It’s National Cooperative Month, a time to celebrate our cooperative business model as the best in the industry. Our co-ops were formed to bring equity to rural Americans who were being left out of the electricity movement. Back then, these members were excluded from an essential service because of where they lived.

Today, many disparities persist between rural and urban America. The same can be said for different ethnic and socioeconomic groups in our own communities. Co-ops have a role to play in each case. Now is the time to reflect on and re-examine our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, how it correlates to our cooperative principles, and how we can improve the quality of life for our members and communities.

Open and voluntary membership is fundamental to the cooperative model. America’s electric cooperatives were built by and belong to the diverse communities and consumer-members we serve. Membership is open to everyone in our service territory, regardless of race, religion, age, disability, gender identity, language, political perspective, or socioeconomic status. We don’t exclude people.

We can demonstrate this principle further by actively seeking diverse partners, a diverse workforce, and diverse boards of directors and by embracing diverse member perspectives.

Members’ economic participation is also a core principle. When electric co-ops began, we relied on members’ equity to make it happen. For them, equity may represent their financial stake in the co-op. For us, it’s not just about dollars; it’s about opportunity for all. It’s about being fair and impartial when engaging with, and making decisions for, our members. Under our guiding principles, economic disadvantages do not divide our communities.

It is our role to lead the way to more equitable economic opportunities. That path encompasses efficiency programs, access to smart technologies and high-speed internet, and bringing people back to rural America. We cannot create programs and services only for those who can afford them. That’s why I’m proud of the work NRECA and our co-ops have done in Advancing Energy Access for All and through a new program to develop solar energy for low- and moderate-income consumers—initiatives that pay attention to those who often have the highest energy burdens and the least means to bear them.

Democratic member control remains the bedrock of cooperatives. This principle, more than any other, sets us apart and makes us unique. Each member gets a voice and a vote in how their co-op is run. Each voice—and vote—is equal. We must find ways to include all members in the democratic process, promoting the understanding that each member’s voice deserves to be represented by those who’ve earned a seat at the decision-making table.

We know from experience that providing fair access to services for all people makes a tremendous difference in the quality of life in our communities. As our industry rapidly transforms, we must continue to lead the way to ensure that all of our consumer-members are a part of the transformation.