The American Association of Blacks in Energy is on a mission. With an almost forty year history and forty chapters nationwide, they want to get African-Americans entrenched in the energy industry. AABE has grown to become the unique “national association of energy professionals founded and dedicated to ensure the input of African Americans and other minorities into the discussions and developments of energy policies regulations, R&D technologies, and environmental issues.”
While most people probably do not spend a lot of time thinking about energy and where their supply comes from and policies that affect the price and distribution, AABE president Paula Jackson told the Harlem Times, “Everybody is interested in energy because it impacts them on a daily basis. We are trying to go out and educate the community, so if the people have questions we are a resource.” Jackson emphasized that AABE is able to share that, “There are ways to save money and plan for things, and how what your local company is doing impacts the things that you are doing. “Typically, what we see is people become more interested during a time of crises. If there is a big outage or if gasoline prices are high people become more interested because they are impacted by that. If you have a situation like a superstorm Sandy then everyone is thinking about it because it impacts them, because they don’t have power.”
AABE is a membership association and most people are involved in the energy industry in some capacity. While not working directly with individual customers, AABE works with companies and other organizations, and conducts outreach with local churches and clubs to speak on energy conservation or energy efficiency. They also try and work on overarching national issues and how they can drive policy issues, and have some say-so in what is being discussed and decided upon.
Local chapters have many community touch points, said Jackson. She has a more national outlook, including promoting energy efficiency and conservation, and opportunities for jobs and small businesses. For example, she just met with the women of the National Organization of Black Elected Legislators, who then take that “information back to their constituents.”
As the world tackled what was the potential oil shortage caused by the Middle East energy crisis of the 1970s, a group of concerned African Americans with an interest in energy came together and formed the American Association of Blacks in Energy – AABE, in 1977. The organization was the brainchild of Denver-based energy-consulting firm owner Clarke A. Watson. He was chosen to chair the organization, and AABE was incorporated as a non-profit corporation in the State of Colorado on December 1, 1977. They decided to make Denver their base. The chair’s Watson Associates, a division of Westland Companies, put the ambitious young man in pole position, with his vision, connections with local and nationally known Black elected officials and highly placed contacts in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League.
AABE notes that with many oil and gas producers working the Rocky Mountain area striving then to address the possible oil and natural gas supplies, Watson already had many of them as clients, seeking PR advice. While new president Jimmy Carter established a special task force to study the energy problem and come up with solutions, it was noted that they was a distinct lack of African Americans and Latinos in the mix. Watson and AABE seemed to be the perfect go-to organization. Advising and working with federal governments since then, AABE has tried to stay involved and crucial to the discussion.
Getting people excited about the industry is also part of AABE’s mandate.
Most students aren’t necessarily saying, “When I want to leave school I want to work with the light company,” but Jackson said that as a large number of industry employees are looking to retire soon, there is an AABE focus on getting information to high school and college students, about the infinite work possibilities in and around energy. Jackson noted that while the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program now taught in schools opens up a world of science based career opportunities, it is all very “competitive,” and AABE has to stress that the energy industry is very “innovative” and “global,” and hiring!
AABE has plans to expand their influence and impact onto the Continent of Africa. Having just returned from Ethiopia, Jackson makes no effort to hide her unbridled enthusiasm towards working in Africa. “It was a fantastic experience. The president a year ago kicked off the Power Africa Initiative,” Jackson beamed. “We as an association have a training institute that we hope will help do some building in Africa; so that when you start to build the infrastructure the people who live there will be able to work in the industry.”
In June 2014, Congressman Greg Meeks invited Jackson to sit on a panel with other energy advocates and political leaders focused on supporting the Power Africa efforts. With support from the Department of Commerce, Jackson was a panelist with the US Africa Energy Ministerial in Ethiopia. With great enthusiasm, Jackson tells The Harlem Times that she expects wonderful things to come out of her experience serving on the “Women in Energy” panel. Jackson tells how she was encouraged to meet with the Corporate Council on Africa, Minister of Energy from Senegal, Ethiopian Minister of Energy, US Ambassador to Ethiopia, and the Minister of Uganda — amongst many others AABE declares that, “the trip was very extensive and would be a great springboard for a fantastic update on the extensive efforts of the non-profit, national energy association in Ethiopia.”
She adds, “It was a great opportunity to meet with people from all over the Diaspora…to hear about what is already going on, and see what we as an association can add of value.” As they go full steam ahead with the Power Africa White House initiative, Jackson states that they are working with the White House to promote the efficient use of more electricity in Africa with a strong US input, but that they are NOT going as energy industry missionaries, but aiming to create mutually beneficial relationships — as the AABE Institute spearheads international efforts to build AABE chapters in Africa by December.
Sam Smoots is the Executive Director of the AABE Institute, and is the primary contact for merging all of the efforts together with President Jackson. Smoots said that while having a longstanding relationship with the Department of Energy and Office of Diversity and Economic Affairs, Smoots said that AABE has long been able to have access and influence policy, to a certain level. His focus is the international aspect. “There are different agencies that are involved and are seeing the relevance and unique role that AABE can play” that, Smoots said, has given the association “influence and access to policy and policymakers.”
A newcomer to AABE, he is charged by a board which has “mandated that two or three international chapters be established by December 2014. And I was brought on in January to lead the AABE Institute – which has amongst its priority areas, the international expansionist program activities, and an entrepreneurial program, and an executive leadership program. So, because of the President’s Power Africa Initiative — it made sense to look at countries that are regional players in West, Eastern and Southern Africa. We are advancing towards signing agreements and will make the formal announcement at the upcoming events with the President — [including] the U.N. African Heads of State Summit in Washington August 4-6.” Then when the paper work has formerly being signed, Smoots said, they will be able to announce in which nations AABE will establish their international chapters.
Smoots said that “entrepreneurial opportunities on the continent are presently being discussed with the Department of Energy and Agency for International Development on proposals that we have submitted that will provide opportunities for our entrepreneurial members to link up with opportunities on the continent. So we are making significant advances on that front.”