environmental justice

LISTEN: Tamara Toles O'Laughlin on reimagining environmental and climate leadership

“People are finding really innovative ways to tell stories.”

Tamara Toles O'Laughlin joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss the Glass Cliff phenomenon, how organizations fail to support diverse leaders, and how we can reimagine environmental leadership.


Tamara Toles O'Laughlin is the CEO and president of the Environmental Grantmakers Association and founder of Climate Critical Earth. She also talks about the importance of emotional support in the workplace and taking time to decompress.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with Tamara Toles O'Laughlin, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Transcript

Dr. Ami Zota

My name is Dr. Ami Zota. And I'm the founder and director of this program. And I am so thrilled today, to really have a leader in the climate and environmental justice space, Tamara Toles O'Laughlin. And we're, you know, we spend a lot of time on the show talking to early-career folks, and we're so honored today to really get to talk to a leader. Tamara has held multiple leadership positions in the NGO space, in government and also in philanthropy. So, we are so thrilled to have you here today, Tamara.

Tamara Toles O'Laughlin

Thanks for having me. It's I'm glad to be here. And I've been following this for a while. So it's very cool to, to, to break the fourth wall.

Dr. Ami Zota

Yes, we appreciate we see you on social media, and we appreciate all the support you provide with us and provide to us. And um, so it's nice to be able to engage you in this way. And, you know, you know, before we get into the kind of, the the nuts and bolts of it all, you know, we always like to start off by learning a bit more about the journeys of our, of our guests. Can you tell me a little bit about your upbringing, where you're from? And where along the way environmental issues entered your life?

Tamara Toles O'Laughlin

Yeah, I would say that I think that this question is kind of strikes at the heart of my activist work. So I was born into this work in a way that I think is true for a lot of people. I'm the daughter of a community-minded man and a woman who worked on protecting water, so much so that when she retired from the City of New York, the contractor that the city had contracted with, basically turned everything my mother knows about water in New York into an app that the city uses to build people. So, so my interest into the work comes from being a city girl with the appropriate, great migration routes to the south. So having a rural family with a huge and rich culture that migrated for a number of really political or racialized reasons to the north –one, directly to flee lynching and the other to find a different way of being – and then on the other side of it was a couple folks who fell in love with somewhere else. And so, in doing all of those things that happen in life, my parents, my mom, Dolores, fell into the work of the Department of Environmental Protection in New York City, which is both a conservation arm and a water protector. So they conserve the water that comes from upstate New York through the usual processes, but they also deal with billing and had to confront some of those early issues around how do you charge for a thing that is free to everyone? How do you push people to conserve to avoid poisoning and then there's like this massive police force that's connected to that just to make sure people are actually doing the things that keep New York's water quote, unquote, you know, "the champagne of waters" as New York City's water, right? and that that comes out the cost of a lot of infrastructure which has to be paid for. So as a kid who spent a lot of time in and out of Prospect Park, it was delineated for me as the clean side or the dirty side, and I needed to be home from playing on the clean side before the lamps came on inside the park. And my experience of being able to have, you know, Olmsted's back like designed backyard as the main place where I played and then, you know, going back and forth to my apartment where I grew up, it really felt like I had an unlimited amount of exposure to trees and grass. And not to mention the fact that around the time of my birth in the 70s, and 80s, there was a program breeding streets, which made sure that there was actually like a regulated amount of green space per every, you know, per capita. And so I think, by the time I ended up at Vermont Law School, where Pat Parenteau called me an urban environmentalist, which I'm still to this day, trying to decipher whether that was a positive or not thing that he said, I've told him, "What are you talking about? the environment is everywhere." And so from unlearning at an early age that the water doesn't just come out of a tap to experiencing, like, an interface with green space that was designed by folks, for better and worse, do a lot of decisions. Like there's no point at which I was not involved in the environment, I think it probably took my first internship at the Department of Environmental Protection in 1999, to realize it could be a job.

Dr. Ami Zota

Right, talk to us a little bit about your transition from you know, you mentioned this internship, right, you mentioned the, you know, law school and your focus on environmentalism. You know, how did you go from, from kind of focusing and working on environmentalism to focusing on environmental and climate justice? Was this an intentional decision or a gradual shift over time?

Tamara Toles O'Laughlin

Wow. So in 1996, I became a vegetarian, which was kind of the, like, beginning of my interpersonal journey around some of these issues, thinking through health, safety, security, access to green space, I wouldn't have used any of those terms. So, so. So So around around about that time, I started the connections between how we live, where we live, what the environment is doing to us, what it does to Black bodies, and what it means to move from a rural background where people grow their own food in their own context to the other parts of my life, where we would be in the city, and everything came from a store or a market or a festival where there might be food every weekend. And so, so it was really, that was a part of, a time period where I started examining my own relationship to the environment, the relationship of my community, I went to August Martin High School, in Jamaica, Queens, and it's a big massive lake in front of the school that kind of looks like a giant college campus, because it had about 3000 folks in it at any given time, but at this lake, and the lake had a car in it. And I remember thinking, you know, "there should probably be some sort of lawyer for the lake, this seems really inappropriate, like, how are people going to use it for fishing or any of the other thingso if other people don't cars into it? somebody's got to be the air traffic controller, or what's happening with this green space." And because of my biology class, I knew a lot about like, what it means for that kind of body of water to lose oxygen. And so watching a couple of these threads come together, it felt like "oh, I must have invented environmental law" somewhere between 1994 and 1996. But really, it was just my own coming of age into looking at these things. And at that time, there wasn't really a legal landscape for any of it. Like it was just people doing wills and estates, land conservation, tax law, like all these different things, but none of it had come together as a public body of law that was about protecting the environment, except when it came to protect people from being poisoned by water, or, you know, like the things that were happening literally upstream in New York, where bodies of water are catching fire. It took folks who fought for, lived on and used the water to turn some of that into legal precedent. So that wasn't far off. But it definitely wasn't what was happening in Jamaica, Queens, which is near an airport. And so there's so many other moving pieces around urban use of resources, who decides what it is, city planning, all of this stuff will become very clear to me later. But my own pathway involves working for free for a really long time. So I went from an internship at the Department of Environmental Protection to an internship through my college, City College and CUNY, for the Advisory Council of Historic Preservation, where I work with Valerie Hauser, who was one of the primary drivers of what we all know now as NEJAC. So the fact that like, I took me from New York to the very beginning of NEJAC, and then I went to a to the EPA in Denver, which covers North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming and another internship working under Jean Belille experimenting with that, and Jean Belille was working on, her co-workers working on TRI inventory and GIS mapping so I took up GIS mapping as a part of my internship. And then under Jean, we went to find out what folks in North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming were doing around lead repatriation. So there was a lot of instances where the federal government and indigenous land were in government to government level conflicts about who was responsible for the realization that lead poison happened in buildings that went from one sovereign to another sovereign. So that's returned land back to a tribe because it belonged to them, or because of some treaty or some other thing and it had lead in it, whose job was it to resolve that. Some of that work started at the advisory council that internship because ACHP, which was in the post office building, which then became, you know, Donald Trump's hotel for a while, many years ago, that was the smallest federal agency, and it was full of a bunch of archaeologists who, when they weren't constantly coming in contact with indigenous remains recognized, they needed to be the frontline for how to deal with tribes, who had to have speak to a sovereign, in order for it to be an appropriate communication. So through these internships that I got a scholarship here, grant there, I worked for free, I turned, I learned a lot about how very similar the issues were at home to the issues were in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and DC, across the nation, I got to hear my first federal hearing where a gentleman who was one of the last male survivors of the Crow tribe testified about how every other man in his family had been murdered. At the point at which it was discovered his land his his land, had minerals, and oil and gas underneath it. And he came and gave most vociferous and powerful testimonies I've ever seen in my life to this day, about how something could happen to him, if the pattern continues, because now that the land is valuable, it becomes a source of stress and strain, and a place where they're being attacked. So my early work, you know, move from water to air, land, what we do about toxics. And so along the pathway, I went from learning a little here and learning a little there and meeting the communities and watching them respond in the same way to recognizing that they were being harmed, and then started to form what became like a grid or network of how these problems happen. So from Advisory Council for Historic Preservation to the EPA to to Center for Race, Poverty and Environment during my time in law school, it was really , and Natural Resources Defense Council, I did a lot of work for free being of a Black woman or for internship or for credit, because I wanted to be where the work was happening. And it was this emergence of folks who wanted to focus on environmental justice, the first time I ever met Majora Carter, was when I was an intern in 2007. And she was working with her community in the Bronx, and 2we passed like shifts into that, "like who was this other Black woman?" And they were folks who were not Black in between us, and you don't..."you need to talk to her." And so, so so. So recognizing that there were real, it was the first time I looked at the work and said, "all the people who run this stuff, great people who I've come to know and respect, they're not very many people who look like me in any roles other than administrative roles." And so I think some of what I do now is really foreshadowed by, you know, 20 years of moving all over this work, and seeing the same patterns of exclusion, and domination and oppression and real discomfort with equality in the work, with equity in power dynamics inside the places where people are fighting for people and planet.

Dr. Ami Zota

Thank you so much for that, you know, both your own personal history and through that the history of EJ in some ways in this country. So let's talk a little bit about leadership. You said you, you know, you realize pretty quickly early on in your career that there weren't many people that looked like you that were in leadership positions. And now you have gone on to hold many leadership positions across the public sector, NGO sector philanthropy. Can you talk about that first leadership position you held? And what that was like for you?

Tamara Toles O'Laughlin

Yeah, I'll tell you. The first leadership position that led to the others was another volunteer role. So let me tell you, I was the co-president of the DC chapter of Ecowomen in Washington, DC for a number of years, I was there for six years. So two years as a member, two years in leadership, and then two years, two years, moving through different committees, and then two years as co-chair with another incredible woman. And in that time, I interviewed during I think we had a signature of it was called Ecohour, and I interviewed 200 women in this work during Ecohour over the course of those years, asking them how did you do this work? How did you stay in this work? And what I learned from all those interviews is that some of them got lucky. Most of them had a level of privilege and all of them had to work 10 times harder because there were no meeting places for women, there were no meeting places for people of color. There was no, we used to joke, there's no Moose Lodge, where you get the secret password, and then you're in a network. And so it was a very early, early place doing that work. And there's tons of people who I've interviewed, who I now know as colleagues and friends who I don't know, if they even know that was the first time we met, you know, 10 to 15 years before, they might know that, all of that led to me continuing to build a network that's pretty like rugby, it's hard to beat money unless you know a lot of people. And so over the course of all these experiences, I came to know lots of people who came to know my work. And so when I went to the Environmental Leadership Fellow Program, I met, I chose to do the regional version of that, because the national, with my experience, I have enough national relationships that what I really need is local relationships in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. So I was in the Chesapeake regional network of ELP, in 2015, where I met, you know, 30 different people who live within an hour of me who also thinking about this and worked in different places. And one of them said, "there's a role at the Maryland Environmental Health Network, a woman named Rebecca Ruggles is getting ready to step down. This is an statewide network that focuses on on solutions that come from community environmental health issues, and brings in philanthropy to support it and understand it as a part of a bigger work." And so I applied to that role. Because I thought, well, environmental health has this really cool tool, like it's like a, you know, the Rosetta Stone, social determinants of health. And as a person who had gone to law school and thought about the regulatory impacts and the legal environment, and who had done a lot of protest, development, organizing, working with communities, and taught, I learned a long time ago that the door that you go through, if you have a regulatory mite is a very different door that you get to go through, even if you're a person who's harmed by something. And so I thought, wouldn't it be cool to go to Maryland Environmental Health Network, and work on some of that. So I became the Executive Director in Baltimore, and I traveled the entire state. So in between those two jobs, I worked at the Maryland Energy Administration, and Martin O'Malley's administration under Abigail Hopper. And so another opportunity to learn, where's the money going? What are people doing around? And are folks prepared for this stuff? And so my life feels a lot like a roadmap of our evolution of this work.

Dr. Ami Zota

And, you know, when you think about, like, you know, the leadership roles you've had, and the things that you consider success, you know, when you reflect back on it, is it? Do you kind of, you know, do or is it more? Or are there more examples about the processes that you helped shape? Or is it you know, do you speak more or point more to outcomes, you know, whether it's like passing legislation or other things that, you know, you hold dear, as victories, you want to talk a little bit about that, like process versus outcomes? I know, you'd say both. But you know,

Tamara Toles O'Laughlin

I would actually say process, I think the journey is the work. Like, I think, you know, Climate Critical Earth, where I'm a founder of this, like global support network is not about us ending, ending climate change. It's about us making sure there are enough people who are alive who care about it, we're a resource to actually do the work with emotional capacity. And so I think, the same community or communities, the way yes is important to identify that FERC is problematic or that the Public Service Commission isn't working. But it's actually more important to activate people where they live in their zip code to recognize what the Department of Health is, or isn't doing for them, who their local representatives are. I remember going into hearing after hearing in different agencies in Maryland, and having folks go, where do you find all these activated people who were asking me for things I can actually – like out here a regulator say, "I usually get into meetings where people yell at me about things I have no control over." And your people came in this room and asked me for things that are in my authority, which is a different problem, but at least they know who I am. They know what I need to do. And so I feel like those are the victories, watching someone in a community recognize that it's not just my problem, my whole communities experiencing this, there's totally a body, whether it's zoning, or legislation, or air or water, who's responsible for this, and I need to talk to them and having that leg go on. Some of my favorite researchers are folks who, once they realize this, like while I'm at home, you know, eating my vegan mac and cheese, you know, they are, they are like, I just figured out that there was a case and then this happened. And at the end in the Public Service Commission, they don't have to do what they said they were going to do last time, because unlike a regular court of law that has to follow its own logic, your Public Service Commission doesn't have to, like that's the sort of thing I know, but watching the community member tell me this and recognize, oh, we have a hill to climb. This is going to take a lot of us. We're going to be invested in that. Those are the victories because there are no singular people who win these wars. There are no folks who make victories happen on their own, there are people who live their entire lives and never have anything workout in terms of outcomes the way they need, but activating a whole community of folks to feel responsible for what's happening to them. And to feel like agents of their own support is really just like a powerful thing. And whether we're talking about climate strikes in 2019, and leading some of those in North America, or my role with environmental grantmakers, and galvanizing the people who fund this work to understand how and why it happens, and who it happens with, it's actually all process. So I would say, I think the victories are in activating other folks. So it's not just you doing it.

Dr. Ami Zota

That's beautiful. I love that. And so, you know, I think to have a fair and balanced conversation, you know, we, you know, us on this podcast and Agents of Change, you know, we also have to shine a light right on structural barriers, right? You know, it's not, it's not it's not a lack of qualified women of color, qualified Black women, you know, it's not a lack of qualifications or capacity, the reason why there's not more women of color leaders, right, it's, it's structural barriers, right? And the resistance to that leadership, and I just want to give you the space, and I hope, you know, you would share with us some of the barriers you faced. And you know, how you know, how you have... the strategies you've used to kind of navigate some of these challenges.

Tamara Toles O'Laughlin

Yeah, I know, we started talking before the podcast about the article that was written about the glass cliff, or the idea that, that people who are leaders, especially those who have a women's bodies, especially those of us who are melanated, and if we're Black, good God, the opposite of a glass ceiling, is a glass cliff, where we are handed off things that are really in poor shape, have potentially or likely been scandalized or underresourced, and it feels a lot like the problems you experience as a person who's trying to fight an uphill battle to protect your health, like you're handed a thing that seems like a tool, but it's actually a problem. It's part of the problem. And so for the glass cliff is often a place where a really talented person is put, we often refer to them as a unicorn, to solve a problem that is not impossible, but works against the design of the very thing she was hired to do. And so I can say, in my own experience that like, whether we're talking about passing a piece of legislation in a state house that could totally do it, or in a Congress where people understand logical answers, or a nonprofit organization that has a mission that says you should be doing XYZ, the processes that we have developed, the design that we have put forward, really does reward bad actors, ofuscate the work of process and make it seem as though a lone wolf handles things. So the idea that a unicorn could come in and be really talented into an entity and have a successful work life suggests that anybody who works for her is aware of that, that folks know, understand the rules of leadership and followership, I have a really great friend, who does a lot of, helps a lot of people learn that leadership is not just about having a talented person at the top. But having folks who understand that in order for that person to be successful, the team underneath her has to be ready, willing and able to make change and to operate in ways that they hadn't before. So if an entity was run by a white man, and if it was an environmental, it was for 50 years, the idea that you put in a talented person of color or a talented woman, and that will suddenly change the way everything happens is a huge mistake. Because if she doesn't have senior leadership, that's very, very, very clear on how the projections about what Black women will do to space have to be met with expectations that come from that woman, not expectations of a community that's only ever envisioned this leadership. So we have structural issues to deal with, because we have boards who expect leadership to show up in the ways that it shows up in white men, we have to deal with funders who feel really comfortable working with people they already know. And if we are people who have only recently been given the opportunity to move through this work on our own merit, we don't have those relationships, because in my case, I can tell you, because of the way that racist, misogynistic policy and design operates inside of every one of these sectors, I learned that I can move around in three year period to avoid being totally permanently destroyed. So like my own career is a series of me grabbing a skill, meeting some people, developing a network and then leaving before the toxicity destroyed me. And when people ask me about that, they're like, "Well, what do you want the youth to do?" I don't want them to follow in my footsteps, I would be really excited if we did a better job at teaching folks how to follow the leadership of folks in different bodies, how to take more risks, how to resource people at the same level as they would if they felt more comfortable and to interrogate their own discomfort about the leadership of the generation of supporting, and not continue to rely on the premises of leadership that came before us that not only had it handed to them, but are a part of the systemic problems we have to undo.

Dr. Ami Zota

So much to unpack. So I was gonna ask, but I think you've already answered this. I mean, do you do you see the Glass cliff phenomenon playing out in the climate movement?

Tamara Toles O'Laughlin

I think the idea is that if there's been a scandal, if the organization has been covered in Politico, if the if, if there's a rumor that maybe they're not so good with people, what they're actually saying is that the entity, the organization, the government structure has not acculturated itself to recognizing that leading from the front with a man's aptitude with a ton of privilege is not the orientation of the next generation of leaders who show up in different bodies, with different experiences, with different networks, untapped networks, we have to make space for all of that. And I think the key answer is an eye on redesign and increased risk tolerance, because where we're putting risk is inappropriate in the first place. So the old boys club decides that everything other than an old boy is risk, that's a really weak place to rest them and tie the future of work that's supposed to save people and planet. And so I think every time I see notice of an incredible Black or brown person, a trans person running an organization, I have a little pain in my chest. And I think, "I hope this person is supported, I pray they have actual partners, I hope that the board gives them room, I'm really be excited if the funders give them 2, 3, 4 years of running of capital of operating money, so that they can start to teach all the people who work with them what it means to be under leadership, that doesn't look anything like what you've seen before."

Dr. Ami Zota

So powerful. Now, I know you've started a few of your own organizations, and consortiums and right, you're, you're a founder, you're you know, you're you're you know, I hear the you know, what I'm hearing is that you're trying, you're creating these new structures in response to your own experiences of being in these structures that haven't supported you, you know, because of all of the -isms, the racism, the sexism, sexism, you know, and all the multiple multiplicity of it. So how has that experience been in terms of, you know, kind of starting from the ground up and in trying to create, you know, structures that are an alternative to what you you know, what you've been through?

Tamara Toles O'Laughlin

Yeah, well, Climate Critical is about to release a burnout survey next month, that is a national survey that we did of a community that's deeply burned out, like, we'll have a whole another conversation about what it's like to talk to people in the middle of being victimized about what that feels like, and, and what response rates and that sort of thing. But But I would say that they, it is not different enough, they experience like being a founder in this body, you don't encounter entirely different issues, you encounter folks who say, Well, you know, funding usually comes from proof of concept. Well, guess what, if the, if the concept we all agreed to was a white supremacist structure, where money passed through systems from one part of the culture to another part with exclusion of an entire, you know, global majority, then there are no networks for those folks. And so I think being a founder is empowering, because it means I don't have to talk to 12 people about the decisions we make. But it does mean forming a collective of folks who have to consistently prove over and over again, that the discomfort that's being felt is actually racism, that like the fact that that Black women feminists founders do not receive funding at the rate of other folks, we have to prove that it's a statistical truth, in order to undergird individual things that are being built to respond to a community that's in chaos. The movement itself is in so many shambles, from the Inflation Reduction Act to the IGA to all the things that came before it, we have so degraded the quality of our relationship networks by continuing to do things and the ways we've already done them, that the only answers are new things that have to be built and some old things going away, if not many of them. And so I think there's a multigenerational conversation, a race conversation, a gender conversation, a non-gendered conversation, all of which is happening at the same time, because the workplace for Environment and Climate is four generations of bodies in it. And so, as the baton gets passed, the places that will be successful, the entities that will win, will be the ones that have a higher risk tolerance and the ones that make space for new things being born because other things have to die.

Dr. Ami Zota

Yeah, no, I mean, I reflect In my own experience of starting Agents of Change, you know, and I mean, you know, I didn't really ask permission, right, I just started doing it. But you know, it really made me think too, it's, you know, just as an Asian woman, a woman of color, you know, you know, it's, I haven't necessarily like, you know, I'm not the person that society often looks to, as a natural leader, right. And it also just, you know, has made me reflect on who gets the kind of the privilege of the benefit of the doubt, to take these risks, right to pursue non traditional ideas, right, that are inherently risky, especially early on, right, because it's easy for people to jump on the bandwagon once he went to had some success. But, you know, and I mean, I think, you know, I was able to do this without minimal, with minimal resources in the beginning, and you know, and I just, I honestly didn't ask anybody, I just started doing it, you know, because I'm sure if I did ask a lot of people, you know, I would have gotten a lot of, you know, a lot of pushback, doubt, all that kind of stuff, you know.

Tamara Toles O'Laughlin

Even folks who might be allies do not understand that we are building the road as we are on it, which is a very true proposition, because it isn't just about how an entity runs, but how its funded, how its resource, the aperture under which it has a vision, and you just you put the nail on the head when you said that, like trying to get an institution or a set of institutions, or a field or a sector that's deeply invested in the status quo, to imagine that the very thing it's calling for, and its mission will require it to be different, is a massive, it's a paradigm shift. It's pretty deep.

Dr. Ami Zota

And so right now, you know, when you when you look at this work, when you look at the space of you know, mainstream climate, climate justice, you know, what about it gives you hope, like, what keeps you energized?

Tamara Toles O'Laughlin

So what keeps me energized at the moment is what I started to talk about just now that I feel like, what's happening with the resources is something new. Like I have people my entire career, ask for what could be quantified, as I call it, coffee ground and toilet paper money. So they go to someone with a lot of resources. And for my, for just a few pennies, my whole community could have some support, which are then activate our networks, I think people have recognized that the resourcing is not the issue. It's the vote of confidence that comes with the resources, the opportunity to experiment. What gives me hope is that there are people in this work, I do not know. So what gives me hope is that there are folks with vantage points on this work that I'm not familiar with. It feels like for a longest time, there were like five, six, maybe 10 people doing any given thing there are people get degrees in specialties that we didn't have language for just five years ago, yeah, there. And they're working with folks who got activated on the internet, because they saw a video, or people who have been displaced by a fire or a flood, who are switching careers because they're like, this makes everything else I wanted to do pretty impossible. And so I am excited by the diversity of things being built to deal with this all-encompassing crisis. I think some folks call it the Polycrisis. Other folks call it the syndemic because of the vulnerability of folks. But I think this moment is creating so many opportunities for intervention, that if we are careful not to revert to the narrow, exclusive, familiarity-driven ways that we have done this work previously, there are old strategies and old technology, middle-aged and senior and young folks, all of whom are chomping at the bit to try. Yeah, it gives me hope. Because I meet, I meet folks who are in retirement weaponizing their pensions and removing it from oil and gas. And folks who aren't sure they're ever gonna have a retirement standing outside of banks to go, this can't be the way, I'm not buying a house if, if what it does is feed the system, or they're making choices about their own lives that are related to their politics, down to what they eat, where they live, who their community with. And I think I'm really constantly surprised at the bargaining power and strength of young workers. So part of Critical focuses on young workers is because the idea that the workplace has to be another toxic fight on the way to the toxic fight, like seeing people go, No, I deserve my humanity, I have to take time off, I need to probably be a person, I should probably be in relationships with people that aren't just about work. I have to have a rest practice. That stuff really is exciting. And on the funder side, there are funders who are very slowly recognizing that, oh, well, some of the infrastructure we need to support is emotional infrastructure. Keep writing blank checks to organizations that don't care about how the people who work for them are treated or how long it takes for them to burn out. Then that comes a funder problem as well. So I'm, I see streams of things to be hopeful about. And most of it involves undoing what we've already done.

Dr. Ami Zota

I love that –emotional infrastructure, all kinds of new concepts. I'm coming away with this. And so I mean, you spoke to this a little bit before, but I think, you know, you know, our Agents of Change fellows, their early-career folks, you know, really giving us hope, in EJ and CJ, and, you know, and, you know, a lot of the listeners of our podcast are, you know, they're passionate, they're, they're brilliant, they're, you know, driven to, you know, they're really committed to committed to community-driven models of structural change. Do you? I mean, do you have advice, as you know, some of them, you know, they have leadership potential, and we need them as leaders, right? We need their bold, brilliant ideas, but often that can mean navigating leadership roles in predominantly white spaces, like you have done many, many times. And, I mean, if you had to give advice, you know, what would it be?

Tamara Toles O'Laughlin

Don't give up. Also seek out folks who are not like you. I think, for young folks, I think energy needs wisdom, and vice versa. There are folks who are looking at their last fight, there are folks who are seeing the infrastructure change, innovation, money moving large sums of resources going from government into the private sector, and they're like, Okay, I did my part to get it there. And then looking for someone to hand that off to. Now what I what I think I see as a barrier to that is that sometimes people expect their elders to be cuddly. Or, or and like, they're not teddy bears, they're just people who started at a job, because they were trying to solve a problem who aged and so I think, I think one of the things we need to expect is that they're every kind of human doing every kind of work. And so if you're a young person, you should definitely be connected to entities and organizations that have real diversity in the age groups of people who are there. Because that mean, diversity of experience, as some of them will be excited to talk to you about what they've learned. And I think for folks who are midstream, like being able to look both ways, I joke that like being middle age means being in the middle of the seesaw. And you'll be someone with decades of experience, but only two years of focus on climate or energy or environment. Because it's dawned on you mid career, that it's a block to something else. That means you have to look both ways for elders and folks who are thinking about this in critical ways right now. And so I think the best thing we could all be doing is look for your community. Because it's the best thing we've ever built.

Dr. Ami Zota

Yeah. So you know, we're wrapping up here, and you know, in the spirit of rest and emotional resilience, and being giving, you know, not making recharging and after thought, you know, if you had an afternoon of free time, you know, how, you know, how would you spend it¿

Tamara Toles O'Laughlin

So I actually do an EDA, we are adding wellness practice to just our work just like every week. And I think what I spend doing in that time, is often reading things that are not about my work, right? Making a podcast. So I'm one of the producers on the Coolest Show podcast with Reav Yearwood. So that's actually a thing I get to do for fun that I sometimes remember is like, oh, that's totally a job. So create, like creating things that think about the parts of the work, just being in a green space, like I have not changed. I'm still someone who loves to be in the that don't guess they don't call it that anymore. All of Prospect Park, I don't know what a clean sign is anymore, it all looks pretty much the same. But like a good afternoon in the park riding my bike or taking a long walk or going for a swim or running, or any number of things that are really easy to do from just about anywhere, writing. It's all it's all happening, I think tapping into the creative side of my personality that isn't just about building things that people can see some of us just for the sheer enjoyment of beauty or going to an exhibit at the Met. There's a room called Afro futurism. And I thought, well, always folks, the Met has a room that isn't about like things stolen from Africa, but like Black people's visions? I'm going to see, you know, so I think spending a lot of time in the cultural parts that drive all of this that make it worth doing, whether that's the culture of a drum circle in the park, or the culture of an exhibit where people are thinking about our bodies in space through their own lens and not someone else's. So if you're not having fun, it's just work and that's not, that's a thing that was taught to me by verniece Mila Travis, she told me that one so like, not having any fun, you're just at work. And I thought, Well, why can't work be fun. So yeah,

Dr. Ami Zota

We got to feed our spirits and souls right? And I think culture really helps with that. And you mentioned you really like to read so we always like to end the pod by hearing you know, what's what's, what's the latest book that you've been reading, that's, you know,

Tamara Toles O'Laughlin

"The Persuaders" by Anand Giridharadas is a good one. I'm also usually reading two or three books at the same time, because I pick it up, I put it down, I pick it up, I put it down. So I'm also reading "Prisoners of geography" by Tim Marshall, which is a really good one about how everything is designed. And then I'm going to, I'm going to show you a book that was actually written at the like, the idea of it came from the last Climate Xritical Earth retreat that we had was like our best practice program. One of our members is a woman named Maya DeLeon. And she writes Climate Pulp Fiction. Let me tell you, there's some craziness that you never knew you needed. So she writes books where like, you know, Sergio shirt gets ripped off. But in the middle of the book at the last retreat we talked about, she said, I like to write about complicated environmental topics, but put it in these contexts that like you just pick it up. And it's like a Harlequin romance. And so she said, What would a love triangle for environmentalists include? And I was like, Well, currently, it would need to be like fossil fuel Non Proliferation and versus crypto. So you know, if, if the protagonist fell in love and had to decide between a crypto bro, who like was making all his money off this coal-fired crypto, and like activists who was working on getting the fossil-fuel nonproliferation treaty signed, that would actually be really juicy to those of us who are both humans and environmental nerds. And she wrote the daggone thing, "That dangerous energy"

Dr. Ami Zota

I love it.

Tamara Toles O'Laughlin

As I reading it, I'm like, Oh, my God, this is embarrassing. What did she do? He did what? Oh, my God, you know. So like, that is one of those things where, you know, people will learn about nonproliferation, but they will want to talk about what they learned it But her main focus is that we learn everywhere all the time, why not make it fun? And interesting, like, really fun, read about like a beach read about our work that has a lot of lusty parts in it. So I think you have to balance out like these massive tomes on policy and design with something else, some non-nutritional, educational and maybe fun work. And this book about this love triangle, you know, I'm obviously rooting for the activist and not the crypto bro. All right. We'll see what happens by the end of the book.

Dr. Ami Zota

All right, I'm gonna check it out. Well, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Tamara. I greatly appreciate you dropping knowledge and wisdom with us. You know, just feel so privileged to hold this space with you. And thank you in advance for, you know, everything that you're doing in the middle about seesaw.

Tamara Toles O'Laughlin

Well, I appreciate you. I'm glad to be here. And I'm glad to be part of the Agents of Change community.

petrochemical pollution
Shell's new petrochemical complex in southwestern Pennsylvania. Photos by Nate Smallwood for Environmental Health News and Sierra Magazine

Shell’s petrochemical plant in Pennsylvania hasn’t spurred economic growth: Report

The county that’s home to the plant has fallen behind the rest of the state and the nation in every measure of economic activity.

PITTSBURGH — Proponents of a massive Shell plastics plant in Pennsylvania promised the site would bring economic development to a long-struggling region. Those promises have failed to materialize, according to a new report.

Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Climate change inflames Boko Haram insurgency in Africa's Lake Chad region
Photo by Sheyi Owolabi on Unsplash

Climate change inflames Boko Haram insurgency in Africa's Lake Chad region

Declining harvests and dwindling fish hauls make Boko Haram appealing for young men in the Lake Chad region.
Climate change inflames Boko Haram insurgency in Africa's Lake Chad region
Photo by Sheyi Owolabi on Unsplash

Climate change inflames Boko Haram insurgency in Africa's Lake Chad region

Declining harvests and dwindling fish hauls make Boko Haram appealing for young men in the Lake Chad region.

One seed at a time: Lebanese project promotes agroecology for farmer autonomy

SAADNAYEL, Lebanon – Located in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, a region that has been farmed for millennia, a small experimental farm known as Buzuruna Juzuruna (BuJu) is establishing an agroecological network across the country, as well as setting up an heirloom seed cooperative to promote resilience and sovereignty within communities, near and far. “The biggest success […]
wildfire smoke air pollution
Credit: Ahmer Kalam/Unsplash

Will toxic haze and the 2023 danger season make a difference?

The year is only half done and the United States has already been enveloped by acrid orange skies in the East, battered by winter rains and floods in California, seared by record winter temperatures in the South, soaked by a record 26-inch April deluge in Fort Lauderdale, and broiled by record spring heat in the Pacific Northwest, Texas, and Puerto Rico.

Keep reading...Show less

Public Lands Rule rhetoric gets wacky

Conservatives aren’t so keen on conservation.
From our Newsroom
Opinion: Youth v. Montana — Young adults speak up

Opinion: Youth v. Montana — Young adults speak up

We are entitled to a ‘clean and healthful’ environment. Montana’s policies are endangering that.

youth climate change

How youth can battle extreme heat in their communities

EHN spoke with heat equity experts about how young people can work toward protecting the most vulnerable from extreme heat and advancing climate justice.

Supreme Court wetlands

Opinion: Supreme Court undoing 50 years’ worth of environmental progress

The Supreme Court has taken a brazen anti-regulatory turn. It’s our planet and health that will suffer.

healthcare sustainability

Reimagining healthcare to reduce pollution, tackle climate change and center justice

“We need to understand who is harmed by an economy that’s based on fossil fuels and toxic chemicals.”

plastic pollution

Recycling plastics “extremely problematic” due to toxic chemical additives: Report

Negotiations are underway for a global plastics treaty and parties differ on the role of recycling.

UN plastics treaty

Opinion: UN plastics treaty should prioritize health and climate change

Delegates should push for a treaty that takes a full-lifecycle approach to plastic pollution.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.