books equality race social justice

Book review: Diversifying Power, by Jennie Stephens

I have scoured the bookshelves for books that bring together climate and race. I didn’t find any, which is really the main reason why I have written one. This, however, is the first time I’ve seen the topics specifically linked in a book title – Diversifying Power: Why we need antiracist, feminist leadership on climate and energy.

Very good it is too, a short and punchy book that explains what feminist and anti-racist leadership looks like in a variety of sectors, and then highlights the work of particular individuals so readers can see for themselves the effect that it has.

“The climate crisis is a crisis in leadership” says Jennie Stephens, a professor of sustainability at Northeastern University, Massachusetts. We know this because the world has all the solutions to climate change already, and it has still proved singularly unable to do the right thing. The problem lies with power. Or more specifically, with a view of power that is rooted in competition and dominance. Other forms of power and decision making exist, and Stephens advocates for fostering “multiracial, multiethnic, gender-balanced coalitions of ambitious and optimistic leaders advocating for transformative changes.”

Without this broader view, the steps that are taken to address climate change will leave inequalities and social injustices intact. Dropping coal in favour of renewable energy could abandon another generation of coal mining communities. Favouring electric cars as a direct swap for combustion engines won’t do anything about traffic or the mobility needs of those on the margins. And some measures might even be regressive, such as feed-in tariffs that benefit the richest who can afford solar panels. “If we continue to rely on climate solutions proposed by those who are unaware of or indifferent to racism and sexism, we are guaranteed to reinforce those inequities.”

A more diverse leadership would be better equipped to spot co-benefits. Mass transit as well as electric vehicles. Better social housing ahead of subsidies for home-owners. And just transition measures to ensure that workers in fossil fuels are not left behind.

The book has many inspiring examples of this kind of thinking, such as Varshini Prakash, founder of the Sunrise Movement. Robert Bullard, the researcher who pioneered the field of environmental justice. Jillian Hishaw, advocate for black farmers. Ayana Pressley, who rode the bus from a rich to a poor district and explained the differences as part of her successful run for Congress. (See below) “The people closest to the pain should be the closest to the power,” she says, “driving and informing the policy making.” I’d vote for that.

While greater representation is vital, this more inclusive politics is far from closed to white men like me. As the Bernie Sanders campaign demonstrated, anyone can “bring antiracist feminist principles to their leadership.”

I learned a lot from this book and the perspective that it both advocates and demonstrates, and it’s a reminder to me to keep seeking out other voices. I wrote recently about how the climate debate is dominated by certain viewpoints, and I find I have to be quite deliberate about tuning in to the alternatives. (Like my challenges to report from every country in the world, or read a different global newspaper every week).

For example, Bill Gates has a book on climate change out next year. I suspect it will be one of the biggest climate books of the year. It will set the agenda. And while I’m sure Bill Gates has plenty to say and I’ll read it myself, there are millions of people out there with completely different ideas who won’t get to write a book about them. Bill Gates and his opinions will come to you. You will have to seek out the others yourself, and the people and stories in Diversifying Power are a good place to start.


  1. Great review – and wonderful video of Ayanna Presley.
    But you don’t have to go all the way to the US – here in Sheffield we have our own bus trip story: ‘Fairness on the 83’:, complete with it’s own short video, but also longer interviews across the bus route.
    We live more or less on the 83 bus route (at the richer end), but for 17 years lived at the other end of the city, where we raised our family.
    NB: the bus route has changed since 2013 when the fairness study was made – it now misses the very richest part of Sheffield.

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