The Big Idea
“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” These words, spoken by Audre Lorde, capture the essence of intersectionality.
Chances are, you’ve come across the term before. Intersectionality, as a term and concept, has surged in popularity in the United States and around the world, informing the work of activists and policymakers alike engaged in the fight for equity.
Leah Thomas aka Intersectional Environmentalist is on a mission to inform the world the ways in which identity, race, ability, class, and gender impact everyone’s experience with the natural world — and how intersectional environmentalism can help us dismantle systems of oppression.
What is Intersectional Environmentalism?
Intersectionality is, in short, a framework for understanding oppression.
Originally coined by American lawyer, scholar, and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw, the term has its roots in activism and the concept of “interlocking” systems of oppression was commonly referenced by the Combahee River Collective, a Black lesbian social justice collective formed in Boston in 1974.
“It’s all about overlapping identities. At first, it was applied to feminism because it was really important to look at the ways Blackness and womanhood intersected. Fast forward to now, I think we should do the same thing with environmentalism and consider the ways identity, race and class impact someone’s experience with the natural world around them.”
Black Lives Matter meets Environmental Science
Leah grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, in the middle of the United States, in a city about 15 minutes away from Ferguson, Missouri. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it was the starting place of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer.
That was two weeks before Leah started her second semester at university, in which she was studying environmental science and policy.
After weeks of social unrest and protests, Leah went off to college where she was the only Black student in the environmental science programme.
She was learning about legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act that were supposed to protect the right to life and the right to breathe. The synergy between that and the social injustice she was seeing back home was obvious.
“Whenever I just heard the terminology ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe’ echoed throughout the Black Lives Matter movement, I always connected it back to environmentalism.”Leah Thomas
Since then, Leah has worked everywhere from the National Park Service to Patagonia, eventually starting writing a book and starting her own organisation: Intersectional Environmentalist.
What has the response been?
Environmental justice, as a field of study, which looks into racial inequality, classism, and environmental hazards and outcomes, has existed since the late 70s. It was inspired by both the US Civil Rights Movement and the Earth Day movement at the time.
But it wasn’t met positively, according to Leah.
“A lot of people, whether it’s due to naiveté, or just blatant racism, often would say, ‘environmentalism exists way over here and civil rights and social justice exists over here.’ But that’s not the case, as many lower income folks and Black and brown people around the world can see very clearly because they don’t have clean air or water.”Leah Thomas
Navigating academia, as oftentimes the only black woman, Leah was often met with subtle gaslighting.
When she worked within corporations, she’d express the need to prioritise environmental justice. But the response would always be the same: “Maybe later.”
That “maybe later” attitude is something that’s apparent throughout all sorts of movements throughout history.
“Black and brown folks are told that our liberation can maybe come later. Maybe if white women are liberated, we can come back and circle back to Black and brown women. But the fact of the matter is, they don’t circle back to us. So we’ve had to create our own movements.”Leah Thomas
Gen Z see it as a no-brainer.
Leah has seen changes, especially among Gen Z and Millennials.
They’re growing up in a world where we’re talking about pronouns and identity so, for them,
intersectional environmentalism makes complete sense. They can see, Leah says, “how the patriarchy and the destruction of the Earth are connected.” It lights a fire in them.
Is Leah an influencer?
“I’m okay with that. Yeah, I would say I’m a blogger, I’m a writer, I’m an influencer. I think that’s something that at first I was kind of afraid of, and I think a lot of women are afraid of that title. It’s something that’s weaponized against us, in some ways, in ways that it’s not weaponized against men, men can talk about tech, or things that are considered “manly” and no one calls them influencers, even though they are. Yeah, I might have a bit of influence online to talk about sustainability and environmental justice.”Leah Thomas
How do we get other people into the conversation?
Intersectional environmentalism is quite a dense, academic topic. It’s got 12 syllables after all, Leah reminds us. And academia has a tendency to be a little… elitist.
So how do you get as many people as possible into the conversation and engaged? Let’s experiment with the different ways we communicate the message, says Leah.
While there might be an academic elite that belittles social media, there are billions of people using it — and Leah intends to meet them where they’re at.
“If someone is working a 60 hour workweek, if they happen to have a moment on the bus that they’re on Instagram, and they’re scrolling, and they can swipe through a carousel post and learn about exactly what environmental hazards are happening in their neighbourhood, or see an organisation that they can support and it only takes them two minutes, I want them to also have access to environmental education, it shouldn’t be something that’s just kept in academia.”Leah Thomas
How can businesses engage with intersectional environmentalism?
In two main ways, says Leah:
- Investigate your supply chains
Start at the source and look at everything from the environmental footprint of each step of the chain and its impact on people as well as the planet to the working conditions of people all along the chain.
- Redistribute wealth
Unfortunately, environmental justice work, especially that’s led by people of colour receives under 2% of all environmental funding. That needs to change.
“The best thing any corporation can do is give away. Even if it’s 1% of their funding to grassroots climate justice organisations, it makes such a big difference.”
What was it like writing a book?
Leah started writing the book when she was 25, during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement.
As well as being a traumatic process, she says, it was also a beautiful one.
It was beautiful because of the sheer amount of contributors to the book and getting to show readers the range of what intersectional environmentalism can be from queer ecology and disability justice to ecofeminism.
But it was also traumatic explaining environmental injustice and laying out the data, because there had been so many times where people didn’t believe Leah or other people of colour.
Who is the book for?
It’s first and foremost a book for future Black women.
“I really did write it kind of for my younger self. I want young Black girls to have a book that validates them as early as possible and says you belong here. And here are all the reasons why.”
But it’s also an introductory textbook for a lot of people. So they can start their environmental journey and help to prevent future harm. Because, thinking that racial justice and social justice have nothing to do with environmentalism, is leading to horrible outcomes that we’re seeing right now like people of colour in the Global South bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.
So while the book is educational, its goal is also to prevent further harm by teaching people as early as possible in their environmental education that social justice and environmentalism are linked. “If that’s the one thing people walk away with,” she says, “then that makes me happy.”
Belonging is a powerful motivator
When Leah was growing up, she grew up thinking that there were loads of Black people in STEM, because her mother gave her Black doctor dolls, Black astronaut dolls, and books among other things.
It wasn’t until she was older that she realised how much her mother must have gone out of her way to get her hands on these materials.
That’s one of the reasons she wanted to write the book.
“Representation is so important and belonging because it instils a sense of confidence. I want people to have that confidence. So they know, hey, even if it’s not in your little community, there’s a whole world of people of colour, who love the Earth and you go into this field with confidence to know that you belong here.”
Until next time — stay curious!