Join this conversation as Mary shares how the beauty of the South has inspired her writing and activism. She talks about burnout, finding joy when it feels like being eaten alive by the world’s grandest problems, white supremacy as the root cause of climate change, and the lessons learned from her work in this never-ending fight.
Darren Isom (00:01):
Welcome to Dreaming in Color, a space for social change leaders of color to reflect on how their life experiences, personal and professional, have prepared them to lead and drive the impact we all seek. I'm your host Darren Isom. And I invite you to join me in these candid kitchen table conversations where together we celebrate these leaders’ ingenuity, are inspired by their wisdom and wit, and learn how collectively we can all strive to do and be better. This is Dreaming in Color.
Mary Annaïse Heglar's writing focuses on climate change and the ways it intersects with race and emotion. Her work has been published in New York magazine, The Nation, Vox, Wired, and other outlets, as well as in several anthologies. As one of the few Black women to become a public figure in the climate space, Mary's clear that she's more interested in being Black people's climate friend than the climate movement’s Black friend, and she’s very intentional about writing for and appearing in outlets that reach beyond the climate choir.
Mary's the godmother of green trolling, using social media to clap back at fossil fuel companies and call out their empty environmental gestures and tone-deaf greenwashing. She’s also an adjunct professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, and the author of a forthcoming children's book, This World is Yours to Cherish, coming out in spring of 2024. She’s the co-creator of the now-retired Hot Take podcast and newsletter. Originally from Birmingham and Mississippi, she’s now based in New Orleans and I’m lucky to get to talk with her today.
So Mary, it's great to see you. Thank you so much for making time. I'm handing the floor to you to start the conversation. What's on your mind from an invocation perspective, something for you to read or share?
Mary Annaïse Heglar (01:33):
I have so many quotes that are running around in my head all the time, but one that's been sticking out to me this week is from Maya Angelou when she said, "Tell the truth to yourself first, and then to the children."
Darren Isom (01:46):
And that's a great one to start with. You can't go wrong with a Maya Angelou quote, that's for sure.
Mary Annaïse Heglar (01:48):
Nothing I say will measure up to that.
Darren Isom (01:51):
Well, listen, I don't know. I've seen some of your quotes, they're pretty good. But yeah, that's a good one. I do want to kick it off. I know that you're in New Orleans, which is my home, and we share the connection to New Orleans, but more importantly, we both have a connection to the South. And I had a question here about how growing up in the South has influenced your relationship with nature in the climate justice movement. But I want to back up before that. As someone who's from New Orleans, who's lived most of his life outside of New Orleans, at this point now, because I'm getting old and I left New Orleans after high school, people talk about the South in such broad... Like “the South”, as if the South ain't hella vast.
And so I'm going to reframe that question instead of how was growing up in the South, how has growing up in your South influenced your relationship, just in general, one, who you are as a person, how has your South shaped you as a person? And then on top of that, your relationship with nature and the climate justice movement?
Mary Annaïse Heglar (02:42):
It's almost hard to describe. It's almost like a fish describing water because I can't imagine having been shaped by other places. Living in New Orleans has made me really think more deeply about how I answer the question of, "Where are you from?" I am from Birmingham, Alabama, up until I was nine years old. And then we moved to Mississippi and there I was until I was 18 years old. And I like to say that my heart is in Mississippi and my soul is in Birmingham, and I'm inextricable from the two. And so I think the South is first of all very beautiful. The landscape is evocative, it demands description. I think that that is a big part of why I became a writer is because I wanted to capture what I saw in words. You don't grow up seeing such beauty and not want to protect it for the rest of your life.
And to have the idea that this one day may be no more because of things that could have been prevented, that's really difficult to swallow when you've grown up surrounded by such beauty. But also, I'm of the generation that comes right after the one that faced bomb threats and police dogs for basically just wanting to use a decent water fountain or a decent school. And so the idea that my forefathers would've fought for a world that would become unlivable, that's not what they fought for, that's not the world that they wanted for me, and that is untenable to me. And so I think that's a big part of why I became... I would call myself a climate writer. A lot of people call me a climate activist, I guess it kind of applies. But yeah, it definitely shaped my environmentalism to know that this world is mine, and it belongs to people who look like me.
Darren Isom (04:24):
This beautiful world is yours. There is something to be said about the beauty of the South. And as someone who lived on the East Coast for many years, I joked when I moved to California, it took me a couple of years to appreciate how pretty California was because I had spent so much time in New York where I just wasn't used to looking up. I wasn't looking for anything beautiful. And now when I go home to New Orleans, just the lushness of it all and the connection to that lushness is really something magical.
I love the piece around how, from a generation perspective, one generation fought for you to take advantage of the world. You want to make sure the world's around for your generation to take care of, but also the generation to come. One of the things that I find really interesting, and it's something that's been on my mind a lot, generationally speaking, having grown up in New Orleans. In the fullness of time, as I talk with a friend all the time about, this concept of my sense of what is New Orleans is so marked by my life between the ages of 15 and 25. When I think about what is New Orleans, what the city is, what it should look like, and how someone like my mom has a very different perspective on what New Orleans is and what it should look like.
I may have shared with you this example of, I was talking with my mom, my sister and I... My sister lives in Charlotte, my brother's in Atlanta, and we were home for my mother's birthday. And my mother was really happy about how the city's doing economically, and she was trying to get us to compliment the city. And we're like, "Yeah, city seems to be doing well." But we said in passing, "The city feels really white. New Orleans feels whiter than any city. I don't know this New Orleans. It's unrecognizable to me. I've never seen this many white people in New Orleans." To which my mother responded, without skipping a beat, "Yeah, now it feels like the city I grew up in." And I never thought about the fact that I grew up in New Orleans after all the white people left, '80s and '90s. It was an 80 percent Black city. My mother grew up in a city that was 45-50 percent Black.
Mary Annaïse Heglar (06:06):
That is very interesting.
Darren Isom (06:08):
And the even example that you realize a normalization of that, everyone knows the Ninth Ward as this Black neighborhood that was almost destroyed by Katrina. People also know the story of Ruby Bridges. Ruby Bridges was a Black girl that was desegregating a school in the Ninth Ward. It was an all-white school, in an all-white neighborhood. And so with that, I do wonder, going back to your understanding of the South growing up in both Alabama and Mississippi, how do you think your appreciation of space and your ownership of that space has changed with your generation, the way that your parents couldn't have or didn't expect to have?
Mary Annaïse Heglar (06:40):
That's so interesting because now I'm thinking back on Birmingham too. I grew up there in the '80s and '90s, and I've always thought of Birmingham as this Black, Black, Black city.
Darren Isom (06:52):
One hundred percent. Because all the white folks had left, right?
Mary Annaïse Heglar (06:54):
Right. So I remember learning about the 16th Street bombing and Martin Luther King and all of that. They were teaching us that in kindergarten. And I ran home and was like, "Mama, there used to be white people." The bombings and all of the other stuff was not nearly as surprising to me as the fact that there used to be white people. Because at that point in my life, I don't think I had ever seen a white person and known they were white. I'm picturing crayon white, right? Because I'm five. And she was like, "Yeah." Birmingham is actually starting to gentrify a little bit more too. And thinking back to then, I think Birmingham was still majority white in the '60s and the '50s, but it wasn't as nearly as majority white as the one that I knew. I honestly had never quite put that together.
Darren Isom (07:41):
Honestly, when I thought about it, it's jarring to me now, when I'm home, I'm seeing white folks in neighborhoods, they're neighborhoods that ultimately, when I was in New Orleans, there was no one there. They were abandoned. And now, there are white people there because they're white people neighborhoods. Like Freret Street, Magazine Street, parts of Oak Street. These were abandoned neighborhoods, and now white folks are back in their neighborhoods.
Mary Annaïse Heglar (08:01):
I'll say New Orleans still feels very, very Black to me. And I think that a big part of that is because I lived in New York for a minute in between all of this. I think having grown up, not just in the South but in very Black parts of the South, have a lot to do with how I engage with nature and the way I don't necessarily feel like I have to shrink myself in nature. I didn't learn how to code switch until I was very much a grown woman. I've always been in Black-dominated spaces from Birmingham to the part of Mississippi I grew up in was part of the Black Belt. I went to an all-Black boarding school in Mississippi.
The idea of having been a minority... I would see on the news, "Black people are only 10 percent of the country." And I'd be like, "Where do you live?" And so honestly, that was a part of the reason I chose to go to a predominantly white school. The other part was financial aid. Because I was just like, "Oh, I guess if I'm a minority, I should see what the rest of the world is like."
Darren Isom (08:58):
No, that's really interesting. And I think there's something really powerful about having Blackness normalized, in a way that you just don't even think about it. I grew up uptown, so it's definitely diverse. But I was in a Black home, Black community, Black church. And so white people, I saw them. The way I saw them on TV. There were a lot of things happening on TV when you're in New Orleans that weren't real. Santa was white on TV too. There was a whole lot of stuff happening on TV that was not real.
I want to switch this a little bit and I'll give you a little chance to talk smack to me about New Orleans if you like as well, because I can imagine that New Orleans is a very interesting place.
Mary Annaïse Heglar (09:27):
I'm not doing that.
Darren Isom (09:29):
You better not.
Mary Annaïse Heglar (09:29):
That's a trap.
Darren Isom (09:30):
Setting up a third rail. I wouldn't do you like that. Don't worry. I do want to shift over to Baldwin, because I know that he's a favorite of yours and a favorite of mine as well. And someone that has had just a profound impact on your life and your work. And I would love to just have you share why his writing has been so influential to you.
Mary Annaïse Heglar (09:48):
Reading his work was really liberating because he found a way to give language to things that he felt but couldn't quite articulate. And there's something just really freeing about being able to name the ways that your oppression works. There's nothing more disenfranchising than being oppressed and not being able to say why. There's nothing worse than being in pain and not being able to communicate to someone else that you are in pain. And James Baldwin was able to do that for so many people, both blending in his personal experiences as well as these big systemic forces, and to just sort of lay it bare. And once you can name your oppression, then you can actually start to work to change it.
The other thing I thought was very beautiful about his entire story was how much he loved children. That comes through in everything that he writes. And one of my favorite James Baldwin quotes is that, "The children are always ours, every single one of them all around the globe." The way that he felt this responsibility to children and the way that he would commune with them. There's so many videos of him talking to younger activists, and the way he listened to them and took them so seriously. It was like he found himself indebted to them and responsible to them in a way that I thought made him such a beautiful human being and a really genuine writer.
Darren Isom (11:13):
I think that love is really obvious in his work and he talks about it. I think it's the love of children, it's a love of community, the Black community as well, and the responsibility and the obligation to the community is really powerful itself. I think that where I see similarities in both of you is your ability to cut through the noise and tell the truth from a storytelling perspective. And I would love for you just to share a little bit more about that truth telling as your guiding post. What's your approach to storytelling?
Mary Annaïse Heglar (11:37):
My approach to storytelling is really to find catharsis. That's my main goal every time that I write, is to try to find a catharsis for myself, to make sure that I'm being honest, to make sure I'm not being lazy. And my number one audience is always myself, is an act of self-discovery and trying to unwork a knot, if you will. Like trying to get the kink out of your neck or something, that's what I'm doing when I'm writing. And so I probably am known for telling a lot of personal stories. Sometimes I'm like, "Really? Did I just tell the whole world all my business in that essay?" But trying to make sure that I do so for a purpose to tell a bigger story that's not just about me, and to try to help someone else feel seen in the process of laying down my own story.
Part of the reason I started telling climate stories through a personal lens was I thought that nobody could argue with me about my personal experience. That is not true. People will try to argue with you about stuff that happened to you. It's my favorite thing about the internet. People will be like, "Yeah, that didn't happen to me, so it couldn't have happened to you." The logic doesn't make sense. The reaction to it though in general has been very positive. And the people that I care about, Black people, generally have been very receptive and grateful for it, so that's really what matters to me. And I have found a lot of cathartic release through writing, and that also makes it very much worth it.
Darren Isom (13:14):
I love this idea of writing as a form of healing, if you will, and conversations like this, to be very candid, are very healing for me. I love talking with folks who are struggling with the same things. I do also love, to some degree, this idea of your personal stories. It's very humanizing, as silly as that sounds. Telling your personal stories and how your personal stories make people realize that you're just a human, like everyone else, and you're struggling through things as others are as well. In the December essay for The Cut, you describe your experience of burning out after years of tirelessly fighting for climate justice. With this theme of healing in mind, I would like to hear a little bit about your relationship with self-care and how it's evolved throughout your life and career.
Mary Annaïse Heglar (13:53):
It's still evolving. I think one of the things that I have had to learn, and I'm still learning, is how to set boundaries. So one of the things that came out of that process of going through burnout was figuring out who I should give my time to. When I came into climate work, it is unfortunately a pretty white space. There are definitely environmental justice groups. There have been Black people working on environmental justice and climate justice for decades, if not centuries, but the mainstream movement remains very white dominant. And so even when I entered into a kind of behind-the-scenes role, it was the whitest environment I had ever been in my life. And that is when I learned how to code switch. That's when I learned the language of passive aggressiveness, when I was in my thirties.
That was tough enough. And then when I started writing, when I started podcasting, then I wasn't just behind the scenes anymore, then I was visible, and that attracted a lot of white folks, honestly, who it felt like they kind of just wanted to be around me to prove to themselves and to others that they weren't racist.
Darren Isom (15:01):
Folks can't see my eyes opening over here as a response to that, but yeah.
Mary Annaïse Heglar (15:06):
That ain't surprising. You know that ain't surprising.
Darren Isom (15:14):
No, it ain't. I know it's not. But still, though, you know?
Mary Annaïse Heglar (15:14):
Yeah, and in the beginning you're like, "Okay, this is my little 15 minutes of fame. I want to say everything I want to say on every platform I can say it, and then go back to my life." And then 15 minutes lasted for a long time, and it was kind of like, okay, I need to learn how to draw new boundaries. And what I found was that I seemed to have endless energy for Black people, but I had very finite energy for white-led organizations, white-led outlets. I had to be very careful with the amount of time that I gave to those spaces. And so had to pull back from a lot of stuff.
It's kind of in the essay that I unceremoniously resigned from a board, just turned down every invitation and every contract. I can't do this anymore. And there's a quote in there, in that essay from Jacqui Patterson who is just such a giant in this space. I asked her about burnout and she was kind of like, "I'm not really sure if I've ever burnt out." And she was like, "I always had the energy to do the work because I got to wake up every day and be in service of Black people." And I was just like, "Hmm, there's a lesson there."
Darren Isom (16:25):
There's a lesson there. How do you find spaces to restore yourself? And random conversation at some point in the middle of the pandemic, I was having one of those tough Mondays. There was a lot of tough Mondays during the pandemic. And I remember driving in, and my mother always reminds me that, generationally speaking, we are living quite well. And I was trying to think of, in many ways, I was like, I wonder what, for the slave, what kept them going? When they got up on a Monday morning, what kept them going? And I call my mom and my mother being you know, just a forever source of wisdom. She's like, "Well, first of all, I don't think slaves are waking up Monday morning all refreshed and rejuvenated because it wasn't like they had a weekend off, so first things first. And secondly, at the end of the day, I think they were surviving for each other. There wasn't necessarily some hopefulness that things would change dramatically the next day, but they had to be around. They had to be together for each other. And so that sense of community is a really powerful one."
And with that, I do believe this work is not on one of us. It's on a group of us, where it's like the Urvashi Vaid quote that it's a relay race, passing the baton back and forth across the race itself to others to support you. Both, how do you create that team of folks and nurture that team of folks that you can pass the baton to, particularly Black folks in this space, but also how do you sustain them in the work? What do you feel are your obligations to others in the work, particularly Black folks that are doing this work to keep them restored? Because I also know that we've had conversations about this before, the role of joy in the work. And joy can very often be used as a motivating force and a way of restoring. I know that it could also be a dangerous force as well. And so I just want to think about how do you balance joy in all of that as well?
Mary Annaïse Heglar (18:03):
I just came back from a Black Women in Climate retreat, with a bunch of other Black women who do this kind of work. And a big part of it focused on rest and recharging and on joy. I don't think we are at any risk of having too much joy as Black people, or especially as Black people who work on climate, we're not getting too much of it at any point. If anything, it's a deficit. So I have no problem with that. One of the things that I had to check myself on recently is that I often assume that other Black women are too busy for me because I feel like I'm busy all the time. I don't want to bother them, they're busy. I will just deal with this in the corner.
And I've started having more candid conversations with other Black women about that assumption. They're like, "Oh my God, I thought the same thing about you. And so I didn't reach out to you because I thought you were too busy.” And so we're like, "Okay, but I'm never too busy for you though." So we've started building more intentional relationships with one another where we have more checkpoints, more group chats, more just finding the time to be with each other, even if we think we're too busy because we're all kind of being eaten alive by the same things. So yeah, I am too busy for some people, but not for you.
Darren Isom (19:19):
I know that's right.
Mary Annaïse Heglar (19:19):
And as far as the role of joy, I think we need so much more of it. Last weekend in New Orleans was Treme Sidewalk Steppers Second Line, and it was a great time.
Darren Isom (19:34):
Speaking of joy.
Mary Annaïse Heglar (19:35):
Yeah, exactly. I moved to New Orleans about a year and a half ago, and there were a lot of reasons to do it, including being closer to my family because the three biggest cities in Mississippi are New Orleans, Birmingham, and Memphis. And this is the closest one to my mama.
Darren Isom (19:50):
I joke all the time, I worked in Memphis, and Memphis of itself is the capital of the Mississippi Delta.
Mary Annaïse Heglar (19:53):
It is pretty much. So where I'm at, New Orleans is our capital as far as we're concerned. But another big part of why I moved here was that I felt like New Orleans had something to teach me. And turns out, there are many things New Orleans is teaching me. So many things, and one of them is the importance of joy and the importance of Black joy in sustaining us. I like to say that where I grew up is close enough to New Orleans that you could hear it laughing down the river.
Darren Isom (20:19):
That's a beautiful expression. Yeah.
Mary Annaïse Heglar (20:21):
You want to know, what's so funny? What's the music like? You want to know what it's like.
Darren Isom (20:25):
And there's something to be said about the role of joy and laughter and all those things, particularly Black joy, because there's something also very radical. It's a form of resistance, right? Because for the record, shit ain't funny, but we're finding humor in it. It's been our way of really surviving through our 400-year history. You've shared this idea of joy and the importance of it as a community. How do you deal with that in a space like the climate justice movement where there isn't much joy or optimism?
Mary Annaïse Heglar (20:49):
Find the Black people, every time.
Darren Isom (20:51):
We can end the session right now because that is an answer on life.
Mary Annaïse Heglar (20:57):
Find the Black folks. We have found a way to laugh and to find joy in the darkest of scenarios. We come from those people. I remember once my family had a family reunion in this hotel and there was another family having a family reunion in the same hotel. And I knew I could find my family just by listening for the laughter. Because you get two of us together, three, it's just going to get louder and louder because that's what we do when we're together. Half the time, we got our problems, we have our drama, but we love to laugh and we love to tell stories. And we can find humor in the saddest of things half of the time. Every time that we have a funeral, we're all crying and screaming. We're so sad that we've lost this person. But then you get to the repass and it's a party.
Darren Isom (21:48):
One hundred percent.
Mary Annaïse Heglar (21:48):
Because we still have things to celebrate and we're hilarious.
Darren Isom (21:52):
You can sit next to me at the funeral. I'll make you laugh there too, between tears. I'm that cousin. I'm totally that cousin. It's really bad. I do want to jump in. In your 2019 essay, “Climate Change Isn't the First Existential Threat,” you talk about the history of Black people building some of the most powerful movements in US history, and just the role of Black movements and Black leaders from an American perspective. What lessons, and I'm turning from Black folks to funders, what lessons can funders and climate activists draw from Black and Indigenous people's fights for freedom and survival in America to win the climate fight? And maybe it's not a question of winning the climate fight. Maybe it's a question of sustaining. I don't know what the answer is there, but what are the lessons there to be learned?
Mary Annaïse Heglar (22:33):
I think one of them is to address root causes as opposed to applying band-aids. I think that understanding that it's going to take some fortitude to address a root cause. I think a lot about when SNCC went into Mississippi. They knew good and well that their lives depended on making inroads on the Black folks that were already there and uncovering the leadership of folks who were already there, people like Fannie Lou Hamer. And so a lot of the time the mainstream climate movement will go into communities and not talk to the folks on the ground at all. And so it winds up not working or it only works for a little bit, or it only works for a small handful of people.
Darren Isom (23:15):
So Mary, you talked about the importance of folks going in and talking with folks in the communities, and you also noted the point of recognizing that they may have answers. That's a small point, but it's a huge one. Because the number of folks that don't go in and talk to community folks because they don't think of them as having anything to say is just astonishing. You're going in to engage with communities, not just because it's the right thing to do from a moralistic perspective or a values perspective, because that's where the answers are. Can you talk on that for a little bit? Where's the blind spot there?
Mary Annaïse Heglar (23:44):
I mean, honestly, what I will tell people usually is that if you had all the answers, the problem would've been solved because y'all been on this since forever. Most of the modern day environmental movement is about 50 years old. So if y'all had all the answers, why are we still here? That doesn't make a lot of sense. If we had it all figured out, then how did we fail? And by we I mean …
Darren Isom (24:08):
Mary Annaïse Heglar (24:08):
Darren Isom (24:09):
Clearly, clearly. Well, okay, so the long haul, the long fight itself, the idea of being steadfast into thinking this idea of talking to community folks. What are some other lessons?
Mary Annaïse Heglar (24:17):
I think one of them is to hang your savior complex at the door. The climate movement is a very dangerous place to take on a savior complex, to think that you are going to fix everything all by yourself, no help. That is a great way, not just to burn out, but it's just not going to work. To understand that you don't have to do everything. You don't have to be all things to all people. You don't have to be the one who comes up with all the decisions. I meet so many folks who have moved to New Orleans with savior complexes, and they tend to be some of the most dangerous people that you ever want to be around. And people will say it with a straight face, "I moved here because I had a savior complex." Okay, so in other words, you're a gentrifier.
Darren Isom (25:01):
On this side, it's even worse. They're out here like they're on a Peace Corps mission, right?
Mary Annaïse Heglar (25:02):
Right. What makes you think that you have all the answers and they're the ones who've survived all this time? You think you're going to teach something? How does that make sense? And I think the same is true with the way that the larger climate movement tends to interact with smaller frontline communities. It's almost like they assume the frontline communities are on the front lines because they deserve it or they're stupid or something, and it's quite the opposite. It's because of power dynamics. It is quite a shame that the climate movement as a whole is kind of just now realizing that white supremacy is its problem too, when it's very obvious to me from the very beginning that that was the root cause of it. Because explain to me how you get the industrial revolution without slavery. Explain to me how you get the oil industry without colonialism. You can't.
Darren Isom (25:49):
Oh, it's all perfectly linked, right? The storyline is very clear, right?
Mary Annaïse Heglar (25:53):
Darren Isom (25:54):
Yeah. I think that you're in a very interesting role for a number of different reasons. One, truth teller, grounded community and otherwise, with that comes some obligations to the larger movement, and particularly the community of folks that are driving the movement itself, the people that we care about within the movement. As you think about the larger movement and about us creating the future we hope to live into and to achieve, what is the future you seek to create through your climate activism or your climate writing? Or how do you distinguish the two even? What's the future you hope to achieve? What do you hope to create?
Mary Annaïse Heglar (26:23):
To tell you the truth, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the future. I think more about this is what I do right now because it's the right thing to do. I want to minimize as much suffering in the present and the future as possible. And my biggest motivator is I want my grandfather to be proud of me. I want to feel like I have fulfilled the debt that I owed to the generations that came before me. You were talking earlier about what kept the slave going, and I think we are what kept them going to some degree. The idea that we would live and that we would be free. I don't want their dreams to have been in vain.
So I think a lot more about the past and about the present than I do about the future. But when I do allow myself to think about the future, I think of a completely different world. I think of one where we might still have the storms, but we know better how to take care of one another. I think about a world where there aren't any prisons, not only for the daily horrors that happen there, but because they're really horrible places in the event of a natural disaster like a fire or a flood or even a drought. I think about a world where all of this system of white supremacy has been completely dismantled and we are able to breathe big as a people.
Darren Isom (27:45):
I do want to come back to this point around this idea that we are what our ancestors lived for, because I would argue to some degree future setting, that we're living now for the folks that are coming after us as well. Getting a sense of what are the battles you hope to have won for our kids to pick up is something that weighs on me all the time. I'm really thinking about, "Okay, what can I hand them at least as a starting point?" But I'm really thinking about, "What's the legacy that I pass on?" Because I think that we have the benefit as Black people are thinking of our fight generationally. We don't have to solve it all within our lifetime.
The goal is to pass it on to someone else to struggle with, or at least put them in good positioning as they carry the torch moving forward. And with that, if you had billions of dollars to invest in the climate movement, who or what would you invest in? I joke all the time, Americans have no sense of money.
Mary Annaïse Heglar (28:34):
Darren Isom (28:35):
... or numbers in general. Because I tell folks, "A billion dollars is 1,000 millions." So that's a lot of money. So if you had a billion dollars, who you going to give it to? What would you invest in?
Mary Annaïse Heglar (28:43):
I would invest billions of dollars in reparations. I don't even have to say climate reparations because the exact same people who need climate reparations are the exact same people who need slavery and colonialism reparations, which again brings me back to root causes and white supremacy as the root cause of the climate crisis. If we had done reconstruction right, we wouldn't be in this situation. That was a moment where we had time to kill white supremacy dead, and didn't do it. Same thing with the civil rights movement. At least in America, there was a moment to kill white supremacy, dead. End of colonialism, same thing.
All these little, we're going to get close up to killing it, but then we're just going to let it live for a little bit longer, that's how we keep winding up in these positions. So anyway, I would put that money into reparations, and that would give enough money for Africa to completely, as a continent, yes, I know, to completely rebuild the power grid on the entire continent. Same thing in Asia and in North America. It would give money for indigenous sovereignty, for indigenous stewardship of natural land. That's why I would put that money into.
Darren Isom (29:57):
And that makes complete sense. Well, I know that we're coming closer to our time here, and I ask folks, what experiences are bringing you hope? I know that the word hope is flawed and problematic on so many different levels, so I'm going to steer away from the question of hope with you. And ask you as you think about the future state that you're trying to achieve, what things are bringing you joy and allowing you to sustain the work and sustain the thinking?
Mary Annaïse Heglar (30:19):
New Orleans brings me a lot of joy just in general. I get joy out of the very, very small things here. Just going for a walk and saying hello to my neighbors. Even though, believe it or not, I am very introverted and socially awkward. Just waving and saying hello to people brings me incredible amounts of joy.
Darren Isom (30:37):
The expectation of it as well. The expectation of it in New Orleans. Growing up as a kid, you pass adults, you're going to say good morning or good evening. There's a greeting that's going to happen.
Mary Annaïse Heglar (30:47):
Right. Seems like the cats like to say hello here too, it's almost like everybody. I live next to a stoplight, which means I get different DJs throughout the day, which brings me an incredible amount of joy. It could be gospel, it could be funk, it could be bounce, you don't know. And then of course, there's the moments of intentional joy like every Sunday, any given Sunday, there's a football game, there's a second line, there's a parade, there's something. Just like the moments of celebrating life because we're still here. Even though we may have lost so much, even though we may have been beaten down so many times, we're still here. So the city of New Orleans is an endless fountain of joy to me.
And I find joy of course, in reading and writing, and in my friendships, in my own family, and just sitting down thinking about old family stories that I've heard throughout my life. We pass them down in my family like parables or something. We kind of all can repeat the same stories whether we were there or not. And whenever I feel down, I kind of just think about them and remember them. Those are my moments of joy. There are probably plenty of others too, like watermelon.
Darren Isom (32:01):
I love it. Well, just for the record, conversations like this one bring me great joy. It's been wonderful to chat with you.
Mary Annaïse Heglar (32:06):
Darren Isom (32:07):
And more importantly, knowing that folks like you are leading the work and the writing and the thinking brings me both joy and comfort. And it brings me hope, lots of it. Thank you so much. And I hope to see you next time I'm home in New Orleans.
Mary Annaïse Heglar (32:20):
Darren Isom (32:21):
Uncle Renard died in August of 2021 at his home in Algiers in New Orleans' Westbank, some hours before Ida, the storm that came during the ongoing COVID storm, made landfall. My mother's only remaining older brother, there were four. His death was unexpected. He'd been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer some years back and had surprisingly survived COVID when its first surge ravaged New Orleans in early 2020. But it was still a bit of a surprise. He was that person you imagined would live forever. Uncle Renard was the kind of uncle New Orleans is famous for, fun-loving, warm and jovial. He made everyone feel welcome, like they truly belonged.
He cracked jokes during funerals, made funny faces at us kids to keep us entertained during church, and let you taste his cocktail when your grandmother pretended to look away during Sunday dinner. He would interrupt any dark or tense moment with a joke that would make you either laugh out loud or shake your head with utter embarrassment. Uncle Renard would burst into my bedroom when I was in high school on Friday nights and encourage me to break away from my books, and go out and sin a little. Jesus has died on the cross for my sins, he would say, and my not sinning is a waste of God's grace. Please don't let God's grace go wasted.
He was a gem. I was able to visit him when I was home in New Orleans some months before his death. He held court, entertaining me and my husband, Brian, with his stories, stories that my mother assured me were more amusing than true. He gave me a big hug when I left, kissed me on the forehead and said, "Love you, nephew. You enjoy yourself now." Words to live by.
My conversation with Mary, a new New Orleanian, reminded me of Uncle Renard. New Orleanians consuming joy and the joy we as the community have managed to cultivate and hold onto, in spite of and potentially inspired by very dark realities. I'm reminded of the James Baldwin quote, "For nothing is fixed forever and forever and forever. It is not fixed. The earth is always shifting. The light is always changing. The sea does not cease to ground down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other and children to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out." And with Baldwin as our inspiration, may we continue to hold each other with shared joy and shared purpose.
And voila, y'all. That's a wrap. And while the episode is finished, the work continues. Thank you for tuning in and listening generously to Dreaming in Color, a Bridgespan-supported StudioPod Media production. Special shoutouts to our wonderful show producers, Teresa Buchanan and Denise Savas. Our video editor, Dave Clark McCoy, graphic designer Diana Jimenez, and our show coordinator, Nicole Genova. And a huge shoutout to my ever brilliant Bridgespan production team and family, Cora Daniels, Jasmine Reliford, Ami Diané, Christina Pistorius, and Ryan Wenzel. What a squad, y'all. Truly best practice. Be sure to subscribe and leave a rating and review wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. Catch you next time.