Why Black Lives Matter to TURN

Since the global surge of protests to demand police accountability and racial justice, triggered by the brutal killing of George Floyd, I have been reflecting on the meaning of the Black Lives Matter movement to myself, and to my leadership of TURN.  Since I was hired as Executive Director in 2008, TURN has intentionally reached out to Black communities to ensure that their voices are part of the policy debates in the legislature and at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).  The inclusion of Black voices through storytelling of their aspirations to live rich, full lives and make meaningful contributions to their children, families and community brings lived experience to the center of the policy debates.  These powerful narratives have set the stage and helped TURN win policies to reduce rates, increase corporate accountability and stop shutoffs.   And yet, there is so much more that TURN must do to rise to the challenge issued by current protests for all organizations to do more to advance racial justice in our work externally, as well as in our practice internally.


I started leading social justice organizations and campaigns in high school and college, fighting for student rights, police accountability, South African Solidarity, and sustainable energy.  My  first job after graduating from Brown University in 1982, was as a community organizer for WAGE–Workers Association for Guaranteed Employment, an organization of predominantly Black women united in their fight to secure basic income, food stamps, utility service, and most importantly dignity.   I stumbled upon this job after discovering to my everlasting delight that I could actually get paid to be a troublemaker. Fighting utility shutoffs was a bread and butter issue for us because so many WAGE members, subsisting on public assistance to support their families, were not able to keep up with high winter heating bills, often running hundreds of dollars a month due to living in homes with poor insulation and drafty windows.   Once a week we would gather all of the people who had called the office to let us know they were shut off to a protest at the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission in downtown Providence.   We chanted and hollered and refused to leave until we won payment arrangements to get each person’s utility service restored.


During one of the Friday protests, I came face–to–face with racism in the persona of John A. Notte, III, who served as General Counsel of the Rhode Island PUC.  Notte was pretty unhappy that about a dozen people were protesting inside the PUC offices and demanding that people get their lights and heat turned back on.  He and I got into a heated argument when he towered over me and started sticking his finger in my face yelling at me to get out of his office.  Me, all of 22 years old, told him in no uncertain terms,  “If you don’t get your finger out of my face it’s gonna get broke.”  He responded by pulling back, taking the glasses off of his face, and stating, “Take your best shot,” he paused a moment and punctuated, “boy.”   Full of anger at the racist taunt, I came so very close to taking him up on his offer to avenge my honor.  Yet, at that very instant I had an epiphany that I was being set up for failure.  Something inside from years of my upbringing had taught me,  that if I, as a young Black man, had taken that swing at a middle–aged white attorney whose father had served as Governor of Rhode Island, no matter how seemingly justified, they would have sent me to prison and thrown away the key, or worse.  It was with the realization that I literally held my future in my hands, that I took a step back, and reminded Notte that I was here to help the families here today get their electricity and gas service restored.  I told him that nobody was leaving until that happened.  I felt a sense of victory upon leaving his office, not only because we achieved our objective that day, but because I resisted the temptation to come to blows with a racist individual and instead continued to organize to change the power structures that perpetuate patterns of racism.


The recent murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and far too many others have brought one aspect of the brutal reality of racism and inequity that persist in law enforcement to the forefront.  The reality is that these inequities exist throughout all societal sectors and they are  implemented by old racist systems and institutions.  At TURN, part of our work now and moving forward is to acknowledge and fight the systems and institutions that create inequity and perpetuate racism within our sector.  These systems that have disproportionately impacted the access of Black communities to basic and necessary electric and communication services, impeding their ability to reach their full potential.  You can count on me to provide leadership to bring the lessons of the Black Lives Matter movement into TURN in the policy work that we do at the CPUC and State Legislature, and into our internal staffing practices.


Moving forward I will support deeper dialogue within TURN on issues of race and create an environment in which  our staff and consultants can and will have the necessary support and mandates to apply a racial justice analysis when developing our policy positions – one that is every bit as rigorous as the analysis we currently conduct on the economic impact of policy proposals.  One place to start is working with staff leadership to develop recruitment and support protocols that prioritize the inclusion of Black attorneys that have been virtually absent from TURN for 50 years.  It will not be easy for TURN to meet the challenges ahead of us, and we cannot do it alone.  However, I am confident that with the support of our Board of Directors, our Grassroots Community Partners, our Public Health Partners, and our members and donors, TURN will make a stronger contribution to racial justice than ever before.


P.S.  If you would like me to see your comments, please email me at mtoney@turn.org.