Celebrating AAPI Month: Q&A with Boratha Tan

Boratha Tan is an emerging leader in the clean energy space. As a Vote Solarian, Boratha’s work focuses on advocating for equitable clean energy and holding utilities accountable for fair service. In this interview, Boratha shares a bit more about his passions and upbringing, like his dedication to innovation and the importance of ensuring communities impacted by past injustices are well-cared for. Drawing from his personal experiences, Boratha highlights the real-life impact of unreliable energy and high costs, particularly in communities like Detroit. Through his advocacy, he aims to elevate the voices of those affected and drive positive change. Boratha’s commitment to community and equity exemplifies his leadership in advancing clean energy initiatives, making him a rising star in the field.

Q: Can you tell me about how you came to Vote Solar and how you came to clean energy work in general? 

A: So before working at Vote Solar, I worked at Ford Motor Company for a little over six years. Specifically, I worked with a team that prototypes the electric motors, and the electric transmission for the future EVs (electric vehicles). It was definitely a fun journey. In my line, there was a lot of testing, touching things and exploding things. However, one of the big factors that made me change my career was due to the COVID pandemic, the COVID pandemic caused a huge pause in many of our lives. And it definitely caused a huge pause in my life, it made me reflect on what I wanted to do to make a more direct positive impact for people, and especially my community. So of course, from the automotive perspective, you are quite a few layers away from the people that would benefit from the products you are making. One of the biggest decisions in my life, then, was to start pursuing a master’s degree in public policy. So I went to get that at the University of Michigan mainly because I wanted to utilize my background, and my technical expertise in engineering, electrical, mechanical, everything in between. But to put that to something that would impact people positively. So that’s kind of how I found Vote Solar.

Q: Can you tell me about your relationship to this month’s AAPI Month theme of “Advancing Leaders through Innovation? Where are you at with it? How do you reflect on it this month, and this year?

A: I think for me growing up, I actually did not know that May was dedicated to AAPI, mainly because I think I grew up in Philadelphia, in a very diverse neighborhood, not just Cambodian Americans, but Laotian Americans, Puerto Rican Americans, Dominican Americans, Italian Americans. And that gave me an appreciation of understanding, valuing and respecting other people’s cultures. I also went to an elementary school where my brother and I spent a lot of time with fellow Cambodian Americans in Philadelphia. To us, we lived out our Cambodian cultures every day, not just inside our homes, but in our school. So I had the great benefit of being able to be authentically myself. So it wasn’t until, say, college where I realized that I was only one of two or three Cambodian American undergrads at my university. So I took that on as an opportunity to teach others about my Cambodian heritage. When I think about advancing leaders in innovation, I know that many people, including myself, especially years ago, would think about how we can create a new product, or how we can come together and create a new startup. But I think innovation today also requires us to think about the communities we’re in and the people that we affect, whether or not they’ve worked to direct part of this innovation. When we look at some of the work that Vote Solar does, for example, I believe that my fellow colleagues and I innovate every single day. Within the regulatory sector, not only do we constantly argue for equitable, clean energy, but we also want to make sure that the utilities are held responsible and are accountable to the basic qualities of service and whether or not they are fair and equitable in their service and in charging their customers. When we look at many utilities throughout the country, some of them do very well in reliability, but unfortunately, might charge low wealth customers unfairly. And of course, in other places in the country, they might [prefer] certain communities over others. And we here at Vote Solar are trying to figure out what the data means, how we can address those inequalities, that especially environmental justice communities are treated fairly, that they have a great chance at recovering from those long standing inequalities. And I think, at least for us, many people should view innovation as not only a way to create something new but as a way to ensure that people who have been negatively affected by past wrongs. lungs are well cared for.


Q: And that makes me think too, this work seems almost very technical – and it is – but there’s also a really personal impact to all of us. I’m curious about how this work reaches you in your personal life and how this month speaks to your heritage and your reflection of your heritage.

A: Looking at the community I live in now in Detroit, unfortunately, especially in Southeast Michigan, we have one of the worst reliability in the country, as well as one of the top three quartile costs in our electric bills. So those two things are very detrimental to many of the Black Detroiters as well as just low wealth families in general throughout all of Southeast Michigan. But the first thing that I always think about in the work that we do at Vote Solar is that it’s not just my community, but also communities throughout the country. How do we make sure that these lived experiences of these real life stories of people losing their food because the power’s been out for three days, people who have lost elders because the power’s out for four days in their ventilator wasn’t working? How do we make those lived experiences more prominent? The work that we do, whether regulatory, whether it campaigns, whether communications, how do we elevate those stories? And at least in a small part of what Vote Solar does is we have to also show the data behind those stories. I think that’s a good way for us to show, “hey, yes, these stories are lived, these experiences are real, here’s the data to back that up, and here’s what we will present to the commission.” Because you can’t, can’t deny the stats that are out there, especially when these real stories are there. For me personally, I think, but I always thank my parents for raising me and my brother to think about our communities and our families first. Unfortunately, I didn’t really grow up with any sort of AAPI role models. My mom, when she came out of the Khmer Rouge genocide, she only had a grade school education. And when she emigrated to the United States it was only in the evenings where she could take ESL classes. My father, he was fortunate enough to be sponsored by a family in Allentown, Pennsylvania, he had an opportunity to go to high school, in that town and he at least has a high school education. This story is very similar to many other Cambodian immigrants and Southeast Asian immigrants because of the Vietnam War and other civil wars throughout the region at that time. Unfortunately, there weren’t many role models here because of the similar story of many immigrants not having the opportunity to get a good education. For me growing up, I was just looking up to whoever elders were there in the community, making sure that the next generation valued education, valued helping each other. I just look up to anyone who has had that track record of helping others, whether it be Malcolm X, whether it be Dr. Martin Luther King, these individuals throughout history are kind of like who I look up to.


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