Philippine's neighborhood of people

Carmelita Miller: Bringing Impacted Communities to the Table

Meet Carmelita Kelly Miller, who recently joined RMI as our first director of energy equity strategies. In this new role, Carmelita will work across RMI programs and initiatives to integrate solutions for the clean energy transition that prioritize communities impacted by climate change and energy burden. She previously served as senior director of climate equity at the Greenlining Institute and holds a J.D. from the UC Hastings College of the Law.

In this Q&A, Carmelita shares her journey from the Philippines to South San Francisco, the people and communities who are central to her work, and her thoughts on who needs to be at the table to build a truly equitable and inclusive energy future.

Tell us about your energy and climate journey so far.

I’ve always believed in this notion of democratizing knowledge and the power of inclusivity in very white-dominated spaces. In college, I thought I was going to be a classics professor. I studied the dead languages, focusing on ancient philosophy and political thought. People of color are not really represented in academia writ large, and very specifically in the classics, and I thought there’s a role I could play in bridging the understanding of western political theories and in showing that programs like the Classics needed more diverse perspectives.

This was so natural to me because I also acted as a code switcher and conduit of knowledge for my immigrant family — explaining what it is that I’m learning and whether and why it is important to our lives. I also knew that whatever I ended up doing in life, I was always destined to do something in service of equity and justice.

In the recession of 2007–2008, I decided to go to law school instead of getting a Ph.D. but those values stayed with me.

I was able to keep supporting my community members through direct client representation. I focused on immigration and employment law, so I could explain laws and regulations to folks who normally can’t afford representation and did not know the full protections and limitations of laws.

When I got to Greenlining, the organization had been intentionally training the next generation of advocates like me in navigating an industry where I just don’t see a lot of people of color leading. There, I was able to help strengthen a body of work that concentrated on improving the racial wealth and climate gap through energy regulations and policies. It just was a great overall match to my values.

When deciding on the next chapter of my career, I saw that RMI aligned with my values but that it could intensify its support of energy justice. Having access to RMI’s institutional knowledge and its research and analysis is quite amazing! It is possible to measure the equitable impacts of energy and climate policies to understand whether we’re actually headed toward a more just and equitable future. There are values beyond energy savings and grid benefits that we can achieve to improve people’s lives and RMI is absolutely equipped to advance this work.

What drives you to do this work?

I am driven by the idea that energy policies can alleviate poverty and promote health and affordability for the most vulnerable and historically marginalized communities. These are communities that disproportionately shoulder the impacts of pollution, catastrophic events, and financial instability. Growing up, I experienced severe poverty in the Philippines and here in California. I have never experienced homelessness, but my parents were always sacrificing other things to keep our home or rent paid. I know what it’s like to be hungry and lack necessities like reliable and safe water and power in our home or medicine when we’re sick.

I still live in South San Francisco and I go home to the same community that accepted me when I immigrated and I am still in touch with my family members and friends, most of whom are in the Philippines. So I’ve never felt removed from the day-to-day lives of my community, who are facing continued loss of lives and economic opportunities, made worse now by the pandemic.

I hope to keep supporting people in their efforts to survive one of the darkest times of our lives. For example, more than a year ago, I helped run a COVID debt relief campaign in California. Greenlining and our allies came together to push for eliminating residential energy debt incurred during COVID-19 to prevent power disconnections at the time of extreme heat and wildfire “season” in my state. I thought that it’s pointless to advocate for issues like equitable building decarbonization if the buildings themselves are going to be empty because the residents’ health and finances couldn’t survive the pandemic. This is what I mean by policy work that is grounded in real-life needs.

What lessons do you take away from California, which is a leader in clean energy but also has a lot of inequality?

The disproportionate harms and disproportionate benefits I was talking about — that’s everywhere. I have a lot of pride for California, but not necessarily because of our clean energy policies. It’s a state that welcomed me and gave me a home in unceded indigenous lands. So for me to call this my home is just an enormous honor.

I am proud of Californians and for our resilience and perseverance, and I think that’s something that I find in communities everywhere. In tackling all these major problems, you have people who do get up the next day, because they don’t have choice right? Giving up is not in their nature.

What are some of the ways that clean energy advocates can advance these lessons?

Through my travels and one on one interactions, I have seen that people everywhere have a strong desire for self-determination. They know what kind of life they want for themselves and their loved ones. Another thing that so many communities have in common is the pride they have in the lives and communities they built.

Advocates can be a stronger supporter of these two things. At RMI, we’re an organization that focuses on market transformation as one of the tools to enact change but our strategies do not prevent us from supporting people’s right to determine their own future and honoring the product of their hard work. We can do this by being inclusive and by creating policies that will protect and keep their families and communities safe.

Who should be at the table more often?

I would usually answer this question by saying “impacted communities.” But we’re RMI, and we can do better than that answer. This is our job! We look deeper into things.

Think of a state bill or a federal regulation, and then list absolutely everybody that’s impacted by that. Then look at who is not showing up and who is actually shouldering the disproportionate cost of a policy like that, or the cost of an incentive that never made it to them.

Just to give an example, when contemplating a rule that bans all gas appliances, we can determine absolutely everybody who’ll be affected. And in that list of stakeholders, we should focus on those who have zero power over which kinds of appliances they have, or people who cannot afford to switch. To be inclusive, we have to be specific about who is going to benefit or be harmed by a policy and then take a look at the venues for discussion and decision-making to see whether those folks are there. It sounds simple but if you really want to make this happen, it takes a lot of time, effort, funds, and resources to ensure that the right people are there.

What are some of your goals in your new role?

I want us to look inward and be critical of ourselves, so that we know where our work is landing well and where it’s not. I want to continue to develop true partnerships with community advocates, and really make RMI’s wealth of knowledge accessible to advocates who represent environmental justice and other communities in need. We have to make sure that all of these energy and climate policies are actually based on what’s needed on the ground and to do that we have to rely on the expertise and guidance of community-based and led organizations.

I also want to be a bit of a cheerleader for this work, because it’s hard to feel hopeful when you see blatant injustice and feel the relentless impacts of climate change day in and out. We at RMI have an important role to play in this field. Now is the time to show that we’re a genuine ally for advancing equity and justice.