Leah Thomas studied environmental science in college, and she’s worked as a park ranger and in corporate sustainability for the outdoor clothing company Patagonia. But in 2020, furloughed from her job, she thought about what kind of environmentalism she really wanted to practice.
She had a passion for social justice and how it ties into the environment and said she was really impacted by the Black Lives Matter movement. She came up with “intersectional environmentalism.”
“I wrote a pledge for anyone who wanted to be an intersectional environmentalist,” she said. “And I posted it on Instagram.”
That social media post, she said, was shared over a million times, and Thomas, with some friends, quickly mobilized to make a website with resources for people who wanted to learn more. That grew into a zine and a book that came out this spring. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple recently spoke with Leah Thomas about it.
LISTEN to their conversation
Kara Holsopple: What is intersectional environmentalism?
Leah Thomas: Intersectional environmentalism pulls from intersectional theory and intersectional feminism created by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw. It essentially argues that we should consider compounding factors – things like income and race and gender – and how those things might compound and lead to environmental outcomes.
So an intersectional approach to environmentalism sees who is being impacted the most by environmental injustices, amplifies their voices, and makes sure that they have a seat at the table so they no longer bear the brunt of those environmental injustices.
“If you take a moment to think about who’s being impacted the most at the very beginning, and include their voices, then you can have more comprehensive solutions.”
Unfortunately, the mainstream environmental movement isn’t the most diverse, and that lack of diversity has led to low-income communities, Black and Brown communities, etc., not being included in environmental education for all of their contributions and also facing the brunt of environmental hazards and injustices.
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Holsopple: What does it look like in practice, on the ground?
Thomas: I would say the best example I can think of, and it’s probably because the last protest I went to before the pandemic was for endangered salmon. If you’re not thinking about this issue intersectionally, you might just say, okay, there’s endangered salmon. How can we help the salmon? Let’s improve the water quality. But if you’re looking at it intersectionally, you’re also thinking about, okay, who is also being impacted by this environmental hazard?
We know that the salmon are being impacted. We need to fix that. But are there Indigenous communities or local communities that are also relying on the salmon for their livelihoods? How can we include them in the conversation? Are there local fishermen who are also depending on the salmon? Is this runoff also going into different communities and contaminating their drinking water, etc.?
So I would say in intersectional approaches to environmentalism, you’re always asking who is being impacted and getting as nuanced as possible so you can make the most comprehensive solution. It’s never going to be perfect, but if you don’t consider people, especially marginalized and vulnerable people in the equation the first time around, then you’re probably going to have to circle back time and time again and address those issues separately.
If you take a moment to think about who’s being impacted the most at the very beginning, and include their voices, then you can have more comprehensive solutions.
Holsopple: You write in your book, The Intersectional Environmentalist, about how, at the beginning of what we think of as the modern environmental movement in the 1970s–the first Earth Day–it was mostly led by white people, and that we’re paying a price for that now. Can you say a little bit more about that?
Thomas: I had a hunch, but I needed to go back into the data and I’m so glad I stumbled across a gentleman named Arturo Sandoval, who is the only Chicano organizer of the first Earth Day movement. In essence, he was saying that there was a lack of working-class people and people of color within environmental advocacy. There were people there, but their voices weren’t really prominent in the movement.
There was so much legislation that was passed [as a result of 1970s activism], it almost kind of tricked that environmental movement into thinking like, “Oh, I guess we don’t need all of these other people because we did it. We mobilized over 20 million people around the world. We got the Environmental Protection Agency and all these laws passed, etc.”
But no, that is so misleading. Maybe they were able to create agencies, but those agencies and those laws just weren’t equally enforced for all people and they weren’t equally enforced for the people who weren’t included in that movement. It’s kind of a direct correlation to what happens when you don’t include as many perspectives as possible or thinking that you can just get things done without including communities that are already facing a lot of different vulnerabilities. I think learning from that can teach us how to do environmental movements a little bit better right now.
Holsopple: Your book gives some advice on being an ally to marginalized communities when it comes to environmental justice for people who have privileges because of their race or class or sexual orientation or other identities. What questions should people ask themselves if they want to be an ally?
Thomas: I would say, first and foremost, just get to know yourself a little bit better as an ally. In the book, I talk about the Big Eight identity aspects. There are things like race, ability, etc., and kind of do a personal audit, not in a bad way, but just thinking about what identity aspects have largely shaped my life or what are ones that I haven’t really thought about. Because oftentimes people just don’t know. You don’t know until you know.
So with me being currently able-bodied, I didn’t really think about ability and disability until somewhat recently, and I realize how much of an oversight that has had within my environmental activism, and the ways that maybe in the past, I perpetuated eco-ableism by just saying, “No plastic ban straws.” It was a big wake-up call because I didn’t know that plastic straws were used in hospitals, or some people have to use plastic straws to survive. There’s a lot that we might do unintentionally if we don’t do that self-inventory and audit about who we are and why we see the world the way that we do.
If you’re white, what does that mean in terms of what you perceive? What about your religion? All those sorts of things. And then after that, really just understanding that a lot of communities of color, or low-income communities. They are aware of what’s happening in their communities, but they just need resources and support and amplification. They are the bearers of their own solutions, but they might need help.
That’s where allies can really step in by allowing them to lead, by amplifying their efforts, sharing their efforts, and raising awareness, whether that’s on social media, showing up for protests, going to a meeting, or donating, because there’s a really significant funding gap, specifically with climate justice organizations.
I think lastly with allies, the fun part, the best part, is just going back in history and kind of uncovering some of these great stories of people of color, of queer folks, whatever it is, people who have been a part of the environmental movement history for a long time but haven’t had their stories told and spreading that with other people because there are so many amazing stories that are worth uncovering.
Holsopple: How did your experiences early on in your environmentalism lead you to where you are now?
Thomas: My first Park Service intern position was in rural Kansas in a really small farming community. We barely had any visitors at the site, but it was a historic site called Nicodemus.
After slavery, a lot of freed African-Americans went there to start their own town with their new freedom. At first, they dug holes in the ground and they lived in dugouts. You can still go to those sites and observe them. They built a town from the ground up, eventually having a school, a post office, churches, etc.
So I think being in that space as a young Black environmental student and seeing that my history is also a part of U.S. environmental history – literally in the ground – and this is just beautiful. So I think that was the connection for me.
And then talking to some of the local farmers. They are people who I may be politically didn’t identify with, but it was a pretty integrated city and town as some farming towns are. There were some very conservative-leaning white folks, and then there were also the descendants of the people who came there.
Just having an experience like riding on a combine tractor during the wheat harvest with an older white farmer who was conservative-leaning–he just wanted to talk about the EPA and how regulation could be better. They felt a disconnect from the federal government, and that’s something that I had never considered because I never talked to people like that.
I just realized there are a lot of people who just want to be seen and heard and validated. It’s not like they just love pesticides and they want to use pesticides and poison the earth or something like that. It’s just that’s what’s available to them and they don’t want to lose money. And there’s a loss of culture because their children are leaving. So I think it made me just realize there are a lot of stories out there that need to be shared and people need to listen.
Holsopple: The book just came out. What’s next for you? What’s next for this organization?
Thomas: What’s next? I really want to dabble in other forms of media. I have a documentary that’s coming out with WaterBear Network, with Betty Reid Soskin, who is a recently retired 100-year-old park ranger. She’s an incredible Black woman who became a park ranger at 85.
I really just want to see how I can continue to share some of these beautiful stories with the world. Recently, I published an article that was titled, “All My Environmental Heroes Are Black Women,” and I talked about Betty and so many of these other women.
I just thought, “Oh, I know them. So everyone must know their stories.” And there are so many comments like, “Wait, you’re telling me there’s a 100-year-old park ranger? You’re telling me that there’s this mother of environmental justice?” And then it clicked that these stories aren’t as well known as they should be, and they’re so cool and it’s getting people excited.
I want to dabble in different forms of media to continue to raise awareness about some of these under-amplified voices because they’re not unheard–many of us have heard them for a really long time–but they need more amplification of all the cool things that they’ve done.
Leah Thomas was in Pittsburgh as the keynote speaker of Women for a Healthy Environment‘s annual May Day celebration. She is the founder of the Intersectional Environmentalist Platform, an online resource, and community that advocates for justice and inclusivity in the environmental movement and education.