An upbeat, smart, powerhouse — that was my first impression of Heather McTeer Toney as I watched her onstage taking on a former Trump administration EPA official on the issue of climate change at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ conference in Fort Collins, Colorado this past October. It was easy to see why this native of Greenville, Mississippi was elected her town’s first African-American, first female, and youngest-ever mayor back in 2004 when she was only 27. And why, after two terms as mayor — during which she worked to improve Greenville’s water supply and infrastructure, and helped reduce the city’s debt — she was appointed administrator for the EPA’s Southeast Region by President Barack Obama.
A lawyer by training, McTeer Toney has received numerous awards and honors over the past two decades for her advocacy on multiple social issues including domestic violence, unfair labor practices, and environmental and climate justice. Currently she is the national field director for Moms Clean Air Force, an organization of over one million parents committed to fighting climate change and air pollution.
When I caught up with McTeer Toney over the phone a few weeks after the conference, our hour-long conversation reinforced my first impression. She is a powerhouse indeed. We talked about everything from fighting gender and racial stereotypes, to climate change as an election issue, to the importance of community and faith in the environmental movement. An excerpt.
What first got you interested in environmental issues?
That’s so hard to say. I’m from a part of the country where just naturally you’re involved with the environment just because it’s a very agrarian society. The Mississippi Delta is surrounded by the world’s most fertile soil and has a history of farming. [The environment] was a part of everything that we did — from people having gardens in their backyards, to picking pecans in the fall, and respecting the Mississippi River and how powerful it was.
The way that we talk about the environment in today’s words is not sufficient to describe my interaction, or people that I know from the South — people of color’s —interaction with environment. Because when you look up What is an environmentalist? if you just Google what it looks like, it’s very singular. It’s a lot of white people and hugging trees. That’s just not my idea and image of an environmentalist. For me it’s people who are connected to land and soil in ways that are both good and bad, and that’s been my connection and passion all my life.
So basically, what you are saying is that you grew up close to the soil and didn’t feel any separation between self and environment per se?
Right, even though my parents were middle-class professionals — my dad was an attorney, my mom a schoolteacher. I think that we’re all environmentalists in our own way, especially coming from the part of the country where I come from, where people’s entire livelihood, whether you are a farmer or not, is dependent upon how the environment is growing and thriving.
Maybe I should rephrase the question. What I was hoping to learn is when you started being concerned about the damage we are doing to our environment.
I think it was when I was in college and working as a legislative aide to Senator Dawnzella James in the Georgia state legislature and I was charged with going to some of her constituent meetings. You know, constituent meetings in East Point, Georgia dealt with a lot of different things and one of them was people concerned about environmental justice issues in the community, particularly landfills and [industrial waste] dumping. This was in the late ’90s. To see communities whose issues had to do with pollution that appeared to be intentional — and polluting was prevalent not just in this particular community, but throughout the country — I think that was one of the first places that really raised my awareness of issues like this.
When I came back home [to Greenville] and started practicing law and running for office, the issue that really catapulted me into environmental work was working on water issues in my community. Understanding Greenville’s brown water [caused by cypress roots in underground springs] and how it impacts our communities [the water was safe to drink but locals said its dirty color hampered economic development and the city couldn’t afford a filtration system to clear it up] — that really grew into understanding the economic and environmental disparities that impact the communities that look like mine.
Going through that process … opened the door to additional engagement because [then EPA Administrator] Lisa Jackson visited Greenville and asked me to work with her on the local government advisory committee. I was like, Oh my God. I’m so honored. And she said, Hold your horses, you don’t know what I just asked you to do. And she was absolutely right, because within two to three weeks of that the [April 2010] BP oil spill happened.
When I look at back at my development and trajectory into environmental work, it has always been community-based. The one thing that was similar in all of these experiences was the understanding of community and how the lens of environmental work was never seen through their eyes. I found that powerful because it was, in my opinion, the most important element that had been left out.
As a former EPA administrator, how hard do you think it’s going to be for the agency to bounce back post-Trump?
That is that is definitely a concern. The fact that there are 85 regulations that this administration has in some way tried to either reverse, or put a halt to, or weaken puts the pressure on the next administration not only to meet the climate requirements of the Paris Accord, but at the same time respond to 85 rollbacks.
‘ candidates that are successful will be able to wrap climate into every single topic.’
On top of all that, there’s [the EPA itself] to shore up, because this administration has really tried to devastate the agency in terms of its workforce. It has reduced the number of scientists, and it has reduced the number of staff that are necessary to do congressionally required actions. This is actually cutting scientists and institutional knowledge that we need in this agency…. I am a woman of faith, so I’m praying for some grace and mercy for the next administration, but also that there are folks who are going to be able to come in and hit the ground running at full speed, just to catch up.
Moms Clean Air Force aims at nonpartisanship, right?
Correct. We are mom-partisan.
I’m curious about whether that can be challenging at times and what steps you recommend to help build consensus across the divide?
Yes, it is challenging at times. What we find is that it helps if we can keep people focused on our children. Like, forget all of the other noise that’s going on and how we feel about it, our reality is we have to focus on what’s the best thing for our kids. We try to find those places of commonality that allow us to bring people to the table around similar issues. For example, when it came to the [Trump administration’s proposed] rollback of the [federal] mercury and air toxic standards, which we really fought hard to get, we were able to connect with the evangelical community because they were very supportive of protecting unborn children. So there was some commonality there and we could come together with people who are traditionally thought to be very conservative.
Do you think climate change is going to be a key issue in the 2020 elections?
Yes, it is — for some good reasons and some not-so-good reasons. The not-so-good reasons are there will be more extreme weather and every time there is a devastation with extreme weather that we can connect to climate, it will be front and center. It may not be front and center for long, but it will be front and center … and it will impact people in one of their five physical senses or maybe all of them, and we’ll call for some action on climate. It’s happening in California now with the fires that have taken place. In Georgia, they just put out their Level 1 drought alert. So these are things that people feel, and anything that people feel they will vote on.
The other thing is, nobody a year ago could have said that our entire country would be moved by a 16-year-old-girl sailing across the ocean to do climate strikes, right? Yet here we are [with Greta Thunberg]. And we have an entire movement of young people that are showing up in places to talk about climate. So I think that it is definitely going to be a part of the conversation that people consider when they vote.
Now, the candidates that are successful will be able to wrap climate into every single topic. So if we’re going to talk about health and wellness in this country, part of that conversation will be about climate, part of their answer will be about the health impacts of climate. Education, part of that answer is going to be about how in the next 20 years our schools and education systems will certainly do good to focus on how to solve the climate crisis and increase our ability to create solutions. When it comes to the economy, it will help to have a conversation about the renewable energy sector being one of the number one growth sectors in this country and how this is a place where people can get jobs. These are the types of ideas that I think will resonate with people. They need that connector.
You mentioned that you’re a person of faith. How important has your faith been in the work that you do, especially given that the mainstream environmental movement has been largely agnostic.
Yeah, it goes back to that idea that you can’t believe in Jesus and the climate at the same time, which is crazy to me because the actual tenets of faith have to do with taking care of God’s creation. For me, and I’m speaking very personally, not for the organization, it is my responsibility as a Christian believer to take care of what God has blessed me with. And part of that is care for the Earth.
I think that we’ve done a disservice to the environmental movement in couching our Christianity as a dominion-ism, in terms of God has given us dominion over these things as opposed to, has charged us with taking care of this. And that’s a big difference between, I think, black and white [people] in terms of our Christianity and in our beliefs with respect to climate.
Creation care has a deeper meaning [for us] because this goes back to our enslavement ... The idea of salvation was an idea of freedom, which as an enslaved person was the thing that we clung to. But also the sense of responsibility, to care for things, to care for each other better. Which is a lot different than sort of the sin and damnation and everybody going to hell [idea of Christianity]… I connect to it very deeply. My ancestors came to this continent and struggled through so much. Part of their faith — I have ministers in my family line — was a belief that we are now free through Christ, but that we have an obligation to take care of what God has given us, to take care of other people, to free other people — not through our Bible-thumping but through how we live.
What, if anything, in your opinion is missing in the mainstream environmental movement? How can it better serve its mission?
I think we’re in this really cool space where we’re changing the conversation. We’re sort of all becoming translators and learning each other’s languages. We’ve been working in our own silos until now. A lot of the larger, more majority organizations have been trying for some time [to break down silos and be inclusive of marginalized communities], but are now recognizing they’ve got to shift their language. They are recognizing that it’s not always about just magnifying a voice in some of these communities; they just really need to give people the microphone and let them speak for themselves.
We’re beginning to now see that type of partnership and it’s because we’re on a timeline. We know we’ve got 10 to 11 years, as opposed to the 12 that the IPPC report initially told us, to reduce our carbon emissions, or we’re going to be in a place where we can have irreversible changes. We can shift some of that if we figure out how to talk to each other and work together.
But it means having some give and take. So, white organizations, or majority organizations, and majority donors who have not typically engaged or worked with some of the minority communities are now having to do that and they should. It means some of the minority organizations who have sort of turned their faces and said, Y’all didn’t want to mess with us and now you want to talk to us? have to say yes, they’re willing to come in and have these conversations. So it’s a healing process. But it’s also learning how to talk to one another to solve a problem.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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