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Busting Power, Not Shutting It Off

Over a year ago, I shared the story of one of the strongest women I know, Trudy, and her struggle to keep her lights on. Well, not just her lights, but the electricity that fueled the machines that kept her baby alive. The monopoly utility company that she and hundreds of thousands more are left with, Central Hudson, had charged Trudy so much that her single household had accumulated a $16,000 bill over a matter of months. And they shut her off twice to get her to pay it back — forcing her to take out a bond against her home. The thing is, Trudy’s story, for as cruel and shocking as it is, wasn’t an aberration.

While working with the then Poughkeepsie-based grassroots organization, Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, I met dozens of people who had accumulated thousands of dollars in debt and been shut off in the worst of conditions. Most of them were working class Black women. Angela had to move into a hospital when her power got shut off because she didn’t get a doctor’s note in time for them to confirm that she still had the same life-threatening chronic illnesses since their last confirmation 31 days before, and the 30 days before that, since she didn’t qualify for their life support program. Zakiyyah had to sleep in her car, in the winter, because it was warmer there. Donna and her daughter had to ask their neighbors if they plug in their nebulizers there for over a year before their power got turned back on. And those are just four stories out of the 11,000 households that get shut off every year by Central Hudson.

That’s why we started organizing and building together, why we started submitting legal complaints and speaking out to the press and marching on their headquarters. A year into our campaign, a Central Hudson employee anonymously contacted Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, testifying to the use of racially discriminatory collections practices and the failure to follow the required shutoff procedures. Shortly after receiving that letter, we submitted a petition for a full state investigation into Central Hudson’s harmful and racist business practices.

Nearly two years later, just last week, we got the results of the investigation. The statewide regulator confirmed what we had known all along: Central Hudson shuts off a way higher percentage of their customers each year than any other utility company in New York state, for much less money owed, and that they disproportionately shut off low-income People of Color. In response, Central Hudson agreed to policy changes that will reduce the number of people, particularly the number of Black and Brown people, who will be shut off each year, and that will reduce the number of health-threatening shut offs that happen during the Winter.

And so, I’m writing about Trudy and Angela and Donna and Zakiyyah again, because I think it is critical that we share our stories of collective success — the material and concrete changes that we can win when we come together and fight. We know that Central Hudson’s violent business practices are the symptoms of much bigger, much deeper roots that we will continue to challenge and disrupt. But we also know that the struggle is a long one, and to keep it going and to keep it growing, we must celebrate the hard-fought victories along the way.

Caitlin Munchick is a junior at Vassar College. She is originally from Johannesburg, South Africa but has since found home in Poughkeepsie, New York where she works with the grassroots organization, Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson.

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