Carla: In 2021, a landmark report released by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that global warming is happening at such a rapid pace that our window to secure a liveable future is quickly closing…The unfortunate truth is that unequal access in this country extends to the environment. As the effects of climate change begin to mount, Indigenous people and other communities of color face the ill effects more, yet have less of a voice in finding solutions.
But there are Indigenous leaders working tirelessly to bring Native perspectives into the fight against climate change through entrepreneurship and advocacy.
Robert Blake: I would like to see all across this country, 574 tribal nations all having their own tribal utility, tribal members working it. And that being the power source that creates economic opportunities, entrepreneurial opportunities in those communities. So it'd be like a ripple effect.
Carla: I sit down with solar entrepreneur Robert Blake to discuss how he is leveraging renewable energy to bring economic opportunity and climate solutions to Native nations. But first we hear from Nikki Cooley, a Navajo tribe member who is helping Indigenous tribes be better equipped to respond to our rapidly changing environment.
Nikki Cooley: The teachings of our elders really gave me the worldview that we must protect and continually defend the environment, Mother Earth.
Carla: Welcome to Access and Opportunity, I’m your host Carla Harris. And we’re telling the stories of individuals working to drive change within their communities. We provide context about systemic inequities and share tangible examples of how ideas around access and opportunity are being made real every day.
Nikki Cooley: [speaking Navajo]
Carla: This is Nikki Cooley, our first guest and a member of the Navajo nation.
Nikki Cooley: I just introduced myself to you in the Navajo way. I am of the Towering House clan. I'm born from the Reed People clan. My maternal grandparents are of the Water That Flows Together clan. Our paternal grandparents are of the Many Goats clan.
Carla: Nikki grew up in Shonto and Bluegap, Arizona on the reservation, or ‘the re’. Here, surrounded by miles of arid desert and long, flat mesas, Nikki formed a close relationship with her environment. She knew intimately what it meant to rely on the land around her.
Nikki Cooley: I grew up with my grandparents and we lived off the land. We didn't have electricity. We did not have a faucet where we turned on running water. And we grew our own crops and we butchered our own sheep and goats for food. My childhood was very much tied to the land and the plants and the animals.
Carla: This way of life faces one major threat though: climate change.
Carla: A severe drought has plagued Nikki's community for decades.
Nikki Cooley: A lot of Navajo, Hopi, and other Southwestern tribes have long raised cattle, sheep, or goats. It's a source of income. And so with the drought, the mega drought that we're experiencing, a lot of these families have had to sell them off in order to make that much money but also to save money.
Carla: Droughts, floods, and other natural disasters are pushing Indigenous peoples off the marginal land they have left.
Nikki Cooley: I have witnessed tribes losing their economic viability due to climate change. That doesn't matter whether it's flooding, wildfire, ice melts, rising sea levels. We feel it.
House Climate Hearing: Climate change impacts are becoming more frequent, giving less time for recovery preparation and increasing costs.
Carla: This is Nikki testifying before the US House Climate Crisis Committee in 2021, she's become one of the loudest Indigenous voices in the fight for climate justice.
House Climate Hearing: I implore the committee to include and recognize the leadership of tribes.
Nikki Cooley: The teachings of our elders really gave me the worldview that we must protect and continually defend the environment, Mother Earth. And so growing up in these ceremonies, listening to prayers and songs, that was very much instilled in my thinking, in my doing. And so it's carried on to my professional work.
Carla: Nikki is the co-manager of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, or ITEP for short. Through this organization, Nikki works to empower tribes to take care of their lands and communities.
Nikki Cooley: We really try to promote traditional knowledges, Indigenous knowledges to be an accepted form of science. We encourage people to write their adaptation plans in their own language, their own culture, and using their own perspectives but also not forgetting to include the Western science, because we believe that there's a bridge between those forms of knowledges.
Carla: What began as an effort to amplify the voices of individual tribes has grown into a movement to elevate the collective voices of Indigenous communities around the world, culminating in the first ever National Tribal and Indigenous Climate Conference in 2020.
Nikki Cooley: We had over 2,400 registrants from all over the world. So we're really proud of that, because we believe that it's important that we bring those voices together on a platform that serves all people.
Carla: To combat the threat of climate change and its already adverse effects on many populations will take worldwide collaboration. And not just between tribes or governments. Nikki believes that private businesses have an important role to play.
Nikki Cooley: I think it's the responsibility of a lot of businesses and corporations to have that mindset of being a good relative, a good ancestor, to help those around them and to help spread that education, the awareness that everyone should be prepared for any type of climate change impact.
Nikki Cooley: And if they listen to the communities, the community members who have been impacted and help spread that message, I think we can have a more cohesive society that works together to address climate change, not just when it happens to them. For a lot of us that live in these urban areas, we haven't felt it yet. So it's really, really important that we listen to those who have been impacted already.
Carla: Our next guest takes this responsibility to heart and is in a unique position to do so as a tribal citizen of the Red Lake Nation in Minnesota. Robert Blake is the founder and CEO of Solar Bear, a company that builds renewable energy projects for future generations. In 2007, Robert first learned of solar energy and has been focused on environmental justice and equitable energy transition ever since.
I sat down with Robert to discuss his work to realize the economic and environmental benefits of including the Indigenous perspective in the climate change conversation.
Carla: Robert, thank you so much for being here with me today. It's a pleasure to have you on the show, and are you ready to jump right in?
Robert Blake: Absolutely. Thank you, Carla.
Carla: So let's first unpack the phrase “climate change”, because it's a very small way to cover all the things that are happening to our environment today. Would you define climate change in a way that's different than the way you hear people use it in society today?
Robert Blake: I would call it a climate crisis, because we don't have a hundred years. Our smartest people are scientists that tell us we have X amount of years to get things together or else. That's how serious I believe this issue is. And to be quite honest with you, Carla, there's no other place I'd rather be or working at than in this space. This is, I believe, one of the most important issues of our lifetime, of our existence.
Carla: And do you think that tribes feel an extra pressure or cultural responsibility to combat the climate change?
Robert Blake: I believe that tribal sovereignty is the answer to moving the United States. What native people would call Turtle Island, to a more carbon free future. And so what you have essentially is utilities and big corporations who are a part of the system. They have the big lobbyist. They have the money for our politicians, but the interesting thing is that tribal nations are the only ones that have their own governing system inside this government. And so really what I'm trying to do is leverage tribal sovereignty and those opportunities to drive the decisions of the lawmakers and the companies, right, to move the policies that we need quicker and faster so that we can go ahead and fight climate change. Because when our federal state and local officials fail the people it's incumbent upon tribal nations to act on the part of all of us. And when tribal leaders step up and they oppose pipelines and other energy infrastructure that we know is gonna harm the planet, you see that we have to actually be the stewards. I always say, “We were here before everybody got here. We're gonna be here after everyone leaves, and it's our responsibility to take care of Turtle Island. No one else's.” And so that's why I believe that this is such an important time for tribal nations to act and be a part of leading the way.
Carla: Well, I couldn't agree with you more because obviously the facts are that Indigenous people were on the land a lot longer than many of the rest of us in this country. So I would argue that you would have a unique perspective over people who came over here from other countries, if you will, and migrated. So I do agree with you that there's an opportunity to lead. Now, earlier this episode, our listeners heard from Nikki Cooley of the Navajo nation who spoke about the work she is doing to support tribal leaders in building climate plans using their culture and their perspective. So what role in your mind does meeting Indigenous communities where they are play in the fight against climate change?
Robert Blake: Each one of these communities, all 574 tribal nations, are all different upon themselves. So don't try to put 'em in a cookie cutter process. Some are gonna have oil underneath their reservations. Others are gonna have a lot of hydropower, so they're not gonna be as receptive to maybe solar or wind. So it is really trying to, like Nikki, meet 'em where they’re at.
Carla: I think that makes all the difference in converting people also, as opposed to just putting it on them, you know, educate and sell at the same time is what I like to say. So that people get on board in their own time, in their own way, but they're committed when they do get on board.
Robert Blake: Yep. Absolutely.
Carla: So let's talk a little bit about the economics, Robert. So how does climate change or damage to the climate limit certain populations in their potential wealth creation?
Robert Blake: You know, especially in native country, we don't have that generational wealth. Our reservations are held in trust, so they don't go up in value. It's not like a regular neighborhood. You can call reservations a big red line community. Nothing gets passed down through the generations. Consequently businesses, other activities get affected by this, right? Now I always tell tribal nations, “You guys are in gaming, which is a billion dollar industry. You guys need to get in the energy game. That's a trillion dollar industry.” We don't think about turning on the lights, but those are pennies that are dropping every second, you know? We are in the wrong game, Native people. And I would like to see all across this country, 574 tribal nations all having their own tribal utility, tribal members working it. And that being the power source that creates economic opportunities, entrepreneurial opportunities in those communities. So it'd be like a ripple effect, right? And that's where I really see where renewable energy is really gonna change this game, not only for tribal communities but for inner cities and other communities.
Carla: So we talk about inequities in our economy and in our society, but to see how they are all interdependent– that if you have inequities around housing and wealth building or you have inequities around access to energy– it has a multiplier effect. It creates inequities right down the chain.
Robert Blake: Yeah. And if you look at the housing situation, right, they always say that the first sign that a person can't keep their loan is their utility bill. If they can't pay their utility bill, everything else is gonna kind of start crumbling after that. And I thought to myself, “How important energy is to our life.” It just keeps on unfolding, and it's all around us. Think about how our civilization advanced through cheap, reliable energy through the years, you know. And so when you think about the potential of solar on this planet: 173,000 terawatts hit us each day, Carla, and we're only using 17 around the world. We have more energy 10,000 times over that we could use and for free. And so when you have that cheap, reliable energy, you can do so much with that. And that's what renewable energy and solar is gonna do for our communities, especially BIPOC, underserved communities.
Carla: So talk to me about actually starting Solar Bear. What made you say, “I'm going to put together and start a company, and I'm gonna make sure that the Indigenous perspective is right in the middle of this conversation?”
Robert Blake: So my brother was a Minneapolis cop and a really just great guy, my best friend, and he passed away. And so I became a surrogate father to his kids, and there was this unbelievable of a protective feeling that came over me, and I wanted to do something tangible for them. And I started thinking to myself, “I'll solve the climate crisis for you guys. And do you a solid, you know.” And I started down this road, and I didn't really realize how difficult it was. But really it was them and thinking about their future just made me want to do something.
Carla: Yeah. I hear that. But then you also started focusing on, as I read your story, jobs and creating wealth and eliminating poverty. You know, it seems like this unfolded for you as you went along, which often does happen for entrepreneurs, is that fair?
Robert Blake: Yeah. Growing up in the inner city and being around that extreme poverty really played a lot in my mind like, “Why is the system the way it is? This couldn't just be by design, could it?” And then you get older and you realize, “Oh, this was done by design.” And you're like, “Okay, how do I rethink the system where it's more equitable for me and then for everyone else?” Because when you grow up in that kind of environment, you really learn empathy in that we're all in this together, man. Just some of us got better boats. And that brings me to climate change because no matter who you are, this is gonna affect all of us in so many ways.
Carla: Yeah, I'll tell you that was one of my big “ahas” from the pandemic because it was no respecter of persons. Yes, there were certain communities, certainly communities of color, that were disproportionately hurt. But no matter what community you came from, you were touched in some way by the COVID-19 crisis around the world. And you could not be more right about the climate change piece where, again, no matter who you are, no matter what your economic lane is, no matter the color of your skin it’s going to and it is touching all of us. Now, what aspects of mitigating climate change are you most focused on?
Robert Blake: Well, we're trying to reduce the carbon by not using it, right? So we build solar commercial projects. We installed a 70 kilowatt project on top of the Red Lake Government Center. We started back in 2017, and I think it was 2018 we completed it. And so we've been able to look at the last like couple years of really good data and what that's been doing for the government center, and that has knocked out 25% of their electricity bill yearly and allowed for those guys to take those savings and put that into other government operations within the tribe. And what's exciting now is we're adding a 40 kilowatt battery down to it. So they will now have solar plus storage in this tribal building. And this acts as a command center for extreme weather events and other scenarios that could affect the community due to climate change. So if Red Lake can do it in a rural area, in the middle of nowhere literally, everyone in the United States or everyone around the world can do these projects too.
Carla: You’ve said that you strategically focus on projects that tell a story so they can reach a lot of people. Can you describe one of the major projects that Solar Bear has taken on and the impact of it?
Robert Blake: We just got a $7 million grant from the Department of Energy to create a electric vehicle charging network pipeline. And the idea around that was there was a situation here in Minnesota where the tribal nations were in a dispute with Line 3, with Enbridge, but the pipeline did get built and we thought, “Well, is there another way that we can continue to basically resist the fossil fuel infrastructure in our way cause we couldn't stop the pipeline?” We thought let's build an electric vehicle charging network pipeline, where we can encourage people to start driving electric vehicles. And so we decided to take this electric vehicle charging network from the Twin Cities up to the Red Lake nation. And then we thought, “What better way to partner with another tribe?” And so we decided to go to Standing Rock, and then we brought it back to the Twin Cities. And in that process, we're working with other tribes along the way to bring this technology into their communities.
These frontline communities and BIPOC communities, you know, they're always left behind. And it seems like when new technology is presented, we never have an opportunity at these things. And so we wanted to be able to bring this technology into these communities, so we can encourage electric vehicle adoption, operation and maintenance, workforce development, create some jobs, create some opportunities. At the same time, we also knew that the pandemic was going on. And then we knew that people would wanna get out of their home eventually and take their family somewhere. They probably weren't gonna jump on a plane to go overseas, but they wanted to stay local. So we thought this could be like a Route 66 kind of experience. Why not get out and drive this intertribal electric vehicle network and then spend some money in rural communities, right? By staying at their hotels, by eating at their restaurants, and then also letting rural people, who always seem to be left out of big technology decisions, see how electrifying their community can really make a difference and an economic impact in those communities. And now we're gonna expand the charging network over to Wisconsin and into Michigan and working with tribes too. So we'll see how far we can get with it. Really what we wanna do though is just encourage the adoption of electric vehicles and encourage the transformation of our system into allowing everyone, not just affluent areas, to have electric vehicle charging stations and to be included into all this planning.
Carla: Well, Minnesota has a goal of generating six gigawatts of solar energy by 2030. So what role is Solar Bear going to play in that?
Robert: Oh, wow. Carla, do you understand that we only have over a gigawatt installed right now and it's taken us this long to get here? I told that to one of the politicians. I said, “Do you know what we gotta do to get to six gigawatts? You know what kind of workforce development programs we gotta put together?” We've got two jobs for every person that would want one right now here in the state of Minnesota. We can't fill it right now. And this is gonna be one of the issues for the economy coming up here is we have more positions than we have people to work.
Carla: Wow. You know it sounds like you ought to get one of the masterminds on your team to think about, you know, “How can we speed up the rate of training for this particular trillion dollar plus industry and get people online now so that we can close that window?”
Robert: I agree. And that's why I'm trying to put together, Carla, a workforce training center. I want to call it the Turtle Island Sustainability Campus and get this information out there all over the place, because we're gonna have to make this transition all throughout the country. And us being able to train up qualified people to be in this industry is gonna become a very, very big issue very, very soon. And the people in Washington need to, need to understand this, that we're not prepared. And so when you ask me about six gigawatts of solar in the state of Minnesota, I say, “Let's go for it, but where are we gonna get the manpower?” We're only at over a gigawatt now.
Carla: So Robert, you provoke a thought for me. Have you thought about partnering with either, you know, two or three major universities and/or two or three major companies to actually put together a curriculum so that people can be trained in a 24 month period of time, maybe even shorter, to actually work in various capacities in this industry? And if a university or a government or a company would partner with you, maybe part of the budget is to subsidize people while they're getting the training. Cause if I'm already working and I'm barely making ends meet with my family now, the chances of me stepping off of that to get trained in this new industry is pretty small because I need the economics. So maybe there's some types of subsidy for the 12 to 18 months while I'm getting trained to work in the clean energy space and get this certificate, and then can again step off of the old job and go right into this new industry. I'm just sort of waxing here with ideas with you, but I think you're onto something and I do believe given the crisis as you call it, not just the change but the crisis, that there could certainly be an imperative for doing something like that. And if anybody can get it done Robert, I think you can.
Robert Blake: Thank you, Carla.
Carla: And as we close Robert, what gives you hope and continues to inspire you to keep on fighting?
Robert Blake: Just looking around when I see young children, I just think about how important it is that we continue to fight for them and fight for those who can't fight for themselves. And that's what motivates me or it gives me some hope to keep on moving forward.
Carla: Alright. Well said.
Carla: Robert Blake, I say thank you very much for being with us here on Access and Opportunity.
Robert Blake: Oh, thank you so much, Carla. You were wonderful. And thank you out there in the listening land.
Carla: Taking care of this Earth is all of our responsibility, which means that conversations about tackling climate change need to be inclusive of all voices. I'm encouraged by the work that Robert and Nikki are doing to empower Indigenous people to find economic opportunity in leading the charge in securing a liveable climate future.
I want to thank Robert Blake and Nikki Cooley for joining me on this episode of Access and Opportunity. What did you think of today's episode? Send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org And to continue learning about individuals working to drive systemic change within their communities, subscribe to Access and Opportunity on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Thanks for coming along.