Moving Past Stereotypes: Climate Action IS the Social Justice Issue of Our Time | Heather McTeer Toney

This keynote talk was delivered at the 2019 Bioneers Conference.

For years, “environmentalists” have been typecast as white, tree-hugging vegetarians who care more for whales than southside Chicago or rural Mississippi. But the fact is that not only are poor and vulnerable populations, especially communities of color, environmentally aware, they are the most at risk from the impacts of climate change. Heather McTeer Toney addresses how we must embrace climate action as the social justice issue of our time, and tear down old stereotypes so that we can build sustainable and resilient alliances to fight effectively together and affirm our common humanity.

Heather McTeer Toney, born and raised in Greenville, Mississippi, was elected that town’s first African-American, first female, and youngest ever Mayor at the age of 27. After her 2nd term, she became Regional Administrator for the EPA’s Southeast Region, appointed by President Obama. A nationally and internationally renowned, award-winning leader in Environmental and Climate Justice, she is currently Field Director for Moms Clean Air Force, an organization of over 1 million parents committed to fighting climate change and air pollution.

To learn more about Heather McTeer Toney, visit Moms Clean Air Force.

Read the full verbatim transcript of this keynote talk below.


Introduction by Lisa Hoyos, Director of Climate Parents at the Sierra Club.


Hi, Everybody. Good morning. [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] It is my pleasure and honor this morning to get to introduce Heather McTeer Toney to you. Her keynote address is entitled Climate Action Is the Social Justice Issue of Our Time. [CHEERS]

Heather is the national organizing director of Moms Clean Air Force. How many people have heard of it. [CHEERS] Woo! It’s an organization of over a million moms and dad mobilizing to fight for air pollution and climate change in order to protect children’s health, our communities, and to fight for climate justice.

From 2004 to 2012, Heather served as – check this out – the first African American, the first woman, and the youngest mayor of Greenville, Mississippi. [CHEERS] She served two terms, and after that, a president, who we all wish were still our president, President Barack Obama, appointed Heather to serve as the EPA administrator in the fourth region. And it’s a big region. It’s the most diverse region. It’s the largest, most populous region of the ten EPA regions. And I just want to shout out the part of the country she represented and rooted herself in, it’s the part of the country she’s from, it included Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee. And that’s where transformative climate justice and equity solutions are emerging. And she’s been a part of leading that. That EPA region also represented and collaborated with and built power with six federally recognized tribes.

So now I want to say a little bit about the space, and why I was asked to introduce Heather, is because I work in a space; I represent parents, work with Climate Parents, helped—I co-founded that. It’s part of the Sierra Club now, and there’s a whole space of parent and family groups that you’ve probably heard of. There’s Moms, there’s us, there’s Mother Out Front, there’s a local group here called Cool Moms.

There’s parents’ groups. There’s a climate dads group now, which is important, obviously. And Climate Parents has always worked with dads and grandparents.

But there’s four quick things about us I want to say as a movement. One is that we’re universally motivated across race lines, class lines, geography, zip codes, even political parties sometimes—we want to make that more—to protect our kids, because we all care about kids and future generations. And we have moral power we can translate into political power when we do that.

The second thing, and Kenny just talked about this, is we’re looking for bold solutions, 100% clean energy, getting off of fossil fuels. And like our campaign at Climate Parents, we’re working on moving school districts to 100% clean energy. As Heather will tell you, Moms Clean Air Force is working on many fronts at the state and national level to fight for 100% clean energy legislation and much more.

Another awareness we have in the parent and family space is prioritizing building equity, justice, and inclusion, and centering justice and equity in frontline communities. And Heather will also address that.

And finally, intergenerational justice. Some of us who started this work maybe 10 years ago, we’re seeing some of our kids on the frontlines of the youth leadership, youth movement that’s happening now on climate. And we’re also wanting to put our parent and family energy behind it to support them as they inspire the nation with 10 million people across the globe, students, leading us and calling for radical, urgent action. Shout out to the students. [APPLAUSE] It’s our goal to support climate justice leaders in the youth movement, and also to raise climate justice leaders in the youth movement.

And finally, one personal note about Heather, she’s a triathlete. We were talking on the phone before this intro and I was like: Is there one kind of more personal thing? And she ran and swam and biked a half Ironman – 70 miles of all that. And then she was honest and vulnerable in a way that makes leaders strong in our world. She said it took her four attempts to get there. One time she was almost done with the bike ride and fell. And I’m like, well do you just want me to say the part about that you completed it or that it took four attempts? And she’s like, Say the part that it took four attempts – because that’s tenacity, that’s courage, that’s what we need right now in our movement. And that’s the part I said – it’s tenacity and courage. [APPLAUSE]

And when she shared her favorite quote with me, I was like, yeah. Just the story about the triathlon underscores why this is her favorite quote. It’s her—It’s by Winston Churchill, and it’s: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” [LAUGHTER]

And to bring things back to some of the realities we’ll be confronting all day, there’s so much of – to use the word hell. It’s hard right now and what we’re confronting in the climate crisis. It’s hard when our children are watching TV and learning about one more fire and why they have a smoke day in the Bay Area for the first time. I grew up here. We never had smoke days when I was a kid. It’s changing. But what face do we put on for our kids? What energy? What leadership? What vision for how we can make things better?

And so Heather, again, I’m just getting to know Heather, but this is a beautiful thing she said, and I want to end with this. She said, “If I could say one thing about myself, it’s that a life of politics and justice has taught me how to love and to laugh. I have far too much to be grateful for and we have far too little time to get things right on climate for me to do anything differently.” [APPLAUSE]

So Heather is about Si, se puede. She’s about justice. She’s about vision. She’s about power, and without further ado, let’s give a strong, resounding Bioneers welcome to Heather McTeer Toney. Woo! [CHEERS]


Thank you. And thank you, Lisa.

What is an environmentalist? Think about it for a moment. What is an environmentalist to you? I did a little Google search before I came, earlier this week, and if you put in the words into Google: What is an environmentalist? On the first page under images, this is what you come up with. And on this sheet you see [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] basically some images. I don’t see any color. You see trees, you see people hugging trees, you see whiteness.

Well, let’s go to the second page, because I’m like, Surely I can find something else if I keep scrolling. But no, no, no. When you go down a little further and just asking the question of an image of what does an environmentalist look like, this is what we see. And it’s important to note that, because when we think about what an environmentalist is and what we do each and every day, and the things that we see in the images that we see them in, if this is the general image and lens through which we see environmental engagement, and it’s colored in a lens of privilege, in a lens of singularity, lack of community, then there’s no wonder why it creates dissention when we say words like environmental justice or climate justice. It’s because the way that we are looking at it it’s pictured through a lens where we can see no difference. And this is why and where we are.

In 2009, The Washington Post ran a story on my city. I was mayor of Greenville, Mississippi and they’d been working with us for some time, and me, being young and energetic and ready to solve all the world’s problems, figured I was going to tackle water in my community, brown water in my community. So at the ripe old age of 27 I decided that running for mayor and focusing on this and one of many issues in my community would bring some attention. And it certainly did. It got the attention of The Washington Post.

And on a Monday morning, above the fold, here is my city, and this is what people saw. They saw the face of a child in a bathtub full of brown water. And right below that fold, you see a picture of me, looking seriously about what can we do to rectify this issue in our community. And what happened after that was a visit from Lisa Jackson. She was at the time the first African American administrator for the US, United—US EPA, and she came to my city to say and to talk about community and community visiting, and what were going to be the things that she wanted to work on.

And she pulled me to the side and she said, You know you’re working on environmental justice issues. Right? She said, You know the mission of the EPA, it’s actual mission statement is to protect human health and the environment. That’s what the organization is designed and supposed to do. And so after that, that actually was my advent into working for the EPA later on down the line. I ended up being the regional administrator for the Southeast region. And it came because we were trying to move to a place where you had community facing work for community problems on climate and the environment.

But herein lies the problem. Again, going back to that lens, because if the lens that people see the environmental work in is colored, then it doesn’t allow for solutions that people can come to because it’s not grounded in things like cultural competency and actual realistic outcomes. If there’s anything that being a mayor and being a regional administrator has taught me is that you had better have an answer for the people, because see, as a mayor, people find you anywhere. [LAUGHTER] They will stop you in Walmart, look into your basket, and say, “That’s toilet paper that’s there. Are your toilets flushing in your house, Mayor, because they’re not flushing in mine.” [LAUGHTER] You learn really quickly what matters to folks. [LAUGHTER]

And you also learn that you have to have solutions. You must be solution-minded, and there’s not a lot of time to sit around and to have meetings and to go back and forth when the people need a solution and an answer. And so that became the focus of what we were going to do. And it’s the same thing that we have an issue with right now.

So right now, everybody in this room, I don’t have to repeat for you, I know you know the results from the IPCC report, and you know what’s going to happen in terms of global climate change and crisis and emergency, and there are all of these solutions that are out there. But then we talk about the solutions in ways that people cannot grapple with and embrace.

Perfect example: The IPCC report has said that one of the things we should do to help reduce climate and reduce carbon emissions is to stop eating meat or not eat as much meat. It’s very well known. It is a solution that has been touted and that a lot of people have gotten behind. Let’s grow more, let’s put more food in the ground. I am a black woman from Mississippi, Southern Baptist. I cannot go into my church and say we are not going to have chicken and bacon. [LAUGHTER] It’s not going to work. I’m from Mississippi, you can’t tell me how to grow food. My ancestors did it. You can’t talk to me about what I should be doing with respect to the soil because I taught you. [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE] So it is critically important that we have these conversations through the lens of people who have lived these experiences, not that it’s a bad thing. And, yes, I’ve cut back on my bacon a little bit, for the environment. [LAUGHTER] But there are also excellent organizations that are doing things that are just having the same conversation just in the language that people understand. Privilege keeps us from doing that because it doesn’t allow us to listen to one another. And that’s what we must begin to do. We have to begin to listen to one another.

I was reading something this morning, Blacks in Green, which is a wonderful organization had a great flyer about a green living room. Now I understand that because, see, in my house, everybody comes to the living room, the living room and the kitchen. But a green living room, the first thing I thought of, that’s an outdoor park in a black community, because it said every black neighborhood should have a green living room. I understand that. It makes sense to me. It makes sense to my folks, my people, because now that is a gathering place that we can come to in our neighborhoods. That’s our living room. It’s where we can hang out at, where we can talk about those things, where we can trade back and forth the things that we need to do in our communities, from growing greens to having a conversation about getting Styrofoam out of the church picnic this year, to talk about the air pollution that’s taking place in and around our schools, and how do we reduce that. It’s building a conversation in the places that are comfortable to us. [APPLAUSE]

This was climate strikes that took place in the United States of America on September 20th, all across this country. [APPLAUSE] And you want to know where this was? This was at the University of Mississippi. [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] Places where people think that there’s no engagement on climate, places where people think that we are lost or we are forgotten and we are not engaging, places where people think we are not environmentalists. No. It was because, and is because, of our conversations with one another, our inclusiveness with one another, and beginning to realize the face of environmentalism doesn’t look like the Google search. It looks like the person who is sitting right next to you, and beginning to understand that, and encompass it in everything that we do, beginning to wrap all of our issues from all of our communities in the cloak of climate.

It’s one of the things that I love so much about Moms Clean Air Force, an organization that I’ve been blessed to now be a part of. It’s because mothers do what mamas do, that is we are going to protect our babies to no end. [APPLAUSE] And whether we are protecting them from the impacts of climate, or we are protecting them from gun violence, or we are protecting them from immigration and being stolen away, or we are protecting them like our indigenous mothers are from being taken from our lands, we are protecting all of our children and we recognize that climate has something to do with all of it. It’s called bringing people to the table. If you’re a mother, you know how to make children play together. You know what’s happening when they’re fighting. If you’re a mother, a grandmother, play cousin, auntie, you know how to do this. This is not rocket science.

We get into this big world of it being so difficult when realizing the natural things that we have within ourselves tell us what to do. It is the reason that we all come together and we’re here at these events. It’s the reason that we are finding that moms are becoming more engaged on a political level, where even they’re running for office or being appointed to office, or as I have said repeatedly, if you can be the secretary of the EPA, you can be the secretary of the Department of Interior. [APPLAUSE]

We’re realizing that our voices are required at this moment. It’s not an option. It’s a requirement. It’s like when you hear the kids in the back room and they’re making a whole lot of noise and you let them keep making noise and making noise. It’s alright. But when you hear something break, you hear it get eerily silent, you know you have to get up and go in that room. [LAUGHTER] What we’re saying as mothers is we are now getting up and going in the room. [APPLAUSE]

And that’s the room that we sit in. We go in the rooms where the policymakers are, where we are testifying before Congress, where we are saying this is what is happening in our communities. This is not an option. We shall be on record because we have something to say, and we recognize fully that if it is not said by us then it will not be said and shared. And so these are the rooms that we go in. These are the places where we feel strongly that all of our mothers and grandmothers and grandfathers and aunties and play cousins, anyone who has an interest in seeing the welfare of our children be protected from the impacts of climate change and air pollution, they must be in these places.

And we see an amazing impact. We see our children of all colors and all demographics marching when there is a debate that doesn’t talk about climate. And we’re there. We see our artists come and make beautiful depictions of what it is that it looks like, why we should be so involved. We see church mothers trying to make sure that they’re getting the Bible studies that we have and the information that’s needed to get back to their communities. Because it doesn’t make a difference where you come from or what you look like, sometimes you just need things to be done in the language that you understand. And we do that.

We make sure our children are given the microphone to say what they need to say. [APPLAUSE] Because that’s why this work is important. I do this work because I’ve been doing it for years, and I understand that there are a lot of places that we could be, but this is the social justice movement for our time. This is it. This is it. And it’s now.

My parents came to Mississippi as a part of the Voters Rights movement. My father is a retired civil rights attorney. My mother is a retired school teacher. There was no shortage of justice and education in my house. [LAUGHTER] But what I learned and understood is that there is always a movement. Where are you in it?

For me, climate justice is that movement. And it’s that movement because of these little people that are my pride and joy. [APPLAUSE] That little boy you see…[APPLAUSE] and that little girl…and just like these are my reasons, you have your reasons. Whatever it is, it’s what drives us to never give up on doing this work. It does not matter what this administration does, it does not matter what it looks like, this is what an environmentalist looks like. [APPLAUSE]

This is the Google images that we must change. These are the photos that must be uploaded, all of the ones that you took here today is what must be populated so that people see the lens of our work through our faces, so that they see who we are so that they understand that, no, everybody, we love trees, we plant trees, doesn’t mean we hug them – we hug them while we plant them – but we do a lot of other stuff too. [LAUGHTER] And that we are not going anywhere at all. [CHEERS]

As I close, I will leave you with this, and this is a thing a friend of mine sent me a little while back because I was having a rough day with this administration. [LAUGHTER] They did just a few things – 85 rollbacks to be specific, that just sort of rubbed me the wrong way. [LAUGHTER] Because I’d done a lot of work in the administration that President Obama led, that we were very, very proud of, and we worked hard. And I saw the faces of the people who were in those rooms changing all of the work that we did. In the Southeast region, eight states of the Southeast region, a quarter of the nation’s population, the most diverse landscape you could ever imagine, and where we manage half a billion dollar budget – kept the water clean, kept the land clean as much as we could, engaged with communities all across the states from Mississippi to the Carolinas, from Florida up to Kentucky, Tennessee, working to ensure that if you breathed it, you drank it, or you stood on it, it was safe, because that was our job. [APPLAUSE] And so my friend sent me a photo, and she said never forget who did the work. And this was my team of who did the work. That was the leadership team. [APPLAUSE]

This picture lifts my spirits every time I see it. It’s a selfie. It was at the end of the administration. You see a very pregnant me. But you also see three attorneys, you see a chief of staff, you see assistants, you see the deputy, you see the people who were in charge of state and local government affairs. Every woman in that room was in the leadership of the Environmental Protection Agency for our region, and I think we did a hell of a job. [APPLAUSE]

So to all of you, as I say to all of my sisters in that photo, and every last mother of Moms Clean Air Force, all of our friends, we have work to do. You are what an environmentalist looks like. Go and find your friends. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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