Black History Month Energy Champions: Rep. Johnnie Turner Recognizes the Energy and Poverty Nexus

Guest Blog | February 24, 2015 | Energy Efficiency, Energy Justice, Energy Policy
TN State Representative, Johnnie Turner, presenting to constituents in Memphis, TN

In honor of Black History Month, SACE is publishing a blog series highlighting the efforts of African American leaders working to ensure that clean energy opportunities are available for all people and communities in the Southeast. This post is the final in the 2015 series; find previous 2015 posts here.

TN State Representative Johnnie Turner is no stranger to the financial struggles of African-Americans in low-income communities.  Having grown up in a poorer neighborhood, Rep. Turner learned at an early age that saving energy meant saving money that could be used to meet other financial needs for her family.  Now, as a State Representative in Tennessee, Rep. Turner serves a community that continually struggles with poverty and she is determined to help lift these communities out of economic hardship.

Overall, Memphis, Tennessee struggles with poverty and was recently named the 4th poorest city in America.  Rep. Turner’s district, District 85, has a considerable number of lower income African American communities, some of which are located along the border of Tennessee and Mississippi.  Many of her constituents live in old, inefficient homes and lack the capital to make improvements to their homes that would help these families save money on their electricity bills.  Rep. Turner has continually heard from her constituents struggling to pay high utility bills, despite working full time and trying to lift themselves out of poverty.

When asked if she’s concerned about the economic effect of more extreme weather due to climate change, Rep. Turner said, “I dread to think about how high some of my poorest constituents’ utility bills will be given the recent blast of cold weather.  A lot of the people in these communities are living in old homes that are much harder to heat and cool, meaning they use more energy – not even just to stay comfortable, but just to survive!”  

With a background as a schoolteacher and school administrator in Memphis’ public school system, Rep. Turner saw first-hand how children struggle in school due to their own economic hardships at home.  “The cycle of poverty” she explains, “is caused by a set of circumstances that many of these families cannot escape because it all comes back to where these people live.  Many live close to industrial sites, like TVA’s Allen coal plant in South Memphis, which contribute to health issues, like asthma, respiratory illnesses and heart disease.  These health impacts can cause parents to miss work, children to miss school and often represent a huge hurdle to overcome in the fight to escape poverty.  When you add the high cost of electricity to an already overextended budget, many people lose hope that they will ever escape the cycle of poverty.  That is why it is imperative that we address energy inequality by helping low-income families reduce their energy use through low-cost energy efficiency programs.”

TVA's Allen Plant, located in South Memphis, was recently announced for retirement.

Before her tenure in the state legislature, Rep. Turner served as the Executive Director of the Memphis NAACP branch from 1996 – 2009.  For much of that time, the Memphis branch was the largest NAACP branch in the country and was consistently recognized as the most outstanding branch in the nation.

Recently, the Memphis NAACP branch, along with SACE and Sierra Club, were part of a coalition that successfully advocated for the retirement of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Allen Coal Plant, located in South Memphis, just outside of Rep. Turner’s district.

Rep. Turner began her work in the legislature after her late husband’s, Rep. Larry Turner, untimely death in 2009.  Her husband served 25 years as State Rep for District 85 and Rep. Turner was appointed to finish out his term and was re-elected in November 2010.  Rep. Turner committed herself to following in her husband’s legacy and continues to bring the concerns of her community to the state legislature.

Rep. Turner is a member of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators and continues to serve as a voice of reason on issues of climate change and environmental justice in the Tennessee legislature.  When asked about the likelihood of bipartisan support for climate change action, like President Obama’s Climate Action Plan and EPA’s Clean Power Plan, Rep. Turner had this to say: “I believe that if people and legislators think rationally, then we will begin to see more bipartisan support and understanding around initiatives aimed at curbing dangerous carbon pollution and addressing the effects of climate change.”

Tennessee is fortunate to have Rep. Turner in its legislature. We thank her for showing true leadership by highlighting the interconnection between energy use and the cycle of poverty in Memphis.  We look forward to working with her and other clean energy leaders to address low-income energy issues in the Memphis and across the Southeast.


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