Eileen McGinnis: “Love for my child motivates me to act on climate.” Building a climate community for parents in Austin, Texas

Eileen McGinnis is the founder of The Parents’ Climate Community in Austin, Texas, USA, which provides meetups for parents concerned about the climate crisis. Since its first 5-person meetup in July 2019, The Parents’ Climate Community has grown to over 300 members in the Austin area. The organization offers parents family-friendly ways of getting involved in climate action from environmental picture-book readathons to community bike rides and trash clean-ups. In this piece, Eileen talks about what motivates her to take action on climate, her hopes and concerns, as well as why working across generations on climate can be so powerful.

Love for my child motivates me to act on climate. That love radiates outward, though, and makes me want to fight for children everywhere. Prioritizing kids’ health and wellness and their right to thrive should be a basic premise of how and why we come together as a society.

Becoming a parent several years ago transformed my relationship to the climate crisis: what had been abstract suddenly felt very visceral, immediate, and urgent. Motherhood transformed me, as well: it helped me to see far beyond my own lifespan and challenged this belief that I was a fully separate ‘self’ outside of the relationships I have with other humans, species, and environments.

My journey into climate parent activism started in March 2019. I was new to the local environmental movement in Austin, and had decided to attend a youth climate rally on the grounds of our state Capitol building. Listening to the youth organizers speak about their anxieties for the future, I felt saddened and ashamed. On the bus home from the rally that day, I googled “parents,” “climate,” and “Austin.” Not finding a climate group in my hometown specifically for caregivers, I started a meetup group called The Parents’ Climate Community. We strive to create a welcoming space for Austin caregivers, families, and allies to connect around the climate crisis.

I saw how challenging it was for busy parents to get involved in climate organizations whose meeting times often conflicted with caregiving obligations.  As parents, we’re stuck in this Catch-22: we are invested in sustaining a habitable planet for the next generation, yet we are already so slammed with the everyday demands of caregiving that it can be hard to find the time or energy to take action. The Parents Climate Community helps to provide this space for parents.

This year we are advocating with other local groups to stop a 19-lane highway expansion through the center of our city. By sharing the stories of youth, parents, and families most directly affected by the highway, we are bringing a focus on kids’ health and kids’ rights to the fight against the freeway. In addition, we’ve partnered with groups like Festival Beach Food Forest, Ghisallo Cycling Initiative, and Austin’s Office of Sustainability to create family-friendly tree plantings, bike rides, and clean-air storytimes. Above all, we continue to emphasize connection and mutual support, like next month’s parent coffee led by a licensed therapist. We can’t build effective grassroots action without also addressing our emotions about climate in an open, supportive way.

I worry that the hopelessness that so many feel about the climate crisis will prevent us from taking the necessary actions to address it. There’s a Joanna Macy and Molly Brown quote I love: “Silencing our deepest responses to the condition of the world not only fosters a sense of futility but also mires us in it.” Without allowing ourselves to feel deeply, we relinquish our agency and give up on the possibility for change.  It’s a strange psychological phenomenon: in avoiding the thing we fear (the existential threat of climate change), the thing we fear will most certainly come to pass.

But my hope is sustained by connecting with other parents, families, and organizations both locally in Austin and around the world through Our Kids’ Climate. The sheer energy, creativity, passion, and compassion of climate and environmental justice organizers worldwide provides a welcome counter-narrative to stories of despair, powerlessness, apathy, and greed. It is so much better to be speaking and working openly together than to be sitting with our fears alone in the middle of the night. Coming together in the face of a climate emergency can be a way to restore the civic bonds and community connections that are so crucial for human well-being and happiness.

Research has shown that kids and teens around the world are feeling betrayed by adults and alone with their feelings about the climate crisis. We need to stand in solidarity with youth rather than avoid or dismiss their very real fears about the world they are inheriting from us. When parents and caregivers get fired up and organized around a threat to kids, we can be unstoppable. We need that parent power in the climate movement!

We can learn from each other when we come together across generations. Many of the parents, guardians, and elders in our group join because they want to model civic engagement and cultivate a love of nature in their children. At the same time, we caregivers have a lot to learn from the kids and teens in our lives. Only by borrowing some of their imagination, energy, conviction, and even playfulness can we make the transformative changes necessary to address the climate crisis.