How Stories From the South Changed My Climate Activism | Sojourners

How Stories From the South Changed My Climate Activism

Adults wearing red t-shirts saying "Mom's Clean Air Force" and children holding signs that says "Kids need you to fight for a healthy climate" and "Fight for clean air" at a press conference where Senate and House Democrats voiced support for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps, July 20, 2021 - Washington, D.C. Photo credit: Reuters/Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA.

My mother liked to tell the story of getting separated in middle school from her parents while visiting Chicago for a church conference and how she made it back to them. She spoke to a bus driver, who she hoped could help her find her parents. Her lilting Southern accent revealed how far she was from her hometown of Columbus, Miss.

“Honey, stand up here on the bus and talk with that accent,” the driver told her. “And I’ll take you anywhere in the city you want to go.”

For my mom, generalizations about Southern women in the U.S. held both truth and contradiction: She ironed her linens and she thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail; she attended her Episcopal church and also met with her Buddhist meditation group. Despite stereotypes that Southern women are more apt to organize a potluck than a protest, they are leading the movement for climate justice in their communities and across the country.

As a mother and teacher, I spent one year researching 50 women — one from each state in the country — who are working toward climate justice. I documented these stories in the book Love Your Mother: 50 States, 50 Stories, and 50 Women United for Climate Justice. What I found in the South were role models on the frontlines of the climate crisis: From the hurricane zone of the Gulf Coast to the urban center of Atlanta, I discovered women who knew how to use their wit, intelligence, faith, and family to fight for their connection to home and the health of those they love.

These stories changed me as a teacher, a mother, and a person of faith with deep roots in the South.

For starters, I gained friendships and networks with each woman by listening to and then telling their stories to my children and students. Texas Tech University professor Katharine Hayhoe, an evangelical and renowned climate scientist, says the most important thing we can do about the climate crisis is talk about it. And to be clear, the women I grew up with, including my mother, understood the power of talking as a way to build relationships that lead to action. Talking about climate justice underscores the importance of access to a healthy environment for all, emphasizing the need to place women with increased risk and decreased resources at the center of these climate conversations.

In Greenville, Miss., Heather McTeer Toney was the first Black female mayor. During her time as mayor (2004-2012), she confronted contaminated drinking water in the city. She also served as chairwoman of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Local Government Advisory Committee during the 2010 BP oil spill along the Gulf Coast. She later galvanized mothers advocating for justice with the grassroots advocacy group Moms Clean Air Force, and now works as executive director of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Beyond Petrochemicals Campaign.

“ ... [W]e are going to protect our babies to no end ... and climate has something to do with all of it,” she said at the 2019 Bioneers Conference.

In Atlanta, Katharine K. Wilkinson, the co-founder and executive director of the climate leadership organization The All We Can Save Project, often wears a sweater embroidered with the words “climate feminist.” When I heard her speak in my home of Asheville, N.C., she drew the connection between carbon emissions and gender equality: “There are two powerful phenomena unfolding on Earth,” she said. “The rise of global warming and the rise of women and girls.”

We know women and girls are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis and make up 80 percent of those displaced by global warming. As children, my daughters joined me in interfaith protests against the construction of coal-fired power plants; they’ve also met my former student Kelsey Juliana, the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit demanding a plan to ensure their generations’ constitutional right to life, liberty, and property, which is being threatened by the climate crisis. I want my children to know they are not alone.

Closer to my own childhood home on the Alabama Gulf Coast, I spoke with Anna Jane Joyner whose family has lived in Perdido Beach, Ala., for almost a century. There, sea levels are expected to rise a range of 18 inches to 4 feet in the next 100 years. This would put lives, property, and ecosystems at grave risk. Joyner has ridden out storms like Hurricane Sally that left the area devastated like a war zone.

The Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously featured the tension between her climate activism and her prominent evangelical, socially conservative father, Rick Joyner. The experience filming the episode entitled, “Ice & Brimstone” helped her to see the untapped power of Hollywood to shape the narrative around climate. The nonprofit organization she founded, Good Energy, now consults with Hollywood screenwriters to integrate realistic and accurate storytelling about the climate crisis into films and TV shows. Her team has developed resources such as a free guidebook called: Good Energy: A Playbook for Screenwriting in the Age of Climate Change.

“It feels strange to go through the worst fire season and hurricane season, but none of that complex reality is reflected in our film and TV shows,” Joyner told me in a phone interview. “We need intimate, human stories about the climate because that’s what we’re experiencing — that’s the scale.”

At Warren Wilson College where I teach environmental education, I share these stories on a campus where every student holds a part-time job ranging from growing food in the garden to working in the genetics lab in the biology department. My students, who come from across the country, want to make a difference in this valley where we live and work. They also hope to make a difference in the world. My job is to connect them with others who are doing good work, so that they can see themselves in a larger climate story, especially in this Southern region we call home.

Here in the South, we aren’t strangers to corruption, greed, racism, gerrymandering, misogyny, and increasing natural disasters fueled by carbon emissions. But we also know the power of community, family, friends, faith, and sacred places, from the Okefenokee Swamp in Florida-Georgia to the Blue Ridge mountains in North Carolina. Through these stories, I discovered climate action as one powerful way to demonstrate love for both people and places.

At our local independent bookstore this spring, I surveyed the crowd gathered to hear stories of women featured in the book Love Your Mother. There were students, old-time friends, book club members, and my college roommate Liz, my conversation partner who also played her guitar and sang original tunes like “Do What Yo Mama Says.”

“What role did your faith play in writing this book?” she asked me. I paused for a moment and then spoke about the faith of my mother, a simple theology grounded in daily prayer, fierce love, and an abiding belief in doing the next right thing, regardless of how the story might end.

While I can’t recapture my mother’s voice since her death 20 years ago, I can honor her and this Earth. For my daughters, I set the kitchen table in my 900-square-foot campus rental with her linens and sterling silver, a tribute to a legacy of love, worth protecting for all time.