Illustration by Jesse Zhang
Temperature Check is a podcast at the intersection of climate and justice. Season Two features climate leaders and their mentors in a series of intimate, insightful conversations about what it takes to find purpose, passion, and even enjoyment in the fight for a better planet. Listen to all the episodes now, right here (or wherever you get your podcasts).
Jess Stahl: Welcome to Temperature Check, a podcast about climate, justice, and the people making a difference. I’m Jess Stahl, editor for creative storytelling at Fix. And this season of Temperature Check, we’re turning over the reins to climate and justice leaders to talk about mentorship. For each episode, we asked one changemaker to tell us who inspires them, who supports them, and then, we brought them together.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: We’re going to have to keep saying it so that the people in the back and the people with power will recognize that we’re not coming on behalf of our community, we’re coming alongside them.
Spencer R Scott: I think I see you as a mentor and we kind of created a community where, you know, we can mentor each other.
Xiuhtezcatl: We’re always kind of like keeping each other in check, and we’re always looking at like, what is possible? What can we create? What can we build and do in the world?
Jess Stahl: This is our last conversation of the series and we’re pleased to bring you a chat between Valencia Gunder and Tamara Toles O’Laughlin. Valencia is the founder and co-director of The Smile Trust, a food and housing justice organization that also does disaster relief. She’s also the national organizing lead for the Red Black and Green New Deal at the Movement for Black Lives and is one of our 2021 Grist 50 Fixers. Valencia chose to speak with Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, national climate strategist and the CEO and president of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. They met while working together on the Red Black and Green New Deal. Today, Valencia and Tamara talk about the link between climate and race, and what it means to build power. And now, I’ll hand it over to them.
Valencia Gunder: Hey everybody, this is Valencia Gunder. Most folks just call me ‘V.’ I use she/her pronouns. I’m an organizer, through and through. And, honestly the way I cut my teeth in organizing, it was told to me very simple — “Your job is to go out and teach people all these amazing things you know about building power.” I still canvass my community. I do workshops, political education, communication tools, social media. I just, you know, rattle the fence a lot. I rattle the fence.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: My name’s Tamara Toles O’Laughlin. I’m a national climate strategist and the CEO and president of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. The short way to think about that is that I am dedicated to making sure there are Black people in the future. Full stop.
Valencia Gunder: Tamara. My sister in the fight.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Valencia. She’s kind of like the Madonna of Black climate work. She has more energy than 50 people.
Valencia Gunder: And a person that I look up to on many, many levels.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: She is repping for the South in every way.
Valencia Gunder: And I’m super proud of her and all of the work that she’s accomplished for our people. And I’m super grateful to be a part of this work.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: She’s always grinding. She’s working on two or three things at once and when you think that she’s asleep, she’s like, “No, I just finished doing wellness checks on 1,500 people over the weekend while you were taking a break.”
Valencia Gunder: OK. I met Tamara when I started to work at Movement for Black Lives with the Red Black and Green New Deal. She also heavily committed to the Red Black and Green New Deal. Shoutout to Colette Pichon Battle for connecting us. And, our relationship was a work relationship at first, but we have become sisters over time. And, although I did not know Tamara before the Red Black and Green New Deal, I wish I would have, and she’s never going anywhere ever again.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: So my relationship to V began at the very top of setting the strategy for the legislative program for the Red Black and Green New Deal. Colette Pichon Battle had assembled a team of Black women to start to look at this work and because I have been working on local, national, and municipal areas, it was a really fun opportunity to jump in and start to design the big conversation that we need to have about how air, water, land, and human survival is either built into the system or cut out of it.
Valencia, what led you to begin focusing on environmental work when you have such a breadth of experience elsewhere?
Valencia Gunder: A lot of folks don’t know this, but I am formally educated in international agricultural business. That’s what I went to college for. And, when I first cut my teeth in organizing toward Black liberation in general, it was through disaster relief and food. In 2010, I was still living in Tallahassee, Florida. I went to FAMU and that’s when the earthquake hit Haiti and I activated myself and my little apartment — a broke college student — to help out. And, honestly, I haven’t stopped since then. And I was just doing a lot of service work at one point. Just feeding people, collecting donations, servicing families, groceries, the things like that. And then that’s when I realized that, hey, this ain’t good enough. Not just feeding people, but people need to know how to be able to feed themselves. Food shortages — I noticed when I got back to Miami, people just did not have the means to feed themselves and I’m just like, it has to be an issue. Ever since then, I have been doing climate and environmental justice work because honestly, I believe that all human beings deserve safe housing, healthy food, and the ability to breathe, and if the climate is messed up, if the environment is messed up, those things just cannot happen.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: That’s right.
Valencia Gunder: So, that’s why I got into the work and I’m staying into the work, because we only got one Earth, and I feel like I should do my part to make sure that she’s good.
What about you Tamara?
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: I started doing work that involved people and planet in 1999/2000. My very first campaign was knocking doors for the campaign to end the death penalty in New York City. Going into communities that had been ravaged by overpolicing. And that work was happening alongside a job that I had at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. I came to this working environment by birth. My mother was a water protector, before we had that term, at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. I grew up having a real clear sense of where the water in my sink came from and what it was connected to and being able to travel up to the Croton Reservoir. I realized you could fit a car and every kind of animal in there. And that water still makes it out of the tap. And at the same time, my father was a community police officer when they first tried that experiment where you had to live in your community, and as a person who made it his business to know who everyone was connected to, he made sure that he never had to pull out his weapon. In some ways, they were both really looking out for our community. One visible and one invisible. I went to Vermont Law School and got a master’s in energy generation and transmission and environmental law at the same time, specifically so that I would understand the frameworks that our lives are built in. The moment that we’re currently in, where energy determines whether or not we have clean air and clean water and safety in our community. And that natural inclination towards those things for my family, it feels like I’m literally just manifesting this next level.
Valencia Gunder: Yeah.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: V, can you talk about any personal experiences that led to your work fighting for people and community, particularly whether they are housed or unhoused?
Valencia Gunder: Yeah. Back in 2010, right after I did my first activation, I was homeless the next week. I was literally put out of my apartment, evicted, and I didn’t have anywhere to go. So, I was homeless for a few weeks and that changed my whole life. I then understood how you could be a paycheck away from the street, because that was my reality. I also knew and understood the lack of service, the lack of dignity, and the lack of support unsheltered folks have. I also knew and understood the narrative that was being created around unsheltered folks. And while I was homeless, I actually was sitting in front of a local library in Tallahassee one night, it was like two in the morning, sitting there with my little one suitcase and a box and I was like, “When I get on my feet, I’m going to help people. I’m going to start helping people.” And it took me three or four years to get myself back together, but I started helping people. In this work, a lot of stuff is talked about in theory, right? Like, we could dream about what things could be. And I always wanted to make sure I had a form of practice while I’m dreaming and scheming, right? So, yes, I fight climate and environmental injustices in our community. Yes, I fight on behalf of unsheltered folks and I advocate for the unsheltered population or the underresourced population in many communities. But I also do the other half of it, and that’s the service to them, right? How do we make sure we create alternative systems for food and housing justice? How does that look like for us to respond to a disaster ourselves? So that’s the mashup of how I show up in the work, and that’s through direct experience.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Wow.
Valencia Gunder: So Tamara, we both worked on the Red Black and Green New Deal. Can you tell me what this work has meant to you?
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Well, it feels like the Red Black and Green New Deal is an opportunity to connect all of the issues that affect Black lives, Black life and Black livelihood under a banner where it would be more appropriately fixed. So when we try to think about the harm to Black people in the silo of education, we miss out on all the things that happen when you leave a school — if the school is perfectly organized.
Valencia Gunder: Right.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: If we talk about kids who have asthma but we don’t discuss the fact that they live in places where there’s so much toxic exposure and poison that doing everything right you still end up being unwell, then we’ve talked about this stuff in a silo. If we talk about transportation or housing, and we do these things separately, we fail. So the Red Black and Green New Deal represents an opportunity to bring together the way the environment is in fact a container for the conditions of our lives. It really gives us an opportunity to step back and see the big picture. So, I’m excited to dig in on work that will open the doors to the conversation at the level that we need to be at in order to win. Can’t solve problems on a level that they were created, so bargaining with folks who are happy enough to build our entire lives into sacrifice zones is not going to resolve the problem. Working with our community to build the next-level engagement is what’s going to do that. There are Black people doing this work who work inside of green organizations and folks who are plumbers who just don’t want to die in a fiery gas ball. And so we don’t have the kinds of hierarchy that you might find in a different kind of configuration, because the main invitation to come into this work is a desire to see change. So, I am a nerd and I get to hang out with the nerdy part of the configuration that thinks about policy, that thinks about what kinds of major levers we would have to move at the federal government. So, I’m a part of what we call the hive.
Valencia Gunder: Period.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: V, can you tell us what your work on the Red Black and Green New Deal has meant to you?
Valencia Gunder: So, it means everything to me. I wake up every day super happy to join in on the work. I am always happy to be in the collective space with the Black hive. When I was first approached to be a part of the group to lead the vision for the Red Black and Green New Deal, I was honored. I’ve been doing climate and environmental justice work a long time, and through my experience, this work has been heavily, heavily, heavily white space. So, when I heard that the Movement for Black Lives and a group of folks were to come together and do a Red Black and Green New Deal—one, Red Black and Green is an international symbol for pan-Africanism, and to carry on the work of our dear ancestor Marcus Garvey and the Garveyites, and then, to tie it to the Green New Deal, I thought it was amazing. It has exposed me to somewhat of 170 Black climate and environmental justice leaders across the United States. These are some of the smartest people I know. I learn something brand new every day talking to them.
So, Tamara, you’ve written a lot about environmental racism. Can you share with me the importance of making sure people understand the links between climate and race?
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Sure, so, you know, the title that I usually hang out under is that I’m an environmentalist. Mostly because there are things we have done to segregate out the ways different people show up in this work. If you work on conservation, you are operating in one space of the work. If you work on environmental justice, you are unfortunately siloed into another wing of the work. Environmental racism really holds space for the idea that the only reason Black people are subject to having shorter lifespans, poorer health and are more likely to be harmed and to lose their homes, their lives or their livelihoods to climate-related events is because racism has determined the engagement that we get to have with our resources, our access to power, our ability to decide where we’re going to live, what kinds of food we will have access to. So environmental racism is a long-term scientific study that really looks at how this social construct — which isn’t real by the way — of race really is a social determinant of whether or not a person will survive the climate crisis. So, the work of climate in various organizations that are focused on it, if they don’t have a race lens, if they don’t have a gender lens, if they don’t have a class lens, cannot possibly do the work of climate and environment, because those are the terms of engagement and the ways that people will either survive and thrive, or die.
Valencia Gunder: Quick story. I remember when I moved back to Miami in 2010, after my incarceration in 2010, and I literally came back to Miami and I was invited to a climate talk in my local community and the first thing I said, I was like, “I don’t want to go in here and listen to these white scientists tell me about the earth.” And that’s not what they did. They actually wanted to hear how we were understanding climate, and I thought that was amazing, right? And to hear people in my local community say it right out, “They’re going to come take our communities because it doesn’t flood.” And I remember in that moment, that my grandfather used to say the same thing.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Wow.
Valencia Gunder: And I, from there, understood how climate was impacting specifically Black communities in that moment. And, I understood right then that I, I noticed the link between race and climate, so I wanted to make sure everybody else knew it.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: That’s right. That’s right.
Valencia Gunder: People already know that climate is impacting them. They just don’t understand their power to make a change around it, right? If you listen to people when you walk through communities or you talk to community members, they understand like, “This sun is way hotter than it was when I was a child 30 years ago,” or “I never felt a winter this cold before,” or they’ve never seen a hurricane cover a whole state. They may not know the science behind it, but they know the feeling. They’re feeling it, right? When you hear elders say, like, “It’s so hard for me to walk down the street when it’s extremely hot because I can’t breathe properly,” right? And the climate scientists would be like, “You know —”
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Ozone.
Valencia Gunder: Right? Right. Extreme heat does impact your respiratory system, but they don’t know that, but they do know the feeling because they’re living it. They have a lived experience, which to me outshines all of the political education that I’ve been taught. So, my job, and a lot of our jobs as organizers or people that are in leadership of climate and environmental justice is just to show people the justice side of it right? They’re feeling the impacts of their lived experience. But when you give them the tool — “Hey, this thing is not happening by mistake, it’s happening by design. These corporations are doing these things. They’re pumping stuff into our water, pumping stuff up into our air. They’re killing our Earth and we need these things to survive and you’re already feeling the impacts of it right now. And these are some of the things that we can do together to make change around it.”
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Wow. I feel like you are so clear about what it will take for us to do this work and what it means. I’m thrilled that you just raised the misconception that people have, that we have to bring something to community other than an outstretched hand to do the work together. People often act as though, “Those folks, who are those folks?” We are those folks. Like, “Those folks don’t understand.” No, those folks haven’t been invited into the conversation, they have not been given the basic information, they have not been empowered. So, we’re going to have to keep saying it so that the people in the back and the people with power will recognize that we’re not coming on behalf of our community, we’re coming alongside them.
Valencia Gunder Right. Right. And you know, when I hear the word “power,” you know, a lot of these folks that quote-unquote make these decisions, they only have power because they have titles and resources attached to titles, right? But the people have the power, so we can dream a scheme about something in our meetings, we could come up with all of this strategy, but if the people don’t take to it, right, and the people decide not to move, then none of it means nothing. We can come up with a lot of climate solutions, but the people have to agree to move on it for us to get to the solution, right? I also always like to show examples of how if you look at local communities where people are already practicing solutions on many levels and we know that this whole movement in general — especially the environmental and climate justice movement — was started by Black people standing up for their communities. Nobody gave them climate science, but they knew that dumping toxic waste in their communities next to their children’s schools and playgrounds, they knew that something was wrong and they stood up for it, right? And now we’re here all these years later. So shoutout to all of our ancestors —
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Who are still here.
Valencia Gunder: Yes. Our elders.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: They’re living in West Harlem. They are living in East Texas. Making change.
Valencia Gunder: Absolutely.
So Tamara, activism and environmentalism can take a toll. We already know that. Especially when it’s about issues that are core to your identity. How does your relationship, or a relationship like ours, sustain you?
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Yeah, I mean, it is the hardest thing to be in America as a Black woman, let me tell you. One, because misogyny can take away people who should be your allies. Paternalism takes away people who should be your allies. Racism takes away whole generations of people who could be your allies. We waste so much of our core power dividing people. And I can tell you in this body, doing this work, all of those -isms make it harder to be seen as a human being. So forming relationships with people who are also excluded, forming relationships with folks who still have a love for people. One of the things that I’m constantly reminding the new folks who are coming into this work every day is that when we win, even the people who hate us will get another chance to survive. And that is tough work. Being able to connect with you about any plans that we’re making, or people we’d like to be a relationship with, or communities where there doesn’t seem to be folks who are supported in showing up to do all of this work if it wasn’t for the sisterhood, it would be so much more difficult, because it is isolating to try to do work that is this broad and this wide that involves connecting so many dots that it is easy to ignore, because it’s messy. For me, my people are folks who want to save the planet and don’t want to die in a fiery gas ball, who love Black people. So if you meet that description, we’re probably already in a relationship. And so relationships like the one we have are restorative to me because it reminds me that we’re not doing this alone.
And V, can you talk to me a little bit about how you nourish and sustain yourself in this really difficult work?
Valencia Gunder: Yeah. I’m always searching for other Black people, especially Black women, that are in the work. I need Black women to be a part of this work because before I even started working at M4BL, I felt like I only knew a few Black women in this work. And I was like, “I know this can’t be true. I know this can’t be true. It’s more, it’s more, it’s more.” And I found a sea of Black people that care about our Earth. And honestly, as a queer Black woman myself, sometimes I’m asked to like, only bring one part of me, or folks want to tokenize me in certain ways, especially in the environmental climate justice movement, and I’m like, “No, I’m a whole person,” and I’m trying to save my whole self, right, and my whole entire community. Being Black is not a monolith, right? It’s all different types of Black people from different backgrounds, different sexualities and identities. And I want to build climate and disaster resiliency for all of the Black people, right? The relationships that are whole, and the people that I learn from, being able to pick up my phone and ask questions — and I’m very transparent. Tamara will tell you all. I’m very transparent about what I don’t know and what’s not my wheelhouse. I cut my teeth in, like I said, disaster and food and then water, right? So when it comes to energy and democracy and other pieces like that, I’m still learning. But, the great thing about it is I could pick up the phone and call a person like Tamara or so many others and they teach me willingly every single time, and I’m so grateful for that.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Yeah.
Valencia Gunder: Honestly, the work is so heavy, sometimes you do need a small group of people you can trust a bit too, to share ideas where other people who are not Black won’t understand why we need to attack the work in this framework or from this lens. And sometimes people make you feel crazy when you talk, right? You know, Black women, we’re always being labeled as certain things and when I talk to other Black women that’s in the climate and environmental justice movement, soon as I open my mouth, they understand fully. That’s so helpful. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t walk away from the work, because the other Black women that’s in the work with me, and I’m so grateful for the times that they hold me or they step up for me, or they step in front of me to make sure people don’t attack me, or when people do attack me, and I always do the same for them. And that’s one of the most amazing things about being in this work and identifying other people who understand the work in the way that you do.
So Tamara, our future. Me and you in this work. What is your vision around it? I think they’re trying to label us as mentee and mentor, but I think we mentor each other. At all the levels in the work.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: My vision for the future of this work is that race will no longer be a precondition to whether or not you have access to care about your own life, your own family, and your own future. It would be really incredible if by the time we run out of these categories, which are of an old time and beliefs that never did make sense, that we have come up with new ways of working so that we can include people so that the largest number of folks survive what is coming. My vision for the future is that 2030 doesn’t sneak up on us, that 2050 doesn’t find us among a bunch of cities, towns, and states with higher walls than deeper relationships. That we can figure out how to make sure the largest number of people survive and as people lose their homes or their land, they are welcome to other places where they can rebuild their lives and move through support from their government and their community. My vision for the future is that the Red Black and Green New Deal, alongside the Red New Deal, the Green New Deal, and other really big ideas for change, start to lay out a roadmap for success that includes everybody. And, my hope for our future is that we will continue to work side by side to lift up the folks who are the most vulnerable, the people who will not be seen because their stories are not convenient, because their problems are not easily solved, or because they’ve been made invisible by the status quo.
Can you talk to me a little bit about your vision for the future?
Valencia Gunder: Oh yeah. One, Tamara you stuck with me forever, I just want you to know. I want everybody in the world to understand how important the Earth is, because I think once people start to understand that, then we can actually shift this crisis that we’re in. I think people think like, other issues are more important, but the truth of the matter is, I heard Leah Penniman from Soul Fire Farm in New York say this one time and it’s been sitting on my spirit, she said, “All of the issues we fight for mean nothing if we do not have an Earth to inhabit.” And, I just want in the future that people start to really think through that and believe that we all have to be responsible to the Earth. Because to me, the climate crisis is going to be the true abolition of all these other systems, and we see that happening all over the world already. And then I also would like to see a future of policy that is actually representative of the people who are the most impacted. And, one of my goals with the future for Red Black and Green New Deal, and with you Tamara, is for us to make sure that the Red Black and Green is a tool of power for us to hold our government accountable. And then, when we go to our government, federally, statewide, locally, or globally, that they know that it’s going to be a no-go on things that will harm Black people. The Red Black and Green New Deal will not leave any Black people out of our solutions, and we mean that in all of the ways, and I’m just super excited to continue to build with you and others so that we can build true resiliency for Black people all over the world.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin Thank you so much for your time, V. It’s been a pleasure to connect with you in this space and every other. Thank you so much for having me.
Valencia Gunder Yeah, thank you Tamara for being in the space with me today. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you. You already know when we get on the phone with each other, it’s great. I am so looking forward to more work in the future. Us building more solutions together, us sharpening each other, and sharing all of this great knowledge that we both have with our communities far and wide.
Jess Stahl Thank you so much for listening, and thanks to Valencia Gunder and Tamara Toles O’Laughlin for sharing your time with us. This episode is the last of six conversations we published this month as part of our mentorship issue. You can read more about mentorship at grist.org/fix, where we’re exploring the power of mentorship in climate work and how mentorship must change to make the space more inclusive and accessible. That’s at grist.org/fix.
Temperature Check is a podcast from Fix, Grist’s Solutions Lab, produced in association with Reasonable Volume. I’m Jess Stahl, Fix’s editor for creative storytelling. Fix’s Claire Thompson, Camille Williams and Josh Kimelman all contributed to this podcast with additional contributions from Fix Managing Editor Jaime Buerger and Designer Mia Torres. This podcast is produced by Audrey Ngo with Associate Producer Dominique French and editing by Elise Hu and Rachel Swaby. Sound engineering is by Mark Bush.
If you’d like to support what we do, you can rate, review and tell all your friends to follow Temperature Check. You can listen to all of our other conversations on mentorship right now, in this podcast feed. See you there.