This feature is part of NCSEA’s ongoing focus on women and diversity in clean energy and the importance of creating an accessible, affordable future for all.
We had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Dr. Rita Joyner, Senior Advisor at NCSEA, to learn about personal and professional insights gained throughout a career driven by education and empowerment.
Dr. Rita Joyner (“Dr. J”) thrives in the space of relationship and consensus building. Her career has been increasingly focused on the intersection of clean energy, green STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, and community engagement for nearly forty years. Her journey is propelled by technical expertise and an ability to effectively communicate with people in a multitude of roles and sectors. In 2021, she joined the NC Sustainable Energy Association (NCSEA) as a Senior Advisor to bring a new level of subject matter expertise in the energy efficiency/building performance sector, while bringing an elevated level of attention to the area of equity, diversity, and inclusion to uplift the voices of historically underrepresented communities across the state and beyond.
Dr. J is the daughter of civil rights parents who are lifetime members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Her father worked in housing and education, while her mother engaged in civic duties with the Salvation Army and American Legion. As Dr. J put it: “It all goes back to finding out how we can ensure that all people have access to all things that are good.”
Witnessing a high energy burden while growing up in Kinston, North Carolina put these issues on the front burner of Dr. Joyner’s life. Stories of utility bills doubling household rents and forcing people to decide between keeping the lights on or paying for other necessities made a lasting impact on a profound level. Even further, these stories of high energy burdens were compounded by a lack of awareness related to energy or sustainability issues in these communities. To address these challenges, she focused on making clean energy, efficiency, and sustainability a part of our everyday lives and culture.
A path rooted in energy and education
Dr. Joyner began to discover her purpose while studying Mechanical Engineering at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. During this time, her department received a grant for clean and sustainable energy in 1986, making it one of the first of its kind in the nation. She put her academics into practice by conducting energy audits for small and medium sized businesses as a graduate assistant. Earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in the subject, Dr. Joyner was struck by the energy bug early on, leading to a path focused on expanding energy access through community engagement and activism.
After graduate school, Dr. Joyner joined Xerox as a Systems Engineer Supervisor focused on testing and development. She was introduced to Ursula Burns while working on her team, a woman who would go on to become the CEO of the company. As Dr. J put it: “This was one of the first times I could see someone across the table that looked like me who was the boss and could command the room. It encouraged me in many ways to see (Ursula) rise up.” The importance of representation and access, the self-described “DNA” of Dr. J, became deeply seeded in these years.
Dr. J eventually left the company to join the Potomac Electric Power Company as a Customer Services Engineer. There, she was able to fine-tune her ability to translate technical information in the energy industry for an audience of varying backgrounds and skillsets. This progression began the next phase of her path: education. Joyner returned to her home state to teach mathematics at Orange High School in Hillsborough, NC. Her intent was to be a teacher during the year and an engineer during summer breaks, bringing real-world experience back to the classroom to benefit young people. A disparity between time, effort, and compensation ultimately prompted her to pursue a new opportunity with IBM. After just 18 months, though, macroeconomic factors would lead Dr. J away from being a teacher and IBM all together in search of the next space to grow as a professional.
Dr. Joyner returned to the world of energy with the State Energy Office in North Carolina as a Program Manager. Here, she worked on the commercial, business, and industrial side of clean energy related programs. Even then, her team was looking at renewable energy projects in their early stages across the state. As she said: “Being in clean energy has always been hip and at the forefront and I was there at the start.” Dr. J would go on to become Section Chief because of her project management and leadership skills and an ability to bring consensus.
Intent on expanding upon her love of education and empowerment, Dr. J returned to pursue a Doctor of Philosophy in Education degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with a focus on Social Foundations, Policy, and Activism. While at UNC Chapel Hill, Dr. J also acted as a Legislative Liaison to the State Board of Education. This provided an in-depth look into the dynamics of cross-aisle participation and collaboration. It also allowed her to “understand the role that politics play in policy and everything else that we do.”
Graduating during the Great Recession of 2009 presented obstacles to Dr. Joyner, but she never gave up. She was appointed to become the Section Chief of the Weatherization Assistance Program for the NC Department of Environmental Quality to address the energy burden of low-income households. After serving as one of the state’s foremost energy leaders, Dr. J returned to her hometown of Kinston to care for family and rekindle her passion for education as a math teacher at a secondary school. After almost 8 years of teaching, Joyner decided to take the next step in her career and return to the energy sector when she joined NCSEA as a Senior Advisor in 2021. She enters this space hoping to challenge organizations to explore actionable steps to ensure access to clean, affordable energy for all North Carolinians.
Equal access and justice for all
Today, Dr. Joyner stresses the importance of turning words into actions. Part of that is exploring ways to create more advantageous and welcoming conditions for underrepresented communities. It makes a big difference to how people are brought into a space and treated once they are there. One of her personal anecdotes highlighted this sentiment when she explained, “I’ve been doing this all my life. I was able to sit and stay in these spaces because of tenacity, perseverance, and a belief that I belonged there even when I was not necessarily always welcome. For some, it would be easy to leave that environment or say, ‘it’s not for me.’ It can be a badge of honor, but for others it makes them think ‘I can’t take this, and I don’t want to be here.’”
We are at a pivotal moment in the history of clean energy in North Carolina. Dr. Joyner urges that we must go back and look at the past thirty years to examine what could be improved to create the energy policy of tomorrow. This includes acknowledging the value of nostalgia and the historical impacts embedded in the energy culture. Doing so will allow us to expand clean energy across the state and to underrepresented communities. Apart from the forward-thinking initiatives of Roanoke Electric Cooperative, the presence of clean energy is much less prevalent in eastern NC than in western counterparts like Asheville, Charlotte, and Raleigh-Durham.
An ability to critically examine the potential successes and hindrances of the past will pave the way for a more inclusive energy environment. Propagating replicable solutions for all is how we will design a wheel to expand the positive distributional impacts of clean energy. Dr. Joyner emphasizes that caring about long-term sustainability should no longer be a political issue. In addition, the field need not be restricted to a single gender or race.
If we can discover more ways to engage people on clean energy topics, the world will share in lasting, widespread benefits. Perhaps Dr. J put it best when she said: “If you’re a person that believes we’re all better together when we embrace what everybody can bring to the table, then you can open the spirit of clean energy for all. That is what I really want to do, to be at the intersection of clean energy, green STEM education, and community engagement.”
In addition to serving a Senior Advisor at NCSEA, Dr. Rita Joyner leads the Women in Clean Energy (WICE) initiative under the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (ED&I) team. Dr. J also serves on the Energy Conservation Code Ad Hoc Committee of the NC Building Code Council. Be sure to listen to Episode 66 of the Squeaky Clean Energy Podcast to hear the latest on what Dr. Joyner has been up to with NCSEA.