The Power of International Connections: A conversation with Phil Carson

In March this year, NRECA President Phil Carson traveled to Bolivia with twelve linemen from nine Illinois electric co-ops. They traveled as NRECA International volunteers to bring electricity to a village in the Samaipata region. Sponsored by the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives and managed by NRECA International, this first-time endeavor by the Illinois statewide association proved to be as enlightening and rewarding as Phil anticipated.

Following are a few highlights from a recent conversation with Phil, where he shares some stories about the surprisingly deep connections made with the people he met, the linemen he is very proud of, and why it’s important to continue providing electricity to people around the world who don’t have access to it.

What surprised the linemen during this volunteer mission?

The linemen expected the things that they had been told—how they’d be touched by the poverty, the people, and the work. But it’s another thing to be there and go through it. When you’re there, you connect with the folks and it touches you at least as much, if not more, than it touches them.

Our linemen made friends with school children, they played soccer with them in their down time. There was a 96 year old man that lived nearby, and it was the very first time in his life that he was going to get electricity in his home. He’d been hoping and praying for this his whole life. They made good friends with him.

What is your favorite story from this trip?

The linemen had electrified a young boy’s home. He told them that instead of being scared at night, he’s now got a light to turn on, and it takes away the fear factor. Instead of studying by candlelight, he’s got himself a light. They were just humbled by that statement from him. It’s real life.

And during the lighting ceremony, all the folks from the disabled center came. Some of them cannot walk, and they were carried over for the ceremony. Things of this sort really reach out and touch you. Our linemen wore sunglasses on that day. Not only because of the sun. I think those sunglasses also hid the tears.

What did you want to accomplish during this trip?

I wanted Illinois to have its own footprint in a community. Samaipata, the community we delivered power to, will be our sister community from here on out.

We made life-long friends at CRE, the electric co-op that we worked with to bring electricity to Samaipata. NRECA’s relationship with CRE spans decades and I’m really impressed with how socially conscious they are. They not only power their community, they empower their community. Which are the same two things we do here in America. So I got to see that first hand, and I was extremely impressed.

What do you think will be the first thing to change in Samaipata?

I think the current businesses that are struggling will potentially take off. Electricity opens up the opportunity for those businesses and others to take root and grow. I would love to go back in about five years and see the difference.

Until electricity came to our area back in my grandfather’s time, they subsisted, they made do, and they were happy folk. But the opportunity for longer lives and easier times, especially for women, was greatly enhanced and was a major turning point. It was very similar to what I saw in Samaipata.

Would you go back?

I would. Whether it’s Bolivia, Guatemala, Africa or Haiti, or wherever it would be. There’s no doubt these experiences stretch and expand you as a person in a really good way.

Why is it important to continue supporting NRECA International’s work?

First, you’re doing good somewhere else, where the good needs to be done. Second, when you do that, you can’t help but be touched yourself. You’re changed as a person in a wonderful way.

There also is a political component to this. We have a lot of legislators at both the state and federal levels, who don’t have any co-ops in their districts, and this is a program that we can present to them to show who we are. And I think this can have great impact politically. I wouldn’t do that for that reason primarily, it comes as an ancillary benefit, but it’s an important component.

What do you think our role is, in bringing electricity to the world?

I think what we do in NRECA International reflects the DNA of co-ops. Whether it’s here in the US or in Bolivia, or wherever co-ops are. We’re member oriented, member focused, member owned and member controlled. It comes down to serving our communities by improving the quality of life.

I’ve been reading A Giant Step by Clyde Ellis and there’s a statement in his book where he says our work will not be done until electricity has been brought to every part of the world. That was his goal as the CEO at the time. And I think that’s what we are continuing to work towards.