Melanie Santiago-Mosier serves as the Managing Director, Access & Equity for Vote Solar, where her work centers on implementing the organization’s vision for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. In her role, Ms. Santiago-Mosier manages Vote Solar’s work to build partnerships with historically marginalized communities, and to work with them to design and advocate for programs that spread solar’s opportunities and benefits equitably.
Recently, she served as Chair of the Environmental & Energy Law Section and was inducted as a Fellow of the Maryland Bar Foundation. We caught up with Ms. Santiago-Mosier to learn more about her and her work.
Q: Tell us a little about your biggest passion project right now.
MSM: Right now, my biggest passion is to be a mentor, sponsor, and champion for young women. Throughout my career, I have been the grateful recipient of mentorships and sponsorships, and I believe it is my duty to carry forward the time and energy that others invested in me.
For example, over the past six years I have enjoyed participating in the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law alumni-student mentoring program. In that time, I have enjoyed meeting with my mentees regularly to discuss their goals, offer advice, and connect to other professionals.
Additionally, I have endeavored to give my mentees a sense of clean energy advocacy by sharing my experiences, and providing opportunities to observe legislative proceedings and participate in advocacy opportunities. I am proud to have been a part of the professional development of several young women.
Finally, I have come to understand the value of being a sponsor for young women. I find myself not just mentoring, but serving as a champion for young women I encounter in my professional life, making sure I am promoting them to their superiors whenever possible. The research is clear that mentoring can have a positive impact on women’s ability to advance in their careers. However, research also indicates that, despite a large percentage of women reporting that they have mentors, they are not reaching the upper levels of leadership in their organizations. I think those of us who are able should go further than mentoring, and take on the role of “sponsors.” Sponsors don’t just offer advice and support, they go further and advocate actively for the advancement of women in their organizations. This reflects a recognition that equity and justice means addressing the ways in the playing field isn’t level; and to level that playing field, sponsorship should be an addition to mentoring.
Q: Why did you enter the legal profession?
MSM: I had the privilege of attending St. John’s College in Annapolis for my Bachelor’s Degree. The curriculum of St. John’s is based on the Great Books of the Western Canon. Each year, a number of books in the curriculum focus on history, politics, law, and economics. These were the books that appealed to me the most. At St. John’s, my peers and I spent hours reading and discussing concepts of justice, freedom, and governance – basing our discussions on the writings of authors such as John Locke, Aristotle, Plato, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, and others. These fascinating hours, added to the fact that St. John’s is located approximately ¼ mile from the Maryland State House, piqued my interest in policy making and governance.
During my senior year of college, I interned in a small lobbying firm and was immediately drawn to the work. After graduation, I was hired to join the firm full-time and tried to learn everything I could about Maryland law, policymaking, and advocacy. During that time, my path became clear: I was able to observe the work of different advocates, elected and appointed officials, and others in the policymaking sphere, but the professionals I found myself admiring the most were lawyers. I admired the way they analyzed and advocated for policy, and I wanted to do it the way they did. So that’s how I came to the decision to go to law school.
Q: What is the best piece of advice you have received from someone in the legal profession?
MSM: Prepare. Then, prepare some more.
Q: What is your fondest memory of your legal career so far?
MSM: In 2016, I organized a lobby day in Annapolis for the employees of the solar development company I worked for at the time, SunEdison. We were in support of legislation to increase Maryland’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which mandates that a certain amount of electricity sold in the state be derived from renewable sources. The lobby day was a success: my colleagues were trained to talk about the bill and its benefits, and to find their representatives to say hello and encourage support. We made quite a splash in the bill hearing that day, visually showing members how many employees had come from just one company to support the bill. The effort, combined with other work in support of the bill, was a success: the legislation passed! I love the memory of that day, a fun opportunity to bring my colleagues into the process so that they could have a real impact.
Q: What is the one piece of advice you would give someone in law school or considering a legal career?
MSM: Think broadly about the kind of work you can do with a law degree. Being a lawyer opens many doors!
Q: What do you love about your work?
MSM: Inspiring change has been the hallmark of my career. Whether it’s fighting for a clean energy-driven future or inspiring women to change the way they see themselves in the workplace, I am driven to using my voice to make the world a better place. In the past few years, I have come to understand the power of telling my personal story to inspire critical changes in the energy industry. As with many other industries, and in particular various sectors of the energy industry, solar companies have a lot of work to do. Women and African Americans are both underrepresented in the solar workforce. There is a wide gender gap in pay, advancement, and job satisfaction. Much more can be done to change the hiring and recruitment process and foster a more inclusive workplace culture. In my role at Vote Solar, I am uniquely positioned to advocate for greater inclusion not just in the industry, but also for policies and programs that will ensure the clean energy future benefits everyone, regardless of race, gender, class, or socioeconomic status. Telling my personal story is helping me be an effective advocate.
I often still think of myself as “Little Melanie Santiago” from the Royal Coachman Trailer Park in Heber City, Utah. I remember winters in our mobile home, when sometimes the heat would go out because the snow would block the furnace exhaust on top of our trailer. I remember huddling right next to a space heater all winter long. I have vivid memories of a sheet of ice forming on the INSIDE of our back door some nights when temperatures plummeted to as low as 20 degrees below zero. When I was little, I didn’t understand concepts like energy vulnerability, energy burden, and energy inequities. I certainly didn’t appreciate or even have a concept of how much of my mother’s schoolteacher salary – plus money from her steady string of second jobs – must have been spent on energy bills to keep us safe and healthy.
Today I am privileged to use my voice and experiences to engage in the critical work of addressing energy vulnerability, energy burdens, and energy inequities. At Vote Solar, my colleagues and I are working with amazing partners across the country to build out the public policies that are critical for solar deployment, and I’m grateful to have led the way for the organization to make solar access and equity a key thread that ties together everything we do. The growth and increasing affordability of solar provides a tremendous opportunity to address some of the greatest challenges faced by underserved communities: disproportionately high energy burden, unemployment, the adverse health effects linked to fossil-fuel energy production, decreased property values, and other negative effects of pollution. Solar can provide long-term financial relief to families struggling with high and volatile energy costs through living-wage jobs, improved public health, and climate resilience in underserved communities. Success means a more equitable approach to energy and a stronger clean energy movement. It also means significant additional solar deployment, as nearly half of all the United States’ residential rooftop solar technical potential is on the dwellings of low-to-moderate income (LMI) households, representing 320 GW of potential solar capacity. When I think of the relief solar could have provided for my family when I was a child, I am driven to fight harder every day.
The demon called “Self-Doubt” seems to find its way easily into my psyche. For a Latina in solar, that demon can be very loud some days. Even though I’ve been involved in clean energy advocacy for over a decade, working to build policies and programs that have given solar the underpinnings to grow, there’s still some doubt about whether I truly belong. When I was growing up, I never saw myself in this type of field. I’m betting many little girls of color don’t, either. Today, I believe it is my job to change the way women, and particularly women of color, see themselves – and making sure the world sees the potential for women to lead the way.
I believe my greatest professional accomplishment has been using my voice and my personal story to make solar energy more inclusive, building a reputation as a leading voice in the movement to build a cleaner, more equitable energy future through solar policy. Sharing my personal story of energy vulnerability as a child has sparked a “lightbulb” for many who have questioned why I am working so hard for greater access and equity in solar deployment. Sharing my personal story of feeling out of place because I am a woman of color has contributed to a growing movement within the solar industry to become a more welcoming and inclusive sector. Today, I am recognized in the industry, policy and civil rights arenas as a national thought leader. I regularly speak and write for audiences such as Solar Power International and a webinar series I co-host with the Solar Energy Industries Association; NAACP national convention and state conferences in states as diverse as Alabama and Colorado; and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), National Caucus of Environmental Legislators (NCEL), National Association of State Energy Officers (NASEO), State Innovation Exchange (SIX) conferences, and more. Currently, I am part of the advisory boards of two study projects that will examine ways to expand solar to underserved communities; one of the projects is related to solar for manufactured homes, and I am thrilled to be able to offer an authentic voice to that effort. Having published numerous policy guides and articles on the topic of greater inclusion and equity in solar (some examples can be found at: https://votesolar.org/article-search/?view%2Dby%2Dauthor=Melanie%20Santiago-Mosier, https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/solar-energy-has-a-diversity-problem, https://www.solarpowerworldonline.com/2019/07/installers-racial-disparity-rooftop-solar/), I have found that telling my own story is one of the most powerful things I can do to inspire change.
There’s still much to do. To ensure a clean energy future, we need to be sure ALL women can see themselves as leaders in the movement. The clean energy industry is growing in diversity, and the increasing successes and leadership of women in the field is a testament to that. But there’s still a disparity for people of color and especially women of color. In this regard, I recently had the opportunity to help the solar industry take steps to be more inclusive. Every year, The Solar Foundation issues a Solar Jobs Census, a valuable tool that analyzes employment in the solar industry. In the last two years, The Solar Foundation has gone deeper and issued a Solar Industry Diversity Study. The findings are stark, showing that rates of inclusion, promotion, and job satisfaction are markedly lower for people of color, and especially women of color. However, that report shows us that we have an incredible opportunity ahead of us, to make sure the solar industry is inclusive, not only for the communities we want to help go solar, but also for future women of color in the industry.
On this topic, I found myself in a unique position to help two years ago. As a recipient of the 2018 Clean Energy Education & Empowerment (C3E) Initiative Award for Advocacy from the U.S. Department of Energy, Stanford University Precourt Institute for Energy, MIT Energy Initiative, and Texas A&M Energy Institute, I received a prize of $8,000. I was thrilled to invest my C3E prize in The Solar Foundation’s 2019 Solar Industry Diversity Study. The funds were used to build out a special section, with research and best practices, specifically about how the solar industry can recruit, retain, and advance more women of color. https://www.thesolarfoundation.org/diversity/
Wrestling with Self-Doubt will be a lifelong struggle, but sharing my experiences and my story as a Latina who grew up in a vulnerable home has helped me gain more confidence. More importantly, sharing my story has helped spark awareness, interest, and action in others. Making the clean energy future available to everyone will take a collective will, making sure underserved communities are involved. Sharing my story is making the reasons and the critical need “real” for a solar industry that stands to benefit from being more inclusive.
Q: What is one thing you would change about your current role if you could?
MSM: The role of Equity Officer comes with a real risk of burnout, which I recently found out the hard way. The role can include a high degree of emotional weight, and depending on the organization, it can be challenging for any number of other reasons. I am trying to incorporate more self-care into my daily routine, but I find myself diving into the work with a high level of passion and commitment. Balancing my own needs with the equity-related needs of my colleagues, our partners, and the energy system is difficult, and I would love to have a guidebook on how to find that balance.
Q: What are your professional goals this year?
MSM: Vote Solar fights for a 100% clean energy future that puts the interests, health and well-being of people at its center. Electricity generation from fossil fuels is one of the most significant sources of carbon pollution in this country. In order to make meaningful progress on climate, we must stop burning fossil fuels such as coal and gas and start taking full advantage of our abundant renewable resources. That’s Vote Solar’s mission. Vote Solar works at the state level across the country to speed the transition to 100% clean electricity. Our team pushes for clean energy progress in state legislative and regulatory arenas, where so many decisions about electricity are made. Since 2002, we have brought our winning combination of deep policy expertise, coalition building, and public engagement to drive meaningful progress. With 34 staff in 13 offices across the U.S., we are busier than ever, advocating for the state programs and policies needed to repower our grid with sunshine.
The growth and increasing affordability of solar provides a tremendous opportunity to address some of the greatest challenges faced by historically marginalized communities. Solar can provide relief to families struggling with high and volatile energy costs and the effects of a pollution-driven power system through energy bill savings, living-wage jobs, improved public health, and climate resilience in underserved communities. I lead our Access and Equity work with the goal of giving more people a stake in the renewable economy by advocating for energy policies and programs specifically designed to address the barriers faced by frontline, environmental justice communities, communities of color, and others who traditionally have not had a seat at the table. This work is grounded in inclusive and equitable partnerships with these communities.
As we go forward and build on our successes, we’re taking the time and investing the resources to make sure that how we do our work from here on out is more equitable. For us, a starting point involves evaluating more deeply what diversity, equity and inclusion means for us as an organization, and making sure our work reflects our values. I help lead our internal work to learn and grow in this critical area, helping our staff to evaluate and adjust their recruiting and hiring practices; creating opportunities to learn about important topics such as historical environmental injustices, intrinsic biases, and ways our staff can become culturally competent; helping our staff explore how they can be allies to communities and individuals who are less privileged; etc.
For this work, my goals for myself keep growing. I aim to become more knowledgeable about historic inequities and how they manifest in the energy system and in other systems. I aim to become more knowledgeable about how to create inclusive environments where my colleagues and partners can be their authentic selves. I aim to grow as a leader and manager. I aim to be a better mentor and sponsor for others. There are many other goals, and the list keeps growing.
Q: How are you involved with the MSBA?
MSM: I have been active in the MSBA for several years. About five years ago, a friend who was the Chair of the Environment & Energy Section at the time called to ask for help organizing a program based on energy. After that, I became more active in the E&E Section. I joined the Section Council in 2017, was elected to be the Vice Chair for 2018-19, served as the Section Chair in 2019-20, and currently serve as the Immediate Past Chair. In my time with the section, I have organized a number of programs relating to legislation, solar energy development, and other energy topics.
In 2020, I was selected to serve on the MSBA’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee. I serve on the Committee’s Policy Subcommittee. I enjoy participating and helping to plan ways for the Committee to be instrumental in helping MSBA meet its DEI goals.
In addition, I was recently selected to join the MD Bar Foundation as a Fellow.
Q: How has the MSBA helped you in your legal career?
MSM: MSBA provides excellent opportunities to build my network and to build my leadership skills.
Q: You were invited to become a Fellow last fall, why did you decide to accept?
MSM: Nonprofit organizations are doing critical work to ensure vulnerable communities have access to justice. I was drawn to the Bar Foundation’s work to support these organizations, and excited about the opportunity to help.
Q: Why is the work of the Maryland Bar Foundation important to you?
MSM: My own work centers on empowering vulnerable communities, so the work of the Maryland Bar Foundation resonates strongly with me. The work of some of the Foundation’s grantees is critical for supporting under-resourced communities.
What we can’t find on your resume…
Q: What’s your favorite hobby?
MSM: Learning about and appreciating wines from around the world.
Q: What do you do to unwind/de-stress?
MSM: Recently, I have learned the power of mindfulness and its power to help me find calm. I have gotten into the habit of daily meditation and breathing exercises. I find that just two or three minutes of mindful breathing and meditation increases my focus, my energy, and my ability to sleep.
Q: What’s an interesting fact about you that no one would guess?
MSM: I have gone skydiving and loved it. But once was enough.
Q: What’s a cause or charity that you are passionate about?
MSM: I am a passionate supporter of the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS). I adopted both of my cats from BARCS. I love all the work that BARCS does to care for animals in need of medical care and homes.