Heather McTeer Toney Q & A with SEAS students
Keynote speaker Heather McTeer Toney presented "Deepening Democracy through Equitable Climate Action" in commemoration of Black History Month on February 12, 2021. Her dynamic lecture was followed by a Q & A with the SEAS community.
Heather McTeer Toney knows what it means to be a public servant. She was the first African-American, first female and the youngest to serve as Mayor of Greenville, Mississippi from 2004-2012. In 2014, she was appointed by President Barack Obama as Regional Administrator for Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Southeast Region. She currently serves as the Climate Justice Liaison for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Senior Advisor to Moms Clean Air Force, two affiliated organizations that represent over three million climate and environment allies committed to fighting climate change and protecting children from the dangers of air pollution.
Following a welcome from Associate Professor Bilal Butt, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at SEAS, Heather McTeer Toney was introduced by U-M Research Fellow Thea Louis.
"Deepening Democracy through Equitable Climate Action"
Thank you so much for that beautiful introduction, I truly appreciate it and thank you for all of the work that you're doing. I already have heard the outstanding nature of what you are putting forward and it makes my heart swell, because it lets me know that we have people who are coming up that are doing the work, and getting ready to continue to address the climate crisis that's before us.
And to all of you who have joined us today, thank you. I understand you could be a number of different places, but you have stopped to take time to commemorate Black History Month, talk about our democracy, and to think together through solutions that will benefit and be equitable to all of us.
Bilal and Amy, I am truly appreciative that you continue to think of me and come together in these types of conversations that are truly fitting for our time. And boy, what a time it is. When I reflect back to what happened on January 6 in our nation, it grips me, and it grips me for a number of reasons.
I'm the daughter of a retired civil rights attorney and a retired schoolteacher, who made their way from Baltimore, Maryland, to the state of Mississippi to advocate for voters’ rights.
I was raised in a social justice household in the Mississippi Delta, where it was truly a community in a village that raised my brother and me. And so, when I looked at the events of the sixth, the first thing I did was I picked up the phone and called my dad, and I said, “What in the world is happening?”
And in the very calm nature that he has always presented, he said, “Heather, these are the difficulties in democracy. This is the ugly side that we reckon with. But this too, we shall get through.”
And it really made me think about how we address and need to deepen our own democracy, because my initial thought was how in the world are we supposed to talk about climate action in a time like this? How when all things around us seem to be going left and right and focusing on the very systemic nature of our government—how can I convince people that they should think about the climate crisis? But it's in the democracy, it's in the actual event—and thinking through how we make this deeper in our country—that climate equity and climate action rises to the top.
I raised that as a starting point because even today, I know many of you have either heard or are watching the news—seeing what's happening with the impeachment hearings. You're on Twitter or Facebook or somewhere constantly being updated as to what happens. But we often don't attach that to the very active climate reality of crisis and actions that are taking place, and we have to put the two together.
So, let's think about it. When we talk about what our democracy means and actually deepening our democracy, we have to go back to the very beginning of what it is. It is the political will.
It is the will of the people to lead and to govern, as a group, as a collective together, by the people, for the people, all of the people together. But, in that very phrase, there is a reality that we must embrace. And that is that it's never been all of the people truly.
Our country has had to deal with systemic racism, from the very beginning, from the time that African Americans and indigenous people were not considered full human beings to where we are in 2021, and seeing the white supremacy that continues to attack the various systems of our government. It forces us to reckon with the very word democracy, and with our own internal conversations of: Do we really, really mean what this word means?
I'm encouraged when I think about you as students, when I think about and reflect upon who has gone to the polls, who has made sure that we are ushering in a period in time when democracy really means the true definition of the word. Because it is through you that we get the mandate of what we will do next. Here's an example:
In the 2020 elections there were a number of studies that were done, but the one that I really enjoy comes from Tufts University, and it showed, laid out, and explained, how through voters between the ages of 18 and 35, particularly voters of color, climate action was a mandate.
Now this is important because this took place, even in the midst of coronavirus, in the midst of racial unrest and mistrust, in the midst of Brianna Taylor, George Floyd, all of the things that we know were happening in 2021. Voters between the ages of 18 and 35 still ranked climate action as one of the number one things that needed to be done, and they voted on it. It was Sunrise Movement, Zero Hour, Climate Friday, Alexandria Villaseñor. It was Greta Thunberg. It was an entire movement of people who have said that we recognize that in order to really move forward as a country we have to be part of the global movement of addressing the climate crisis, and that crisis does not go away. Whether or not we believe that we are being treated equally or not, we still have to deal with it, so why not do both at the same time?
That mandate is what has brought us to a place now where we can continue to push for strong climate action, and ensure that is equitable as a way to show that our democracy is true, and it exists and is important for all people.
Climate action and climate justice is the social justice movement of our time. There's not a single subject you can think about, that you can raise, that you can come away with, that climate does not touch in some shape, form, or fashion.
Think about education. Well, climate and education, there's already been studies that have taken place that show that in urban areas, heat islands where we have increased temperatures, particularly in communities of color, test scores fail, test scores drop, because students are in a position where they're not able to learn as their counterparts, are simply due to the temperature, the climate.
Police brutality. Well, guess what? There have been studies that have been done on that, as well, that show where you have increased temperatures, there is increased violence.
We can talk about health care. We could talk about government. We could talk about any social justice movement that you can think of—and climate is attached to it. These are the things that make us recognize that if we're able to address climate action in an equitable way—at the same time—we’re able to address other issues that help us to become a better democracy and a better community. And when we begin to really act on those on those issues, we can begin to see significant change.
So, climate action is the thing that impacts everybody. Wherever you are, whether you think it does or not, I like to think of it like this: We may not see the wind when it blows, but we feel it.
You might not be able to see the chemicals in the air, but you feel it when you breathe it—when your asthma flares up. Climate change—you may not be able to put your hand on it, and there's so many people who have their theories about climate change and whether it exists or not, but the reality is not only is it there, it's happening to us now. How we respond to it is what makes us and allows us to have this opportunity to truly deepen our democracy in it.
There's some other things though, that we should think about with respect to how we improve our democracy in climate action. And these are the broad transformative areas that oftentimes we miss. See, sometimes we see climate as such a big problem and a world issue that it is so huge to take a chunk out of without going into some deep space of depression and despair.
Let's resolve all that right now, okay? Because I think of it this way. I have kids at home, and I want to make sure that they think of the climate issues and problems as an opportunity. I personally would like to be able to retire someday and sit on a beach alongside my husband and know that this work is being done and continued by the brightest minds across our country.
But we have to get there. And we get there by thinking through once again, what are the different ways we can impact this, what are the different spaces that climate enters, what can we do both collectively and individually and really in marginalized and black and brown communities?
Every problem presents us an opportunity to shift and to change. Everything is not going to be about shutting stuff down, and I know we've got strong advocates and social justice people who are in this audience and who are planning for the rest of your careers to be a part of that.
At the same time, we need financiers, bankers, lawyers, artists, who are able to fulfill and incorporate climate action into everything that we do. So, it is understanding that your partner role in this may be seeing how climate action is an economy driver.
The Biden administration, for example, has already set out in a number of executive orders and one of the most ambitious climate plans that we have ever seen—that there will be up to $2 trillion as a target invested into climate action. This includes everything from grid upgrades to electric vehicles to reducing carbon emissions. And on top of that, 40% is targeted to go to communities of color and marginalized areas. So, that's a lot of money.
The question is, how are we using it? How is it being leveraged, how are we being creative, to ensure that this is not just a pass through to other organizations that can continue to do what they do in their spaces, but it's actually being spent, and is duplicated and turning within the communities where it is invested?
See, it's one thing to talk about putting electric buses to run through poor or black or brown communities because that's the source of public transportation, and we are reducing the health impacts. When we do that, that's a good thing. It is a very good thing. And we absolutely must do it.
But in addition to that, we have to ensure that we're using the brownfields that are in those areas. That's the gas station that's next to that old basketball court that’s been abandoned. We also have to make sure that we're using funding to change that brownfield to a green space, upgrade the basketball court where children are playing, to be used with recycled materials with a charging station there that those buses that are going through can charge at, that will allow the energy and the electricity to actually power the lights at the basketball court, while having Wi Fi in the bus to supply the surrounding community.
See, it’s the way that we think about these interactions, and these investments, such that they are sustainable in a community, they help build that community and help build the economy and the resilience of the community.
That's the brilliance that you bring to it. That's the innovation that we have to think through because that's what puts us into a space of hope, versus despair.
There's tons of innovative ideas that are out there, many of which I'm sure come from people my age—the young very beautiful 45 that I am. But there's tons more that you are thinking about each and every day that pushes the envelope even further. What needs to happen is we need to push this envelope together, we have to ensure that we're thinking through the economic opportunities, the opportunities to create energy independence in communities and to see ourselves as a leader, globally, as we shift this dynamic of not just ensuring we're protecting our planet, but that the future generations are able to benefit and grow, based upon the actions that are taking place now.
Now there's another part: the third part of this that is very, very important to me and I hope that you enjoy and see likewise. And that is the political will. You do not have to wait until you are 40 or 50 years old to be appointed to a board or commission or run for office to make significant change. And hear me well on this.
There are brilliant ideas that come from students and young people, each and every day, that go untapped and unused because you simply do not have the space and voice to put it. And that should change today.
There are boards, commission, races, spaces, where you can serve right now, and bring those ideas of environmental sustainability to real-life situations. All too often we put ourselves in a box. That means that you look at something in an only singular environmental lens, as opposed to expanding it to the many other facets that could be involved.
So, it would be me saying that as an attorney and a mom, maybe I don't need to be on the airport board because what do I know about aeronautics? I don't know too much of anything.
But what I do know is that it is very important for an airport to use its dollars in a way that is resilient and is creating space for a multitude of different options of how we do business. I do know that as a mom what things are important to me in the future for my kids. So simply sitting in those spaces and bringing an environmental lens to issues that typically or traditionally may not be considered environmental—is a way that we shift and change policy.
One of the things that I love that we do at Moms Clean Air Force is encouraging mothers and parents to sit on boards and commissions that otherwise they may not have even considered. If we can sit on the PTA board, then certainly we could sit on the transportation board for our community. And the same goes for you. It is what has to happen in terms of interjecting climate and environmental conversations into every aspect of our work.
Nothing should go untouched or untapped, because there are policies that are being made, but also directed and financed, based upon the information that citizens like you and I are putting at the forefront.
Remember I said that, you know, there was a mandate for climate action. It came very, very clear, and it was very clear who it came from, but now it's time to act on that. Now it's time for us to show up and to make sure that in every aspect of the work that we're doing, we keep a focus of environment climate and sustainability, moving forward.
Our planet depends on it. You and I depend upon it.
And we cannot allow the past systemic racism that has taken place in our country to weaken the democracy that's necessary for climate action to take place. We're on the verge of doing that, if we don't stand up and act. We're on the verge of weakening our democracy, if we don't include the voices, the very diverse demographics, that are concerned about climate. If we don't include them in the conversation, we are on the verge of weakening the very elements that we hold dear and that we say are necessary for us—if we do not include climate action in everything that we do.
So, the very fact that we've seen this past year in 2020 that coronavirus disproportionately impacted communities of color by huge margins. We have to account for the fact that a number of those communities of color were already burdened by air pollution and chronic disease, climate catastrophes that have taken place simply because of where they live. If we do not acknowledge these pieces of our systemic democracy that have held portions of our communities back, then we are weakening what we do moving forward.
So, you see it's very important that we understand and connect these dots of climate action. It's critical to the future of our democracy and simply getting things done. It's critical to our role on this planet, as a leader among countries, of how we do these things—because other countries are looking at us. If we're not taking care of the least of us, who are we to tell someone else to do the same?
There's a lot of work to do. And I know there's tons that we can think about, and I truly hope that your minds are swirling with different ideas, concepts, ingenuity, of what should happen. But there are two things I want you to do, as we move forward in talking about solutions for climate action.
First, I want you to find somebody that you can talk to from another country who's actually experienced an attack on their democracy. The reason I say that is because in the United States, we've had a privilege of not seeing what we have seen over the past year. But that does not mean that it does not exist and that there are not colleagues of your own who have seen and been through this very experience. Sometimes we just need to sit down and have a conversation with somebody who does not look like us in order to understand the other aspect.
So, that's part of your homework: have a conversation with someone who is not from a place that you're from about what that experience feels like. It will help you to understand and put into perspective your own feelings, but also, I hope your own determination to ensure that we don't see this again. It'll help you put into perspective what systemic racism can do, if we do not address it.
And then the second thing I want you to do is I want you to think through—not the crisis that we are facing, the fact that if we don't make changes, we are going to be in a position that we really can’t reverse—that’s bad.
I want you to think about what's the solution to ensure that we have hope. What's the solution to ensure that you're able to continue to sustain yourself, your future families, that you're able to have a good life and living? What are the different areas that we have not yet thought about that could benefit from your input—of how we come together with equitable solutions around climate?
There's a lot of work to do. And I'm so glad that not only are you here and engaged in it, but that you're also thinking about this through the lens of equity, a lens of future, and a focus on what we can truly accomplish in the future.
I'm looking forward to a very engaging conversation and questions. Wish I was there with you, but we will get together, one day soon. Thank you so much.
[The Q & A follows the keynote, and was moderated by U-M Research Fellow Thea Louis. The video start time of the Q & A is: 25:43]