Being part of the climate justice movement often means rising against forces that may feel impossible to confront, whether it's the pervasive influence of the fossil fuel industry, misinformation about the validity of the threats to the people and the planet by government officials, or seeing the impacts of environmental racism in your community.
Despite the challenges in the field, Black environmental activists are reimagining what it means to be in the climate justice movement by fighting back against injustices and making space to take care of themselves and each other in the process.
We sat down with two leading voices in the environmental justice movement that embody climate action as radical care: John Beard, founder of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, an environmental and community rights organization in Port Arthur, Texas, and Tamara Toles O'Laughlin, founder of Climate Critical Earth, a support-based anti-racist and feminist environmental organization centering on care and repair.
Read the interview below to learn more about their journey in the movement and how they practice radical care.
I was born and raised in a fence-line community and a second generation petrochemical worker, also a second generation union member and eventually in the Port Arthur City Council. Seeing the disparity of what transpired over the years in a city that was a populous community that had good incomes and good sources of employment through the industry, that began to fall off. Seeing how the community was suffering from the effects of over twelve decades of environmental pollution, I decided I wanted to get involved once I retired and I could dedicate myself full-time to try to right that inequity.
From my childhood in Brooklyn, having Prospect Park as my backyard, my city life always provided me with contact with natural spaces. I also have a mom who is a water protector, so learning that the water that runs out of the faucet is connected to a network of people who have to protect it with money, resources, and even a police force helped shape my understanding. I’ve always been plugged into the idea that underneath the thing I’m enjoying are a lot of people’s decisions. Being the daughter of a community-minded man and woman who worked in natural resource protection before it was sexy, I’d say I was born into this work.
The more I started looking into the releases and effects of petrochemical plants, the more it made me aware that more had to be done. Nothing was being done to address it. We’re a cancer cluster here. If you look at the rate of cancer in the Port Arthur area, you’ll see that the whole area is saturated with petrochemical facilities, and although there are laws in place, these plants often violate them. We’re currently pursuing a company that had over 600 violations. Port Arthur Community Action is trying to hold all the people in the chain accountable, from elected officials to the community itself.
We have a saying, “if you smell, see, or hear something, say something.” If no one says anything, everyone will think it’s okay, and nothing is wrong, but it’s time for us to speak up and say something because communities can make a difference. One voice becomes two, two become two hundred, and so on. Those voices can make a difference, and we all have the responsibility to speak up.
Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve been privileged to lead organizations that work on climate and the environment. In all those years, I’ve rarely been in a place where people put the humans who do that work as a priority. What we end up discounting is that the people who do the work will always do it no matter what. Climate Critical Earth is about to release the results of a nationwide survey on burnout in the climate justice movement, and the answer is everyone is experiencing it. Throughout my career, I’ve watched people burn out. They love the work until they fall out of it, or they’re sick, and their bodies aren’t there for them anymore, or they leave out of frustration and take all their talent with them.
The culture is designed for us to work, and people feel guilt and shame to take the time they need to be a person. Climate Critical Earth was born to publicly say that climate work is not a personal problem but a systemic problem. We need to create space for dreaming, care, and rest as part of our campaigning. If we built that in, we might be even further in the work if we kept some of the people we’ve lost already.
Please work with us! When you want to learn about something, you start digging. You begin trying to find out by going to community meetings like the ones our organization hosts, or you can visit our social media pages which hold information about our work.
Our organization has three avenues you can take if you smell, hear, or see something: report it to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. They have a local office in Beaumont, Texas. You can also go on our website for legal help with Lone Star Legal. They have an Environmental Nuisance Reporter where you can anonymously report incidents. Environment Texas helps us with their Neighborhood Witness Program, so you can be a silent witness so you submit incidents and they can be investigated and reported.
Silence is consent. If you don’t say anything, then don’t expect things to get better. You have to speak up.
If you care, that’s an invitation. The curiosity to learn is a start. Social media has done a lot to flatten our communication, so I encourage people to join a community such as Climate Critical Earth. Find a place where you can show up and say, “I care about this, and it makes me feel uncomfortable. Are there other people who share this anxiety, and what will we do about it?
There are so many organizations where you can find a placard. The greatest thing you can do is not try to solve everything in your body. Find other people you can practice this with, and you will do so much more than a single person could do. Things will start to happen when people connect to make a difference.
We have to share those moments of celebration by bringing people with particular talents to space, whether singing, art, live performances, or poetry. We share good times and don't always talk about work because it can be depressing, tiring, and draining, but we keep each other up. People always remark about my energy levels, but I tell them, "don't let it fool you." I get down sometimes, too. I get tired, but as a poem a mentor once shared with me says, "rest if you must, but don't quit."
Take a break. Somebody else will pick you up, grab the load, share it, and carry it with you. If you see someone down, you need to help them up because one of these days, you're going to be down and need help, so we all help, uplift and support each other. The key to finding joy is sharing and knowing that you're not alone. Together we can win this fight.
The answer is community. One of the most nourishing things I can do for myself is constantly remind myself that it’s not just me. The retreat space that Climate Critical Earth creates, our online community and building community with folks make me feel like part of a chorus and that it’s okay for me to tap out and come back in. That relational infrastructure provides space for me as a person but also for the next folks who will come.
I also enjoy being in urban and rural environmental spaces, rolling around in parks, traveling through national parks, being on the water, journaling, and writing. These are also the things we’ve brought to Climate Critical Earth.
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