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Memuna Lee appointed to Illinois Clean Energy Jobs and Justice Fund board

Memuna Lee has been appointed to the state's new Clean Energy Jobs and Justice Fund board. Lee is a volunteer with the Ecology Action Center in Normal.
Ryan Denham
Memuna Lee has been appointed to the state's new Clean Energy Jobs and Justice Fund board. Lee is a volunteer with the Ecology Action Center in Normal.

The clean energy revolution threatens to expose a new strain of inequality – between those who can afford zero-emissions electric vehicles and solar and wind energy, and those who cannot.

The state’s Climate and Equitable Jobs Act passed in 2021 hoped to bridge that gap. One part of that expansive law called for creation of the Clean Energy Jobs and Justice Fund. That’s a nonprofit green bank providing loans and other assistance for renewable energy projects being done by minority-owned businesses or in low-income and disadvantaged communities.

The governor is appointing members of the board overseeing the Clean Energy Jobs and Justice Fund. That now includes Memuna Lee from Bloomington-Normal, who was appointed April 17.

Lee is sourcing consultant at Country Financial, where she negotiations contracts and manages sourcing and supplier diversity. She previously worked at Mid-Central Community Action, where she developed governmental relationships and managed public and private grants. She also volunteers at the Ecology Action Center in Normal.

This interview with Lee has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

WGLT: Why is it important to ensure that the benefits of the clean energy economy are equitably distributed?

Lee: It's a basic human principle from my perspective. We all deserve clean water. We all deserve clean air. And we also know that low-income and minority populations tend to be disproportionately affected. So putting more focus on making sure that those populations are also benefiting, that are also being taken care of, is, in my opinion, a human right.

What are you expecting to actually be doing as a board member?

Each board member will represent different parts of the “community” of the state of Illinois. So I'm representing the “neighborhood” of Central Illinois. And from the perspective of looking at those applications and making sure that we are surfacing people who are from Central Illinois, that we are looking at where things in central Illinois should be brought to bear to benefit people that live here, people who might be living near train tracks, people who might be living near truck stations, where there might be a lot of even auto pollution going on. That would be my role.

So I would be looking to make sure that those people get an opportunity, that as we're looking at those applications, that we're trying to balance it out.

Let’s talk solar. Here in Bloomington Normal, we've seen a lot of homeowners and business owners put up solar panels on their roofs in recent years. That is kind of expensive to do, even if you're going to see cost savings in the long run on your energy bill. Do you see any role for this board in making solar even more accessible to different types of communities in central Illinois?

I would love to see that happen. It is one of those things where photovoltaic, or solar power, is something that is very clean and can be low impact. Where sometimes with wind turbines, when you oil them, lubricate them, they can sometimes flip off that lubricant onto, say, a farmer's field, and then kind of pollute the ground below.

Solar is something that we should figure out: Can we bring down the cost? Can we work with landlords, for example, who have rentals, that when they go to replace those roofs maybe that's how we are able to get that wrapped in. What can we do to foster lower cost regional production of solar panels versus a lot of the importing that we see happen? So I'd very much want to see more equity there.

What about electric vehicles? Bloomington Normal is very much invested in electric vehicles, because of Rivian. What is your sense of how accessible electric vehicles are to low- and middle-income Illinoisans?

That’s interesting because I have an electric vehicle. And one of the key elements to an electric vehicle is generally having the ability to charge your vehicle at night.

So while you may be able to produce a relatively low-cost electric vehicle, the place where the board might be able to lean in is trying to drive innovation, drive more adoption of provision of charging stations in more communal housing, not single-family homes, right? So in a single-family home, of course, you can put your car in the garage. When you live in a townhouse or you live in an apartment, that's not so easy. And when I look around, I think that is a place where we could try to drive improvement.

Tell me about your volunteer work with the Ecology Action Center. What kinds of things have you done with them?

Oh, fun things. So we held different workshops for residents of public housing and low-income housing, people who are getting Section 8 vouchers. And doing all sorts of things with the children, and showing them things like the bicycle that you can use to power the lights and fun things like putting covers over the sockets to keep the draft down.

And it felt nice because you're not only putting money back into their pockets which they need for food, you're also saving the environment. So it's like a twofer.

You've jumped through all these hoops to be appointed to Clean Energy Jobs and Justice Fund board. Why are environmental issues so important to you?

This is an extension of the work I've done on the West Coast. (Lee moved to Illinois in 2008.) I've always believed that we should be the best stewards of our given Earth, the place where we live. There is no place else to go. So it is all of our duties to make sure that it's nice and clean, as clean as we can keep it, so that something will be left for our children. It's simple. Your grandchildren will still need clean water. It's just as simple as that.

Was there a particular moment or experience that you had that was an awakening for you on the importance of the environment and our role in it?

Probably the brownfields of West Oakland. And so I did a lot of work there a long time ago as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, and I saw things in those brownfields that should never happen. And those types of things tend to happen – Superfund sites – tend to happen in low-income communities. And it's a human rights issue. It's an injustice, which is why I liked the “Justice” board because in America, I feel like that's something that is a good ideal, that we should strive for justice.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.