Heather McTeer Toney: Wrapping Communities in Climate Justice
Heather McTeer Toney stumbled into environmental justice work as the Mayor of Greenville, Mississippi. After moving on as EPA administrator and now as a Senior Adviser at Mom’s Clean Air Force, Toney talks about how to wrap climate justice around social justice and how her faith is inextricably woven into her work fighting climate change.
Heather McTeer Toney stumbled into environmental justice work as the mayor of Greenville, Mississippi. After moving on to become EPA Administrator and now as a Senior Advisor at Moms Clean Air Force, Toney talks about how to wrap climate justice around social justice and how her faith is inextricably woven into her work fighting climate change.
BROKEN GROUND: ONE-ON-ONE WITH HEATHER MCTEER TONEY
HEATHER MCTEER TONEY: So often we find ourselves doing work, not realizing that it’s actually environmental work. And that’s the place that I found myself in.
HOST: Heather McTeer Tony says she ended up as a leader in the environmental justice movement almost by accident. It was 2004, and she had just been elected as the first African-American woman and youngest mayor of Greenville, Mississippi.
HEATHER: And so one of the top issues for my community was water.
HOST: And when she says water, she’s specifically talking about brown water. Brown water is when the water coming out of your faucet is tinted brown by sediment or rusted pipes. Brown water is unsafe to drink, and that’s obviously bad for residents. But it’s also bad for the local economy acting as a deterrent for businesses to set up shop. Heather says brown water is common in Black and Brown communities throughout the South. And she was determined to do something about it.
HEATHER: We eventually caught the attention of everyone from the Army Corps of Engineers, to Lisa Jackson at EPA when she was the new administrator and she came to visit our community. And in conversation and walking around, she said, you know, you’re doing environmental justice work, right? I was like, seriously, really? And she said, no, really, that’s what this is. And she was absolutely right. You know, I found that working in this space of protecting water, and looking at our environment and our climate as a factor that not only needs to be protected, but that can be utilized in a way of economic development is environmental work.
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HOST: This is Broken Ground, a podcast about environmental stories in the South, and the people at the heart of them. I’m Claudine Ebeid McElwain. Environmental justice is a movement that’s getting a lot of attention in the press right now. And president Biden ran on a platform that, in part, promised to bring environmental justice to Americans. Environmental justice is a commitment to address the ways in which environmental pollution and degradation have negatively, disproportionately and systematically affected communities of color and people with limited financial means. For the next few episodes, we’re passing the mic to women in the South who are taking on environmental injustices. Heather McTeer Tony served as mayor of Greenville, Mississippi from 2004 to 2011. Then in 2014, she was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve as regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Southeast region, based in Atlanta. Now she is the climate justice liaison at the Environmental Defense Fund and senior advisor to Moms Clean Air Force. Mom’s is a national organization of more than a million members that focuses on combating air pollution. So I wanted to start our conversation there by talking about parenthood, climate and the work of Moms Clean Air Force. This conversation was recorded in November 2020.
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CLAUDINE EBEID MCELWAIN: Why did you choose to focus your energy in particular on harnessing the power of moms and parents?
HEATHER: When I left the Obama administration in 2017, uh, we were finishing wonderful work with president Obama and with administrator Gina McCarthy, and I was leaving with a six month old baby boy. My first child that I had given birth to, and a very exciting time for me, but one that was also really fraught with an awareness that our children are inheriting an earth and an atmosphere and a climate and an environment that is fraught with problems. And I’d seen it firsthand. Uh, there’s something about being a mother when you are dealing with climate issues that impacts not just yourself, but also future generations and your children. So when I was pregnant, it was during the time of Zika and I live in the Southeast, so it was very real for me, not being able to travel or being very concerned about the impacts of vector-borne diseases on my unborn son. Uh, I was breastfeeding when Flint happened and the very idea that taking in water, something that I did for the health and safety of my child, uh, to feed him, was something that mothers could not do in a safe way, um, due to the Flint water crisis. Uh, I recall vividly talking to mothers who in farming communities couldn’t embrace their children when they first came home because they had toxic chemicals on their clothing, pesticides, and they were concerned about those impacts to their kids. It just, it felt different as a mom. And so I knew that at the end of the administration, I, I wanted to take some time with my son, but I also wanted to continue to work for my child, for my children. And I wanted to continue in the space of climate, And Moms Clean Air Force was quite literally a force to be reckoned with that I was familiar with from my time at EPA, but really grew to love, uh, even more when I became a mother myself. So it was natural to not only want to volunteer, but eventually I, uh, came to Mom’s working on a program called Moms and Mayors, which fit quite well, because I’m a former mayor ..
CLAUDINE: You got both of those …
HEATHER: Yeah both of those covered. Uh, we were working to connect mothers with their local communities to talk about environment and climate. And from there it just grew. And, and when I tell you, these are the fiercest group of not just moms, but dads and tias and abuelas and Eco-Madres and, and aunties and cousins and people who are just concerned about children’s future with respect to climate, um, seeing the power of such a movement really reiterated to me how important it is to engage parents and caretakers in the conversation around climate, because the, the way that people think about it Is not just in a sense of a climate crisis and protection, but also what is the future for our children? You know, what are career paths that our kids take? Are we doing the right thing to ensure that they have livable, breathable air? Uh, it gives us a greater and a broader aspect in terms of looking at how we need to address the crisis versus, um, putting into one silo box.
CLAUDINE: I’ve heard you talk about the idea of wrapping all of our issues from all of our communities in the cloak of climate change.
CLAUDINE: And so every time I hear you talk, community is at the center of what you are talking about. So what are you envisioning that looking like?
HEATHER: So climate change and environment, it’s the, it’s the foundation of everything in our communities. It is the underpinning of social justice. It is the total and complete, I think, foundation of community issues. You can’t talk about anything and not have a line that is directly drawn to climate. So if we were to take any issue – we can throw out one – education. There was a study that was done, an article that was done a few months ago in the New York Times that talks about the connection between extreme heat and climate change and test scores in urban communities, showing that, uh, in places where we are having extreme heat increases, test scores are lowered. Same thing with, um, violence. There’s another study that’s been done that shows that over time, if we look at heat increases in urban communities, then you see a line of increased violence and, and there was a study that was done that shows it’s global in nature as well. When you look in your communities and talk about opportunities for economic development, the clean energy sector is one that has grown by leaps and bounds. Um, there is really no area that you can touch or think about that does not directly relate to climate. I think the other piece is that we are surrounded by what I like to think of as culturally competent solutions, solutions that are directly related to the places and people that we know, that we’ve grown up around, that don’t often make it into mainstream environmental conversations, but are things that we do each and every day. And so ways that we connect to climate, um, the places and spaces right around us are always related to our community. I think it’s important, and one of the things that Moms Clean Air Force talks about is yes, we’re talking about people, we’re talking about community, we’re talking about the immediate connection between your environment, climate change and our children and our bodies and that’s what makes community solutions so powerful.
CLAUDINE: You recently wrote an essay. I love the title of your essay: “Collard Greens Are Just as Good as Kale.” You know, the title of your essay says a lot about the environmental movement and the south, but do you think you could translate for folks who don’t quite get it?
HEATHER: I can tell you a story that might be helpful. When we were working in Atlanta at EPA, there’s an area of Atlanta that you can see from downtown call West end Atlanta. And there’s a wonderful organization call the West End Watershed Alliance. Uh, it’s traditionally, it’s an African-American neighborhood that lies at the bottom of the watershed. So all of the water from the concrete, the very impervious surface of downtown Atlanta, runs past the Mercedes Dome and into this traditionally African-American neighborhood causing a number of different issues, uh, including sewer overflows. Um, and, and this is compounded, right? There are housing issues. There are a number of issues in this community. So we were touring the community and a member of the tour, member of the community, had remarked how there were churches in Buckhead, which is, um, a northern part of Atlanta, traditionally White, that wanted to come and help plant gardens in the churches in West End. And the people in West End sort of buffed at it, you know, like we don’t, we don’t need this help. Uh, and asking why, we were on the tour and the lady said, we don’t need anybody to come teach us how to plant collard greens. We taught y’all, we’ve been doing this longer than anybody else. You know, we know how to grow.
HEATHER: And it was such a great example of, you know, people from other places and other neighborhoods coming in and assuming that, oh, we just need to show Black and Brown people how they should recycle or how they should grow or how they should have organic foods. And that’s not really understanding or embracing the cultural differences within communities and how we see environment. And it’s not respecting our history. I said, once in a speech, that while I completely understand and agree with the fact that the International Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, has told us that we should eat less meat in an effort to help us reduce, uh, emissions, it’s a small thing we can do on our part. I can’t walk into my church in Mississippi and say, Hey everybody, we’re not having chicken and bacon anymore for the, this church, barbecue. That’s not going to work. That’s not a sound example of making good friends on climate. Um. And, and, you know, I say it in a joking fashion, but it just means that, you know, in different communities, we have to look at different solutions and examples and ways that we talk about these things differently.
CLAUDINE: Speaking of that, you mentioned walking into your church and, and talking to folks there. I don’t think that the mainstream perception of environmentalism is ever associated with faith.
CLAUDINE: But I’ve heard you talk about your faith and how it’s connected to your environmentalism. Can you share a little bit about that intersection?
HEATHER: Sure. I can’t disconnect, you know, my, myself, my faith from anything. I can’t, I’m an African-American woman, I’m Black, I can’t disconnect that from who I am the same way. I feel strongly, I don’t disconnect my faith from my work. And at Mom’s, I appreciate the ability to explore that. We did a Bible study called Breath of Life that is particularly targeted towards the African-American, faith-based community, because we found that in talking about faith in communities of color, there wasn’t really connection. You know, we didn’t see pictures of ourselves. We didn’t see, um, connections in scripture. And so, um, with the help of — North Carolina and a number of us, we sat down and, and came up with this beautiful Bible study that connects faith and breath to the things of scripture that we know, um, that talks about the care and creation of the earth in a way that I know my faith as a, um, a non-denominational or Southern Baptist, and I was raised in a number of different denominations, but, um, that, that I identify with connecting it to my responsibility to care for the earth. And we took this to the National Baptist convention, which is the largest African-American faith-based organization in the United States, if not the world. Uh, and we took it to the women’s auxiliary and that is the unit of all of the women leaders of the church. And I will tell you, we walked into a room of 300 people. I don’t know why we only took fifty Bible studies. I think we were just sort of testing it and within moments, they were all gone with people asking and putting their names down on lists to get more Bible studies. We reprinted a thousand of them and took them to, uh, the next convention where there were over 3000 people. And we left with only 50 to a hundred, if that many. And it just really showed us that yes, people are yearning for information to connect on climate and environmental issues in a way that they understand. Um, what is this responsibility that we have that’s connected to our faith and how do I do it better than I’m doing it now?
CLAUDINE: So I want to make sure that I note that this essay that you wrote, “Collard Greens Are Just as Good as Kale,” shows up in a new anthology of essays and poems from women in the climate movement called All We Can Save. And I think it says something about the importance of women in the climate movement, in particular, the importance of Black women in the climate movement and women of color. I just want to talk for a minute about the team that you worked with when you were at the EPA, because I saw this photo that you showed at the presentation that was a room of all Black women. And I would just love to hear about how powerful that experience might’ve been. Is there more of an urgency in the work when everyone finally gets to be at the table who wanted to be at the table together?
HEATHER: Yeah, it was definitely a special moment. I think we didn’t even realize it because the first thing that was most important is that everybody at that table was competent and deserved to be at that table on their own merit, and that was the beauty of the moment. It was realizing that on our own individual merit, um, our own recognition of the work that we had done individually, we had come to that place collectively in that moment. And it was, it was certainly, um, an amazing time to realize that, you know, you have a shared experience with someone that you don’t shed your, yourself in the space of environmental work. And I think that it, it certainly shows that often the pictures and the stereotypes of what and who we see as environmentalists are not always correct. When you do the searches and you look on a Google search or you look at pictures of what environmentalists look like, they don’t often look like me, those images don’t. But that’s not the reality of people who are working in this space. Environmentalists look and come in all different shapes, sizes and colors and genders. And it is, I think, incumbent on us, uh, of us to continue to show this collective nature of really who we are doing the work. Whether we are White or Indigenous or Latino or Black, there’s a connection that we all have to this work in this space. And that was a moment I think, where we recognized, wow, we’re all here. Um, we didn’t plan it like this, but this is who’s here, this is who’s doing the work. And, um, I think we did, uh, just an amazing job of it.
CLAUDINE: The new EPA team that’s going to come in under a new Biden-Harris administration, they’re going to need to address the Trump administration’s rollback of more than a hundred environmental protections. It’s a lot of work.
CLAUDINE: You served as the Southeast regional administrator for the EPA under the Obama administration. Where do they even start?
HEATHER: Yeah, well, you know, I think first we have to acknowledge the fact that President-Elect Joe Biden, Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris not only ran on, but they won on climate. And that climate is one of their top four initiatives. We have to start there because that’s never been done before. It, it is generating an excitement among not just the environmental community, but people who realize that again, climate and environmental issues are at the underpinning of how we solve a number of our problems. It’s also important for us to recognize that this can’t be just on them. It’s not just on the Biden-Harris administration, it’s not just on one administration, on one agency. This has to be aN issue that we’re all looking at and we’re all addressing. We have our part to do as well. Moms, we have our part to play in this. And the same way that Moms Clean Air Force showed up In the last administration, um, for those hundred rollbacks, we were there for the hearings, we were testifying, we were putting in comments, we were letting our members know across the country what was happening. The same way that we showed up to make sure that we were protecting our children will be the same way that we show up again to do and ensure that we’re either assisting, um, or we’re holding them to account, so I think It’s very important for all of us to understand that we all have a stake in this. This is not a situation where we say Biden and Harris have won, they go fix it. That’s not how this works. We all have work to do.
CLAUDINE: Heather, I can’t thank you enough for all the time that you’ve given us today and for all of your wisdom and insight. So thank you.
HEATHER: Thank you.
HOST: Heather McTeer Toney is the climate justice liaison at the Environmental Defense Fund and senior advisor to Moms Clean Air Force. Her essay “Collard Greens Are Just as Good as Kale,” can be found in the new book All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. Join us next time for a conversation with author, advocate and MacArthur Genius Fellow Catherine Coleman Flowers.
CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: You know, when I think about environmental justice, I think about the garden of Eden. In the garden of Eden, if there were mountains there, would we be blowing the tops off of them? In the garden of Eden, would we be placing landfills there? In the garden of Eden, would we be burning coal? And mother Earth is our garden of Eden. It’s our common home. It’s something that we all share and we’re going to have to find ways in which to protect this garden that nurtures life.
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CREDITS: Broken ground is a podcast by the Southern Environmental Law Center. It’s produced by Emily Richardson-Lorente, Jennie Daley and Kelley Libby, and hosted by Claudine Ebeid McElwain. The theme music is by Eric Knutson.
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