While some women are declining to have kids because of climate change, Mothers Out Front is leveraging the power of a mother’s love to get politicians to take action.
In February, a couple weeks before COVID-19 spread through the U.S., a group of mothers in San Diego gathered in a living room under colorful balloons and a birthday banner from a recent party. One mom brought her baby girl to the meeting, dressed in a fuzzy pink vest. The mothers, most of whom are Mexican-American, live in San Ysidro, a neighborhood of San Diego close to the U.S.-Mexico border. They were there to discuss how the San Ysidro School District had cut a bus route, forcing some of their children to walk a few miles to and from school each day.
Some women are opting not to have biological children due to the climate crisis—a topic that attracted more attention after congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mentioned it during a recent Instagram live-stream. “There’s scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult,” she said. “And it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: Is it OK to still have children?” In the United Kingdom, some women are formally abstaining through BirthStrike, a group committed to the movement. Proponents cite a 2017 study that suggests having fewer children is the greatest lifestyle choice people can make to shrink their carbon footprint.
For years, though, a starkly different movement has been taking hold as well. The women who met in San Diego to discuss air pollution are part of Mothers Out Front, a growing crusade of moms, grandmothers, and caretakers pressing their communities to adopt climate-friendly policies. Their motivation rests on a different notion: that mothers are in a distinct position to leverage change—that their appeals to protect children might uniquely resonate with those in power. And so far, it’s working: Since 2016, the group has successfully pushed Massachusetts and California to adopt new laws promoting clean energy and regulating gas leaks, convinced dozens of cities and towns to embrace renewables, and stopped or postponed gas projects in Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York. “I sensed in my feelings of despair and outrage, there was power in that, a mother’s love for her children,” says cofounder Kelsey Wirth.
In 2012, Wirth met with Vanessa Rule, a longtime climate organizer and fellow mother, and together they launched Mothers Out Front in Massachusetts the following year. They organized hundreds of house parties across the Boston area, where mothers discussed important local climate-related issues. From there, chapters opened in New York and then spread to Virginia, Colorado, California, and Missouri. The group now has over 23,000 members nationwide.
There is a long history of mothers in the environmental movement. In the early 20th century, many American women campaigning for clean air and water were open that motherhood was the force behind their activism. At the time, lobbying as mothers allowed women to participate in politics, according to Dr. Susan Conradsen, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at Berry College in Georgia, who has studied maternal activism.
Decades later, as women gained more rights, activists relied less on their role as mothers, though some continued to embrace it. In the 1960s, women protesting pollution from nuclear testing held out photos of their children. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, mothers across the country led campaigns against toxic waste in their communities. Conradsen says that present day activists are following in those women’s footsteps by reclaiming the title of “mother” without fear that it will diminish their authority. “We don’t have to only use it and we don’t have to dismiss it,” she said. “It can be part of our identity.”
Many members of Mothers Out Front are seasoned activists, while others are recruited at school functions and are learning about climate issues for the first time. Leaders teach other moms about the legislative process and how to tell their own stories in a way that engages politicians. They also provide them with childcare while they attend hearings and protests. Though some moms choose to bring their children along when they meet with legislators to help drive their points home.
Today, the group’s largest national campaign is to get school districts to switch to electric school buses, 94 percent of which are fueled with diesel in the U.S. One diesel school bus alone releases 27 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, which is equivalent to five gasoline-powered cars.
One of the moms steering the effort is Maria Villanueva, a member of the San Diego chapter. The issue is personal for her; in the early 2000s, her daughter developed severe asthma while living next to an autobody repair shop in National City, a suburb south of the city, which was zoned to allow dozens of industrial businesses, resulting in high air pollution. (In 2005, children in National City were hospitalized for asthma at a 57 percent higher rate than the county average.) Villanueva and the National City moms ultimately failed in their effort to get their district to adopt electric school buses, but Mothers Our Front succeeded in two other local school districts this year, including Chula Vista Elementary School District and San Ysidro.
In Virginia, where the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile long natural gas pipeline starting in West Virginia, is under construction, Mothers Out Front brought together rural families who are uneasy about potential gas leaks. Desiree Shelley, an organizer in Roanoke and mom of two daughters, told me conversations about gas leaks and children’s health are particularly sensitive and that families can panic if they’re not also given potential solutions. Mothers Out Front is deliberate when giving families facts and advice. “Hope is important, but it can’t just be hope as some abstract idea,” Shelley says. “It has to be something that is attainable.”
As the stench lingered, Naranjo and her husband evacuated with their two young children, but she says other families couldn’t. The incident deepened the importance of one of their other campaigns in San Diego. Since the pandemic began, Naranjo and Villanueva teamed with other activists and doctors to persuade the city to create an office dedicated to environmental justice. In October, they won. The staff members will be bilingual and address problems that contribute to racial disparities in San Diego’s air pollution, like zoning and permit decisions for polluting businesses—issues the mothers say have been long overlooked. For Villanueva, the victory means she may one day watch her daughter play sports outdoors without worrying about what she’s inhaling. “[Moms doing this activism] makes a difference,” she said. “It makes all the difference in the world.”