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Theresa “Tee” McClenty grew up in Camden, New Jersey, in a neighborhood she says was rife with gangs, drugs, and prostitutes. McClenty’s mother dreamed of a healthier environment in which to raise her children.
“So she picked a spot on the map and moved us all the way across the country to the Quad Cities, to Rock island, Illinois,” recalls McClenty, now 54. “It was a culture shock to me—I was used to being around more people that looked like me.”
Now, McClenty is determined to make healthier environments the norm for lower-income communities and communities of color. She spent 16 years working as an emergency medical technician, and most recently worked on outreach and health initiatives at NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center in north Minneapolis.
After years of watching people of color people walk into the emergency room wheezing with allergy and asthma symptoms, McClenty is shifting gears to a role in which she can address the root cause: She’s just starting her second month as executive director at the Minneapolis-based climate justice nonprofit MN350.
Years in labor organization leadership in addition to health care helped prepare McClenty for this role, in which she hopes to shift the narrative of climate change to climate justice. And that includes fighting for clean air in all communities, so that everyone can breathe easily.
Sahan Journal’s conversation with McClenty has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you end up in Minnesota?
I came to college at the University of Northwestern [in Roseville] because I was able to do sign language, religious studies, and nursing general courses. I loved it. I loved it more so than Rock Island. It felt clean here—clean air. The winters were as bad as I’d heard about, but they kept the roads [plowed], so I stayed.
What does climate justice mean and why is it important to you personally?
It’s more important to say climate justice than climate change. We’re not going to move ahead if we’re just focusing on resources for white people—even though I will say, also, white people are our allies, so we have to figure out, how do we partner together?
Climate justice is important to me personally not only because I worked on the frontline of the emergency room, seeing people at their worst, where there were a lot of allergies and asthma, but my own child suffered from those same two things. And the community that looks like me is hardest hit: Immigrant and low-income communities are hardest hit by the impacts of climate change.
Some speculate that because of the climate crisis and pollution, the top four health conditions are allergies, asthma, autism, and breast cancer. And the BIPOC community is hardest hit by those. Education and resources are not equally shared–that’s why I wanted to get into climate justice.
How do you like to experience the outside environment?
I started running when I moved here—it’s a great place to be outside. Work/life balance is important; the ability to go outside and run and breathe clean air is important.
I like the Gateway and West River Parkway trails. I walk out of the door and let it take me where it leads me. My kids’ friends are always saying, “I saw your mom way down somewhere running.”
I have three Black sons, which means a lot to me when I think about climate justice and racial justice. Our fear is making sure our kids are raised in a safe environment. My sons are very athletic, so I wanted to find something for me. I ran track in high school, but I did the 400 [meter dash] and I never thought I’d run a marathon. I just ran my eighth marathon—I’ve done five Twin Cities marathons and three Grandma’s. My family would be like, “you were out running for three hours?!”
What are your goals for MN350 (and climate justice in Minnesota in general)?
I got several emails and texts from my white allies congratulating me and MN350 for being bold and putting a Black woman in charge. But I don’t want to just be a face–I want to be part of the movement.
I think this is just the start for MN350–not just hiring me as director but having a staff that looks like the community we’re getting to [help]. I think Minnesota can lead this way. We can engage more people who are not aware of the fight we’re doing in the work of climate.
In the social justice movement, they say change is created by 3.5 percent of the population. That’s our goal–to get 3.5 percent of people involved. But that means 3.5 percent of all communities engaged. If 3.5 percent excludes people of color, we’re very likely to re-create the same system we have now. So it needs to be 3.5 percent of every community in Minnesota.
How will you do that?
Right now, MN350 has a large following and volunteer base, so one of the things we want to do is elevate the BIPOC community and not just have it be volunteer-led, but also community-led. We can really partner with communities in this fight. To be community-led by BIPOC communities, we need to figure out, how do we work better together?
For immigrant communities that sometimes come to America for a better environment, we have to say, yes, America is better, but the current crisis is universal. So how do we understand the urgency? And part of our mission is to help their voices be heard in this crisis.
If you could reverse one thing we’ve done wrong for the environment, what would it be?
I would say the pipelines. One thing we’ve done wrong, we didn’t really look at how it was going to negatively impact those communities. We oppose expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, including oil pipelines. Also, some of us are so fortunate that we don’t have to worry, is our water clean? But that’s a fear in some communities—is the water going to have a negative impact on my family long-term? In order to have safe water, do I need to buy filters?
Do you feel overwhelmed by environmental problems? If so, how do you keep going?
Sometimes when I think about climate I get overwhelmed because it’s so big, like when I read the big national report about lakes and oceans and I was like, oh, it’s irreversible. But I’m a versatile person, so I also get hopeful, because we’re a smart people and we can figure things out. But I don’t want to wait until it’s too late.