Heather McTeer Toney is the National Field Director of the Moms Clean Air Force.

'You can learn faith': A conversation about climate action with Heather McTeer Toney

January 25th, 2020

Heather McTeer Toney is the National Field Director of the Moms Clean Air Force.

You might have seen Heather McTeer Toney on Capitol Hill in a red winter coat, marching with Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem and other climate advocates on a #FireDrillFriday in late December.

Toney is the National Field Director of Moms Clean Air Force, a community more than 1 million parents strong, all pushing to protect our children from air pollution and working toward a 100 percent clean economy.

She knows what she is talking about. “I’ve worked on climate issues my entire career,” she writes. Not only did she serve as a regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency during President Obama’s administration, she is a mom of three, so she feels that deep parental desire to protect the health and safety of children, who are, she writes, “especially susceptible to things like heat, asthma, allergies and insect-borne diseases, which are all made worse by extreme weather and emissions.”

And air pollution is especially dangerous for pregnant woman and children. “Our planet requires climate action now,” she writes, “and it requires all of us.”

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Allyn West: Why is Houston a place where Moms Clean Air Force wants to be?

Heather McTeer Toney: We were thinking about places where we have active members and team leaders on the ground. It was, “Why are we not in this place? Why are we not in Houston, when there's an apparent injustice with respect to air pollution and equity and the environment that is impacting the lives of families across the city?"

We needed to be there to help elevate those voices and to help ensure that not only were mothers being heard, but that they knew that they had allies and resources to assist in making sure that their voices were heard.

One of the first things I participated in in Houston with Moms was one of the county commissioner meetings. It was right after there had been a release at a local [petrochemical] facility. The first thing I recognized was that 80 percent of the people talking were moms. When it was time for me on the agenda, I was saying, "Listen, I'm saying, ‘Amen’ and echoing what's already been said!”

It was obvious that mothers were already engaged. They were already asking the critical questions that we were asking, that we were hearing from our members. Things like, "Why are there not air monitors in and around schools? What am I supposed to do when my child is at school or needs to know if they should not go outside because of an incident? How do I make a decision — or why should I even have to make a decision — whether I can take my kid to T-ball practice based on the air quality?”

These were really sound, thought-provoking questions. They were coming from mothers who were passionate and who had taken off work, who said, "I'm here on a lunch break, but this was important enough for me to come and speak to."

That was powerful, but it was also a clear indication that there is a group that is being impacted, but is not being heard.

AW: I was hoping you could tell me what the #FireDrillFridays are like, being part of the urgency on Capitol Hill.

HMT: Standing between Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem, in and of itself, was a “Wow” moment. But, to be honest, there wasn’t a lot of time for “Wow” moments, because we all recognized how important this movement is to climate action right now.

Very quickly, I went from, “Wow,” to, “This is where I’m supposed to be. This is what is supposed to be happening.”

Right before we started the march, we were in a green room, a holding place. Ms. Fonda reminded us of the seriousness and the gravity of the movement, that this is a very diverse movement, that we should see faces from all aspects of life represented. And we did represent that.

I will say there were some moments, though, that made me smile. At one point, I was standing next to Gloria Steinem. She looked at me and she said, "I've been doing this for years. I'm so happy to see young people like you out here with me." That was a wonderful moment to recognize that this is a part of their life, their life's work. And climate is now part of that.

AW: We've seen such a surge of women registering voters and marching and running for office and passing legislation. You talk about moms as “mom-partisan.” This idea of a “mom-partisan” political force is interesting ...

HMT: It is. It's powerful because people say “nonpartisan” to say they're not picking sides. We say “mom-partisan” to say, "No, we're picking sides. We're picking the side of our children."

So, we're clear that we’re welcoming anyone who is concerned about the dangers of climate and air pollution that’s affecting the health and well-being of our children. We’re going to do what mothers do.

We have this wonderful way of getting people to come to the table and play nicely together, whether it's rallying our own children to share or it's getting legislatures to sign on to a bill together. There is just a power of mothers to say, "No, come on. We've got to sit down and figure this out."

Over the past four to five years, we've seen an exponential number of women and mothers who are doing just that, either running for office or being appointed to office. That is the power of being “mom-partisan.” It is getting people who would not generally talk to one another to have a conversation.

A great example is the mercury toxic standards. It’s something we're still fighting about, because this administration is trying to pass and finalize the rule that's reversing the standards, but we were able to bring together evangelical moms and moms who would not necessarily even identify with a religious group with the message that we want to protect unborn children. We know mercury goes directly through the placenta and is a poison that impacts the development of a baby's brain.

That was something we could agree on. We could stand in unison and say, “This is a standard we should protect.”

AW: That brings up a question I wanted to ask you. As you wrote in your op-ed in the New York Times, "Black women are everyday environmentalists. We live in pollution, play around it, work for it and pray against it.” What can the larger movement for climate action learn from the convictions of faith communities?

HMT: Faith.

AW: Yes, faith — oh! We can learn faith ...

HMT: You can learn faith. It's the very basis! The environmental movement talks about resiliency in terms of building ways we can protect ourselves, not realizing that black women and the black community have lived their lives like this.

The very culture in which we have grown since our ancestors arrived here in an enslaved state has been one of adaptation and resiliency.

That's what I think the African-American faith community represents. It represents a faith that tomorrow will be a day when we can do better, that we have this opportunity, through grace and mercy, to improve upon that which we have done today.

And we're going to keep doing that every day, no matter what happens.

I was writing about this just last week. I grew up in a non-denominational church. Every week, the message had to do with understanding that faith is the essence of things to hope for, the evidence of things not seen. The scripture that went with that was clear. Faith without works is dead. With the climate movement, we can have faith for a better tomorrow, but we have to have action.

In the faith-based community, when we talk about climate and justice, we’re talking about the active verb of taking care of the creation that God has given us. In the black community, that's taken very seriously. It’s not the fire-brimstone-damnation, you're-going-to-hell message that is stereotypical. It’s more of a message of love, one that we've been loved so much that we've been given a responsibility to take care of something very precious. It is me giving to my child, my daughter, something that is so precious, and then teaching her how to take care of it.

That's what creation care is.

Our failure to do that is the earth's response to us, which we're experiencing right now. We have not done the best job of taking care of what God has given us. We're having to correct that, but it's the faith that we can do better today than we did yesterday that keeps us moving.

AW: The last question I wanted to ask, I think, connects to the idea of doing better tomorrow. After the ITC fire, you came to Houston and stood with neighbors in Manchester. Since then, we’ve had five petrochemical fires, a barge collision. A cancer cluster was discovered. What have you learned about Texas, as we push to do better and care for our shared home in a place that doesn’t have the best track record?

HMT: Texas citizens are relentless about advocating for themselves. Not one time have I come to Texas and not seen advocates at the ground level. People know what's going on, and they're expecting answers.

I love that, that relentlessness. I think they just haven't been heard.

But it's clear that there are people who are ready to keep pushing. Elected officials have to listen now to what's happening, because of the change in dynamics and demographics. We’re bringing our entire team from across the country to Houston, because we see Houston as the place where the action is happening, where we can learn a lot. But it will make a statement for the rest of the country. Climate is important. Clean air is important. We have an opportunity to make some changes.

The people will decide that, and we think the people are moving in the right direction. Houston is one of the places we should all be watching in terms of what's going to happen next.

West is a senior communications specialist for the Environmental Defense Fund. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @allynwest.

Take Action

  1. Get involved with Moms Clean Air Force in Texas
  2. See how young Houstonians are leading the way on climate action
  3. Read a conversation about air pollution with the journalist Beth Gardiner

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