“Climate change is an overwhelming, unhappy subject,
but it’s really important to understand that we can beat this—
there are answers,” Browning says.
Mother’s Day isn’t the only big May event—this is also Clean Air Month. Pairing mothers with the fight for clean air makes perfect sense to environmental activist Dominique Browning. So much so that when she set out to create a clean-air advocacy organization, she began by harnessing the power and passion of mothers. Browning, a writer, former magazine editor, and mother of two adult sons, is co-founder and senior director of Moms Clean Air Force (MCAF).
“I was an ardent feminist in college,” she recalled during a recent phone interview. “I feel like I am coming full circle back to that. A lot of this is about the power of women and that we need to have our voices heard.”
Since its launch in 2011, MCAF has grown into a national movement of more than 200,000 members—many of them mothers, but also fathers, grandparents, and concerned citizens—anyone who wants to protect our children’s right to clean air.
The MCAF website provides information about air pollution and climate change and their impacts on the environment and on children’s health. The site also keeps its members informed of pending legislation, linking them to petitions and letters that urge their legislators and the EPA to take actions that will protect us all from environmental toxins. MCAF also rallies its members for more direct actions such as in-person meetings with legislators, or to testify at EPA hearings about the need for a specific regulation—stronger carbon standards, for example. In June, MCAF will hold a series of Town Hall meetings, moderated by Browning, that will feature health professionals, climate scientists, high-level administration officials, and moms, who will discuss the health impacts of a changing climate.
Browning has always attracted a devoted following. Readers of House & Garden, where she was editor-in-chief for more than a decade, were as addicted to her warm, thoughtful editor’s letters—which opened each issue—as they were to the design porn that followed. When Condé Nast shut down the magazine in November 2007, Browning not only attracted new followers with her third memoir, Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on my Pajamas & Found Happiness, she also started a conversation with them through her blog, “Slow Love Life.”
Her journey toward environmental activism began at her father’s knee. “My father is the one who taught me to love nature, the stars, building paths, gardening with him. I have loved being in the garden since being a child,” she says.
As a gardener, she became keenly aware of significant changes in weather patterns—plants thriving in an area where they had never before survived a winter, for example. And after decades of spending summers on the Rhode Island shore, she took note of the rising tide line.
Her awareness of the changes in her own environment, coupled with her growing concern about—and self-proclaimed “obsession” with—climate change led her into environmental activism after a long career as a magazine editor that in many ways prepared her to lead a movement. (Before House & Garden, she worked at Mirabella, Newsweek, Texas Monthly, and Esquire.)
According to Browning, building a movement is similar to building any kind of brand identity. Both require “being clear about what you stand for, your values, what you want to achieve, and then coming back at people over and over again,” she explains. “These are skills that were part of my training as an editor that I’m now drawing on.”
Engaging in grassroots activism—sitting down with people one-on-one and pushing them into action around policy, however—demands a different type of urgency.
For example, during this interview, Browning was en route to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for one of MCAF’s “Mama Summits.” Hundreds of parents, grandparents, and kids from around the country are traveling to their state capitals this month to show their united, bipartisan support for children’s health by meeting with their legislators and demanding action on climate change.
MCAF meeting with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy (Dominique next to GM) in Washington, DC
“Climate change, rising sea levels, heat waves, and extreme weather all have enormous impact on children’s health and on their mother’s health,” Browning says. Through its website and its work on the ground, MCAF makes concrete both the symptoms and causes of climate change and their impact on families—for example, the resulting asthma epidemic is not only increasing children’s visits to the doctor but also draining household budgets.
While running a magazine and leading a movement both demand a desire to communicate, touch people’s lives, and feel a passion for something that you want to share, immersing oneself in a topic like climate change requires something extra.
“Thinking about air pollution and climate change has really forced me to find a deeper center so that it doesn’t knock me out of my orbit,” Browning notes. “This is very upsetting stuff, very alarming. I have to draw on deeper reserves for equanimity, hope, and serenity. It’s amazing practice for being resilient.”
Her enthusiasm not only remains un-dampened, it infects everyone she works with. “She is inspirationally passionate,” says Managing Editor Ronnie Citron-Fink, who has worked side-by-side with Browning since MCAF was launched. “Everything she does comes from the heart, and it’s inspiring to work with her because she works at such a high level of intellect.”
In addition, Citron-Fink notes, Browning makes a point of being inclusive, expecting her staff to reach out to those beyond their own political circles. “She’s gotten the team to talk to people with different ideologies. We’re all under the same umbrellas as conservationists.”
Indeed, keeping an open tent and welcoming political and religious conservatives into the Moms movement was a core value right from the beginning. “These are issues that need to transcend party and petty politics,” Browning says.
Browning attributes that perspective to her upbringing. With a Jewish mother raised in Casablanca and a father from Kentucky who comes from an evangelical background, she was accustomed to hearing many different voices. “My aunt Kathleen is a super-intelligent, born-again Christian, my father a card-carrying NRA Southern boy who is enormously kind and caring. I never threw away or discounted those views. I’ve been listening to them for my whole life,” she says.
Browning recommends that we get our own kids to listen as well. “Talk to your kids about how important clean air is, why they should turn off their computers, turn off their lights. Avoiding waste is a value that kids can embrace.”
And while what we do at home is important, “it’s not what is going to solve this problem,” says Browning. “What will work is old-fashioned citizenship, telling others we have to cut carbon emissions and methane emissions. The U.S. is still the biggest emitter of carbon per capita. Politicians will do this only if we, the constituents, make them do it. And, she reminds us, “Our kids are going to be asking, ‘Hey, what are you doing about climate change?’”
To that end, and in honor of Clean Air Month, Browning asks us to sign a petition urging our representatives in Congress to support limiting carbon pollution from power plants, pollution that is currently unregulated.
“Climate change is an overwhelming, unhappy subject, but it’s really important to understand that we can beat this, there are answers,” she says.
In her book Around the House and in the Garden Browning describes her four-year-old self, helping her father build several paths through their back yard to a nearby stream. Her words, written more than a dozen years ago, are prescient.
“When we were digging out those paths,” she writes, “we were so close, so connected in the work we had undertaken together, so serious in our play that I was nurtured for a long time by the reverberations of that activity. Those paths took me somewhere far beyond that river.”
Indeed they did.