“Advocating for equal justice.” With Penny Bauder & Heather McTeer Toney

I would like to spur the engagement of the African American community to embrace climate action, the same way that we embrace voter’s rights and equal justice. I want to see African Americans recognizing that climate change is harmful to our communities. When I look at the history of major movements that have made significant […]

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I would like to spur the engagement of the African American community to embrace climate action, the same way that we embrace voter’s rights and equal justice. I want to see African Americans recognizing that climate change is harmful to our communities. When I look at the history of major movements that have made significant difference, you cannot ignore the power of the African American community and the African American vote. For whatever reason, the environmental movement has been segmented and separated into us vs. them, white vs. black, what’s important to an environmentalist vs. what’s important to someone advocating for equal justice. I want us to be unified in this effort. We have got to work together. This is not a segregated issue.

I had the pleasure interviewing Heather McTeer Toney. Heather McTeer Toney served as the first African-American, first female and youngest mayor of Greenville, MS.

In 2014, she was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve as Regional Administrator for Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Southeast Region. Known for her energetic and genuine commitment to people, her work has made her a national figure in public service, diversity and community engagement.

Previously working on local government policy initiatives and the Moms & Mayors program for Moms Clean Air Force, Heather now leads the field program. Heather holds a bachelor’s degree from Spelman College in Atlanta and a law degree from the Tulane University School of Law.

She loves triathlons and bacon, and at any time can be found chasing her toddler or riding in old classic cars with her husband and daughter.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Igrew up in the Mississippi Delta, very close to the river. My house was just half a mile from the levee, which protects my hometown of Greenville, Mississippi, from the Mississippi River. I grew up around a lot of agriculture and land and open spaces, with an awareness of land and water. My mom is a retired schoolteacher and my dad is a retired civil rights attorney, so there was always also an awareness of equity and justice and social justice in our house. The first protest march I remember participating in occurred when I was about 10 years old. Dr. Merritt was trying to become the first black superintendent, in Indianola, Mississippi and my father was his attorney. It’s funny now that a march seemed like a perfectly normal Saturday. I remember being that kid in the back of the campaign rooms that was messing up the papers and running around, and just being aware and being present and understanding that something important was taking place.

Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become an environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?

I didn’t know I was an environmental leader until I was mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, and I got a visit from Lisa Jackson, who at that time was the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. She came to visit the city because we had been on the front page of Washington Post for my work trying to improve Greenville’s water quality. Administrator Jackson was conducting a tour of cities across the country and she started in Greenville. After the press conference, we were sitting in her car and she said, “You know you’re working on environmental justice issues, right?” And I said, “Oh, is that really what this is?” She said, “That’s what you’ve been doing. You’ve been doing it for some time now.” Until that point I honestly hadn’t thought of myself as an environmental activist. But that conversation made me realize that community work is by nature environmental work. And once I got that, it really spurred me into recognizing how important environmental work is in the context of helping communities thrive, and it spurred me into throwing myself into environmental work.

Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?

There’s nothing about community building that is not related to the environment. Every single issue. We oftentimes put issues into silos and try to make one more important than the other, when the reality is, every single one of our issues touches the others, and climate change touches all of them. I think about a trip I took to North Birmingham, Alabama, when I was regional administrator of EPA. North Birmingham had major issues with a local coke plant that was right on the fenceline of that community. Driving into the community, it looked like home to me. It looked like African American communities I had grown up with my whole life. The railroad track separates the neighborhood from the manufacturing plant. On the other side, there’s backyards and clothesline with clothes hanging in the breeze. Front porches. Corner stores. Dilapidated houses. A strong sense of a longstanding community. I went to a community meeting there, where I met Mr. Smith. And he asked me, “What are you going to do for us that is any different from what all the others have done?” He really questioned why I was there. He raised all these issues that were related to the environment there: Housing, crime, health. It was a lesson to me in the fact that people who are living these issues every day do not segregate these things, and neither should we. People who are suffering from health disparities and illnesses because of a toxic environment are not separating those problems from the fact that they have poor housing or live in a crime-ridden neighborhood. Becoming an environmental leader means that you cannot separate the environment or climate change from everything else.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

Moms Clean Air Force runs a range of programs to raise awareness about air pollution and climate change, and we mobilize moms across the country to fight for a healthy future for our kids.

We work with volunteers across the country to conduct a lot of advocacy work, engaging with members of Congress and state lawmakers, as well as with officials at federal and state agencies, in order to bring forward the importance of protecting children’s health from air pollution and climate change. We attend hearings on Capitol Hill; we comment on regulations as they are moving through the rulemaking process; we testify before Congress; we meet in person with our lawmakers; and we mobilize parents to submit written comments into public rulemaking dockets.

Ecomadres is our program working with Latino moms, doing outreach in various cities, educating moms and supporting climate advocacy in spaces and places that are important to the Latinx community.

We have the Community Rx program, which works in the African-American community. Faith Force is part of that program — it’s our way of having a conversation about creation care and climate that really pulls in the tenets of faith within the black community. This has been really effective with groups like the National Black convention, which has picked up the theme of climate justice for the first time this year.

BabyPower is one of my favorite Moms Clean Air Force programs, because it is something that brings us into contact with new and expecting moms. It’s an education program that helps new moms learn about how air pollution affects little lungs, and it gives them tools they can use to advocate for the health of their babies.

Moms & Mayors is another important advocacy tool that we use to support efforts at the municipal level to address air pollution and climate change. That means mobilizing moms to support local initiatives by attending a city Council meeting, meeting with your mayor, and encouraging engagement with young people in your city. We also encourage our members to be appointed to local boards and commissions as a way that they can be involved locally in the policy process to insure that climate action is included in every step of the policy process.

We have a lot of fun with the social media aspect of our work. We rely on shares on social media, we tweet at elected officials, we share photos of our children when they are doing everything from participating in a climate march to speaking with a Senator. We think it’s actually really important to share the power of moms and we love watching that reverberate across the country.

Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks, things that the general public can do, to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?

First, you don’t have to take every last disposable plastic item that is handed to you when you are going out to eat. You can stop accepting things that create excess waste. If you get takeout, a simple thing you can do it stop accepting plastic cutlery. We have two sets of cutlery that I keep with me so even if it’s take-out food we always are able to simple not accept the plastic knife and fork. There are other things you can decline. When you really think about it, how many ketchup and sweet and sour sauce packets do you really need? It’s making these conscious decisions that helps reduce plastic use in our household.

Second, get outside with your children. This is important wherever you are. It doesn’t take a whole lot. It doesn’t have to be hiking in some glorious mountain range. You can do this in your own yard, or on your city block. Take note of what you see, hear, and smell. I really advocate for getting outside in different climates as much as humanly possible. It also helps us to strengthen our immune systems and become more resilient as the climate changes.

Third, be creative with the consumerism. We don’t need all that stuff. When my family goes on vacations, for example, we don’t bring back a lot of souvenirs. We bring back recyclable bags instead. We use them for more than the grocery store. We find joy in collecting them, then we give them away over the course of the year we love telling the story of our travels as we use our bags. It reminds us of the places we’ve been. Think about how you can do this. You don’t need another mug, I promise. Lord knows in my house, we do not need another water bottle.

Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

  1. Listen to them. Listen to their concerns. I often talk with my teenage daughter about environmental issues. Teens need to know that we are listening and we are just as concerned as they are.
  2. Help them look at their career paths through a climate perspective. Almost every career path can help the climate crisis. Recently I was giving a speech and a 10-year-old asked me what he should be doing in school so he could have an impact on climate change. What kind of job should he look at? We had a great conversation about how every career he could possibly think of touches climate. People think of science and technology as climate-related, and that’s great. But we’re going to need lawyers too. We will need storytellers and artists. We are going to need entrepreneurs, doctors and nurses, law enforcement, restauranteurs, farmers, and more. We need to talk to our young people about career paths. There is plenty for them to do.
  3. Stop scaring our children. This is big for me, because I don’t like to operate from a place of fear. I feel strongly that as an African American female, as a woman from the South, and as a human being, we have overcome so much that there is no reason in the world to be continually afraid. We should work on climate change from a place of strength, and share that. It’s part of our obligation and I strongly urge parents to teach their children a sense of resiliency and adaptation.
  4. Fund them. Our young people are coming up with some amazing ideas. We should fund them with the money that we have. We need to buy the poster board and the markers when they want to go out and protest. It’s important for us to invest in their ideas. Show support for them. If they are not getting it from us, where will they get support? I want to invest in my children. My teenage daughter thinks of things that are completely beyond my reasoning and imagination. She is a young person exposed to so much more technology than I was at her age. We see amazing young people like Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Villasenor who are leaders in this climate movement. These young people are successfully leading a movement. As parents it’s hard to step into the background and not be that leader, but we’ve got to. Let them lead, let them speak, give them the microphone, fund their ideas, and protect them while they do that.
  5. Model civic engagement. As parents, we need to keep doing the work of advocacy. Talk to your lawmaker. Take your children with you to the meeting. Write letters to decision-makers, and ask your children to write them too. Show up for city council meetings — and bring your children with you if you can. Show them what it means to be engaged in the important work of fighting for their future.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

Businesses should recognize the importance of climate change to their own employee base, especially their younger employees. Those businesses that prioritize climate action will have a better chance of being able to retain those workers. This will save money over the long haul, because you won’t have to replace your people every few years. At the same time, there’s a fine line between being environmentally sound and greenwashing. I see this often in my advocacy work. Just because you say something is green and sustainable doesn’t mean that you’re actually actively doing it. There is no doubt that environmental work and climate justice work is more profitable in the long run. But in the short term it requires some genuine investment and willingness to change. It’s not a superficial tweak. Businesses have to do this in a way that is genuine.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people. I mentioned Lisa Jackson. As a new administrator for EPA, and being the first African American woman to hold that position, she had to appoint somebody to lead her local government advisory group. She chose me to lead a group of 30 elected officials from across the country. It was one of those moments where I recognized that she was giving me the opportunity to show that I could do this work. She was trusting me to represent not just her but African American women and environmentalists from across the country. She didn’t have to do that. She could have picked someone who was way more qualified. But I think she saw in me a young woman who was really passionate about environmental work and who had a future in this. Gina McCarthy followed Lisa Jackson as administrator for the EPA, and she then appointed me as her regional administrator for EPA in the Southeast. Gina was clear; she didn’t want someone shy and quiet. She expected me to lead from a local perspective. These two women, both powerhouses in the environmental movement, both powerhouses in the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency, both have left a great legacy of community work, and they did so much for me personally and professionally. I am so grateful that both of them gave me the opportunity to flourish and grow and learn.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like to spur the engagement of the African American community to embrace climate action, the same way that we embrace voter’s rights and equal justice. I want to see African Americans recognizing that climate change is harmful to our communities. When I look at the history of major movements that have made significant difference, you cannot ignore the power of the African American community and the African American vote. For whatever reason, the environmental movement has been segmented and separated into us vs. them, white vs. black, what’s important to an environmentalist vs. what’s important to someone advocating for equal justice. I want us to be unified in this effort. We have got to work together. This is not a segregated issue.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

Winston Churchill said, “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” I’ve been through a lot. I served as mayor, I’ve won campaigns, I’ve lost campaigns. As a federal official, I’ve been a part of major regulations being passed and seen great justice done for communities. Now I am seeing some of those regulations being turned back just to benefit one or two major benefactors to the Trump campaign. I have personally also gone through a lot. I’ve been married, and divorced, and married again. I’ve gone from not being able to have children to having a very rambunctious 3-year-old today. In all of those things I’ve learned to keep going. Just because you are going through a dark place doesn’t mean that’s where you are going to set up shop for the rest of your life. You keep going.

What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?

@heathermcteer @cleanairmoms on Twitter, on Insta @cleanairmoms and @heathermcteertoney

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