Words by YESSENIA FUNES
Photograph by Denisse Ariana Pérez
Everyone needs time to recover after a fight. The Frontline dives into the burnout harming the environmental movement—and one woman’s effort to keep the fire alive.
Talk to anyone who works on climate change—whether they’re an activist, a scientist, or a writer—and you’ll hear the same thing. They’re tired. They’re tired of the inadequate climate policy, sure, but they’re also tired of how they’re treated. Climate work is often thankless work.
You work crazy hours for a nonprofit that doesn’t pay you enough to live comfortably. You pour your soul into an agency that, quite frankly, doesn’t value you. Then, after all that, leaders in Congress fail to pass the sort of policy you’ve been breaking your back over. This is the open secret of climate labor, especially among Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. It’s why Tamara Toles O’Laughlin launched her organization Climate Critical Earth: to transform the operational and emotional workings of climate and environmental organizations—and the individuals in them. She has over 20 years of experience in this field, so she knows firsthand the challenges that exist and how to overcome them.
Welcome to The Frontline, where it’s time to repair. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. The Inflation Reduction Act passed the House of Representatives last week, marking a new chapter in the climate world. While many environmental groups see the bill as a step forward, other organizers see its fossil fuel provisions as yet another iteration of white environmentalists sacrificing Black and Brown lives. As a result, the movement has fractured. The need for healing is growing urgent.
In June, a group of 10 Black women who work in the climate space came together in Montego Bay, Jamaica, with one task: to build community. They shared their life experiences over meals, relaxed their minds through yoga, and journaled about their needs in between. Together, the women built not only community but also a sense of safety and sustainability that can help them as they move forward with their work. Addressing the climate crisis is a long game, but society will never figure it out if the best and brightest minds are lost to burnout.
The woman who brought them together is Tamara Toles O’Laughlin. She’s a climate leader who launched in February Climate Critical Earth, a support-based anti-racist and feminist environmental organization dedicated to normalizing a culture that centers care and repair by consulting and mentoring environmental organizations and staff ready for change. The June gathering marked the organization’s first formal in-person event. And it’s been a lifetime in the making. Toles O’Laughlin didn’t simply stumble into this field—she was born into it.
Her father was a community police officer. He was the one who taught her she shouldn’t call the police unless absolutely necessary. Instead, she learned the value of knowing who’s who and building relationships with her neighbors. The police may not save someone’s life, but perhaps their mom or girlfriend might. Toles O’Laughlin’s mother, meanwhile, worked for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection for 35 years. From a young age, Toles O’Laughlin understood how the infrastructure behind how a city functions. There are the water reservoirs and the pipes that pump that water through—but there are also the people working to keep that water clean and ensure it’s getting to where it needs to.
Both helped develop her climate justice lens. It’s not just about clean water. It’s also about community safety. It’s not just pipelines—it’s also people.
“If the people who do the work are treated like trash, we have no chance of building a movement big enough to solve problems.”
“I really depend on community to understand things, to learn how it’s happening,” she said. “By the principles and values that they gave me of how we become better by staying together is the key to how I’ve survived some pretty traumatic experiences as a person in this body doing environmental work for over two decades.”
In 1999, Toles O’Laughlin spent her summer working at her mother’s job where she first heard about Earth Day and acid rain and the ozone layer. Back then, there were even fewer Black people in environmental spaces than there are today. And yet, that never deterred her. She saw how passionately her parents cared about others, and she was committed to paving her own path to do the same.
After years of schooling and unpaid internships to pursue an environmental law career, Toles O’Laughlin finally landed her first full-time job. In 2009, she began working for the Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment, which provides legal assistance to communities dealing with pollution and injustice in California. She spent the next decade moving around, exploring new opportunities, and meeting Black and Brown leaders. By 2019, she was the North America director for 350.org, a leading climate organization. Now, she’s focused on getting money into the hands of people who need it in her role as president and CEO of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, which includes over 200 foundations that work in the environmental philanthropic space.
So, yeah, Toles O’Laughlin has been on every rung of the ladder—from intern to CEO. In all these positions, one thing has remained consistent: the way organizations exclude, erase, and extract from people of color, women, and its most essential workers. Climate Critical Earth felt like the sensible next step.
“If we’re going to keep making ambitious claims and mobilizing and having massive strategies and big campaigns, we need to have people who are rested and able to do it or have enough space to have creative ideas about solving problems,” she said. “What we don’t have is that kind of ethic for the work itself, so people burn out—and they leave. There’s an epidemic of poor mental health and short-lived service from people who, if supported, could be the architects of the future.”
Rest is at the heart of her work. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a rise in awareness around self-care and mental health. Toles O’Laughlin’s group isn’t the first to think radically about rest. The Nap Ministry, founded in 2016, also aims to shift the narrative around who is afforded rest and what that looks like. Critical Climate Earth, however, provides a unique lens by focusing on environmentalists and their extraordinary struggles in defending the Earth.
“The work requires us to get this together by a certain date, and I don’t know if, as a movement, we’ve done enough to feed people so that they can meet this challenge,” Toles O’Laughlin said.
“The revolution must be resourced. That includes taking care of people. If you prioritize people as a part of the work, you solve problems.”
Physics operates on its own timeline. The planet is on course for irreversible climate change unless transformative change occurs in our energy systems and lifestyles. And yet, how is anyone supposed to commit to this work if they aren’t making enough money to pay their bills or aren’t getting enough sleep to be focused?
“If the people who do the work are treated like trash, we have no chance of building a movement big enough to solve problems,” Toles O’Laughlin said.
Through Critical Climate Earth, Toles O’Laughlin wants to see the people powering this movement receive all that they are owed. Employers play a key role here. Every organization working on climate change should have a line item in their budget dedicated to taking care of their team’s long-term well-being. Their mission to protect the Earth means nothing if there aren’t enough healthy and energized people to help execute it.
In fact, Toles O’Laughlin imagines environmental and climate organizations will eventually make up the majority of her organization’s clients. She also wants to help push philanthropy to fund the necessary repair work, too. Her group’s current budget comes primarily from funders, but she’s aiming to build a $3 million budget fed through clients seeking retreats and spaces similar to what she assembled in Montego Bay in June.
“The revolution must be resourced,” she said. “That includes taking care of people. If you prioritize people as a part of the work, you solve problems.”
That June convening centered on Black women, but Toles O’Laughlin wants to slowly expand to invite more identities into the mix: Afro-Indigenous people, other women of color, and men of color, too. She hopes to keep these invite-only events accessible by offering them for free to individuals her team of advisers helps her select.
Leslie Fields is one of those advisers. She’s the national director of policy, advocacy, and legal for the Sierra Club. She wasn’t able to attend the gathering in June, but she recognizes the value of what Toles O’Laughlin is building.
“We have to take care of ourselves mentally, physically, spiritually, intellectually, and we need support,” she said. “It’s critical care because people are overworked and underpaid or not paid at all.”
This type of environment is especially toxic to people of color in the movement who already live with the everyday obstacles inherent to a systemically racist society. They can only take so much from a job before they walk away for good—which only works to the detriment of climate justice. Fields remembers her early days in the environmental field. Those were lonely days. She’d go to job interviews and never hear back. That’s how it was back then to be a Black woman working in the environmental sector. Today, the situation’s not much brighter.
Aya de León is an author and artist who attended the gathering in Montego Bay. She writes climate narratives that center Black women and their crucial role in the work. She sees Critical Climate Earth as a continuation of that narrative shift. She got to connect with other Black women and ask them questions and learn. She got to go deep with them to better understand the stories she needs to tell—stories around policy change and victory.
After all, there’s more to being a climate activist than gloom and doom. Climate activism should feel inviting. It should inspire and feed the soul—not suck it dry. That’s the only way we win. And Toles O’Laughlin knows the movement can’t succeed unless its leaders care enough to repair the damage already suffered. And healing is needed for the fight to continue. Critical Climate Earth is up to the challenge.