to others? How do you make those decisions, coming back to Brandon’s point about movement democracy?
Brandon: In terms of decision making, this campaign has been extremely democratic. There are quarterly strategy sessions where people get together and take the lay of the land: What have we done? What have we accomplished? What remains to be done? What happens next? And we sit down and talk about them, take votes on things. You win or you lose on your particular vision, but you keep moving forward. Leadership was spread out as broadly as possible, and we were always trying to bring new people in. Not everything was nice and easy. There were some arguments. There were some tense moments, and trying to figure out how to balance things, including the actual strategy, wasn’t an easy process, but it was extremely democratic — one person, one vote, and staying together within that.
Now for the fun part, the antagonism. BPRA and public power in general is an unabashedly eco-socialist vision for how to work energy in this state, which also means that it is a natural magnet for enemies. We were trying to upend how the energy system works, so obviously we had fossil fuel corporations and all sorts of politicians who are in various pockets against us. Honestly, the ability to show power was the most important thing, and a lot of that is antagonism. Some of that is alliance building, too. How do you build alliances so you can have power to back what you’re trying to achieve? That’s where the balance is. It’s difficult to figure out how to do that. I’m naturally an attack dog; I go in on people. I help with comms. Often, I’ve tried to take a very aggressive approach against a particular target, and then someone has to say, “Hey, listen, we can’t really do that with this person, because behind the scenes they’re doing x, y, or z,” which I don’t necessarily know about. It really is about trust in the people that I’m working with, who are engaged in different parts of the campaign, who know things that I wouldn’t be privy to, so if someone tells me something, I trust and believe that they’re on top of what they’re doing. At the same time, they trust and believe in what I’m doing, too. So there’s a little push and pull there. But overall this was a bold campaign to reset people’s ideas on what was possible on climate, which made it naturally antagonistic. But there is always a need for coalition building and seeing people as partners, even in moments when they don’t necessarily agree. I do think the key to bringing everyone on board was wanting to see a just transition for workers, wanting to see workers in these frontline communities brought on board to be part of the solution. You have to want to do that alliance building. And then you have to want to attack people, too, when they get in the way.
Elizabeth: When we were power mapping, we did an analysis of who has power, who moves leadership within the legislature, and who is not acting on climate. And it turns out our own Senate bill sponsor is not moving our bill past committee. So all across the state we ran seven electoral candidates specifically on climate as their key issue. That was part of our calculation: if you are not moving climate legislation, you will lose your job. After our bill’s lead sponsor was primaried and won by a plurality, by less than half, then he started moving things. We came up on PowerPoint presentations that he was giving to the rest of the Senate where BPRA was presented as priority legislation. And then electing Kristen Gonzalez and Sarahana Shrestha was incredible because there was renewed energy behind this legislation. Sarahana was a Public Power organizer before she ran for office; her organizing brought a lot more legislators on board where we previously didn’t have access. As scrappy socialists who don’t have power but understand that we need to contest power in order to build it, we challenge seats and are trying to expand the state electorally so that we can implement legislation. And that’s not just for climate, it’s for everything—housing, taxing the rich, workers’ rights, decarceration, and true justice in our communities. So yeah, we did that. [laughs] And it was exhausting. But if we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t have gotten this far.
Susan: In addition to primarying, there’s also a lot of shaming. There was this great protest where I got arrested along with many other leaders. Our team created these great Venmo boards that demonstrated how much money all these electeds took from the fossil fuel industry, and some of them were so offended, like Amy Paulin. It became clear how many of our elected officials were in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry. That was an example of a very confrontational protest. We all got hit with misdemeanor charges, later dropped, because it took an hour or so to get us power-sawed out of this structure that included chicken wire and cement, so it was a big deal. I think it kind of worked as a way to mobilize our organizers to continue and feel energized about the fight.
Olúfẹ́mi: An important aspect of this was the outside stuff, the direct actions, the meme warfare. And there’s the inside stuff — you’ve got the stick of shaming and then the carrot of Sarahana and Kristen and all the people running the inside strategy. It seems like you are saying that was key to your success here. But I’m thinking of other parts of the country that don’t, at this moment, have allied elected officials. What parts of this are replicable in those parts of the country? Should folks elsewhere start with trying to find vulnerable places in the state legislature and try to run candidates? Do you think they should start outside and see what labor or other organizations they can get on board? What do you think folks who face a different electoral side of the power map could take from what you all have done?
Brandon: We didn’t have aligned electeds at first either. We had to create that. That’s harder to do in other places than for us. So it’s hard to say what someone should do specifically or technically. But here are the broad takeaways. People understand that we are in a crisis. People understand their own material conditions. Workers understand what will help pay their bills. Politicians understand that you can get them the hell up out of there. Playing on all of those things is how you win. However that happens from state to state, municipality to municipality, that’s different. But you have to go to the people. You have to have an aligned group of individuals with you. You can start off really small, as we did. And you have to be bold in challenging power, particularly on this issue, because we’re working with tight timeframes. We don’t have time for half measures. We don’t have time to play that game. Bold antagonism is what’s needed. And doing as much as you can to align people’s material goals with your own climate goals is the real key.
Elizabeth: As an organizer, I’m always like, “You’ve got to power map. You have to understand and assess your conditions, and then chart your path forward and be willing to fail and make mistakes.” But the heart of the matter is that I loved organizing with my comrades. I was changed and developed through this campaign. A lesson to come out of this, besides analysis, power mapping, and electoralism is: Take heart. Believe in your comrades, believe in the movement, and build with people. All organizing, all building, happens with people. All of our vision is implemented through people. And trust that your vision will win. And that’s not even poetic. That’s just something that you need. That’s a spiritual foundation you need to fight over the long run, and for our comrades across the country who face violence, increased state surveillance, and the rise of fascism, let’s take heart. All of our issues are connected. And there are already people who are working on these issues in a wide array of ways. So do not fear that you are alone. And build as big of a historic bloc that you can, in a Gramscian sense, to let people know that this is a mass movement.
Susan: The bill passing changes the organizing landscape for people in other states who want to replicate or improve on this. Being able to look at New York provides better opportunities for other groups. DSA, for example, is trying to organize nationally to build this out across the country. Success breeds more success. It’s not going to be easy, but we are working as much as we can with others. Somebody just said, “Let’s get in touch with an organizer in Minnesota right now. Let’s get them to pass BPRA, if they’re going to pass all this other stuff through with a one-vote majority.” I just called somebody in Minnesota. I went there for grad school. I said, “Let’s find out how we can use our networks to spread these strategies, because every place is vulnerable and in need of these kinds of changes.”
Olúfẹ́mi: Is there anything that you didn’t get to say about BPRA or organizing in general?
Elizabeth: It took every single person to pass this bill, and we do not take that for granted. Everybody who participated in some way felt like this was building something, and it did. One day, we will win, and it takes everybody. Don’t take your comrades for granted. Love, trust, and respect the people you organize with.
Susan: We have a lot of direct discussions with regular New Yorkers ahead of us. This summer’s going to be really hot; it’s a good opportunity for us to do the work the government should be doing, which is “Here’s the law. Here’s how it can improve your lives.” We’re going to make everyone we speak to learns what the NYPA is.
Brandon: All I have is stop Cop City.
Susan Kang is an associate professor of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY, living in Jackson Heights, Queens. She is an organizer with the New York City Democratic Socialists of America and a member of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY).
Elizabeth Oh is an abolitionist climate organizer based in Astoria, New York. She is currently the Public Power Coalition organizer.
Brandon Tizol is a born-and-raised New Yorker living in Harlem. He is an organizer and digital communicator with New York City Democratic Socialists of America.