Like many electric cooperatives, Southern Pine EPA in southwest Mississippi started out in the 1930s as a relatively small, bootstrapped operation that brought sweeping quality of life improvements to their rural community by way of electricity. Back then, this community included 481 homes and farms, but today Southern Pine’s service territory includes 11 different counties encompassing 14.3% of the landmass of Mississippi. Most co-ops have a founding story that hits similar beats, but not every co-op grows to be one of the 10 largest co-ops in America. In this way Southern Pine is unique, but its story is still emblematic of how co-ops bring out the best in us and how the fastest, best results are achieved when people work together towards common goals.
Southern Pine’s members received a remarkable gift at their 80th anniversary annual meeting. Making Life Better: The Story of Southern Pine Electric Power Association by Jan Collins, VP of Communications and Government Affairs (and published children’s author) at the co-op, is a definitive history of the co-op centering around the people who built its foundations and the faithful community for whom and by whom this labor of love was accomplished. Love is the key word here, as every word, photo, and illustration fully expresses the love that went into creating this book. Making Life Better is a must read for those of us who occasionally forget why we do what we do. A great many people in our industry happily offer most of their lives to this work, and for good reason. Jan, however, went further, collecting and chronicling the lived experiences of hundreds of community members to answer not just the when and how of their co-op’s founding, but the why and for whom. The shared stories of hundreds of friends, neighbors, colleagues, and predecessors are expertly woven into a historical love letter to this community, past, and present.
Two frequently discussed issues for the co-op community today that will directly impact our future are how to attract younger people to our industry and how to show them the value of what we have built. Making Life Better tackles the latter by highlighting the people of Southern Pine’s past, while Jan’s third ever book addresses the former by introducing young children to the world of electric utilities. “Exploring the World From a Power Pole” is a children’s book that offers young readers their first glimpse into our world by following Rhee, a local lineman as he describes his role in his community. Children’s books are proven to help kids form complex associations between ideas and slowly introduce the world around them. While it may take a while for the seeds strewn by “Exploring The World From a Power Pole” to bear fruit in the form of eager new co-op participants, by captivating children today this adorable book could become pivotal for a new generation of co-op leaders. Jan hopes that becomes the case, adding “I hope its well-received and I hope that kids get interested in the co-op world and with linemen. If they learn a little bit about them, then I am confident they will learn to respect what that position means.”
We encourage every one of our friends in the co-op business to purchase a copy or two of this children’s book. Gaining the interest of future generations requires work, careful cultivation, and effort. In this regard Jan and Southern Pine have exemplified a key aspect of the co-op world, a strong willingness to roll up your sleeves and be the change you want to see.