From a young age Joe Toolan was drawn to the environment. As a gay individual and a person of color adopted into a white family, he faced a lot of pressure from an early age and the outdoors provided a space where he felt safe.
“Whenever I was outside, whether that’s in the woods or on the water, whatever it might be, it just kind of felt like some of the societal expectations were taken away and I could kind of just be who I was. I think there’s so much healing that’s provided in natural spaces in ways that I can’t even describe. From a really young age I remember that connection,” said Toolan.
His experiences in the outdoors led him to a career protecting those spaces and making them more accessible and inclusive to community members. He works full time with the Chesapeake Bay Trust, is the chair of Annapolis Pride and the chair of the Maryland Commission on LGBTQ+ Affairs.
Working in environmental protection
Despite his love for the outdoors, Toolan didn’t picture himself going into the environmental field. It wasn’t until he took environmental science in high school that he found a science field he loved. He mentioned his interest to a teacher and she encouraged him to go to school to pursue environmental science as a profession.
Even after getting his degree, Toolan wasn’t sure where he would end up in his career. When he got his job at the Chesapeake Bay Trust and found a space that accepted all elements of his identity, he knew he had a future in this industry.
“There is space for us in this movement and we bring a lot of value in having our voices heard. It’s been a kind of crazy combination of events that led me here, but I’m really glad I’m here and I’m glad I get to claim my seat now” said Toolan.
At the Trust he works as a Program Officer in the DC metro area working on sustainability and stormwater solutions and leading their Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) work. Working both in the environmental field and DEIJ space allows Toolan to “bring a lot of different lenses” to every conversation. He is able to draw attention to issues that might otherwise be missed and to bring in expertise and strategies from different organizations.
One thing missing from LGBTQ+ resources is data about the community in the workforce and especially in green careers. Toolan is working with FreeState Justice to organize a Maryland-wide survey on the community and to see what needs they have. This new data will help inform organizations and funders as they create plans for programs and grants.
Making Annapolis a more inclusive space
After a two year wait due to Covid, Toolan and the team at Annapolis Pride were able to make the 2022 Annapolis Pride Festival happen. It was the first festival in two years and only the second pride festival in Annapolis history. The theme “Many Faces, One Pride” symbolized the incredible diversity of the Annapolis LGBTQ+ community while focusing on the common ground they share. Nearly 10,000 people attended the festival. After two years of being in isolation due to the COVID 19 pandemic, this year's festival was particularly special to many attendees.
The work of Annapolis Pride goes far beyond the annual celebration. Year-round they work to increase the rights of LGBTQ+ community members in partnership with county organizations, local governments and community groups. They are also starting to have smaller events throughout the year so people always have a place to go and feel safe. In 2022, they worked to ensure transgender and transition-related care would be covered in county employee health insurance plans. Part of their goals moving forward is to work with schools to make sure young LGBTQ+ individuals are supported along every step of their journey. As Annapolis Pride continues their efforts, they are committed to including all LGBTQ+ identities and combating racism in all forms.
Toolan is also the chair of the State of Maryland LGBTQ Affairs Commission. The commission works to reach LGBTQ+ community members and make sure their issues are addressed by the governor.
Creating a better future
Stories can be a powerful tool for changing opinions and growing awareness. Relationships are the key to finding those stories and sharing them in a responsible way. No one is required to share their story, but in doing so they can help people understand a perspective they wouldn’t see otherwise. According to Toolan, when people make an effort to build genuine connections they can “find the people that might be willing to share and move the needle forward without overburdening anyone in particular.” Organizations looking to improve their own DEIJ efforts should create inclusive spaces, build relationships and be honest with their employees and community.
Many organizations are also looking at how they can be more equitable in their grantmaking. The CBT is currently providing a 30-hour racial equity training for the staff of some of their funders and nonprofit partners to ensure grant money is distributed in a way that works for everyone Efforts and conversations like those being initiated by the Trust can help include people that have historically been shut out of these spaces. Environmental organizations also have the power to make inclusive spaces outdoors by having bilingual resources, gender inclusive restrooms and well-trained staff.
The LGBTQ+ community and environmental justice community have made a lot of progress, but there is also still a lot of work to be done. In the future, these movements can grow together to ensure that everyone has safe access to a restored Chesapeake Bay watershed. Toolan reminds us all to listen to stories, stand up when it's needed and encourage new faces to join the movement.