In commencement of Earth Week, Heather McTeer Toney spoke boldly about climate activism and debuted her new book, “Before the Streetlights Come On: Black America’s Urgent Call for Climate Solutions” on Monday, April 17 at Off-Square Books.
From becoming the first female, first Black and youngest mayor elected in Greenville, Miss at age 27 to serving as regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Southeast Region under President Obama, Toney has spent her career as an environmental justice leader. She especially strives to place Black communities at the forefront of the environmental movement.
Dedicated to her children, Toney shared that her book is inspired by her love for her family, faith and community as well as her lived experiences as an environmental activist.
“I have gone to places and they’re like, you’re from where? Black folks don’t care about climate change. What are you talking about?” Toney said. “It is so important that people from our part of the country understand that we’re probably more closely connected to the climate environment than a lot of people are.”
Toney shared that Black communities are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change, believing they are highly suitable to lead the future of the climate justice movement through global initiatives and discovering innovative solutions.
“I use hope throughout this entire book because there’s a lot of climate despair that’s out there,” Toney said. “We need people who are willing to find innovative and creative ways to solve the problem and to listen to different groups about the solutions that currently exist.
In “Before the Streetlights Come On,” Toney discusses how climate change is integral to the conversation surrounding social justice issues.
“I wrote about the experience of connecting and witnessing the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breanna Taylor and how climate was an accomplice to that because of heat,” Toney said. “I wrote about not only how that felt but how it felt as being a Black mother of Black sons and wife to a Black husband.”
Reading from a section of her book titled “The Cultural Appropriation of Collard Greens, Food Insecurity, and the Climate Crisis,” Toney explained how impoverished communities are often burdened by environmental taxes and natural disasters, creating a widespread cycle of energy and resource waste.
Toney urged the audience to not only take part in climate activism by sparking conversations about environmental issues in their communities, but also by voting in local and national elections.
Toney also encouraged listeners to speak with specific government agencies that dedicate funding to restoration such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Secretary of Agriculture.
At the end of each chapter of “Before the Streetlights Come On,” the author includes at least five things everyone can do to make a small difference in their communities and offers a collective call to action in the book’s conclusion.
Rather than confining oneself to environment-specific governmental positions, Toney encouraged those seeking to influence public policy to prioritize environmental interests and pursue appointed positions on both a local and state level.
“We live in Mississippi,” Toney said. “We’re concerned about our climate, our children, our planet, and our environment just as much as anybody else is, and I am so proud to be able to do this as a native Mississippian, as a woman of faith, and as a Black woman who is well educated and can speak just as well as anybody else on these issues.”
“Before the Streetlights Come On: Black America’s Urgent Call for Climate Solutions” is available at Square Books.