Tamara Toles O'Laughlin

Redefining the climate movement and creating space for Black women

When she was a young girl in the 1980s, Tamara would tag along with her parents to community meetings and town halls across New York. She would listen intently as her mother, who worked for the local department of environmental protection, conducted blunt exchanges beneath the clamor and debate and shook hands over promises. Mom was an expert in the bureaucratic chess match: she knew who to speak to about what, who worked for the people and who for a favor. Her father was a man of the people, a bigger-than-life problem solver known for his word and his work in community. They got things done.

As a college student, Tamara volunteered as a door-to-door canvasser in Harlem. While working for a statewide anti–death penalty campaign, Tamara began to realize that she occupied a unique spot in the activist world. Many of her fellow canvassers were white and middle-class, and they didn’t understand why the neighborhood “didn’t seem to care.” But Tamara knew that, far from not caring, most of the people whose doors they knocked on were in the middle of living it. Many of them had family or friends in prison, and they didn’t have time to read up on the stats or hand out leaflets––they were too busy working to make up for that lost income and scraping together hard-earned cash to send to their incarcerated loved ones.

Tamara felt the frustration on both sides, and saw how the disconnect was limiting the movement. That divide became even clearer as Tamara moved toward her parents' mantle and began working in the environmental movement, for both people and the planet. As a righteously raised Black girl, she knew her history––that her ancestors had stewarded the earth long before what passed as the modern environmental movement. That movement was built in the image of its white male benefactors: resourced, determined, and driven, yes, but blind to their own class ignorance and racial prejudice.

Tamara attended the “crunchiest granola law school” on the planet, aiming to get credentials that passed muster with the environmentalist old guard. As soon as she graduated, she put her double-consciousness to work, asking questions that didn’t usually appear in environmentalist spaces: Why didn’t protestors who were willing to go to jail protecting trees or stopping pipelines feel like they had anything in common with people who went to jail for protesting police brutality? Why was it okay to demand the government invest in renewable energy, but not okay to fight alongside people wanting clean air and water as reparations?

She asked questions in the other direction too, reaching out to Black and brown communities who were justifiably wary of foot-dragging white activist movements: Why pass the collection plate to push your kids to get an education, then react with suspicion and derision when they come back to try and change things? Why was “treehugger” such a dirty word? She refused to approach climate activism as something separate from the racial justice and gender equality her parents  had fought for. She promised herself that no matter what, when her bones met those of her great-grandmother’s on the other side, she wouldn’t have to apologize for not having done all she could.

Tamara’s work made waves throughout the climate movement. In 2019, she became the North America director for 350.org, making her the first Black woman ever to lead a climate organization in the US. But even as she attained some measure of power, Tamara felt the strain of having to be everything at once: a leader, a Black woman, a climate activist, a constant ally and advocate. Her health was threatened by the work she loved, the constant stress of the climate crisis compounded by the demands of a movement driven by fear. She ground her teeth at night, lost hair and sleep to countless hours of strategizing. She lived like a ghost under the weight of the old boys' club and the exclusivity of win-at-all-costs environmental campaigning.

Tamara found renewal in talking to and learning from the elders, other Black people who were dealing with the same stress and managing to get it done (invisibly and with little to no pay) for more than 50 years. She began to see acknowledging her humanity and prioritizing rest and mental health as activism and a new model for leadership. Tamara set to work creating a totally new type of organization, Climate Critical Earth: one that served the issues of climate crisis by first serving the folks who led the fight. She called on her networks to provide more mental health support for activists, especially for BIPOC female leaders who were doing the work of fighting climate change on top of white supremacy. The only way they were going to survive, and thrive, was by supporting one another.