Anyone who follows environmental issues on Capitol Hill has likely seen them — groups of women in bright-red T-shirts with small kids in tow. These are the volunteers of Moms Clean Air Force, and they’re pushing lawmakers to consider how U.S. EPA’s actions will affect families.
The "supermoms" have become a frequent presence in Washington, D.C., in large part thanks to the efforts of the group’s co-founder and senior director, Dominique Browning. The 62-year-old mother started the group in 2011 with two Environmental Defense Fund board members to push for a systemic shift in how the country approaches climate change.
"I wanted to change the conversation from polar bears to people. I have nothing against polar bears, but I really wanted us to be talking about people because that’s who’s going to suffer," Browning said in an interview. "Now you’re talking to a mom whose children have grown up and left home, but I’m still a mother, and I’m thinking a lot more at my age about what kind of world are we leaving behind."
Moms Clean Air Force zeroes in on lawmakers at all levels of government, bringing personal stories of pollution’s impact — from children suffering because of asthma to lead poisoning. The moms submit public comments, they testify at public listening sessions, and they fill hearing rooms whenever EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt or his deputies appear before the agency’s oversight committees.
Most recently, some members spoke at EPA’s hearing on repealing the Clean Power Plan in Kansas City, Mo. The group’s website provides fact sheets and videos. They bust myths about climate change, and explain the links between climate and extreme weather. They also offer resources on how climate change impacts children’s health.
"We are always talking about, ‘Bring it home,’" said Browning.
The group is small, with fewer than a half-dozen full-time staff members, but its mailing list includes more than 1 million people. Field organizers serve as consultants part time and work in different regions of the country. Instead of organizing in every state, Browning said the group has decided to focus on the areas where Republicans need shoring up to support clean energy or where Democrats need an extra push to be a strong voice for the environment.
"We like to say that we are scrappy and nimble," Browning said.
One thing she doesn’t worry about are climate deniers.
"I worry about the great squishy middle, which is where I would put all my friends and family and everybody else. The people who understand, who know it’s a problem and who don’t quite get how urgent it is, and who don’t show up to vote and don’t write to their senators and who don’t holler and complain," she said.
"If a great squishy middle held, if the center held, we would be in a lot better shape," Browning added.
An unlikely leader?
Browning is perhaps an unlikely leader for an activist group, coming to advocacy after three decades in journalism. She has written and edited for publications such as Esquire, Texas Monthly and Newsweek. She was also editor in chief of House & Garden before the Condé Nast magazine folded in 2007. She still contributes occasionally to The New York Times.
The genesis of Moms was in part a response to the rise of "mommy bloggers," partly because of former Vice President Al Gore’s 2006 documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" and in part a recognition of the failure to effectively communicate climate risks to the American public, according to Browning.
"I was very much in that school of we all have to change our ways of living in order to clean things up. Then I saw the Al Gore movie, I started reading more and more, and I began to realize that, as with so many problems, it’s a system problem, not an individual problem," she said.
In 2009, Browning started writing a column for the Environmental Defense Fund. It was then that she saw how the issues concerning scientists, economists and environmentalists weren’t being communicated effectively to "regular people." It gained urgency after the failure of the 2009 legislation known as the Waxman-Markey bill, which was aimed at setting up an emissions trading system in the United States. Afterward, analyses found that despite the debate on Capitol Hill, there was a lack of strong public awareness of climate change.
This was also the point where "mommy bloggers," who share parenting stories and tips, were beginning to take off. Browning noticed that many people were very anxious about environmental issues but were more focused on ways to "buy [their] way out of this problem," with products like air filters or bisphenol A-free bottles.
"All of that was swirling around, so I thought, why not, let’s get mothers involved in our issues," she said.
In 2011, Browning started Moms Clean Air Force along with two members of EDF’s board, Hanne Grantham and Sue Mandel. When Browning helped found Moms, she had no experience starting a nonprofit. Working with EDF gave her easy access to the environmental group’s scientists and the support of a national organization. While Moms is a special project of EDF — it is not an independent 501(c)(3) — Browning said it determines its own agenda.
Moms has also been among the small number of public health groups to land a meeting with Pruitt. The EPA administrator has been reluctant about meeting with environmental groups throughout his first year in office.
Browning described the meeting as an "intense back-and-forth." Pruitt focused on the importance of the way rules are written and said he felt he was not getting attention for the positive and proactive things he was doing.
As to why Moms got a meeting with the administrator, Browning could only speculate.
"Often people underestimate mothers, often people underestimate women," she said. "We are nice, and we are always polite and respectful, but we’re fierce! I’ve had this happen over and over again where even senators will be very surprised, like ‘Oh, you actually know what you are talking about!’"
Those responses no longer frustrate her.
"I sort of laugh it off and think of it as an opportunity to bring people up to speed," she said.
Looking to the next five years, Browning is hoping to lay the groundwork for federal climate legislation, an admitted slim possibility under the Trump administration. The group is launching two new projects: a "Moms and Mayors Initiative" to encourage clean energy adoption and a "Baby Power" campaign for new and expectant mothers.
In the meantime, she’s trying not to get personally paralyzed by anxiety about the future. Once she started having nightmares, Browning created a rule to not read about climate change or politics after 7 p.m.
"I think most people still don’t get it, how dangerous a situation we’re in," she said. "Frankly, that’s sort of the most important thing about this work to me is that at least I can channel all of that and I feel I’ll be able to look at my grandson and be able to say, ‘I did everything I could.’"