Heather McTeer Toney has been a leading advocate for environmental justice, both within government and outside of it. As the first Black, first female, and youngest mayor ever elected in Greenville, Mississippi, at age 27, she prioritized environmental actions, including cleaning up the city’s water supply. Later on, she served as the Southeast regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration.
Toney is now executive director of Beyond Petrochemicals, a campaign funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies aimed at blocking the expansion of more than 120 petrochemical projects in Louisiana, Texas, and the Ohio River Valley. She is also author of a new book, Before the Streetlights Come On: Black America’s Urgent Call for Climate Solutions.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Toney said that while Blacks are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change and pollution, many see environmental issues as being less urgent than other pressing concerns like gun violence, police brutality, job insecurity, and economic inequity. But she noted that many people are recognizing that social ills are inextricably linked to the destruction of the environment in and around low-income communities.
“Maybe some environmentalists have the luxury of saying ‘I’m just going to work on this one issue and then I get to go home to my very nice, air-conditioned apartment and eat healthy food from the supermarket.’ The people I’m talking about don’t have the privilege to do that,” Toney said. “We can’t separate climate and the environment from all the other social justice concerns. The reality is, every single one of our issues touches the others, and climate change touches all of them.”
Yale Environment 360: You write that initially you thought that environmentalism was about saving whales, protecting turtles, and polar bears. It wasn’t about people. Is this perception widespread?
Heather McTeer Toney: I think it’s widespread because of the images that we see. Just Google “environmentalist.” You’ll see pictures of trees and people hugging trees. You see whiteness, but there’s nobody who looks like me. There is little connection to the people that I see around me.
I grew up in an agrarian society near the Mississippi River amongst people who worked on the land. The prosperity of the Mississippi Delta came from the work of sharecroppers and the enslaved. So it’s not that Black people don’t feel connected to the environment. It’s that external images in the media don’t show that connection. But that’s beginning to change.
e360: When did you begin to realize that the work that you were doing as mayor to protect the air and water in low-income neighborhoods in Greenville made you an environmentalist?
Toney: Lisa P. Jackson visited our city as the first Black serving as EPA administrator. I didn’t think I was in environmental work at the time, but she corrected me. 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. That conversation made me see that I really was doing environmental work. It spurred me into this work.
“I recall driving up Highway 61 and seeing people standing in fields … being doused with dangerous pesticides on a daily basis.”
e360: You’ve said that African Americans are disproportionately impacted by climate change and environmental degradation. How so?
Toney: I recall driving up Highway 61 in the Delta and seeing people standing in fields — cotton planted on the one side and soybean on the other — wearing rain slickers and standing with a big flag so that crop dusting planes could see what row to spray. These people were being doused with dangerous pesticides on a daily basis.
We have always been the ones who were sacrificed to build the country from slavery onward. Blacks, Latinos, the Indigenous community — we are the ones who are sacrificed for the benefit of everyone else. The NAACP did a report which shows that African-Americans are 75 percent more likely than others to live near facilities that produce hazardous waste, and that is only getting worse. There is another more recent study by Dr. Beverly Wright of the Deep South Center of Environmental Justice that shows that even when emissions have gone down elsewhere, they continue to go up in Black communities.
e360: You start your book with a question: How are Black folks supposed to talk about climate change when we have so many other pressing issues to deal with? How do you answer your own question?
Toney: That’s the elephant in the middle of the room. How are we supposed to do this when we are dealing with a governor who doesn’t want our history to be presented in school, and they are banning our books, and police officers are killing Black people in the street, and voter suppression is everywhere? And you want us to deal with climate?
e360: Nevertheless, you argue in the book that African Americans are in fact already engaged with these issues at the local level. You give the example of Sharon Lavigne, a retired schoolteacher who lives in the so-called “Cancer Alley,” an 85-mile corridor along the Mississippi River that’s home to more than 150 petrochemical plants and oil refineries.
Toney: She is the cofounder of Rise Saint James, a grassroots environmental justice group that has led a fight against the Formosa [plastic manufacturing plant] in St. James Parish, Louisiana. There is an 11-mile stretch of nothing but chemical and petrochemical facilities, and they wanted to put another one there. Sharon was like, no way. She gathered together her friends and neighbors to oppose it. To this day Formosa has not located there. And the federal government has stepped in and said you can’t locate there. Now this model of grassroots environmental activism is being replicated all across the Southeast.
It is essential for these Black frontline communities — I like to call them fence-line communities, because they are adjacent to polluting facilities — to take the lead in the fight for a cleaner environment. The key is to go from local to global. It’s the David and Goliath story, engaging local communities to push back.
“Studies show that Black people are much more likely to vote for climate action and policy than any other group in the U.S.”
e360: Tell us about the work that you are doing with the advocacy group Beyond Petrochemicals.
Toney: We are pushing to stop the expansion of 120 petrochemical facilities around the United States. We are coming in to support what local communities are already doing on a shoestring budget, and they are winning. So imagine what happens when we give them the resources and the connectivity which they lack — a central clearinghouse space where they are talking to each other and are supported. We help fund them. We supply them with lawyers. These communities have been engaged for a long time, and they are eager to get this help.
e360: There is a stereotype that Black people don’t care much about climate change and other environmental issues because they have other issues they’re focused on.
Toney: Well, that’s not true. It’s just in a different way that we were experiencing and talking about it. In fact, studies show that Black people are much more likely to vote for climate action and climate policy than any other group in the U.S. These are issues that concern us, and when you speak about them you’re going to get a better response.
And these are the groups that are targeted for voter suppression. In recent years, a number of states have limited who can vote. This is targeted specifically to the demographic that will turn out to vote the most for environmental issues.
e360: So voter suppression is a problem for the environment?
Toney: Absolutely, it is. We saw an alignment happening between mainstream environment groups and voting rights groups in this last election, and that has to continue, because there are only going to be more attacks on minority voting rights.
e360: You’ve suggested elsewhere that the environmental movement is not focused enough on the actual problems facing people, especially poor people. Could you elaborate?
Toney: Some say we can’t worry about the infrastructure, we have to focus on the carbon emissions. But you need the people to be involved in reducing those emissions — whether it is through advocacy, voting for good policies, changing to green technologies. You need the people. You need to connect to communities and get people actively involved. And the problem is that we [in the environmental movement] sometimes forget about the people [and treat climate change as just a technological problem].
“The reality is, every single one of our issues touches the others, and climate change touches all of them.”
e360: Environmentalists often see climate change as the most pressing issue facing humanity. But you’ve said that people in the Black community are not able to silo environmental problems from other social and economic issues.
Toney: Maybe some environmentalists have the luxury of saying ‘I’m just going to work on this one issue and then I get to go home to my very nice, air-conditioned apartment and eat healthy food from the supermarket.’ The people I’m talking about don’t have the privilege to do that.
The reality is, every single one of our issues touches the others, and climate change touches all of them. People who are suffering from 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, or don’t have enough money to spend on healthy food.
Take education for example. There was a study that shows the connection between extreme heat and climate change and test scores in urban communities. In places where we are having extreme heat increases, test scores are lowered. So everything is connected to everything else.
e360: You say in your book that 75 percent of African Americans regard religion as an important part of their lives, compared to less than half of whites. The Black church played a leading role in the civil rights movement. You call the church a “sleeping giant.” Can that giant be awakened now for the environment?
Toney: That’s already happening. It’s a beautiful thing, because the church is a trusted space in the Black community for more than reasons of just faith. Historically it’s been the place where we had these conversations about freedom, salvation, and justice.
The environment has always been there, but it hasn’t been at the forefront. That’s beginning to change, however. We have organizations like Green the Church which is actively connecting creation care and protecting people and the environment. The group Interfaith Power and Light is helping to bridge the gaps between conservative and liberal Christians and teaching about our responsibility to protect one another.
I heard a great story about a church in Louisiana, and there was somebody in their congregation, a deacon who worked [in management] for one of the big petrochemical facilities. And people in the church approached him and said, “We know what your company is doing is killing our people and that is not what the Lord said to do.” And they were able to make some headway. It started a conversation.
“The Black church brings in something desperately needed in the climate community right now, and that is hope.”
e360: Is it that the Black church has a unique capacity for mobilizing people’s emotions?
Toney: The emotionalism that is often associated with Black churches, and Black song is born of the pain and trauma of having to survive and be resilient in the face of difficulties — but to be resilient with hope in mind. That’s where the the joy comes in. It’s hope that there is a future, that there will be a positive outcome, that we will ultimately prevail on climate.
e360: Climate issues have been framed as such an existential crisis that is so big, people feel hopeless. Do we need to change that frame?
Toney: Yes, absolutely. Climate is often presented as doom and gloom. We’re all going to hell in a handbasket. But here the Black church is a light of hope, because that’s what it always has been for us through some of the most traumatic times. I think the Black church brings in something that is desperately needed in the climate community right now, and that is hope.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.