Community Engagement

What does community mean?

When I consider what communities I am part of, I think about my neighborhood of Lee Heights, my community in Arlington, Virginia (connected by a sometimes too active Nextdoor online social network), American Public Power Association members I have connected with over the years, my fellow employees at the Association, my choir (especially my fellow altos!), my longtime colleagues in the Energy Bar Association and the D.C. association world — I could go on and on.

America has long had the reputation of being a nation of joiners. In his classic Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville commented how Americans “combine to give fêtes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, and schools.” By de Tocqueville’s observation, there is no undertaking too small for Americans to unite, and “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions are forever forming associations.”

I like to think that de Tocqueville would admire the community we have created through the American Public Power Association if he were around today. Our Association community helps utilities do their daily work and inspires us all to do it better, in service to the customers in our respective communities — a democratic (with a lowercase “d”) endeavor.

Community has long been an important value of public power: We exist to serve communities, to give back to them, to make sure our operations reflect what they want. A year ago, we unveiled our new brand with the tag line “powering strong communities” to reinforce this deep connection between what we do and whom we represent.

The cities and towns that public power utilities serve are places that have become stronger and thrive because of the input of engaged citizens who all live in the same place but who have differing values, interests, and backgrounds. Sometimes this can lead to disagreement and even controversy. When people are passionate and have pride of place and feel true ownership in their community, sometimes their points of view will clash.

Since public power utilities must provide service to all of the customers in our communities, it is our responsibility to bring these groups together, to foster cooperation and find common ground, to remind members that we all have one shared goal, and that we are united by joint ownership of our community-owned utility.

In this issue, we highlight how public power utilities are working to strengthen the many communities to which they belong.

Nationwide, the response to the onslaught of natural disasters this past year showed the strength of the public power community.

Locally, you are coordinating with the mayors and elected officials who lead the cities you serve to make sure the programs you provide and the power you procure reflect the wishes of your customers. You are working to push the relationship with your retail customers beyond the bill, to help them embrace their ownership in the utility, and to provide an array of services to help your community thrive. This means that often, you need to do extensive outreach and education — with limited resources.

Perhaps the idea of community was best expressed by 102-year-old Shudde Fath, who recently retired from the Electric Utility Commission in Austin, Texas, after serving 40 years. She stressed the importance of having an informed, active citizenry. As she told us, “You can’t do it alone. You don’t win ’em all, but if you hadn’t tried, it might be even worse than it is.” As someone who has advocated for community-owned utilities in Washington, D.C., for over 30 years, I can certainly say “amen” to that!