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Bee Moorhead

INTERVIEWEE: Bee Moorhead (BM)
DATE: November 8, 2018
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
MEDIA: HD video
REEL: 3458

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. We’re in Austin, Texas. It’s November 8, 2018. We’re at the home of Bee Moorhead, who has been the Executive Director for nigh on twenty years for the Texas Impact Group, which is a nonprofit involved in interfaith advocacy for a number of public policy, progressive issues in Texas. She’s also an educator and an elder in her church and has many other hats that she wears but wanted to take this chance to thank you for spending time with us.

BM: Thank you for choosing to come spend the morning at my house.

DT: You bet. Well thank you. We usually start these interviews by asking if there might have been people in your family or friends in your early days or, you know, teachers when you were a very young person who might have been mentors, gate openers, for an interest in the outdoor world, the natural world, conservation, in general.

BM: So I—yeah, [dog barking] sorry, that’s just going to be how it is—the—the dogs. I had a couple of different influences in my childhood that—that would have led me to be interested in the environment, a little bit different maybe than a lot of people who would have had sort of scouting or outdoor kinds of experiences like that. My grandpa was a farmer in Appalachia and so I grew up visiting the farm often and spending a lot of time there. Also though, I have asthma. And, as a child, I—I’ve always said I had asthma before it was—be—before it was cool and mainly before it was treatable.
So when I was little, if I got into an allergen which turned out to be hay, certain kinds of animal fur, it would provoke a—an allergic response. And so I was—I was—I would go to the farm and then there were a lot of things I couldn’t do. But the things that I could do were to work in the garden with my grandma and to do things in the kitchen that had to do with prep—re—preparing—I could do things that had to do with harvesting and preparing food and, you know, things that had to do with the human experience interacting with nature, less so than the human being out in sort of recreating in nature.
So I think my—my perspective on conservation and nature early on was kind of set to be not maybe a Sierra Club-y model but a Little House on the Prairie model that I was—I was interested in the way that we interact and how we depend on each other. My grandpa was a Rodale farmer so he was very involved in amending the soil on that farm that had been really depleted over a long period of time and making it into a really productive climate for growing food. He—it—he saw his job as a farmer as a really sacred trust.
He—he was a dairy farmer and he grew—had bees. So he produced honey. He occasionally would grow different kind of vegetable crops. And what he would always talk about was how important it was that he was helping to feed God’s people. So my perspective on the environment was always sort of human beings living in and interacting with and stewarding and being dependent on the natural world as part of our daily lives.

DT: That’s helpful. That’s really interesting. Can you explain a little bit about—more about Rodale?

BM: Yeah, so I’m actually not a big Rodale expert but I can tell you that he was very invested in soil. So he grew hi— he did his crop rotation and one of the big activities for us as children was getting to go with him when he would spread manure. So, yes, as a dairy farmer, he had—he would—every morning he would milk his cows and then collect the manure from the cows when they had been in the barn. And we would ride with him on the tractor as he took the manure spreader out into the field and spread the manure.
And, you know, we would say like oh grandpa, it smells. And he would say that’s—that’s the smell of prosperity. That’s the smell of putting—putting those nutrients into the soil so that later they will be good food for good cows that are going to produce good milk for God’s people. He was very religious. My grandma was very religious. My parents turned out to be very religious too, although I think in some sort of different ways. I think that my grandparents were—they had that kind of Appalachian, Calvinist sort of fire—a little bit fire and brimstoney.
My parents were—they weren’t quite hippies. They were a little bit older than that, but they were definitely of a different generation. They were both the first people in their immediate families to go to college. And they had—I think they thought—a much more sophisticated religion. But no one would have argued that my grandpa’s stewardship of his land and his deep commitment to not just taking from the land but putting back into it and making it better than it was when he found it, that that was a religious calling for him.

DT: The—we may be fast forwarding too far…

BM: No, you’re fine.

DT: But—but one of the next sort of landmarks in your life, that I’m aware of, is when you go to the LBJ School and get this, you know, I guess really deep and thorough exposure to public policy. And I’m wondering if—if that was a time when you took some of this interest in, you know, caring for God’s creation or, you know, a burgeoning interest in the outdoors or the natural world and people’s interaction with it? Did things start to come together there for you at the LBJ School?

BM: That is a complicated question and the answer is complicated too. And I’m going to just lay it on you and you can do whatever editing you need to. So I didn’t go to the LBJ School for environmental policy at all. I went to the LBJ School—let me back up a second and say—so one of the things that I think distinguishes my involve—my—a thing that distinguishes my engagement in environmental policy and environmental—the environmental issue area is that I’m—I’ve never approached it from a purely environmental standpoint.
And that’s partly because of my particular orientation to it. It’s partly because of the faith community’s orientation to it, which we’ll talk about a lot, and it’s partly because of the way I came into it in public policy. So I didn’t start out thinking I was going to do public policy at all. I started out thinking—so I have one parent who was a fine artist. He was a composer and a piano player and academic musician. And my mother was a public policy person. She was in ci—she was on a small town city council when I was growing up and then she went to law school and then she became a judge.
She was elected as a judge. So—so I had these two models. And I planned to be a fine artist. I went to the University of Texas to get a degree in costume design in the theatre. I spent four years as a professional costume designer and—and—in Austin. And then when I was 24, the child you know, Owen, was born. And, as a new mother, I had experiences that made me reevaluate my career in fine arts.
Particularly, I was part of a program where the old Brackenridge Hospital, so the old public hospital in Austin, had a program where if you—you could sign up to be a volunteer doula, a volunteer labor coach and they would call you if a woman was having a baby who didn’t have health insurance, who wanted someone to be with her as a patient advocate. So I would go to Brackenridge Hospital and be with these women who had very different lives than me. They had—they—I, you know, when I got there, they were receiving medications that I had been told in my child birth classes we should never accept.
Their families were interacting with them differently than my family had interacted with me. And it was the first time I’d ever heard of anybody not having insurance. I mean, I had gone from being on my dad’s insurance to my husband’s insurance, to working for the University of Texas and having insurance and never occurred to me that it was a problem. It never to me that that could impact the outcomes of your health experience. Never occurred to me that that could impact what happened to your child later in life because of the—their birth circumstances.
And really pretty much after about six months or a year of that, I said, you know, I—I think God needs me to do something different than sew petticoats, even though I’m really good at it and I really like it. It’s very relaxing and fun but I might need to do something a little bit less relaxing. And so literally, I walked out onto the net—the—the patio of the Performing Art Center where I was working and I looked up the hill at the LBJ School and I thought, I think I probably need to just go up there. That’s how I went to the LBJ School.
But when I went, I didn’t go for the environment I didn’t think. I went for mamas and babies because that’s what I was interested in. And working on maternal and child health policy was one of the things that made me think, hmm, turns out the environment might be part of the issue here for mamas and babies. When I was in between my first and second year at the LBJ School, I was the intern at what was then the Texas Department of Human Services. And my supervisor asked me to do a little report on maternal and child—mat—maternal infant mortality in the counties that border Mexico.
And there was this sort of weird anomaly where, all of a sudden, those counties popped up as having this really high infant mortality rate. And part of it was because in some of those counties there weren’t very many births and one of them is where big—Big Bend is. There weren’t any births in Big Bend that year. But—but we were try—we couldn’t figure out what—what was the particular problem going on with—with babies being born.
Turned out it was—it was a particular chemical that was part of one of the Maquiladora processes that women had been exposed to. So there’s not a bright line between when it’s the environment and when it’s human needs and—and human experience. You know, I’m kind of hearkening back to my childhood. I think that’s—that’s been my experience all along is it’s not either people or nature. It’s always people and nature and interacting on each other.

DT: Can you talk a little bit more about this public health problem along the valley and—and the—the border and the connection with the Maquiladoras and the emissions?

BM: Yeah, I mean, I—I could have talked a lot more about it 25 years ago because I—and I’m trying to remember. It was—actually it was specifically this hydrocephali, do you know what that is?

DT: [inaudible] brains.

BM: Yeah, where there’s just water. And there was this sort of rash of them. And it was also one of the first times—maybe the first time, sure not the last time—that I had the experience of seeing data and thinking geez, this looks crazy to me. I need to ask someone who knows more about it because I can’t be the—I must be doing this wrong. I must be looking at this wrong because that wouldn’t be right. The—there wouldn’t really be all these babies born with hydrocephali in just those counties.
That wouldn’t make any sense—my math or something, right. And then a couple weeks later, I read in the newspaper other people had also found that there was this rash of babies born with hydrocephali and it had to do—and I can’t—I’m so sorry I can’t remember what the specific Maquila process was but—but they said it was—it was a result of—it was something to do with the water, I feel like. But it was my first experience at thinking oh, I might be—I might be someone who could look at data and look at conditions and make a—a justifiable conclusion, a—a—a—an expert conclusion and I hadn’t thought of myself as an expert until then.
And I pr—kind of now—the more and more I know, the less and less of an expert I feel like I am. [laughing] But—but I think it’s important to own what we see with our own eyes, you know, that you don’t have to be—you don’t have to have some specific credential to be able to say I know what I’m experiencing. And the reason that that’s important in your context and maybe jumping ahead to your very last question I guess about what I would tell my kids is—so I’ve had this job for twenty years now, right. Una’s whole life.
My youngest child was a tiny baby when I started working at Texas Impact and, in that time, I’ve interacted with—I—I think it’s—it’s definitely realistic to say I’ve interacted with thousands and thousands of Texans. And the commonality that I find in them is that they mostly don’t quite believe that their own story is just as important as every other story. They mostly believe that there’s something special about other people’s experience or knowledge or position that gives them authority.
And the biggest job that we have is convincing good Texans from all over the place that they are the authority in their own experience. And that their experience of the world and of their community is the most important story they can tell and it’s kind of the one story they owe all the rest of us. They don’t have to know the details. They don’t have to know the data. They don’t have to be policy wonks. They not—they just have to be able to tell the rest of us what it’s really like looking through their eyes.

DT: And their circumstances with their background and where they are in their [inaudible]?

BM: Exactly, exactly. And it’s not just with respect to the environment. It’s a lot with respect to the environment. One of the things that has been really problematic in Texas, in the United States, maybe in the whole world—we’ll—we’ll find out in Poland how much really in the whole world. One of the biggest impediments to environmental progress and climate progress really turns out to be this inability to process each other’s stories. And in 2017, the United Nations started this process called Talanoa, which is the—it’s a global conversation about where we are on climate.
And it’s—it’s part of—mechanically, it’s part of the implementation of the Paris Agreement. It’s where are we with respect to reducing our emissions the way we said we were going to in the Paris Agreement. And, as we know from the new IPCC report, not great. That’s where we are on reducing our emissions—behind, procrastinating, right. But it’s turned out that that Talanoa—I mean, I guess I should back up and say so Talanoa is this Pacific Island indigenous storytelling strategy that relies on people telling their own stories and sort of interacting through the process of telling their own stories to come to kind of consensus around next steps.
So that’s what—and so the United Nations kind of honoring those Pacific Islanders who are particularly already feeling the effects of climate change and with the leadership of their political leaders in those countries, used that Talanoa process as its global facilitative dialogue in 2018. And so we were really—at Texas Impact and Texas [inaudible] Power & Light, we were really inspired by that. We really—it caught our imagination that this was a way to draw stories from lots of different kinds of people. And so we’ve been doing it in Texas.
And it’s been a—what we’ve discovered is people are dying to tell their own story and they are terribly afraid that their own story won’t be honored, isn’t important to other people, somehow doesn’t have the same weight as somebody else’s story. And it’s not just with respect to climate. That’s with respect to family violence, the—the hurricane recovery, their—probably how their local community decides where to put stoplights. I mean, all of it requires that participation.
So I think kind of to wind back to and I—that was a really long tangent, sorry about that, you can get us back on track—but just to kind of finish my—how I got to the LBJ School and what that meant to me. I went in with a very particular story, the really particular story of having had this experience as a patient advocate, a volunteer with women who were having babies, and what—and—and I had been able to experience a little bit of those women’s stories too. And then I had that experience of doing that research as a student and not trusting my own eyes and then realizing geez, I should have trusted my own eyes.
I could have broken that story. I saw it before they did. [laughing] Right. But that—that—all of—all the other people’s stories were just as important as mine and that I needed to, as I moved into my public policy life, I needed to be watching for that. I needed to be watching for all the other stories and hearing what other people said and not just assuming that I knew whose stories were valuable and what the punchline was going to be.

DT: So this got you into the Public Policy School at LBJ and—and then you—you pop out with a particular interest and where do you go from there?

BM: I went from the LBJ School so I had—I—I popped out—that’s not what I thought you were going to say. I did pop out with a particular interest. I also popped out another baby six weeks before I graduated. And because I had two little children, I didn’t go—I—I didn’t have a job immediately after graduate school. I was working for a professor part-time and I spent—I—that whole summer—I was going to say I felt like I spent that whole summer dressing up my children in little summer outfits and hauling them back and forth to the LBJ School so I could do research.
But I worked on more what you would describe as sort of human related topics. I worked on—initially, I did this research for this professor—who’s still there—on child support. And I wrote—I helped him write a report on—on child support enforcement in fifty states. It was a time when child support was a really big ho—kind of hot button issue nationally. And, as a result of that, I was hired to work for the Texas Performance Review doing recommendations on child support enforcement.
I made a package of recommendations that I—I would say helped Texas improve its child support enforcement. Significantly—talking about stories—one of the communities that I thought was the most interesting, in terms of stories that didn’t get—people who—who didn’t get their stories heard—was non-custodial fathers who felt like they were just completely left out of the narrative. So I did that. And—and then I worked on the Texas Performance Review for eight years while—the whole time that John Sharp was the controller.
It was an amazing experience. I mean, there’s not very many jobs in Texas or probably anywhere where you have that kind of unique opportunity to research every interesting issue there is and just kind of dream of ways that you could turn the information that you’ve learned into better policy that helps people. And I did that on a variety of topics—healthcare a lot. I think a lot of people think of me as primarily a healthcare policy person. You don’t know that because you don’t do healthcare as much.
But I’ve made—I’ve done a lot of work on healthcare particularly for low income people. That was another thing that, you know, I could—I took away from that experience at Brackenridge.

DT: I’d like to hear that. I mean, I think there’s a really close parallel between…

BM: There’s a huge parallel.

DT: …environmental protection and public health promotion. And maybe you could give us a couple of examples of things you did in the Performance Review.

BM: Yeah. So one of the things that I worked on on the Performance Review was Medicaid. And that has always and forever, since 1965, Medicaid is sort of the—the deep well of healthcare policy in the United States. It’s our—our big expression of our intention that all people should have healthcare. They should have a way to get affordable care when they need it. We don’t always do it right. We don’t always do it for everyone. We don’t always do it enough but we mean to. And I—I think that’s true. I really believe that.
In the United States, we mean for people to have healthcare. So I worked on ways to expand access to health insurance for low income people. I worked on proposals for pilot programs for that. I worked on proposals that would have changed the nature of the insurance pooling mechanisms in Texas so that more people could have bought insurance. Kind of s—looking forward, maybe in some ways, to the Affordable Care Act. I—I’m—I really need to change my foot. Sorry. I’m just—switchover.

BM: I’m trying to think of one—things—healthcare things that I did that have environmental nexus, not so many—I did—so while I worked for the Performance Review—the 1990s were a pretty technocratic period in state government. There was a lot of efficiency and effectiveness talk. There was a lot of how can we do more with less, how can we combine and reconfigure programs to, you know, the—to meet our goals and strategies. And, yeah, I rea—I mean, I like that kind of thinking. I—it’s very—it’s a very nice framework to get to work in, especially as you’re starting to learn about public policy, to see that having a goal helps you build a strategy.
It’s the same way as having—knowing—having the picture at the end of the recipe helps you know what you’re supposed to do to make it look like that at the end. But one of the things that was going on in environmental policy was it was also very technical. We had just had NAFTA and there was just beginning to be really a lot of talk about global warming, which is what we called it then—what I would stay—we should maybe still call it now. But there was research going on at the LBJ School when I was there. Jurgen Schmandt was doing work.
There—there is a project that maybe is still going on not related to climate change particularly, but economic development in the Yellow River Basin in China that I would—did not participate in. I was not qualified to be in that research project. But—but they were looking at environmental concerns related to the Yellow River and the economic development and really sophisticated thinking about that. And what I thought was geez, keep me out of all of that stuff, that is so technical—it’s very math focused as far as I could see, which was not my long suit, and also depressing.
I, during the 1990s, if you had asked me one word to describe environmental policy, I would have said depressing. And if you had asked me was the environment related to health policy or human needs policy generally—food policy—I would have said no. I would have said when you say environment, you mean, you know, big infrastructure projects or impossibly complicated in-stream flows, whatever that is, right.
So—so I really didn’t me—make that connection and I didn’t make the connection back to the farm either, even though I took my children to the farm several times a year and I made sure that they had that same experience that I had had of understanding that we’re, you know, we live in the land and the land supports us and we support it and all of those things. I never thought of environmental policy that way. [laughing] And when I came to Texas Impact, what I said was I’ll be happy to come but I don’t want to work on the environment because it’s too technical and depressing.

DT: What year is that?

BM: 2000. 2000. I came so I worked for the controller until 1999. And, in 1999, I had a baby and it was a legislative session and there had just been an election. And I just kind of said, you know, it’s time to—time to take a break. I got to figure some stuff out. So I stayed home for six months and, you know, took my kids to the swimming pool all summer. And wh—then I guess in probably right around this time in 1999, I—people started saying hey, are you thinking about working because there’s this organization, Texas Impact, that could use—could use your—your help.
And I had never heard of it. I’ve been—I’ve gone to the same Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas since 1983. And it’s a member of Texas Impact and I had never heard of it. I didn’t know anything about it. I wasn’t initially even really that excited about the faith community being engaged at the Capitol. I mean, I was probably one of the people who would say yeah, I mean, I think your personal faith has impact on how you relate to the public policy that you’re interested in but I don’t know that—that the—the organized, you know, the—the interfaith community necessarily needs a lobbyist.
I didn’t really understand how my own church did lobbying in Washington, none of it. My—I grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s. I graduated from high school in 1982. And in—in—I grew up in the Rust Belt. So that’s actually maybe another—that’s probably something that’s interesting. So, I mean, I had that family farm in Meigs County, Ohio and in Appalachia. But that’s not where my parents were. I grew up at Kent State. I was in kindergarten on May 4, 1970 and, like I said, my parents weren’t hippies but they were like—their students were hippies for sure.
And my dad ran the jazz program at Kent State. So the students were really hippies. And when I was—so I guess when I was little is when the Ohio—the Cuyahoga River caught fire, not in Kent. So it wasn’t—like we didn’t go down and watch the river burning but we sure knew that it happened. When I was in third grade, between third and fourth grade, I went to Ecology Camp, which was, you know, like a summer enrichment program, run through the public schools.
Kent was pretty small so it was a pretty—it was more like the summer enrichment program that—maybe like the—like the San Marcos Public School would have done, you know, in 19—1973. One of the things we did was we went on a ferry boat ride around Lake Eerie and looked at the pollution and the dead fish. I mean, it—it was horrific. We did a class play—our big final project was the Wump World, which is—the Wump World is a book by Bill Peet that’s kind of a—oh it’s along the same lines as The Lorax. I played a Wump, which was like a little furry creature.
That idea of pollution, industrial pollution, that kind of gritty, rust belty poisonous feeling—that was—that was m—every day. That was my every day. The farm was more the—the other—the other of the environment I guess, which is really kind of funny when you think now the farm—now—the last time I was in Ohio, I ate fish that were caught in the Cuyahoga River or in Lake Erie, it’s—there’s a beautiful park along the Cuyahoga River—pretty much from Kent to the lakeshore in Cleveland.
There’s a thing called Green City Blue Lake that is this beautiful and marrying of environment and, you know, economic development, sustainability, human needs stuff going on, in Cleveland. So that has all changed. If I stand in the front yard of the house on the farm, I can see three plumes from three different coal fired power plants. So—so it changed. But I can’t remember why I was telling you about the Wump World—I don’t usually tell people about that. [laughing] Yeah, I don’t remember where I—what was the question you asked?

DT: I think we were talking about your start at—at—at Texas Impact and you really were unfamiliar about the lobbying activities at your own church or the church community.

BM: Oh yeah. Yeah, oh yeah, yeah, yeah. So just that—so I know what I was starting to say. I didn’t—my kids—if you—I mean, my ha—my kids have now grown up. When—when Una was three, we were driving past the Capitol and whoever was in the car with us said Una, do you know what building that is? And she said yes, it’s where we get ice cream. [laughing] I mean, my kids have grown up so much in public policy that it’s not even—it’s, you know, it’s like a fish not knowing it’s in the water. I didn’t grow up that way.
I grew up in a direct service environment. I grew up in a—a direct service and—and protest environment. So my mom wa—was—she drove for a thing called Fish that was an early kind of version of Meals on Wheels, and I would go with her and she would deliver food to homebound people. She worked for the—the church charities. We boycotted Nestle because Nestle, when I was little, was—they were trying—they were selling infant formula in Africa and they were ma—you know this story—Nestle was selling infant—they were selling infant formula in Africa and—and probably other developing countries.
But, as a child, I knew that Africa was—and I—I didn’t know which African country—I just sort of knew Africa. But Nestle was trying to get women in developing countries to use infant formula instead of breastfeeding. And the women would—this—they would bring samples and they would give them the samples for free and they would kind of get hooked and then they would have to buy more and it was expensive. So they would thin it out and they didn’t—they wouldn’t boil the water and so the babies would get sick. And I knew all that.
I knew all that as a child because we were not allowed to buy Nestle products and I believed firmly that Nestlé’s chocolate chips were far superior to Hershey’s chocolate chips and I saw it as a real hardship. Like as a child, I thought Nestle is causing this problem for me. They need to quit doing the bad policy thing—well I didn’t think of it as policy—I thought of it as, you know, the bad ge—selling thing or whatever they’re doing. So that I can have those Nestlé’s chocolate chips again, and I remember being in the grocery store with my mom when she said I want you to know that Nestle has—has stopped doing that.
We’re allowed to buy Nestlé’s chocolate chips again and I—was like a great day in my life when we were able to get back to the Nestlé’s chocolate chips. And there were Nestle candy bars that I really liked and I would go to the little convenient store and be like oh no, I can’t buy the Nestle candy bar because my mom says it’s—we’re not supposed to. So I had that kind of immediate policy experience and I had the experience of seeing my parents involved in direct charity kinds of activities.
But I ha—it had not occurred to me that it—I didn’t, for example, I didn’t realize that the Episcopal Church, which was the church that I grew up in, was—was the one that told my mom that she should be boycotting Nestle. I had no idea that it had a connection to that. I just let, you know, my mom’s really smart and she knows that. So I came to Texas Impact not having any real background in what the faith community’s institutional involvement in public policy might be. I didn’t know that until ten years before I came—fewer—five years before I came.
Until then, there had been a national network of Impact organizations all over the country. Every state had one. And after the Clinton health plan failed, most of those organizations either fell apart or changed their mission or whatever because they were so—the backlash was so strong against how much the faith community had been involved in pushing for universal coverage. I had worked on universal coverage in the controller’s office. I’d worked on health insurance issues. I didn’t know the church was involved in it.

DT: Bee, I—you talked about coming to work at Texas Impact and—and—and about not just that state affiliate but this whole network of—of national partners. Could you talk a little bit about the origin story for Texas Impact itself and where it began?

BM: Yeah. So Texas Impact started in 1973. So here’s what happened. And I—I mean, I think—maybe other people who you’ve talked to have kind of given you this same big context but, for me, especially—I’m sorry, I don’t mean to ramble but—so you’ve heard all that stuff that I said and you’ve heard about where I’m kind of placed historically, you know, in the 1960s and ‘70s. So as a child, I couldn’t have described this but now I look back on it an—and I realize so as all of that was happening and I was riding around Lake Erie looking at dead fish.
The United States had just gone through the upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement. It had gone through all of the, you know, 1970-1971, the student protesting and the Vietnam War. So by 1973, the United States was sort of in this kind of full blown fever of the—the public not trusting its institutions, being kind—just kind of angry about a lot of stuff and people wanting to reassert the importance of government serving the needs of the people. And I—I think that that was true all over the country.
I now realize it was probably very true where I—in my context in Ohio and certainly it was also true in Texas. And, in Texas, the—the proximate erupting thing was this campaign finance scandal—the Sharpstown Scandal that was a—that—it was a real estate developer, the guy who developed—Ed Sharp I guess is—the guy who developed Sharpstown—who gave campaign contributions in return for favors that made it easier for him to develop Sharpstown. And it was a—a huge scandal and it ended up with a bunch of high profile people losing their seats.
And the legislature in 19—I-so it happened like between 1971 and ’73—I’m trying to remember exactly—I want to say in 1973, the legislature that was seated in January was fifty percent different in the house than it had been in the prior session. It was a huge throw the rascals out moment. At that time, the Texas Conference of Churches was just sort of coming out of the post Vatican to new focus on ecumenism. So it was a—kind of a real, live Kumbaya moment in the faith community.
And all those religious leaders from all those different denominations and traditions came together with the—the American Jewish Congress, which was kind of the one big Jewish denominational body in Texas at that time—and formed—what they said was they needed to have a formal lobby at the Capitol because they said it was clear that the need—that the call to do justice couldn’t be met in the—in American democracy without attention to the public policy process. That’s a little bit paraphrased but not—not terribly.
So they formed Texas Impact not as a 501(c)3 like often it’s how non-profits start and then they decided they want to do lobbying. They formed it as a C4 to be a lobby organization specifically for the Texas Conference of Churches and its members. So, from the beginning, it was intended to be the voice of Texas’ interfaith community at the Capitol. At that time, Texas’ interfaith community was not quite as diverse as it is now. So there have been changes over time but—but basically that was the idea from day one.
But, like I said, that was part of the American zeitgeist and so all over the country; there were these things that were sort of popping up similarly. And, in 1976, they were all unified under the National Council of Churches as National Interfaith Impact, which was a great thing for Texas because the original name of Texas Impact was the Texas Interfaith Commission on Human Priorities, which was quite an acronym. So luckily Texas Impact turned out to be a much more short to the point kind of name.
And so Texas Impact was part of this National Interfaith Impact organization. There was national brand name. They had a newsletter that went out once a month. They had events in D. C. periodically. And it kind of chugged along from 1976 until 1992 and the—when the Clinton health plan w—w—Bill Clinton was elected, the—Hillary Clinton was put in charge of creating a health plan, and the church went all in. The—the faith community across the country said this is really important.
It’s clear, you know, as a—as a Presbyterian, I could tell you oh yeah, it was at Brackenridge Hospital I saw those people who don’t have insurance. It’s a big deal. Right. So all over the country, the faith community invested really heavily in the Clinton health plan. And when that didn’t pass, there was I think a little bit political retribution. There was a little bit just they had used up all their resources.
It also kind of coincided with the time when non-denominational churches were kind of on the ascendancy and organizations like Texas Impact are inherently structured to rely on denominational membership, to rely on donation—denominational networks. So non-denominational congregations are harder to like pull together into a cor—that’s kind of their thing is they’re independent standing things. So the National Interfaith Impact Network just kind of fell apart.
They—they closed the national office of it in the National Conference of Churches and—National Council of Churches—and all those states kind of just were left to do their own things. Some of them maintained their Impact organization. So by the time that I came to Texas Impact in 2000, it was still Texas Impact. California still has California Impact. I’m trying to think. Ohio, at that point, still had Ohio Impact. Some of them had changed their name. Some of them had changed their mission in some way.
So I would get their newsletters from these other states when I—when I first came to Texas Impact and I’d see what they were working on. New York State had pretty quickly moved kind of to the left of the rest of the state. So it was working ahead of ti—way ahead of any of the other states on human sexuality issues. Alaska, on the other hand, had narrowed their folks to only be nuclear disarmament. It was the only thing Alaska Impact was working on. I kind of thought wow, well that is pretty specific and probably not what Texas Impact is going to be working on.
So—so they’ve kind of gone their separate ways. A lot of the infrastructure had kind of degenerated. They, at one time, they’re, you know, there was a national membership database that, in 1990, that database was an Excel file. I mean, it wasn’t like a big, you know, relational database. But all those names had started to kind of get, you know, evaporate. And when I got to Texas Impact, there was a Excel file of like 3,000 names and that was—that was sort of what was left of—of anybody’s idea of who might be interested.
And th—so—so we were all sort of out there as independent states on our own trying to—to do this, you know, kind of keep up the same activity. Well, in 2000, if you can remember what it was like to use the internet in 2000, it was a way different deal, I used Netscape Navigator and I made a, you know, a little junkie website and we had email. And I look back at it, I just think gosh, it looks like a kindergartner made this stuff.
But over the past twenty years, what’s happened is the internet has really allowed organizations like Texas Impact to re—rebuild themselves into models where the—you don’t need as many people to keep in touch with a lot more people. In recent years, there’s been kind of an increased volume of calls for that National Impact network to re-create itself, that if there really are faith communities in all fifty states that are trying to interact with each other on public policy advocacy, now that the internet is available as a—a low cost way to keep them connected, can’t we kind of put that back together.
And I think so. I think it’s—I think that should happen. I work with my colleagues in other states all the time. Because I do on healthcare and environment particularly, I—I work on kind of a national level on some of that stuff, I’m often in the position of saying to people in other states you should talk to my colleague in the faith community in your state because they know that—they would be able to do in your state, what I do in Texas. So I think it’s coming.

DT: Well in—when you’re talking about this partnership, this network, earlier, you said that after the—I don’t know—sort of upheaval of 1992, New York moved to the left. Alaska went its own direction. That might be with the nuclear disarmament. What happened to the Texas program and—and can you describe what Texas Impact’s general focus has been in the years that, you know, since ’92 and certainly while you’ve been there?

BM: So one of the things that’s really changed for Texas—I mean, I don’t even know—saying one of the things that’s changed is kind of ridiculous—everything’s changed—except one that I’ll talk about. So when I got to Texas Impact, it was really struggling. It was a one-room office. They were renting one room from the League of Women Voters. And so I got there and there was this office that had, as is so often the case with non-profits, it had a whole lot of outdated electronic equipment and desk chairs where one of the casters didn’t roll anymore.
It was, you know, piles of paper in no discernable order and a really pretty demoralized board that felt like geez, this things is so important to us but we—we don’t have enough money to hire a big staff and the—the world is changing. 2001 was, you know, kind of the beginning of—of—of really a new era in American politics.
So what had been the case when there was National Impact was that the national organization produced a lot of the—the deep resources that the states used, similar to a model like Sierra Club or National Wildlife or any of those organizations where you have local and state affiliates but they get to use some of the materials or get—they get to use as many of the materials as—as they need to from the national. And, you know, like if there’s a report, you know, we have—we rent part of our space to Environment Texas, one of our long-time, super close colleagues.
When Environment Texas releases a report, th—they had a national staff that was helping them do it, right, that was helping them do the report, helping them lay it out nicely. They have a team that maybe can help do that, stuff like that. When National Impact existed, that was—that was available to the state Impact organizations as well. Texas Impact worked on its own issues at the Capitol but they were a lot driven by what the national denominational mood was.
So, in the 1980s, Texas Impact worked a lot on farm worker rights, actually it worked a lot on the—in the I guess the late ‘70s and ‘80s, Texas Impact was one of the organizations that was really at the forefront of—of limiting pesticide use in the valley so that migrant farm workers weren’t exposed to dangerous pesticides. It worked on welfare reform, different times when welfare reform was in the, you know, on the agenda. Texas Impact was the—one of the organizations right after the bust in 1987—6—‘86, ’87, ’88 when we had special session and there were emergency tax increases.
And then Mark White lost his seat. Texas Impact was one of the organizations that worked for—it—it was the largest sales tax that had ever happened in the country at that time, largest sales tax increase, in order to keep funding human needs programs. So the organization had worked on human needs, worker rights, hadn’t really done anything about the environment in that technocratic environment way, although we would now today say well, that was an environmental justice issue, working on pesticides and—and migrant workers.
People weren’t talking about it that way then. When I came in 2000, it was really at a point where nobody was sure what—what to do next and weren’t really sure. We had just—just passed the CHIP program, the Children’s Health Insurance Program in Texas. So we’d just gotten some new Children’s health insurance but Texas Impact certainly wouldn’t have had the capacity to help with implementing that program in any way. We just had—George Bush had just been elected president so weren’t really sure what the agenda was in the state.
So I got there and wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to do. And the board wasn’t, I think, a hundred percent sure what I was supposed to do, and nobody was really sure what I knew how to do. But I—what I had done was all that Performance Review stuff. So I was—what I was really used to was kind of scanning the policy environment and seeing what things seemed like they were coming up and where—where opportunities were to improve public policy somehow. So the first thing that happened was I got a call from a—from Richard Daly, who was, at that time, the Director of the Texas Catholic Conference.
I should maybe take a detour and say, in Texas historically, there are three religious lobbies and the reporters at the Capitol sometimes refer to us as the “God Squad”. The Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops has a lobby. There are enough Catholic Bishops in Texas that they effectively have a Trade Association. I mean, it’s a—there’s, I don’t know, seventeen or eighteen of them plus all of their people, plus Catholic charities. It’s a giant operation. So they have their own whole separate lobby.
The Texas Baptist General Convention, which goes by different names every few years as they reorganize because Baptists reorganize often. They have their own whole separate lobby. It’s called the Texas Christian Life Commission. And then Texas Impact is kind of everybody else. So we’re the mainline Protestants, the Jewish community, the Muslim Community, interfaith organizations locally like Interfaith Action of Central Texas, Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston. Organizations like that belong to Texas Impact. So we’re kind of everybody else.
You get Catholics and Baptists and then us. So Richard Daly, at that time, Brother Richard Daly, was the Director of the Texas Catholic Conference and he said—he was also on the board of Texas Impact—and he called me up and he said what was I doing? And I kind of looked around at all that outdated electronic equipment and those piles of papers and I said well I, you know, I don’t know, wh—what are you doing? And he said there is a meeting about the death penalty and you need to come to it because this is something that Texas Impact ought to be involved in.
So the very first thing I did was get involved in the work that was going on in Texas, that—when George Bush was elected, there was immediately—and wh—so when I came, he was campaigning. And there was a big spotlight on Texas and our extremely high execution rate. What had happened was, in Texas, we had had—because of the appeals process, we had this sort of bottleneck in executions. And, in that year, the kind of the cork came out of that bottle and we were executing a person a week.
Every—every week there was an execution in Texas and people just couldn’t stand it. I mean, it was terrible. We were in the international news—forget about the national news. We were international pariahs. And so there was—that was a moment when there was going to be an opportunity to do death penalty reform, from the faith community’s perspective, get rid of the death community. That—that was the goal was to end the death penalty. But the policy project that we got involved in was to call a moratorium on executions.
Texas never did end up calling a moratorium on executions but we did eventually, five years later, adopt life without parole as a sentencing option. And since that time, the application of the death penalty in Texas has plummeted. It really did turn out to be a thing that juries would prefer. They’d rather give somebody life without parole than just decide to execute them. So that was great. But so that was the first thing was death penalty. And then the very next thing that happened was this guy who I had never met, Tom Smitty Smith, called me up and said did I want to participate in a press conference on global warming.
And I thought I said I didn’t want anything to do with—sorry I’ll stop that—I said I don’t want anything to do with the environment and he said well, I might have some money for you. And I said where do I need to show up? So it was completely—you—like I didn’t plan to work on climate change. I didn’t know anything about it. The organization hadn’t been working on it and Smitty kind of hauled me into it. And now that’s our number one or number two issue. So—so what had happened was it—that was the time when the United States Senate was getting ready to vote on ratifying or not ratifying Kyoto.
And there had been since—since Rio, for the whole time that the UN Climate Process had been ongoing, there had been faith participation but there hadn’t been a big, national coherent push in the American faith community on an issue that way. And so this was going to be kind of a new thing for the American faith community. So I went to Washington and participated in a big meeting with people who, to a surprising extent, are in the meetings that I go to now, the—the people in the faith community that have stuck with it. It’s really fun to—to have that connection.
But—but I came back and was kind of all fired up about global warming. And, I mean, I would say that was a—a huge inflection point in my life, like up till then—I remember being in the LBJ School Student Library with a fellow student and I asked him what he was working on. He said he was working on Schmandt’s global warming project and I was like, wow, I don’t ever want to hear about that again.

DT: So how did you justify Texas Impact being engaged in climate change? What was the faith angle?

BM: So I—when I first started this job, I didn’t assume that I knew anything about any faith angle on anything. I went—had people at my church who—maybe I need to start that a different way. I was recruited by faith leaders. And one of the main ones was Professor Bill Greenway, who was a friend of mine. He was in my Sunday school class at church. He—he was on the board of Texas Impact and he was the person who said hey, you should come be the director of our thing because, as far as I can tell all you’re doing is staying home with your kids.
So why don’t you get a job? And so I—when I started the job, I just kind of said look, I don’t know anything about what the faith community might say about any of this public policy stuff. As I said, I don’t—I’m not even sure—I did—had no idea that the faith community had positions on public policy issue. So you—you tell me. And so I would, you know, I would call people up and I would say—with respect to global warming, I called Bill and I said hey, this guy Smitty called me and wants me to get involved in global warming.
Do you think that that’s a thing we ought to do? And he said oh yeah, absolutely. That’s a really important faith issue. And I said why? And he—so then those faith leaders kind of tutored me in a really intensive way. So, from starting in 2000, not really having any notion—I took some classes at the seminary. So I took Systematic Theology and New Testament so that I had little bit more kind of concrete grounding in faith. I mean, I have—I’ve been religious for my whole life, and I would say deeply religious.
I mean, I haven’t been—I wasn’t always, from a public policy standpoint, but I was the—I mean, I, as a college student, was that person who my first thing was I needed to find a church. I mean, so—but I—I was like I think a lot of people, my faith wasn’t systematic. It was experiential. It was, you know, I went to church and I knew how to participate and I knew the litanies and all of those things, but I couldn’t have told you why we had them. I had gone through confirmation when I was thirteen.
Like most people, I don’t remember much of what happened when I was thirteen. So I took some classes to deepen my systematic understanding of what at least my own faith tradition has to say about things. And then I read a lot. I went to a lot of seminars and meetings, places where I could hear people who were smart talk about theology. And, over time, I feel like I have gotten to be more of an expert. I wouldn’t call myself a theologian by any stretch, not even a lay theologian but I would say that today if you asked me what climate change has to do with faith, I can—I can tell you in a way that isn’t just parroting what somebody else told me.

DT: Maybe you could articulate it. What do—what do you think the connection is?

BM: So I think a lot of people think about the environment and faith and climate and faith as—remember when I said kind of going back to the farm—remember when I said that w—w—there is a way wh—where we think of the environment as that and people as this and so when we talk about the environment, we’re talking about something outside of us. I think the biggest thing our faith helps us get right with is that the environment is not something that’s outside of us. It’s something that we’re in and it’s in us.
So we are completely integrated into this thing that we call environment. W—when I first started working on climate change issues twenty years ago, there was a lot of talk about stewardship of creation, you know, the—the importance of you—that God put people on the earth to till and tend it and that we have a responsibility sort of like if you inherited a nice piece of art that you have a responsibility to take care of it, right. What I think today the—that is—it’s a nice starting point for some people to think the Bible talks about that we are put in the garden to till and tend it.
W—if you keep going, what it talks about in that passage is that the garden—we’re part of it and it nourishes us, right. That we’re—we’re allowed to eat the stuff in it and we interact with the parts of it. So it’s not—it’s not that somehow we’re here and we have a responsibility to deal with climate change as sort of a subsidiary like a child. W—we have—we have a need to be able to be in the environment. That’s where our responsibility to it comes from. There is a thing that there’s a theol—theologian, Catherine Keller, who is—she’s at Drew University and she’s—she’s written a lot about climate and environmental concern.
And she has parsed faith and climate into four categories that I think are nice. I don’t think they’re complete but I think that they’re a good way to start. One is that idea of sort of stewardship of creation. One is the idea of intergenerational responsibility. So, particularly if you think like from the Jewish perspective and that I—or Native American and the seven generation. I mean, there are some faith traditions that think more in terms of intergenerational responsibility. We have a response—this—the lawsuit that the kids are bringing talks to that, right, that idea that it’s not just a question of if you’re hurting the environment for you.
It’s—you have a—a responsibility and maybe legal responsibility to make sure that it’s not ruined for somebody who—by the time they get there. So that—that idea of intergenerational responsibility has some theological hooks in some traditions more than others, but all of them, to some extent. And—and one way that that’s true is that we have this—this thing that we say—we’ve just finished All Saints Day in the Christian tradition—and we talk about the communion of saints. We talk about the idea that we’re surrounded by, you know, the great cloud of witnesses, the—this—the saints from every time and place.
And when we say saints, we don’t just mean saints like St. Teresa. We mean all of us, right. All of believers in every time and place are gathered together in this kind of non-linear time that is eternity. So, in that way, we are connected backward and forward to all of the other generations. So that idea of eternity and the responsibility that we bear to people backwards and forwards in linear time, that’s part of it. Loving our neighbor as ourself is another way that our faith connects us to the environment. It’s another hook to hang that idea on.
You know, one easy way to say it is you can’t love your neighbor if you don’t care what your neighbor breathes, you don’t care what your neighbor drinks, you don’t care what your neighbor eats. That—that is surely one quick way to—to understand that connection. Another way and going back to that Talanoa idea and the super importance of storytelling is to love your neighbor as yourself, you need to understand what your neighbor’s experience of the environment is and you need to—it’s not that you need to make sure that it’s okay for them or that it’s okay for you.
It’s that you need to have all of those stories sort of in—in the same container as you think about how we move forward. I’ll give you an example. Several years ago, Texas Impact did a thing that we didn’t call Talanoa because we didn’t know that name then but we now might say that that’s was pretty close. With some faith leaders in one of the communities that has a coal fire power plant in Texas and we were—th—some of our environmental colleagues had asked us to go out there and—and have some conversations with these faith leaders.
And I think their idea was that we were going to go say, you know, how can I convince you, faith leader, that it would be better if you would just agree that we should close this coal fired power plant and, you know, that we were going to sort of get them on board, which was not probably realistic but also not sufficient. I mean, that’s—that wasn’t really the exercise. And what we said was we’re very happy to go out and talk to them but we’re not going to go tell them what we think. We want to hear what they think about the current state of affairs.
So we went out and—I—I didn’t go actually—I sent two staff people—and they came back kind of shaken and they said it—it was really something. It was a really serious conversation. It started with those religious leaders in that community saying you don’t have to convince us that the coal fired power plant needs to close. We all know it’s going to close. We know that sooner or later it won’t be here. We don’t think it’s a good idea for people to breathe that stuff either. We wish it—nobody wants to go to work knowing that they have a job that’s hurting people.
But when the coal fired power plant closes, there won’t be a tax base here anymore. And when there’s no tax base here anymore, there won’t be a sustainable school system and our schools will get consolidated. And when they do, we’ll lose our high school football team. And for people in this community who are never going to go to college, they’re never going to move away from here, that high school football team, that is their identity. They still go to those football games. If we lose the high school football team, it’s like our whole community just dried up and blew away.
There are people buried in our cemetery. Who’s going to come see those graves if this community just doesn’t exist anymore. There are people who were married in this church, where will they go to see where they got married if the church isn’t there anymore because the community can’t sustain it? So what we said was—so that’s not really an environmental concern is it? That’s just a concern about funding schools. We could probably get all of them to agree, yeah, it’d be better if we don’t have the coal fired power plant if you just said, we cross our hearts your high school will never go away.
So—so it’s not just loving your neighbor about if your neighbor doesn’t have clean water or clean air. It’s loving your neighbor an—enough to know what—what’s really bugging them. So—and there’s one other kind of hook and I’m trying to remember it. There—so there’s loving your neighbor as yourself, stewardship of creation. Oh, and so, in recent years, the Muslim community has become much more part of the interfaith space, nationally and certainly in Texas. And so one of the things that that’s been causing us to do is to think really more about what are the particularities of Muslim takes on policy issues.
So the sa—you know, if you say love your neighbor as yourself, well yeah, everybody kind of has that but pe—there’s different particularities of the way the different traditions think about that issue. So we’ve asked Muslim theologians, you know, how uniquely would Islam talk about the need to be involved in an environmental policy. And one of the things that’s been really interesting to me is—or a thing that I think Islam brings to that table is a focus on beauty. So the—one of the things that Islam really has as a touchstone is how perfect the world is and how perfect the creator is who created this perfect world and how people couldn’t improve on it.
What hubris to think that you could, right. So it’s like a perfect work of art. You wouldn’t come and, you know, mess with it. So that idea of the perfectness of the creation, the inherent goodness of the creation, the inherent perfectness of the creator, that’s an idea that, at least for me, Islam has brought into the conversation in a new way that kind of was missing from all of that stewardship language.

DT: It seems like a—a lot of these arguments, whether it’s this covenant with the future or treating your—your neighbor as your—as your friend and treating them as you would hope they would treat you or this kind of respect for the creation or respect for beauty and understanding [inaudible], those arguments would probably work for any environmental concern. And—and I’m curious if there’s something in particular that’s—that’s supported your interest in climate change and, you know, as you have for the last eighteen years or so?

BM: Yes, it wouldn’t just be one thing but let me—initially—so—how do I want to say this? It’s very hard to be linear about this. When the faith community started talking about climate change, kind of started out as a stewardship thing and it also kind of started out as an energy efficiency thing, right. So the—the solutions were, I don’t want to say simple, it’s not. Energy efficiency’s not simple but they were maybe a little bit monolithic in that, you know, if we would all drive more efficient cars and use more efficient lightbulbs, everybody does their bit, then look how much difference we can make.
And then we, you know, you kind of bring that to a policy level and say if everybody does their bit, it will help, but really to make those changes that we need to to reduce the impacts of—of global warming, you’d have to have some systemic change, which involves policy advocacy. So the faith community kind of comes into that advocacy space. But I remember being in a meeting in 2004-2005, in that neighborhood, where the conversation was about adaptation and there were some of us who said, you know, there’s—there—there has to be some attention to the idea of adaptation because it’s not fair to just say well it only—we’re only going to talk about what will ha—how to keep change from happening.
It’s clearly already happening to some people in some places so we have to talk about it. And the initial pushback, I mean, there was initially—people won’t remember this but, years ago, it was a—it wasn’t just a lively debate, it was kind of an acrimonious contest in the environmental community about whether it was okay to talk about adaptation or whether that reduced ambition—w—w—w—in the new, you know, in the global climate space, we would say, ambition, right, the ha—that if people felt like there was a way to adapt, that it would make them say ah well, be all right.
You know, you can deal with a little bit of sea level so we just won’t worry about it. And what we said was y—that isn’t loving to—to tell people w—we can’t talk about how to fix it for you today because it’ll make it harder to fix it for everybody tomorrow because your needs are real right now. And so it—so you were asking how—wh—like what’s unique about the climate—about climate change as an environmental issue. I think that was the turning point for me in thinking that climate change was not an environmental issue.
The climate change isn’t even an environmental issue where we acknowledge that we live in the environment and the environment is part of us and all of that. That climate change is much more of a—like a global, spiritual development issue. It has to do with reframing our relationships with each other and reframing our relationship with the past and our relationship with the future and—and it has—it has a ticking time bomb attached to it that is kind of pushing us along a little bit.
Since that time, I’ve had a couple of other experiences that really drove home for me how mu—how much it’s not like—it doesn’t go in the—the container with all of the other environmental issues and not just because it’s sort of the umbrella. I mean, it’s easy to say well climate change is sort of the umbrella issue that covers all the rest of the environmental issues. That’s not true. There are environmental issues that are, of course, the environment is in the climate so they all have that nexus.
But there are plenty of environmental issues you can work on that don’t have immediate, direct connection to climate change and there are plenty of non-environmental issues that do. And the—the big one for me and the—and the—another big inflection point for me in my—probably in my policy career, probably in my life and vocation—was when I went to Paris to the—the Global Climate Negotiations in 2015 where we came out with the Paris Agreement.
All that time until then I would go to, you know, meetings about climate change and someone would always say well, you know, there are the people in the other countries who are already displaced and the issue of climate—climate refugees was sort of—you know, it was kind of always sort of in the background. And I would think, oh right, yeah. The climate refugees. We totally have to care about them too. And then I got to Paris and they were there and they were saying I can’t go back to the country that I lived in because it’s underwater now.
And there was a—a group of people who were from the Marshall Islands maybe—who held a press conference and one of the things they said was we are really looking to the West to help us learn how not to exist anymore because we recognize that no matter what ha—what comes out of this climate negotiation, it’s too late for us. Our culture won’t exist anymore. W—w—we won’t, as—as a coherent people, will be a diaspora. We won’t exist anymore. So we want you to help us with that because it’s too late for you to help us have that not happen anymore. I was devastated.
I really was so—it—moved. It—it is hard to overstate how surprised and then kind of embarrassed at myself to—that I was surprised—at how gut wrenching that was. And it was more so for me because in that same week, the Syrian refugees had become big news in the United States and the Governor of Texas was saying we won’t accept any more Syrian refugees here in Texas. And I—I heard that happening. I had people calling me from Texas while I was in Paris saying yeah, but what about these refugees.
I was saying yeah, I can tell you here I’m talking to people who can say why the people are coming to Texas as refugees. It’s because of climate change. It’s because climate change has exacerbated the drought and they can’t keep doing what they were doing, which is—which is sad. And, I mean, more than sad that they lost their livelihood and they were forced into cities and then there was political unrest and then they came to the United States and the United States wasn’t very nice to them—all of those things.
But the thing that really stuck with me and I—I can’t—I can’t get past—so I told you about that farm in Meigs County in Appalachia. That farm has been in my family since 1780. My family were—they’re—were not—they’re not Mayflower people. They’re Germans who came to the Shenandoah Valley and they—my—my ancestor, Jacob Roche, had seven sons who all fought in the American Revolution. And George Washington gave them, like he gave a lot of his people—when the war was over, he gave them some of his land.
So he gave them all land grants in what was then, you know, the wild territory in Ohio and West and so we’ve had that farm since 1780. It has a cave on it that the Union soldiers—so it’s right—you can see the Ohio River almost from the farm. The Union soldiers in the Civil War hid horses in the cave on the farm to keep them from the Confederacy. We—the—was, you know, along the—the Underground Railroad route.
There’s a creek—there’s a spring and when my grandpa would take us on the tractor to go spread manure, we would go past this spring and he kept a little tin cup hanging on a tree root next to the spring, down in the holler, and we would drink that water out of the tap that was—that he had coming out and sort of drink that cold, spring water. And then we would drive up into the field that was next to the graveyard. And people in Texas always—they don’t call it a graveyard, I guess cemet—they call it a cemetery but, in Appalachia, it’s a graveyard.
And we’d go into the graveyard and then we’d go look around at the graves of my ancestors. The—at—Nicholas Roche and his wife, Olive, and, you know, all the Roches back to 1780. And, you know, I wouldn’t overstate it. We didn’t like say a prayer. We didn’t—but—but we—we invested ourselves constantly with that history. We would go to my great, great aunt’s house, which was sort of on another part of the farm, out away from the big house, where she and her maiden sister still lived with no electricity and no running water and I would sit on their horsehair sofa, which was just as gross as—as it sounds.
And they would tell stories about our family and our traditions and, you know, who beget who. And we’d get out the pictures and look at those people. I’ve taken my children there. I’ve, you know, taken the ashes of my grandparents and put them in the ground with my hands. And if you told me now because of climate change you can never go back there, you’ll never see those graves again, you’ll never see that spring again, you’ll never go in that cave again, I wouldn’t know how to exist either. That’s what’s different about climate change. [laughing]

DT: You can’t go home.

BM: I—i—it will make it be that people can’t go home and then when they get here, we can’t even be nice to them. So I don’t think climate change is inherently an environmental issue. I think climate change is inherently the—people talk about it being the be—the most challenging policy—it’s the biggest policy challenge the America—that the world has ever had. You know, the—it’s bigger than the slavery; it’s bigger than—climate change is our most pressing moral dilemma.
I would say climate change is maybe our most pressing spiritual challenge as people because we are going to have to figure out how to reframe our whole understanding, not just of our relationship to the environments that we—we’ve become accustomed to living in, but our relationship with—with each other. So—

DT: That helps me understand why it’s important to you and to Texas Impact, to work on environmental stuff, in general, but also in climate change areas, in particular. And I—maybe with the time we’ve got remaining, you could talk a little bit about some of the efforts that you and Texas Impact and maybe Texas Interfaith Power and Light have taken on to try to effect change.

BM: Yeah. So we—when we first started working on climate change, we worked on it on—in kind of a technical policy way. So Texas Impact became part of a national network. There is no more National Impact but there is something called National Interfaith Power and Light, which is a national network of state based affiliates that are engaging the interfaith community in responding to climate change and particularly around issues of energy efficiency and renewable energy.
So Texas Impact and Texas Interfaith Power and Light were involved in energy efficiency legislation at the Capitol. We’re very involved in advocating for increased renewable energy. We were very involved in, I would say decisively involved in defending the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard, which is a super technical, not very user friendly policy measure that requires a certain amount of renewable energy to be developed in the state.
We were able to communicate that very technical policy issue to lay people in faith communities across the state by connecting it to the direct services that faith communities do with food pantries and other kinds of human needs ministries. It made it real and manageable for them so I think we’ve done a lot of good communicating, complex energy policy issues so that people can understand what’s at stake for them in them.
But more and more when we talk about the faith community working on climate issues, in Texas and—and maybe in some other states too, we’re talking about a more and more global concern and more addressing the impacts of climate, not just preventing more global warming by using more renewable energy or energy efficiency measures. So Texas had a big climate related disaster last year. We had a hurricane. Climate change didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey by itself, but it exacerbated it. It was a factor in it.
In the year since Hurricane Harvey, faith communities have spent, conservatively, hundreds of millions of their own dollars addressing hurricane response and recovery, addressing needs of—of people in impacted areas. They’ve also worked with government. They’ve—they’ve helped distribute resources that come from tax funded sources and from private sector. So the faith community has a lot to say about hurricane and disaster response and recovery. One of the things they would say is wh—it’d be nice to be able to plan.
It would be nice to be able to plan ahead of time and get an idea of how we’re all working together before the hurricane hits, right. It would be good if we had some better strategies and systems in place, be better if we had some better ideas of—of what might be coming down the pike and what we would do in different circumstances. If only we had any sort of information that could help us plan. Well we do.
Actually in Texas, we have a state climatologist who creates models that would help the state make some plans for what might be coming as far as climate change and might help us address some of those eventualities proactively. For the past two legislative sessions, Texas Impact has advocated fiercely for legislation that just would have said state agencies must take account of the climatologist’s data and conclusions in making their state agency strategic plans. That legislation has failed two sessions in a row.
And last session, it brought—it came to the house floor and was debated on the house floor and members of the Texas House of Representatives ridiculed it. They said we just—this is about polar bears and, you know, they made jokes about global warming. And—and some to those legislators who made fun of that legislation represent parts of Houston that today are wiped out because of Hurricane Harvey. So we’ve done some work on energy efficiency and renewables but I think, in the future, we’ll continue to work hard on those issues when there’s opportunities to work on them.
Texas is really fortunate. At least our renewable energy industry is off and running. And so we want to support that in any way we can. But I think our attention will be a lot toward human interaction with climate change. And how—how are we, as a state, planning and simultaneously planning to address the needs that climate change creates while encouraging policies that minimize the worst possible damage.

DT: And so, I’m following you. Texas Impact and Texas Interfaith Power and Light—a lot of their effort is—is on these policies on trying to reach out to the—I guess largely the state government, but maybe municipalities and counties. But is there also an effort that’s sort of internally focused to try to get mosques and churches and temples and other sanctuaries to—to do sort of hands on efforts within their own congregations to install fluorescent light bulbs or LEDs or more efficient air conditioning? [overlapping conversation]

BM: Oh yeah, sure. So we’re almost—we’re almost to the point where we don’t have to say that stuff anymore. So twenty years ago, it was a big sell to tell churches to do—to change their light bulbs to LEDs. And there was all this angst about well we have these historic fixtures in our church sanctuary and the LEDs won’t fit. So it—there was a, you know, for a little while, there was a particular focus on historical buildings and how you do energy efficiency retrofits on historic buildings.
And then we started talking about you could do a solar installation and oh my gosh, it was, you know, our slate roof and we don’t want to mess up our vie—what our st—you know, our curb appeal of our building. Today, I do—I think so much of that just is now in the mainstream. We have congregations all the time calling us saying can you just tell us how we would get solar. We—we’ve decided that that’s something that we want. That’s not to say that every congregation in the country has gone solar and we don’t need to worry about it anymore.
But I think the—that idea—it was tied to stewardship. It was also tied to stewardship of your resources. So if you are spending all that money on your building that leaks like a sieve, you don’t have as much money for whatever your other missions and ministries might be. That’s all resonated really well. And I—I think it—it’s now a mainstream idea that part of the job of a religious congregation is to steward its resources and that might include stewarding the natural resources that go into running a building.
What I think is a harder sell is that’s why you need to advocate for policies that bring those same energy efficiency and renewables into the mainstream in the entire grid, not just for you. There’s still really—there’s a propensity among Texans particularly but I think really Americans and maybe just people—for their to—they want there to be something that they can do that makes them feel a little bit better about themselves. They don’t—they want to put on solar because it’s great but the idea that we should just all have it isn’t—isn’t quite as appealing.
It, you know, that the—they don’t want to work on the policy side. They want to work on the direct action side. One of the things that we really try to help individuals and congregations do is see how the direct action that they’ve taken helped le—leads them to policy advocacy that they should do. So say you can see that this has saved you money. What if you couldn’t have afforded to put solar on your roof? It should be that it’s not just for some. It should be that everyone can get it, right. It’s that kind of idea.

DT: So, I guess it’s—in some sense, it’s the educational effort that—that you teach people to—to do this and then y—encourage them to share that with others. Maybe this would be a segue to talk about some of your work outside of Texas Impact. I mean, I think, as I understand it, you—you teach at St. Edward’s, is that right? And—

BM: I have taught at St. Edward’s. I currently teach at Austin Presbyterian Seminary.

DT: Well could you speak a little bit about that and, you know, if there’s a sort of conservation component to what you teach there or the policy kind of lessons that you’re teaching there?

BM: So yes, I can talk about it. It’s not a class on conservation. Kind of it—it’s a class on faith and public policy. And so what we do is teach theology students who are planning mostly to be pastors in local churches, how to use their theological frameworks to—to form conclusions and take action on public policy issues, whether they’re in a local community or whether it has to do with being engaged at the state or national level. And sometimes the issues that they are interested in might turn out to be environmental.
Sometimes they may turn out to be human needs related. Right now a lot of people are very interested in immigration. But one of the things that we try to do is to help them see the intersections of different kinds of policy issues. So if you’re interested—somebody asked me really a long time ago why—what possible benefit my education and experience in sewing and costume design could have for public policy. And I said well it’s really the same thing. Designing a policy is pretty much just the same thing as designing a dress, right.
You—you—it needs to have certain things for it to fit on a human body. You know what you want it for. If you don’t know what you want it to do, it’s likely that it won’t be how you want it when you get done, right. Sometimes we work and work and work on it and then, at the very last minute, we’re like this thing’s just hopeless and we throw it in the trash and start over again. We’re all the time taking them apart and putting them together in different ways to make something new. So one of the—the kind of corollaries to that is policy is policy.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about environmental policy or healthcare policy or immigration policy or regulatory policy, whatever your paradigm is; you bring that to the policy process. And so the paradigm that we hope our theologians, our local pastors are bringing, is we have policy—we can have policy for one of two reasons: people—people want there to exist public policy for one of two reasons. One of them is because we fear each other. Sometimes we don’t like each other. We fear each other and we want to protect ourselves from each other.
So we—sometimes our paradigm about public policy is I want a policy that will keep you from hurting me or taking my stuff.

DT: Sort of the law and order approach?

BM: The other way we can think about policy or the policy paradigm that we hope people will come with is we have policy because we love each other. We want to do what is right for each other. We do want to love our neighbor as ourself. But, on any given morning, I wake up and that is not how I feel. On any giving morning, I wake up and I don’t love my neighbor as myself. I just want everybody—I just want my thing. And I don’t want to be that person. I want to be the loving one.
So policy is what we have to help us be the loving one even when we don’t really feel like it right that minute. That’s the—that’s the beloved community. The beloved community that Martin Luther King described is a community where there’s conflict just like we have today but we resolve our conflict in loving ways. And so what we say to our students is not this is what you would do if it was an environmental question, this is how you would talk about it if it was climate change, this is how you would talk about it if it’s healthcare.
We would say in—in all cases, you want to identify what’s our goal here, what’s our policy goal? What do we want the world to be like? What are we aiming for? What’s our policy paradigm? Are we moving from a place of fear or are we saying we want to start from a place of love? Do we want to start by hearing what the other person has to say and thinking about what—what pain and what aspirations they’re bringing into the conversation? Do we want a policy that creates equity and builds trust in the community or do we want a policy that crystallizes and—and ossifies the inequities and lack of trust that are already there?
That—that’s the way we teach the class. So and we—and spoiler alert—our theologies all pretty much tell us one of those paradigms is the right one and that is the loving one. And the one that is fear based is wrong, not because it’s—people, of course people feel fear but that’s what our relationship with God is supposed to do for is make us brave enough to step into that loving paradigm instead of staying in that paradigm of fear and scarcity. So with respect to climate change, that fear and scarcity model is very much in play because of the IPCC report, right?
All of a sudden, we know—we have some—some very precise language from scientists we—we trust that—and—and just as an aside, I know that there is a—there is often this perception that science and faith can’t sit on the same sofa together. First of all, if we hadn’t had faith, we wouldn’t ha—be where we are with science, right. We—we—the—the church has been the architect of so much knowledge and not just the Christian church but the history of Islam is seeking knowledge. The history of the Jewish community, for certain, is seeking knowledge, right.
So all of our faith communities have believed that our ability to think and reason and learn new things about the world around us and about ourselves is part of God’s gift to us. So the idea that somehow science would be something outside of faith is n—is just silly. But—but also, here in Texas, some of our most high profile scientists are specifically religious people. We have Katharine Hayhoe at Texas Tech who is an Evangelical Christian. We have Baptists in Abilene who are doing climate science.
We have Catholics and members of the Jewish community at the University of Texas working together on climate. At A&M University, we have people in different faith traditions. All over the state you have people who, on the weekend, worship in some faith community who, during the week, are working on climate science. They don’t see that as a problem. We should see that as a gift.

DT: Bee, you’ve talked about the work at Texas Impact and—and also your efforts to—to educate others about this connection between faith and public policy and how you, you know, ex—explain your concerns to the public policy apparatus, which I guess would include talking to our state representatives, our state senators, other elected officials and trying to persuade them to your point of view. And I just wonder if you could talk a little bit about that, you know, mano a mano, experience?

BM: Yeah, so w—so one thing I’ll say is when I worked in state government, I had to talk to lobbyists sometimes. And what I always thought was how can they be so sure, how can they be so sure? They come and tell us this stuff like it was facts that couldn’t be refuted and—and th—they represent their client so vigorously, I could never do that. I could never be so sure that I was right. What—I think that that has served me well as a lobbyist because yo—I’m willing to listen to what somebody else has to say and believe that I might not be right, which I think is really important.
I mean, if you go in and you say you need to do my thing because my thing is the only way, your thing is never the only way. The other thing I think though is people have the idea that what lobbyists do is go tell facts to people and try to get people to—people—the—the—lobby—they think pe—that lobbyists go tell facts to policymakers and that those policymakers use those facts in some linear way to make legislation or pass legislation or not pass legislation. I don’t think the process is that linear in any respect. I think, as lobbyist, your job is to build trust and to be somebody that you—a legislator can bounce ideas off of as much as somebody who comes and gives them ideas.
You want to be somebody who is seen as a trusted storyteller for a community, where the community is whatever the constituency is that you represent, not the spokesperson for everybody’s individual needs nor the—the deal closer for stuff that they want. I was always impressed when I—when I worked in state government at people who would characterize the Capitol as the Big Pink Store. They’d say it’s a place where people go and they think that they’re going to get stuff for themselves and stuff that will advance their cause or their business need or whatever it is.
It’s not a store. It’s a lot more like a house of worship, honestly, and I realize that there would be people who would disagree with that, but it is a lot more a place where we all go to be in relationship with each other. It’s a forum. And some of the time, ideas come out of that place that then result in laws that we all have to follow. But if I—I mean, I had this experience. In the Performance Review, I made recommendations and they became law and they now aren’t the law anymore because somebody else came in and changed them.
It’s—if your idea is that policy is a football game and your job is to get your thing over the—between the goal posts and then you can go home, as soon as you’re done, somebody’s going to go back and take it back to the other end of the field. So it’s about relationship and the long term process, not about just going and having that one conversation. Having said that, I know what you want me to talk about is going and talking to somebody who disagreed with me about an environmental issue.
When I first was the lobbyist for Texas Impact and I would go talk to—my biggest memory is talking to people in Washington actually about climate change, talking to le—to staffers for members of the Texas Congressional Delegation. I went in there and tried to tell them the—the facts and they tried to tell me stuff that I wasn’t listening to. And I would come home and say those guys, man, they just don’t understand. Now when I go, I start by asking them where they’re from, what they think.
I ask them what their experience working with other interests on climate change issues is. Once they—I hear their story, I give them some ways to think about how what I might be interested in telling them might fit with those prior experiences that they’ve had. I told members of the Congressional Delegation that story about the people who were worried about their high school football team. Said, you know, we understand that you have—you have a constituency and they have fears. It—we have to work together to—to resolve those fears.
That turns out to be a better strategy for me. I feel a lot better when I leave the meetings now than I did twenty years ago. Now every meeting I have feels like it was a good meeting.

DT: That’s helpful. And thank you. I think when we were off-camera, you mentioned that—that you would like to discuss the role of women and government. I’m not sure where you wanted to go with that.

BM: It’s not in government. I would say in the global climate—the global climate debate—discussion. It’s not a debate. It’s not two-sided. The—the global climate discussion that all however many billion people are all involved in whether they know it or not. When I started working on climate change issues, there were very few women involved in the process. I remember going to a meeting with Sally Bingham, where there was Sally and me and everybody else at the table was a man. They were all white men. And it was a funder meeting.
And the funder said that we were each going to get to talk for a certain amount of time. And they let the men go first and by the time it was time for Sally and then me, there was very little time left. And they were real precise with our time. Today, it’s not like that. Today it’s really changing. And it—it’s some American women, some it’s the—that, you know, younger women have gotten involved in science and technology.
For sure, that’s true. Some it’s that there’s a kind of a cast of characters that are women my age and older who had a different career and then went into some combination of religion and policy that has brought maybe a little bit more—more confident and wiser perspectives into the conversation as women, but a lot it has to do with the conversation in other countries. In the rest of the world, women increasingly are a really important constituency in climate. One of the things that is true—in the United States we don’t recognize it as much but all over the world it is true—women experience the impacts of climate change disproportionately.
They are disproportionately responsible for taking care of people who are vulnerable. So if you think just thinking about Hurricane Harvey, who was responsible for getting the kids from daycare? Who would have been responsible for the—the frail, elderly people who needed to be evacuated? Often it’s women, right. So, in other countries, they are also responsible for producing and preparing food. So when the food systems change, they are re—they are disproportionately impacted.
Because women are impacted, they are starting to really have a much more loud and unified voice. That’s empowering to women in the United States. That has made it more interesting and wh—wh—how do I want to say it—it has helped women like me who feel like well, I’m a privileged white woman from a privileged country and I’m not really a scientist so maybe I only deserve a couple of minutes in this conversation. It has helped me feel like no, what I’m part of is women and women’s interests in this issue. I’m a mom.
I’m—I’m someone who’s had the experience of dealing with frail, elderly relatives, with feeding children, right. So I have—I feel a community with women all over the world so much so is it changing, that at the United Nations Climate Negotiations in 2017, a resolution passed saying the United Nations needs to ensure that, in future climate negotiations, women are more involved at all levels, including the highest levels of leadership in the process and that women’s issues need to be addressed specifically as climate issues.
And the leader of the climate process in—at the United Nations is a woman. So, in my twenty years, one of—one of the things that I can now say is really exciting that I couldn’t have guessed would be true twenty years ago, is how much the role of women in the conversation has changed. When I go to a meeting about climate change now, more than half of the people are likely to be women.

DT: Well, speaking of—of how things have changed and—and looking into the future, you know, whether it’s the UN or in your own life, is—is there something that you would want to say to your kids or maybe someday your grandkids or, you know, future generations about your work on the—the—this sort of border between faith and public policy and, in particular, conservation issues?

BM: No one can guarantee the outcomes. We can’t guess sitting here today wh—whether people will still be able to live on earth by the time I would have great grandchildren. We can’t guess what scientific discoveries will have happened that will have made it newly possible for there to be twice as many people on the earth and everybody feel like it’s just fine either. So it could—it can—it can go any direction. And that’s—that’s theologically necessary because if we knew the outcome, then we wouldn’t be playing—we wouldn’t be playing from the heart.
We ha—we are—we are in this whole process—the whole point of the exercise of being people is to—is to love each other and to be in relationship with each other and with God and with all the rest of the universe. And if we are picturing it as a maximization problem or playing the odds, meh, if it’s not going to work out, I’m not going to try so hard, then we’re not having that right relationship, even if we’re doing the right things. I—I hope that in fifty years, my kids will be able to say look what—look what we were able to do.
We saved the world from the brink of human extinction. People are all here—people are all here and living healthy and productive lives. And if they can say that but in much of the world there’s famine and disease and poverty and it turns out that—that we were able to save it but only for a few people, then that wouldn’t be a success. But if fifty years from now, they’re looking at, you know, the end of human existence on earth and they’re saying we sure did try and we couldn’t do it, it wasn’t enough but—but we all actually were in right relationship by the end, then I’d say that wasn’t a failure.

DT: One last question we usually ask and, you know, in these times of uncertainty and—and conflict, are there—is there a place, maybe more than one, where you enjoy going for that kind of sense of solace and serenity that maybe brings you back to a center that’s reassuring?

BM: Yeah. It’s out there. It’s on my front porch. I’m not a—I love going places and seeing new—new scenery. We’ve be—I—my—my kids—m—one of my kids, my middle son, who we haven’t talked about what my kids do and that’s fine—but one of them is a wilderness guide in Alaska. And he—I’ve gone up and stayed in McCarthy with him and I’ve gone on the glacier and all this. It’s amazing. It’s amazing. We went to Ecuador. My husband and I went to Ecuador and we saw Blue Footed Boobies and snorkeled in the ocean. And that was amazing.
And I’ve seen, I mean, I loved seeing all that natural stuff. But I’m a homebody. I mean, my—for me, the world is—the world can be just this yard and—and I love it. So my—my place where I get my solace is—is here at home.

DT: You don’t have to go far. All right. Is there anything you’d like to add?

BM: I don’t think so.

DT: Well thank you.

BM: Sure.

[End of Interview with Bee Moorhead – November 8, 2018]