Shimekia Nichols helps Detroiters scrutinize thei...

Shimekia Nichols helps Detroiters scrutinize their energy bills with enlightenment — and empowerment

Profiles in the fight for environmental justice: Nichols has learned that critical questions are the first steps toward attaining democracy in an energy sector long dominated by convention.

Shimekia Nichols. Photo by K. Richardson

Most of us pay our electricity bill without much question. We do so without inquiring what exactly we’re paying for; without asking to be apprised of frequent rate hikes; without demanding a more compassionate, transparent billing process during a time of increased financial insecurity. 

But Detroit resident Shimekia Nichols has learned that critical questions are the first steps toward attaining democracy in a sector long dominated by convention. Equity within our energy systems will require a heightened level of commitment  — akin to what we have seen expressed in the streets over the last eight months to end the worldwide system of racist police brutality.

Attaining real energy democracy, Nichols knows, will require at the very least a willingness to disrupt the norm. 

In her role as deputy director of the nonprofit energy advocacy group Soulardarity, Nichols joins a growing coalition of energy consumer advocates who are educating Detroit residents on DTE’s billing protocol, emphasizing leadership roles for those most-impacted by unfair practices, and advancing the principle of energy democracy. Her work is inevitably part of a larger, holistic approach in the struggle with a capitalist, racial system that is rooted in every sector of our lives. 

Reverend Joan Ross of the North End Woodward Community Coalition (NEWCC) has noted the evolution of the Black liberation movement in Detroit and the capacity of activists to work on several fronts at once. In the case of NEWCC, community resources and foundation grants have allowed them to establish community self-reliance in the areas of solar energy, internet access, food security and community radio in Detroit’s North End, Southwest, and Islandview neighborhoods.

“The idea is to begin doing the work you’re doing in these communities but layer it on top of something else,” Ross said recently on the Riverwise Podcast. “So that you begin to see the results of, this group does this and this group does that.. both of those things should empower you by changing the narrative brought by systemic racism and to make things more equitable — we have access to those things too.” 

Through the ‘Work 4 Me DTE’ campaign and various community solar energy projects, Nichols and Soulardarity are pursuing that holistic approach and encouraging more of us to challenge an inequitable system along the way. As a result, many residential customers in Detroit and Highland Park are now looking at their electricity bills with a bit more enlightenment — and empowerment. 

A conscious come-up

Until the age of 11, Nichols grew up in southwest Detroit’s industrial epicenter, better known as 48217 — a consistent focal point for environmental justice activists in this region. The area is notorious for the number and density of factories and toxin emitters, including Marathon Oil, Michigan’s largest oil refinery. The I-75 freeway bisects the expanse of oil and chemical industrial infrastructure, giving drivers the full experience — sight, sound and smell.

Detroit homeowners in majority-Black 48217 are in a constant battle against asthma, cancer, respiratory illness, and state regulators. Growing up in 48217, Nichols was certainly conscious of the close proximity of heavy industry, she says, but unaware that her Detroit neighborhood was any different from the others. 

After moves to two different parts of the city that correlated with changes in grade schools, Nichols’ family settled on the west side. During her enrollment at the Aishe Shule/W.E.B. DuBois K-12 Preparatory Academy Nichols received an early exposure to an explicitly political perspective on life in Detroit and beyond. It was here where the commitment to Black liberation and self-determination would begin to leave a lasting imprint.

“Aishe Shule allowed me not only to have an African-centered education, where critical thinking and problem solving was the basis of the curriculum, but it also expanded my world view,” Nichols reflected during a recent phone interview. “It put me in a position to look for and fight for solutions for African and Black people across the diaspora.”

During her four years at Aishe Shule, Nichols encountered numerous opportunities to put theory into practice. Students were encouraged to engage in protests and teachers strikes. She participated in organizing around support for public education, even though Aishe Shule was born as a charter school. 

But most of all, Nichols remembers her high-school experience as life-changing because of an organic synthesis of education and the domestic environment. Students witnessed and engaged in daily problem-solving around issues impacting their community. 

After graduating from Aisha Shule in 2000, Nichols spent one year at Oakland University before coming back to Aishe Shule as an instructor. Being so young, Nichols was able to interact with students on an equal footing, developing a strong cultural connection with them. The experience strengthened her interest in community organizing. 

“While I was working at Aishe Shule, I was able to do a lot of professional development that helped me with understanding the way Black children learn, understanding the how to solve community issues, how to organize— so all that experience culminated in me being interested in being an organizer,” she says.

Another definitive experience soon followed. Nichols’ began working with New Era Detroit, whose mission statement figures prominently around self-love and the objective to pursue “accountability within our communities as well as preparing our people to positively contribute to the growth and development of our neighborhoods.” 

Well-known for being directly on the front lines of racial and social justice, New Era provided Nichols the opportunity to engage in door-to-door campaigns, where she spoke directly with residents about their most pressing political and economic concerns. 

“With New Era Detroit, I got a real, face-to-face, unfiltered look at the needs in our community,” says Nichols. “Because we weren’t specifically addressing one singular need, like the majority of organizations do, we were trying to find those intersections, those gaps…. it allowed us to just go door-to-door, talk to people, hear what their issues are, and then actually try and implement solutions and find resources for those solutions.”

While community engagement was crucial to Nichols’ political development, she was propelled even further by personal economic struggles. While working with We The People of Detroit and raising her three-year old son, Shimekia began witnessing sizable rate increases on her DTE bill. She didn’t understand ‘cost recovery’ and other fees that were showing up on her statements, so she began calling the DTE billing department for clarity on how exactly her gas and electric service were being appraised. More times than not, she said she was met with patronizing and disrespectful replies.

“The most that they would say is, ‘hey, you might just want to shut your lights off more often’, or, ‘do you have a washer and dryer?’,” she recalls.  “At that point, I was living off, like $300 a month, so I didn’t even have a washer and dryer. It was just my son and I— we didn’t consume a lot. I was just really baffled.”

 Still seeking clarity, Nichols looked up a former Aishe Shule student, Ali Dirul, now CEO of Ryter Cooperative Industries, who previously received a Masters degree in alternative energy systems from Oakland University. Dirul suggested the counsel of recent Detroit transplant and founder of Soulardarity, Jackson Koeppel.

As it happened, Soulardarity was ramping up its efforts to advocate for thousands of DTE customers, and was looking for a lead organizer.

Holding DTE accountable to the people

In 2018, Nichols was offered the lead organizing position at Soulardarity. She began working with a coalition called Work 4 Me DTE, where she helped execute a local and statewide campaign to create short-term relief and self-advocacy for DTE rate-payers. 

Nichols’s recent personal experience with DTE played into the collective’s plans to educate themselves and others on how to effectively take on unfair rate structures and service shutoffs. 

“We were trying to think of ways just to assist some of the folks that were being shut off, who had high bills; that were paying more than 30% of their income to keep their lights and gas on; folks that were single parents and afraid that CPS (Child Protective Services) would come in if their utilities got shut off,” Nichols said. “After a number of folks called us about those issues, we decided to have a specific campaign to address those issues.”

The Work 4 Me DTE campaign includes the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition (MEJC) and other local participants such as the Original United Citizens of Southwest Detroit. Their collective goal is to empower energy consumers to advocate for themselves collectively instead of deferring to DTE or local politicians on energy policy.  

Work 4 Me DTE’s main target for advocacy has been the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC), the three-member state agency charged with regulating most aspects of licensed energy utilities, including DTE. For the first year of Work 4 Me DTE’s existence, Nichols said, their educational work consisted mainly of translating legal jargon and connecting people to the decision-making process.

“Even when we were trying to get information and be a part of the decision-making process, we realized that it wasn’t transparent,” Nichols says. “The (MPSC) meetings were at really odd times of the day, when no working person would be able to attend. Meetings with the Michigan Public Service Commission and open houses for DTE were usually held outside the city, so accessibility was an issue. “

In a particularly unforgiving economy, Work 4 Me DTE is looking closely at utility rates that are being increased with almost no input from the rate-payers. Without rate-payer input, the system lacks accountability and transparency, according to Theresa Landrum, founding member of United Citizens of Southwest Detroit. A lifelong resident of 48217, Landrum has led advocacy for energy democracy for years, through surveys, information sessions, and organizing with neighbors. 

“Michigan Public Services Commission are the ones that put the policy together. DTE has a lot of influence in that, and that has to change,” Landrum said. “It’s always the public service commission talking to the companies. We’re pushing the idea and the concept and the demand that MPSC listen to the people. Because the decisions are being made for us, not with us and by us.”

In 2019, the Work 4 Me DTE campaign encouraged almost 3,000 people to lobby the MPSC to listen to their concerns through emails. The campaign culminated in a public hearing, held in Detroit, during which more than 200 attendees told the MPSC that DTE Energy’s’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), mandated by the state every five years outlining the utility’s strategy for meeting its customer’s energy needs, was unacceptable. 

At the top of the list of public complaints was the rate households were paying in comparison to industrial rate payers, leading to the public subsidizing of corporate consumers. In response, the MPSC directed DTE to redraft it’s 15-year plan in accordance with consumer concerns and with a faster timetable for reducing carbon emissions.

This year, Nichols says the Work 4 Me DTE campaign has begun to focus on state legislators who have received campaign monies from DTE and others who have advocated for lighting and environmental issues in Black and Brown communities. Work 4 Me DTE is also lobbying DTE to compensate vulnerable rate payers beyond the $25 DTE normally credits to people affected by power outages.

“These are folks that have spent their last resources getting food and the refrigerator goes out and there’s no place to store it. So $25 is absolutely unacceptable. We’ve been pushing hard on trying to make sure that there’s a different process and there’s a different structure for determining the amount of credit for each household,” Nichols said. “These are elderly people who need medication refrigerated, these are students who need to wash their clothes to go to school and do their homework. These are some of the most vulnerable in our community that are experiencing real hardship from these blackouts.” 

“Soulardarity and Work for Me DTE’s work— the work of energy democracy— is really about creating resilience and self-sufficiency in communities,” says Bridget Vial, Energy Democracy Organizer with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition who, along with Nichols, provided critical testimony on DTE policy at a June 20, 2019 MPSC hearing at Wayne County Community College. “Shimekia sets a tone for this in the way she weaves mutual aid and community care.”

Community solar power as resiliency

Soulardarity originally formed in 2011 in response to rampant DTE street-light removals in Highland Park, the result of a municipal revenue crisis. Most of the city had been left in the dark. 

As the name indicates, Soulardarity has focused mainly on solar projects that educate and organize communities where resources have largely been extracted, and investment is minimal. Down the street from their office in Highland Park sits one of several solar-powered street lights erected in that city as part of a pilot program designed to demonstrate community self-reliance. Their very first public solar street light, installed in November 2012, lives in front of the now-decayed Henry Ford Assembly Plant on Woodward. 

In partnership with similarly positioned organizations like NEWCC and Ryter Cooperative Industries, Soulardarity has also fostered individual solar projects in Highland Park and the eastside of Detroit. These solar projects, designed to light exteriors of homes and assist with heating bills, have been funded through various grants and donations. Currently, Soulardarity is partnering with Avalon Village in a crowdfunding campaign to install five solar street lights on Avalon Street. Called We Lit Avalon!, the lighting project will also incorporate a free, public wi-fi network.

“Avalon Village is a great representation of an energy resilient community,” says Nichols. “The reason why we’re trying to have more of a physical display of our power is because that’s what resonates with folks. When folks see a solar light that incorporates free wi-fi, it’s lighting up the community— it’s a little bit different than just talking about energy democracy as an ideal.” 

We Lit Avalon! will provide another opportunity for community residents to pursue decentralized energy production and consumption when the current energy monopolies oppose the concept.

Nichols’ involvement with community solar initiatives has fostered an optimistic realism about expectations of how fast Detroiters can expect to institute a comprehensive, grassroots level, cost-efficient program around solar energy. But she is convinced it can happen. The protracted process of changing minds is part of Soulardarity’s mission, and the level of community and municipal participation in Highland Park’s experiment in local control of energy resources is rising steadily.

“If you look at the water movement, you know, guiding that work, and there’s housing that’s going on, and then there’s the farming and agriculture movement. There’s a lot of folks exhibiting leadership and including more democracy and more cooperative models for the way this city could be run. Energy is definitely one of those areas where we also could win that fight.”

As Nichols and Soulardarity continue to support community solar projects and energy self-reliance in Highland Park, increasing global effects of climate change make environmental activism a large part of their frontal attack on DTE—addressing inequities in the way DTE delivers energy in impoverished communities is only half the battle. 

In addition to resisting the rising costs of gas and electric service, environmental activists continue to expose the long-term health impacts of DTE’s coal and natural gas-fired plants. University of Michigan research shows that long-term environmental and health consequences of carbon emissions have long strangled Black, Brown and Indigenous communities. 

The Work 4 Me DTE coalition has also revealed, through its study of the latest DTE IRP (Integrated Resource Plan), DTE’s lack of attention to community solar energy and lack of a general plan for alleviating coal emissions in the face of global climate change. DTE is moving exceedingly slow on incorporating sustainable sources of energy, passing the costs on to the consumer when they do, and making autonomous, local attempts at solar sufficiency overly expensive and inconvenient. Although DTE has recently shut down two major coal fired plants in Michigan, they have invested heavily in natural gas instead of solar.  

The Michigan Public Service Commission has been mixed in its response to DTE’s IRP. After approving a 4.6% DTE rate increase in May of this year (well into the worst of the coronavirus pandemic), they decreed that DTE should work with organizations advocating for low-income energy consumers, like Soulardarity and the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, on community solar programs.

“We actually met with DTE, and DTE has absolutely no plan whatsoever, no intention of even creating a pilot project in Detroit,” says Nichols. “They don’t have a plan or strategy to exit out of fossil fuels. They’re just now starting to think about that.”

“They are taking ideas and doing pilots way out where they have absolutely no impact on people who are most affected. This is unacceptable.”

Soulardarity has spent the past two years taking the data and information that they acquired from the DTE campaign and applying it to resistance at the municipal level. 

Recently, there’s been a Highland Park sustainability commission that was created to guide local government input over what types of solar project developments will be allowed in the city. The hope is that future solar projects will proceed with increased cooperation from city leadership. But the main objective to uplift the most-impacted Detroit and Highland Park residents remains paramount.

With the coronavirus pandemic nearing one year of global upset, people across the country are rethinking entrenched economic systems, including energy allocation, that have long helped to keep folks in poverty. And, Nichols says, in the process of examining the real origins of these systems we are moving slowly but surely toward the realization that, “we are the leaders we’ve been looking for”. 

More than a mantra, it’s rapidly becoming a necessity if we are going to achieve economic equity and environmental restoration.

Like everyone else, Shimekia Nichols is adapting to life during a pandemic. But she is doing so while keeping focused on areas of community development leading us to a more equitable ‘new normal’.  

“We want to put ourselves out of business, meaning we don’t want to have to do this work anymore,” Nichols says. “We would much rather work on the myriad issues out here, and if this is one that we can really alleviate, or at least make a tremendous impact and get the ball rolling on self-determination and community-building, then we feel like we’ve done a good job and it’s kind of like, you know, mission accomplished.”

This piece was produced with the partnership and support of the Detroit Equity Action Lab Race and Justice Media Collaboration at Wayne State University to support Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) journalists freelance journalists from marginalized communities.

As managing editor, Eric T. Campbell is part of the collective body which conceived and publishes Riverwise Magazine, a community-based media project reflecting local activism and profound new work being done in and around Detroit neighborhoods. Please contact Riverwise with your story ideas and notice of visionary programs taking place in your neighborhood. email: riverwisedetroit@gmail.com or visit riverwisedetroit.org