By Marquita Bradshaw and Vonda  McDaniel

All eyes are on Tennessee as the issues of climate, racial justice, and economic opportunity intersect in our state.

Our communities have long suffered from attacks on our well-being that damper our ability to thrive – dangerous jobs that don’t offer a living wage, the toxic and long-lasting health impacts of fossil fuel pollution, and a state government that is hostile to unionization, as most Southern states are. 

Now, Tennessee has an opportunity to do things right – or risk repeating the mistakes of the past. The electric vehicle industry is taking off nationwide, and Tennessee is gearing up to be a hub for the manufacturing of these vehicles. Ford has announced that Tritium, an Australia-based electric vehicle charger manufacturer, will open its first U.S. facility in Lebanon. Mason, a majority Black town, will be at the edge of the 4100-acre mega-site of Ford’s Blue Oval City, an electric truck and battery plant where construction is expected to start at the end of the year and manufacturing will begin by 2025. These investments mark Tennessee’s growth towards becoming an electric vehicle manufacturing hub, helping to reduce pollution and improve public health for communities across the state and country. 

Electric vehicles produce no tailpipe pollution. In fact, they have no tailpipes at all! These vehicles are key to making our transportation systems less polluting. In combination with reliable public transit and safe streets for walking and biking, expanding access to them will help us tackle the climate crisis and improve air quality.

As our state makes this overdue and important transition, we cannot repeat the mistakes of the fossil fuel industry which has long prioritized profits over people at the expense of our health and our planet. The most impacted communities must be at the forefront of the change, a principle that those of us in the environmental and labor movements call a “Just Transition.” As we shift from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy it is necessary to ensure we create a circular economy that centers on public health and sustainable communities that economically thrives with great paying union jobs where occupational health and our planet’s ecology prevail for future generations. 

The influx of electric vehicle manufacturing has the potential to secure high-quality family-sustaining jobs in the automotive industry. It’s essential we do this in a way that dismantles the barriers to economic prosperity and social justice so many underserved populations and communities of color in our region experience. 

Our collective liberation lies in a livable planet and strong workers’ rights. We must put people first as we move forward with climate solutions. This relationship building is already underway. Local environmentalists, labor leaders, and community members in Mason are organizing town halls this summer to discuss what’s at stake and what we have to gain from this transition that must be community-led. Organizers need a vision commensurate with today’s opportunities.  That is what these community meetings are designed to do.  Be on the lookout for the next meeting scheduled near you.

Marquita Bradshaw,  Environmental Justice Chair, Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club   

Vonda McDaniel, President, Central Labor Council of Nashville/Middle TN, AFL-CIO