Corporate Feature- III

Lisa Payne Wansley: The Empowering Impacts of Environmental Justice

Since joining the New York Power Authority (NYPA) as Vice President of Environmental Justice in 2016, Lisa Payne Wansley has implemented an array of innovative Environmental Justice and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives that have cemented NYPA’s legacy of leveraging its expertise and resources to strengthen the communities it serves.

Six years ago, Wansley took the reins of NYPA’s Environmental Justice program and continues to oversee its expansion. She also administers three DEI programs that directly address the needs of NYPA’s underserved host communities as part of NYPA’s groundbreaking 10-Point Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan. In addition, she advises the Authority’s executive committee on strategic, operational and policy matters that could impact environmental justice.

“Environmental justice means being a good neighbor by leveraging NYPA’s expertise, resources and purchasing power to serve historically marginalized neighborhoods located close to its statewide facilities and assets,” said Wansley. “We feel strongly that we have an obligation to support the communities where we do business.”

Wansley has always passionately engaged different constituencies around community empowerment and justice. Before joining the Authority, the Bronx native served 21 years in the Bronx District Attorney’s office, where she held various positions, including Director of Community Affairs and Administrative Chief to the District Attorney. In 2008, Wansley was appointed to the New York State Juvenile Justice Advisory Board where she launched programs that addressed juvenile justice inequities within the legal system and provided alternative opportunities for young people to thrive. Wansley brought a successful track record in community and government affairs to NYPA, having developed and managed community engagement and outreach programs at Monroe College, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and Union Theological Seminary. These experiences, coupled with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Dayton and a master’s degree from Fordham University, have given her the tools to lead and develop an Environmental Justice program that is a trendsetter in the electric utility industry.

Expanding Environmental Justice

Under Wansley’s leadership, NYPA’s Environmental Justice programs have been restructured into four main categories. NYPA’s expanded STEM Programs expose students in grades 3 through 12 to energy-based hands-on learning opportunities on a range of topics, including basic electricity, renewable energy, climate change and environmental stewardship. Last year, more than 4,000 students and educators participated in NYPA’s STEM programs. One of NYPA’s most innovative initiatives is the Green Classroom, which helps teach students how to become urban farmers.

Leveraging experience gained from this effort, NYPA expanded the program to address food insecurity in its communities during the pandemic. The Indoor Food Production and Community-Based Hydroponic Laboratories Program retrofits recycled shipping containers with energy-efficient technology that allows for growing organic produce year-round regardless of weather conditions. The first container is in Buffalo, and there are plans to roll out a second container in Harlem this year. Two of the programs Wansley’s team created champion STEM careers. The Electric Vehicle (EV) Donation Program donates retired EVs from NYPA’s fleet to technical high schools. The vehicles enhance the schools’ EV training curriculum, which prepares mechanics for EV repair and maintenance, a rapidly growing career pathway in the green economy. The second program encourages high school students to pursue STEM careers by enrolling in college prep and career readiness programs sponsored by NYPA. NYPA employees also provide additional mentoring to these students.

In another program, more than 800 homeowners and renters participated in the Environmental Justice program’s Adult Energy Literacy Weatherization Workshops, which focus on increasing energy efficiency in homes and offsetting high utility costs. Participants learn how to weather-strip doors and windows and received starter kits for weatherizing their own homes. Increasing energy efficiency in homes helps offset the burden of high utility costs for low-income families.

The Environmental Justice program also works with NYPA energy experts to implement no-cost Energy Services Projects that support public entities in underserved communities. Last year, NYPA provided new energy-efficient lighting for 1,000 residents of the Niagara Falls Housing Authority. Previously, NYPA provided energy-efficient refrigerators for more than 250 residents of the Massena Housing Authority. This year, NYPA is upgrading the HVAC and water filtration systems at Tuscarora Nation elementary schools in Western New York.

The Environmental Justice team regularly engages in Community Advocacy and Outreach to meet the needs of specific communities. NYPA will be deploying the Environmental Justice team’s Energy Xplorer, a mobile classroom that attends street festivals, schools and other events. Another outreach initiative is the EJ team’s Virtual Learning Center, which hosts STEM videos and gives students, families and educators easy access to energy-based activities on the NYPA website.

Environmental Justice and DEI

Creating a pipeline of diverse individuals prepared to work in the energy industry is another priority for NYPA’s Environmental Justice team. As part of NYPA’s 10-Point DEI Plan, Wansley’s Environmental Justice office launched three programs in 2021. These programs are highlighted in a DEI update published by NYPA in late 2021. Through the Pathways in Technology Early College High School Program (P-TECH), NYPA sponsored paid internships in the clean energy sector for 15 high school students from underserved communities in New York City, the Mohawk Valley, and Western New York. In 2022, the program was expanded to include more students in more participating locations.

In June, NYPA celebrated the second year of the Future Energy Leader Scholarship Program, which awards $10,000 scholarships to 10 academically accomplished and underrepresented New York high school seniors interested in pursuing an energy-related major in college. Additionally, as part of the Environmental Justice Community Volunteer Corps, NYPA employees participate in community service projects in underserved areas, giving back to the community and building trust.

Wansley also makes sure to develop her staff into potential future leaders in the energy industry. She considers her management style “collaborative” and says it’s her job to “nurture the management and leadership potential of each employee.” “I try to instill in my employees, especially young women, that you have a place here, in the energy industry and in leadership roles,” says Wansley. She says that as a Black woman in a leadership role, she had to perform at the highest levels, have thick skin and be willing to be unapologetic to succeed.