/Former Greenville mayor, turned environment advocate How the air we breathe affects our kids is ‘critically important’

Former Greenville mayor, turned environment advocate How the air we breathe affects our kids is ‘critically important’

Toney currently lives in Oxford and spoke over the telephone with Alex Rozier, Mississippi Today’s environmental reporter, for our Inform[H]er newsletter. Q: What is the mother’s view on clean air? A: The air we breathe has a huge impact on our children’s health. Although it is a basic function that we take for granted; however, it is greatly affected by the environment we live in and the rapid climate change that is taking place around the world. Parents can be educated about this to help them protect their children. Just think about the number of children suffering from asthma or being affected by climate-related health disparities. These are the things parents worry about every night. A report by the United Nations stated that we must take global action within the next ten year to reduce climate-related impacts. We will face irreversible damage if we do not act. This means that we cannot in any way change the future of what is coming, such as the forest fires or floods we have experienced or the rise in sea levels. It’s important that we understand the impact on our children, your children, and all future generations. Q: How difficult is it to raise these issues within a field that is often male-dominated and white? Diversity is something I believe we should be talking about more in environmental issues. It’s not true that the stereotypical image of climate and environmental issues is male-dominated and white. … I don’t see the way that the people involved in this work look. Water, air, and land were all natural to me growing up along the Mississippi River. You don’t even consider (environmentalism), being concerned about the environment. You can be sure that you will find a garden if your are in Greenville. You’ll find collard greens and mustard greens this time of the year. It’s part of everyday life. We need to see environmentalism from a natural perspective. It’s based on what we have done in the past, and what people of color did. This allows us to be protective of this land. We have to change how that dynamic looks. The challenge for me in that space, as mayor in Greenville, is to get people to see themselves as they are naturally. My godmother, my grandmother, and any other black woman in the community can tell you when it will rain, because of their arthritis. This is a joke I make all the time. We laugh about little things like this because being Southernisms (whether you’re black or white) are indicators of who we are as environmentalists. Q: How did your journey from Greenville mayor to EPA regional administrator. A: Water issues were one of my main responsibilities while I was mayor. In August 2009, we were featured on the Washington Post’s front page about groundwater in Greenville. I didn’t know that I was involved in environmental issues as part of my job as mayor. Lisa Jackson, former EPA administrator, came to Greenville. She took me to the wastewater treatment plants and told me that she was working on environmental issues. I was thinking of economic development. She then offered me the opportunity to join the local government advisory committee of EPA and asked me to become its chair. This gave me the opportunity to raise them and elevate the importance rural conversation and rural communities in these decisions. This was how I started my affiliation with EPA. After Gina McCarthy was appointed administrator, I was asked if you would be interested in the position of Regional Administrator. I came from Greenville. Q: When you look back on your time in Greenville, and the current situation there, are there any environmental issues you wish you could have addressed? A: It’s always 20-20. All that I have learned has been an opportunity to grow, not only for me, but also for those around me. As an example, I see extreme weather and flooding back in 2005 and 2006. It was something I didn’t realize how crucial it would be to prepare for the future and find ways to build sustainably. It is just difficult. Looking at the whole Mississippi Delta region, it’s still a part that isn’t as economically privileged as the other parts. Let’s face the facts, there is a portion of the state where state leaders haven’t invested as much in as other parts. It’s difficult for mayors and other local leaders to consider how to build things sustainably, and at a cost that is affordable. They’re simply trying to build. You want me to build a green road, but I don’t have a road because it was washed away by floodwaters. Q: What made you want to run for office? Was it because you didn’t have any mayors who looked like you that this decision was influenced? A: Yes, and no. Greenville is my home. It’s where I was born. These were my Sunday school teacher and band director, as well as my English teacher. They had taught me how to get into the best schools in the country and to graduate from law school. I felt that I had to give back to my community. This was how I was raised. It was also the way my father and mother operated their lives in the neighborhood. Now, we have a black mayor. Errick Simmons is now mayor. Errick Simmons was my classmate. He sat on the city council with me. I know him well. He’s done an excellent job, I understand the challenges and have experienced them. Q: I noticed that you are a triathlete. Is there a favorite event or least favorite of all three? A: Swimming is my favorite, and cycling is my least favorite. I just can’t get over it by the time I start running. Swimming is my favourite, I have been swimming for many years and I was a member of the Delta Aquatic Club when I was a child. Cycling is my favorite sport. I don’t know how to ride on hills because I am from the Delta, so I have to be careful. Triathlons are something I enjoy. It allows me to relax, get out of my head and enjoy the outdoors. It’s like nothing else.