This interview with Mothers Out Front’s National Learnings Campaign Manager concludes our series Climate Justice Organizing for Belonging. Stephanie speaks about what brought her to this work and how the organization uses its story as a strategy for more aligned and successful campaigning. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Iris Crawford: What led you to climate activism and eventually to Mothers Out Front?
Stephanie Bowman: I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas’ north end, right along the Missouri River. So, I was always in close proximity to climate injustice without really knowing or naming what it was. Whether it was the funk of the sewer processing plant or seeing the steam coming from the Kellogg’s plants—it all called me to organizing. Where I lived, climate injustice was just an outcome of living in a redlined community that lacked resources. My mother has chronic asthma, and my brother, nephew, and niece all have asthma, and this respiratory discomfort is common for frontline communities like mine.
At 14, I began to see the lack in resources, which eventually led to my start in food justice. I started off growing fruits and vegetables in a community garden and delivering them to elders in my neighborhood, as it was a food desert. Food justice shifted into utility justice when I realized how much we were being charged for the water our community garden needed. I started to collect neighbors’ bills and began cross-analyzing bills to ensure the rate charges were just. I began to see and understand how certain unjust systems are incentivized and can target ratepayers in [already marginalized] communities in various ways. I realized that I wanted to be an organizer for life. So, I went to college at Hampton University and studied political science.
After graduation, I worked for a law firm focusing on discrimination cases and began to see Kansas City’s various injustices first-hand. In 2012, I started working on the Obama campaign in Wisconsin and became a battleground state grasshopper, where I traveled between various states to organize rural, suburban, and urban communities. However, no matter how progressive the space was, there was always a layer of sexism, racism, and ageism embedded in the culture. And it was very transactional in how we organized communities like mine, last minute, and in a hurry.
Right after Trump won in 2016, I started working for a reproductive justice organization in South Central Los Angeles, and that organization focused on the interconnections between reproductive justice and environmental justice. Specifically, the connections between the health impacts in Los Angeles and the high infant mortality rate, specifically for Black women and girls. When I found out about Mothers Out Front, I had just moved three generations of my family to Colorado, mainly because of the better air quality, lower utility costs, and healthcare. I had just lost a child in a complicated pregnancy, and I desired to work in a liberatory space for women focusing on the intersections of environmental justice because I feel like that was something that wasn’t being talked about enough.
The intersectionality of the climate crisis and protecting our children is tied to stopping new fossil fuel infrastructure, shifting to renewables, ensuring our schools improve and adapt to the climate needs of communities, and unlearning our own biases about folks who live in different communities.
IC: What does your role as national learnings campaign manager entail?
SB: When I first came to Mothers Out Front, I was a frontline community organizer as part of a program that helped BIPOC women, mothers, and others lead climate justice work in communities most impacted by climate but underrepresented by climate organizations. Between my first organizing role and this one as manager, there was a lot of learning. For one, I had to accept that justice work is a perpetual cycle and practice. MOF, at the time, was far from where we wanted to be.
My current role can be explained in three parts: The first is coalition building, national sign-on assessing, and sharing resources to members. The second is support working out of silos, by coaching leaders, teams, and staff in creating resources, and also applying and practicing an equity lens to existing campaigns. The last is a quarterly, integrated unlearning and relearning series. This is where we ensure that folks have a common understanding around systems of injustice in frontline communities. The series also helps us understand our own implicit bias around class, age, and gender.
We have a lot of moms who are experts and are seasoned climate activists. They can publicly comment on an elected official to move them, rally in front of the compressor station, and write letters to the governor. Now we have shifted our vision to transform unjust systems so in my role, I work with our staff and leaders across our states to unlearn and relearn together. This constant unlearning has led to a lot of transformation work in practice.
One of the places we unlearn and relearn together is through our racial justice two-day workshops, where we bring representatives from each of our states to make up the workshop’s training team. Every quarter, these training sessions center on the intersection of racial justice and climate justice.
We also offer monthly “porch sits” where our mothers can talk about what is uncomfortable, where they need support, and have the space for honest and tough conversations about what’s happening in the field.
Across our states, we have three strategic focus areas where I support the management team to ensure alignment across campaign execution and needs. In the past, we were so grassroots, which hindered how responsive and strategic we were. Now, we’re finding a balance to build out winnable campaigns.
IC: What makes a successful campaign? How do you define impact?
SB: Right now, successful campaigning in 2023 for Mothers Out Front looks like story plus strategy over time. Centering the stories of our mothers is how we move decision makers. That’s one of our theories of change, as there’s no stronger conviction than a mother defending her children. Even if you aren’t a mother, you may be an aunt or have children in your life that are very important to you. What also makes our campaign strategy successful is determining our unique role and power in the climate movement as a mothers’ liberation organization. We’re not 350.org, we’re not Greenpeace—we’re Mothers Out Front, and understanding our unique strategic role in this work is critical. There is [the] false assumption that a woman is less valuable once she has a child, so centering women to take up space is one thing, centering mothers with children in arms is another. The urgency of the climate crisis, compounded with the [impact on] marginalized groups and the fact that we are organizing mothers with very little time, is our story and strategy, and we can use that to our advantage to stop this climate crisis.
Speaking to impact, I would define it as building self-sustaining community teams that can continue multiple fights. For example, in Pueblo, Colorado, they were fighting a predatory utility company, a coal plant, and now they’re fighting a nuclear plant. They also just received their first set of air monitors to close the gap in the lack of air monitoring. A successful campaign isn’t rooted in whether the outcome is a win or loss. It’s about whether your team was made stronger, and whether your team is self-sustaining. If your answer to all of this is yes, that was a successful campaign. Because no matter what fight comes at the team, they already have a model that helps them fight for justice. This is what creates lasting impact.
That’s what brought me to Mothers Out Front because I did not want to do transactional work that parachuted into a community and left when the work was done. I wanted to support transformational campaigns.
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IC: Speaking of Pueblo, Colorado, tell me more about the self-sufficiency of this campaign team?
I’ve supported our Pueblo, Colorado, and Kansas City teams in the last three years. They’ve done three different campaigns and are consistently fighting unjust systems.
What made the campaigns work is that they understood their power and who had power from the beginning. They both started with climate action plans and came from other top-down climate organizations, that really didn’t give them all the autonomy to be truly grassroots in the work.
Similar to my story, Pueblo is a city of climate intersectionality issues. For example, class and climate, are inherently tied, as [they are in] Kansas City.
It started as one team and became two. When the pandemic hit, and it expanded into three teams, we brought on a full-time community organizer—Jamie Valdez. Finding a community organizer committed to this life work was the key to the sustainability of Mothers Out Front in Pueblo now. He is a grandpa out front, and similarly to me, this work is personal.
Self-sufficiency looks like a rhythm of meetings, activities, and opportunities to help folks build activism into their lives that is easy, convenient, and accessible.
It is also when folks know how to power-map and can make decisions as a team, and make space for all opinions despite various perspectives on the theory of change.
Frontline communities need self-sufficient teams to fight unjust systems, to connect the dots year to year and hold elected officials accountable. The need of the industrial economy in cities like Pueblo, Kansas City, and others are why unjust contracts that impact our health and [livelihoods] are made.
Let’s talk about self-sustainability of our Kansas City team. They exist outside organizing in our deep organizing states, so they do not have a local staff person in the state but have been able to execute and win multiple campaigns. For example, in 2022, Kansas City climate moms and allies demanded that the Kansas City Council pass a strong climate action plan—and our leaders listened! We encouraged council members to overcome pressure from utilities to pass a plan that makes our city cleaner and better. We advocated for the closure of the Hawthorn coal-fired power plant in Northeast Kansas City; cooling strategies like street trees in all neighborhoods; protected bike infrastructure; energy efficiency and electrification upgrades for renters and low-income families; and for better east-west public transit lines. [The adopted plan is here]
IC: What is this work constantly teaching you?
SB: I am learning that you can’t undo an unjust system if you can’t see it, is the constant thing this transformation process is re-teaching me. It’s your position that impacts your view, and I am constantly refining what that looks like. Helping our members with their unique position and how that matters in our fight for climate.
Another thing I would say is knowing [the] unique power of YOUR voice. For example, all mothers have the voice to demand justice for our communities, but only certain mothers have the voice to move certain elected officials. When I talk about strategy, [there are times that] we’ve chosen the wrong mother for certain things.
If I go and do a public comment centering my family and story, some older White male might not view me as his niece or his daughter and have difficulty relating without bias. But an older Black man might, on a cultural level, understand. So really supporting with coaching our members to find the right dynamics is a constant teaching that is showing up.
IC: Where do you see Mothers Out Front headed next?
SB: I see us shifting from just being outcome-centered to being system-centered. What that means is working-class moms and young moms seeing themselves in the climate movement. That means going more into school boards, radically and unapologetically taking up space, going to these public utility commission meetings, city council meetings, and focusing our asks. I see us centering on changing those unjust systems. I also see us continuing to talk to our governors, going and doing lobbying work in person with our legislators to get protections and bills at the state level. I really just see us with our babies on our chests out at events, taking up space with our children. That’s where I see us headed. And it’s a journey.