Standing on the shoulders of those before them, community members of rural Mason, Tennessee, gathered this past Juneteenth at Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist Church. They were there to publicly announce a list of demands for their new neighbor, a multibillion-dollar Ford electric vehicle plant.

Set to open next year, the facility promises billions to the state budget and 30,000 permanent and temporary jobs. Yet, for many Black residents, the most significant impact is the potential erasure of their community and history. It’s what residents are calling the underlying “peril of federal clean energy investments” in Black communities.

As the Biden administration’s policies have jump-started the largest increase in domestic manufacturing in decades, unprecedented investments have followed in Black areas. But so has a rise in the cost of living and environmental threats.

Read More: Tennessee Wants to Take Land from Black Residents So a Ford Plant Can Benefit

Faye Knight, who has lived in Mason for eight decades, said she has already seen how “predatory land grab [tactics] and lack of transparency around the construction” of the new Ford plant is threatening the “legacy and history of the communities that have been here for centuries.”

To build the plant and accommodate its infrastructure needs, land easements have already been secured across residents’ properties for new power and sewage lines, and acres of agricultural land are being rezoned for commercial use as Black farmers get offered pennies on the dollar for their land. Even though the property tax rate recently decreased in Mason, residents, on average, are paying nearly double in taxes compared to when the project was announced in 2021 because average home values in the town have jumped from $100,000 to $170,000 since then.

The story of Knight's community is only becoming more commonplace nationwide due to federal priorities. After decades of siphoning jobs to foreign countries where costs are lower and worker exploitation is riper, the Biden administration has pushed for record spending in domestic manufacturing, particularly in “disadvantaged” communities.

Knight and some of her neighbors, who make up the community organization BlueOval Good Neighbors Committee, seek a radical solution. The group is asking Ford to negotiate a legally binding community benefits agreement (CBA) with residents. The agreement, which is most often used for sports stadium developments, could ensure that the company prioritizes maintaining the history and livelihood of the Black community through investing in affordable housing and infrastructure like roads and water systems. And while community agreements for clean energy facilities aren’t the norm, Knight and others say it makes sense.

“By providing direct community investments like affordable housing, local hire and workforce development, environmental protections and support for our impacted agricultural communities.Ford now has an opportunity to not let history repeat itself,” said Virginia Rivers, an alderwoman for Mason.

When implemented effectively, the agreements shift power more evenly to ensure the residents most impacted by development projects have a say. Economists say this concept, when coupled with the continued investment in well-paying union jobs, could truly help these Black neighborhoods enter the middle class.

Worldacad reached out to more than 20 companies that have either built or begun construction on EV-related facilities nationwide for this story; no company said they are currently engaged in binding agreements.

The federal government’s playbook

A Worldacad analysis of federal data found that roughly 60% of the country’s investments in EV-related facilities that have either opened or begun construction since 2022 are located in cities or counties where the Black population is above the national average. The manufacturing hubs placements are intended to increase the pathway toward the middle class for Black folks, but the unintended consequence is the disruption of Black life in these places.

The demands of the BlueOval Good Neighbors Committee are part of a long line of history in Mason, a small town in west Tennessee, where cotton and slavery once reigned king. In the decades since, Black people have continued to drive the area's economic engine, yet today, due to years of neglect and several devastating fires, little evidence remains of the wealth and prominence that the 70% Black town of 1,200 once possessed.

In 2022, the town almost lost its ability to govern its finances in a fight with white state officials, partly driven by long-stemming financial issues and the construction of the plant. The community halted the takeover with the help of the NAACP and dozens of dedicated residents and local elected officials. However, the impacts of their new, massive 6-square-mile industrial neighbor still looms large.

Community members gather in Mason, Tennessee, to voice their concerns about a new EV plant in their community. (Courtesy of BlueOval Good Neighbors Committee)

The federal government's playbook depends on jobs automatically equalling stability for these communities. Yet, as Knight and other residents explained to Worldacad, the script is failing to take into account rising housing costs, intensified environmental threats, and the weakening of Black political power as these companies move in, bringing their checkbooks and influence with them. (Nationally, electronics and battery manufacturing companies spend the third most on influencing politicians, behind the pharmaceutical and insurance industries.)

“I understand that we need things to change, that our small communities cannot stay small forever,” said Knight, but “when somebody just brings out pipes and starts laying them in your yard without consulting you first, of course, it's not really about benefiting you.”

The state estimates the Ford plant could bring more than 176,000 new residents to west Tennessee by 2045. The explosion of new developments needed to meet that growth has left roughly 40% of the area's residents believing they may have to move within five years, in part due to rising costs. Over three-fourths of those people have lived in the area for more than two decades.

“Because of our shared history and ancestry, there is a collective responsibility here to make sure that the communities here today — the Black folks here today — are able to protect the legacy they’ve worked so hard to build and pass the baton of wealth and progress to the next generation,” said Eloise Thompson, another local resident with the BlueOval Good Neighbors Coalition.

How CBAs might help in other communities

Historically, community agreements have focused on guaranteeing a certain number of jobs will be made available for local workers, rarely addressing any housing, cultural, or environmental concerns. But largely industrial companies have been hesitant to enter into community benefit agreements at all because they require significant financial commitments upfront and they can present legal risks to companies if they fail to meet the agreed terms. And ultimately, the improved community relations don't offer financial benefits for these companies' bottom lines.

According to surveys, community agreements for clean energy facilities are also less likely to be viewed as necessary because of the expected overall benefits of the projects. Yet a recent report by the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute, showed it is in the best political and economic interests for policymakers to focus on “unionization efforts to promote manufacturing job quality, along with efforts to negotiate community benefits agreements with companies.”

Fort Valley, Georgia, where peaches and yellow school buses define the landscape, shows how. A substantial portion of America's iconic yellow school buses are manufactured at a BlueBird factory in Fort Valley, a 70% Black town of 9,000. Using federal government subsidies to begin building electric school buses, the company reached a new contract with workers guaranteeing raises to every factory employee, new retirement benefits, and a profit-sharing agreement with the company.

LeMario Brown, a Fort Valley resident, said his neighbors are excited about the growing job opportunities, but the reality may be a little different, particularly if concerns about inflation and toxic contamination aren’t addressed.

“Development usually happens like a thief in the night,” said Brown, a former city council member. On its best day, “it can turn the tide in allowing the community to support and sustain themselves,” he said, but “whether it is going to trickle down is always the question.”

That's why, he said, the goal has always been to work toward mechanisms that “guarantee that our Black community really benefits.” A representative from BlueBird told Worldacad that the company “is in the process of developing a program but it's too early to share anything at this time.”

Just northeast in Blythewood, South Carolina, a new $2 billion electric vehicle plant threatens to flood three Black neighborhoods downstream because the construction depends on destroying and building over flood-absorbent wetlands. In the aftermath, a coalition of more than 400 residents called on the local government and the Volkswagen-owned production company to invest in climate resiliency, especially in the face of increasing extreme rainfall events. 

To offset the Blythewood construction, the company will protect and restore 2,487 acres of wetlands further down the Congaree River in South Carolina, but that does little to protect the neighboring Black communities.

At the time of voting, the town's only Black councilman — Sloan Griffin, who is now serving as the town's mayor — was the sole vote against approval of the project. He said residents should have more time to process news of the project. Particularly because the 40% Black town is at a disadvantage to generate consistent financial benefits because it does not levy a business tax. This is why Griffin says he and other residents are continuing to push the company to work in good faith.

“Stopping the project is not something that could happen – let's be honest,” Griffin told Worldacad. “They are here now, so the question is how can we all work together for the common good.”

It's a sentiment that echoes across the dozens of similarly impacted Black communities nationwide.

“The truth is that Ford is going to make billions of dollars from their electric vehicle plant. We don't have the billions,” Knight, from Tennessee, said. “Community benefits agreement is the best way to have a voice.”

Adam Mahoney is the climate and environment reporter at Worldacad. Twitter @AdamLMahoney