Environmental Justice Foundation – We work for environmental justice, to protect the natural environment and the people and wildlife that depend upon it.
Green Girl Leah – Leah Thomas is a celebrated environmentalist based in Los Angeles, CA. Coining the term ‘eco-communicator’ to describe her style of environmental activism, Leah uses her passion for writing and creativity to explore and advocate for the critical yet often overlooked relationship between social justice and environmentalism.
Leah Thomas’ Book: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression
Leah Thomas 0:09
There’s so much harm when people think that racial justice and social justice have nothing to do with environmentalism. It’s leading to a horrible, horrible outcome.
Ben Hurst 0:20
This is climate curious, the podcast for people who are bored, scared or confused by climate change.
Maryam Pasha 0:27
I Maryam Parsha, the director and curator at TEDx London and the co host of this podcast, alongside the amazing Ben.
Ben Hurst 0:34
Hi, I’m Ben Hurst, activist and advocate exploring what positive masculinities can look like, and self confessed climate normy.
Leah Thomas and Intersectional Environmentalism
Maryam Pasha 0:45
We are back at TED countdown London, it is amazing to be here. We have been learning a lot hearing some incredible ideas. We’re just gonna get right into it because I want to use as much time as possible to talk to this guest.
Ben Hurst 0:59
Maryam Pasha 0:59
Is that right?
Ben Hurst 0:59
Yeah, I’m here for it.
Maryam Pasha 1:00
I don’t want to chat with you.
Ben Hurst 1:01
Why has it become so dark? So quick, that’s fine
Maryam Pasha 1:07
we’re joined today by the amazing Leah Thomas. She’s the co founder of Intersectional Environmentalist, I just want you to tell us right away, what does that mean?
Leah Thomas 1:15
intersectional environmentalists? Yes. Well, it’s kind of like, intersectional theory was created by Dr. Kimberly Crenshaw in 1989. And it’s all about overlapping identities, and things like that. 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, things like race and class impact someone’s experience with the natural world around them.
Maryam Pasha 1:45
And so you created this platform, I mean, that first of all, that was like the most succinct, definition of intersectional envitronementalist I’ve ever heard in my life. So like 10 points? Not that we get when you said
Ben Hurst 1:58
it was lengthy wasn’t even a no, we do give points, and you got 10 of them.
Maryam Pasha 2:03
I’m just really curious to know how so tell us a little bit about you, if you can, like that is coming at it from that perspective. I think if I as we’ve been, and I’m quite new to this conversation, it feels like a lot of people are having more intersectional conversations now. But it didn’t used to be this way. And so I’m really curious to know how you came to viewing kind of environment and climate in this way. And what brought you to this to begin with what brought you to creating this platform?
Leah Thomas 2:31
Yeah, so I guess I’m from St. Louis, Missouri, so the middle of the United States, and I grew up in a city about 15 minutes away from Ferguson, Missouri, which for some people they may know if they’re familiar, was kind of the starting place of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, because of a police officer involved shooting of Michael Brown, which really sparked the hashtag Black Lives Matter hashtag. And when that happened, I was actually in about two weeks before I started my second semester, at uni, and I decided to study environmental science and policy. So I had two weeks of living through social unrest and protests in my neighbourhood, went off to college was the only black student in my new environmental science programme. And I was learning about the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and all of these important pieces of legislation that were supposed to protect our right to life and our right to breath. So I couldn’t really separate what was going on back home. And whenever I just heard the terminology, you know, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe echoed throughout the Black Lives Matter movement. I always just kind of connected it back to environmentalism. So because those things are kind of a mesh for me, I think I just decided, you know, what, I don’t want to take part in any type of environmentalism that does not advocate for the right for black and brown folks to have life. So I just started studying it in every way that I could. And that took me everywhere from being a National Park Service Ranger to working at companies like Patagonia to also just writing and blogging and things like that, and then eventually starting my own org and writing a book.
Ben Hurst 4:10
That’s a good backstory. That is a good backstory, isn’t it?
Maryam Pasha 4:15
I I feel like it’s a whole other podcast where we say, I just did these things. And now I’m running this incredible platform. But I, I really want to dig into the response that you’ve gotten for this kind of platform is this way of thinking was knitting with people? Is it something that was missing?
Leah Thomas 4:37
It is now but to be completely honest, the riots and the uprisings in Ferguson took place in like 2015, I believe. So that’s when I kind of started talking about this. And then also for context, environmental justice as a field of study has existed since the 70s or the 80s. And it was inspired by both the US Civil Rights Movement and the Earth Day movement at the time, kind of combining those two ideas. So environmental justice, which looks into racial inequality, classism, and environmental hazards and outcomes, has existed for a long time but hasn’t been met positively. I would say a lot of people, whether it’s due to naivete 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. So I think navigating academia as oftentimes the only black woman, so both of those dual identities, and, you know, science, I was often met with whether it was subtle gaslighting, or just being very dismissive. Even some corporations I worked out, I would try to say, we really need to prioritise environmental justice. And in essence, it would always come down to maybe later. And that’s something that you can see throughout all sorts of movements throughout history, where black and brown folks are told that our liberation can maybe come later, you’ve seen that in the feminist movement, which is why we have intersectional feminism. Now, when back in the day, many white woman said, race that’s a little too tricky, or LGBTQ plus liberation, that’s a little too, too tricky. 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 and things like that. So I haven’t always been met with positive reception. But in 2020, and again, that was five years later, people started coming around. And I think honestly, it was because of public pressure. The Black Lives Matter movement was trending in a really major way. And all of a sudden, a lot of environmental organisations were like, We need to say something, we have to say something. And it does make me a little sad that they started speaking up because they felt like they had to, because they could have been speaking up since the 80s.
Ben Hurst 7:10
So we keep talking about this platform that you’ve got. And this is I find this really interesting because I feel like you say it changed in 2020. Right? Off the back of Black Lives Matter. global unrest in terms of like racism and what was happening. My perspective or my perception of what is happening is that it hasn’t changed that much. I’m feel like I might be a little bit wrong here. But I’m interested in like, what what it is that you have made, or what it is that you’ve created and how it works. Because I’ve I feel like this is a conversation that people still really don’t want to have, right?
Leah Thomas 7:48
Yeah, I completely agree. And I think the dynamics are definitely very different in the UK and the US, in particular, because the UK has climate activism that I’ve never seen, like even Europe, and general just the momentum, the magnitude, it’s not something that exists in the same way in the United States. So what you’re saying is absolutely true. And I think two truths can exist at the same time. What I have seen changes, especially Gen Z and millennials saying, okay, I get it. And it makes sense, because they’re growing up in a world where we’re talking about pronouns, we’re talking about, you know, identity and things like that. So intersectional environmentalism, does, it totally makes sense. Are you talking about us? Have you talked to Gen Zers. And you’re like, oh, you’re a feminist. That’s super cool. Let’s talk about how the patriarchy and the destruction of the Earth is connected. It just almost lights a fire in them. Or even if you’re talking about, oh, okay, you’re a religious person, oh, let’s look into these religious texts and look at all these themes about protecting the earth. So a lot of younger folks want to connect their identity back to the environment. And what I’ve have seen changes specifically within educational systems, where they’re starting to teach about diverse environmentalists within their environmental programmes. And I think even subtle things like that are shifting the ways people think about environmentalism. So they’re not just thinking about conservation, and it’s almost becoming second nature that oh, yeah, we should talk about air pollution and who’s impacted the most. But yeah, after 2020 I am really curious beyond those statements that a lot of organisations have made, what they’re doing to actually change things, and I think there’s a long way to go.
Ben Hurst 9:33
So what’s the deal? Well, you lack a influence of the right word.
Leah Thomas 9:38
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 quote unquote, manly and no Don’t call them influencers, even though they are. But I would say yeah, I might have a bit of influence online to talk about sustainability and environmental justice. And because of that, it’s allowed me to start a nonprofit organisation. And also, you know, write and do things like that.
Ben Hurst 10:15
This is important, right? Because I guess the big conversation that we all have to be having is how do we get other people into the conversation? Which is like, I feel like comms is like maybe the biggest weapon we’ve got, like comms and art hand in hand are like the biggest weapons we’ve got, or a satellite. If there’s some kind of satalite soundthat could just fix the problem. Also that, but I, I’m interested in,
Maryam Pasha 10:41
I believe that that is true, but I don’t know. Well, that’s causing the problem.
Ben Hurst 10:45
That’s another conspiracy theory for another day. But I’m interested in how you are, use it? Or what’s the impact of like, how you’re using those platforms? Does it? Do you feel like it’s doing what what it is that you want it to be doing?
Leah Thomas 10:59
Absolutely. And I think as someone who navigated academia, I am a scientist studied environmental science and policy. I’m very familiar with that. I started realising that the scientific community, many of us are very elitist. And that’s just academia in general. And even in social justice speak. And you know, sometimes I joke around intersectional environmentalism is 12 syllables. So the thing is, you know, it’s like, it’s really long. But you can say, and I always tell this to science people, and sometimes annoying social justice people, you can say the same thing, sometimes in 50 different ways. And if the goal is to get as many people as possible to care about our home planet, to care about social justice, let’s experiment with the different ways that we can say it. And it’s not even that we’re dumbing it down, but just making it so people go, okay, yeah, that totally makes sense. So I love communications. And I love writing. And I also love digital media, because I want to meet people where they’re at. And coming from academia, there’s so many elitist people who are like, social media is so stupid. It’s like, there’s billions of people who are using this, the truth of the matter is, I want even 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, so so it’s like, how can we communicate with as many people as possible, because one message won’t work with everybody. So it’s kind of like, an equation that I love geeking out about all the time.
Ben Hurst 12:50
Finding the right message for the right person is like 100% of the of the game, right? Like, I feel like that is so relevant. And like a really important skill, and not a skill that Everyone possesses. Which is why it’s important that for people who do possess it, that’s what they’re using it to do, right.
Maryam Pasha 13:11
I feel like you’ve been in all of these different worlds, the academic world, you said, you wrote for Patagonia for a while in the business world in the kind of influencing online space. So I just want to move us into the business world a bit and talk about how you imagine this intersectional view coming to life with the way that businesses it businesses are now engaging with climate. And we know that I mean, I think that business can genuinely engage with climate, but I don’t think it always does. Right, I think we can pretty much agree on that. So I’m just curious, like, from your vantage point, what do you see as effective and thoughtful engagement?
Leah Thomas 13:54
I would say probably two things, one supply chain. So really get mentioned so that I making sure it’s ethical and sustainable, which a lot of people are familiar with. But two is wealth redistribution. I honestly think that is 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. Unfortunately, environmental justice type of work, especially that’s led by people of colour receives less than 2% of all environmental funding, and that needs to change. And that’s something that corporations could actually do pretty quickly, because there’s not as much you know, red tape, because when we’re talking about government, sometimes grant processes might take a really long time or organisations have to compete for grants, but corporations could cut a check. Right now there’s a little bit less red tape, there’s some. So I think the most important thing any company can do is to fund grassroots climate activism in any ways that they can And I think Patagonia has a great model of this because they do just baked into their philosophy give away a lot of funding to climate justice orgs. Or people can become 1% for the planet partners and 1% will take care of that and give 1% of all their funding to environmental organisations.
Stories of Intersectional Environmentalism
Maryam Pasha 15:20
You’ve just had a book, published in August of this year, called the intersectional, environmentalist how to dismantle systems of oppression to protect people and planet. Congratulations. First off, how
Ben Hurst 15:31
do we do that? Congratulations.
Maryam Pasha 15:36
How? How has that process been? And who are you hoping to reach with this book?
Leah Thomas 15:41
Yeah, it’s wild. I started writing the book when I was 25. And I was unemployed. And it was during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. And that’s a whole nother conversation for another day. But there are a lot of projects that were suddenly greenlit because of 2020. And it feels strange at times, now that I’m reflecting on it. Two or so years later, at 27, almost 28. Like that was kind of a traumatic process to write a book really quickly, to try to get people to care about black and brown lives. But it was also a really beautiful process at the same time. And I think that specifically because there’s so many contributors in the book, because I knew that I’m not just like, I might say, intersectional environmentalism a lot. You know, it’s a long, a long term. But there’s so many people that embody that in different ways in ways that I can’t explain. Whether it’s a friend of mine that talks about queer ecology, it’s like such a cool field of study, or disability justice or eco feminism, etc. So I feel like the best part of the book was just showing people the range of what intersectional environmentalism can be. And then I think my favourite part wasn’t the trauma because there was a lot of trauma of having to explain this as environmental injustice. Here’s all the data, because there’s so many times where maybe people didn’t believe me or other people of colour. So citations are on deck.
Ben Hurst 17:11
Footnotes. The book is basically one big footnote.
Leah Thomas 17:14
Yeah, it basically is. But I think the most beautiful part was actually just like the fun stories like, Oh, this is a really cool indigenous environmentalist from back in the day, you’re like, hey, this guy made peanut butter. And it was like really cool. Like, I feel like that.
Ben Hurst 17:32
I want to know about the event or have no idea that that was elitist, environmental,
Leah Thomas 17:38
George Washington Carver.
Ben Hurst 17:42
You asked two questions, one, how was it? How was the process? And two? Who do you hope it will reach? Where has the book gone? And where do you want the book to go?
Leah Thomas 17:54
I think the best part of it, and it was something that I really grappled with when I was writing it, but I really did write it kind of for my younger self, like, 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. And it was something I struggled with, because I want everyone to feel represented in the book. And I tried to bring in as many collaborators as possible, but then I realised you know what, it’s okay as a black woman for me to write books for future black woman. So it might not read like that. But there are certain moments that I think when black people read it, they’re like, Okay, Power to the People like they get it. It’s like a little nod. But I think, yeah, I want it to be an introductory textbook for a lot of people. So they can start their environmental journey and just know like, I want this book to prevent future harm. Because there’s so much harm when people think that racial justice and social justice have nothing to do with environmentalism, it’s leading to horrible horrible outcomes that you all are probably so familiar with. But people of colour folks in the global south low income people bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. So this book, while it is educational, my goal is to prevent further harm by teaching people as early as possible and their environmental education, whether that’s through academia or outside of it to just click that okay, social justice, environmentalism are linked. And if that’s the one thing people walk away with, then that makes me happy.
Maryam Pasha 19:30
I think that’s beautiful. And I, you mentioned the idea of belonging. I think belonging is such a powerful motivator, the search for belonging. I’ve had a number of conversations recently where people are just starting whole things, doing whole things that take up their whole lives because they have realised that they did not belong for so long, and now they want to create opportunities for others. And I think it’s absolutely amazing because I think that that’s very much and then we’ve talked about this before. You know, I, my experience as well was not feeling like the climate space was somewhere where I could belong. Yeah, you know, whether for a number of reasons whether it’s because I love and worked in human rights, whether it’s because I’m a fat brown woman, whether it’s because I grew up in cities, whatever it might be. And I do think actually, it makes such a big difference to think about creating resources so that young people don’t have those feelings so they can choose whether that’s somewhere where they want to belong or not.
Leah Thomas 20:26
Yeah, and it reminds you of the story, like, I grew up in a world where my mother went out of her way, I just thought that there were so many black people in STEM, and there are, but it was because my mom gave me black dolls, or have black Doctor dolls, black astronaut dolls. It wasn’t until I was older that I realised, oh my gosh, she had to go out of her way. Niche books, so I grew up confident, you couldn’t tell me anything. Even if I was in a science lab with white people. I was like
Ben Hurst 21:02
it’s really tenuous, I don’t even makes a difference. What it was like,
Leah Thomas 21:06
you can’t tell me anything I know about black doctors I know about black scientists. So even if I don’t see them in my classroom, we out there. So yeah, I don’t want it to be so hard for future black and brown folks. And I don’t know, that’s why I wanted to write this book. And that’s why like you said, representation is so important and belonging, because it instils a sense of confidence that you can’t tell me anything. And like, I want people to have that competence. 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 competence to know that you belong here.
Ben Hurst 21:45
Yeah, I think that’s so important. This, this conversation is their conversations, our conversation, it belongs to us. Like this is not just a conversation that we are now becoming aware of, but this that when it directly like you say impacts you, it belongs to you. And so you need to you need to be having the conversation. And now it’s time for our climate confessions. Let’s fess up to the bad habits we just caught kick.
Leah Thomas 22:15
Um, I mean, I do use single use plastic. Sometimes I recycle it when I can. But I think especially during the pandemic, I was just getting like, I was also writing a book and I didn’t leave the house. It was unhealthy. But I was getting so much take away, or Yeah, like just food delivery all the time, all the time, all the time. And then another thing is I love sparkling water and mineral water. So I just get so many cans when I could have just gotten a Soda Stream. So I just have cans and cans and cans of Lacroix. Yeah, the
Ben Hurst 22:51
Sodastream is the investment. Right? You have to think think in the future and do that do the one big purchase. I don’t like sparkling water though. So that is disgusting. So
Maryam Pasha 23:04
no judgement. It has been a pleasure. I cannot wait. It has been a pleasure. I cannot wait to read your book. Thank you for taking the time to come chat with us. Just so but I’m tired. But honestly, my brain is just buzzing with ideas. Sometimes when I can’t formulate questions is because I’m so like, yeah, you’re really, really, really into it. Really helpful for hosting a podcast. But there you go.
Ben Hurst 23:33
Thank you so much. And remember, stay curious. Thank you for joining us this week. We really hope you enjoyed this episode.
Maryam Pasha 23:43
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Ben Hurst 23:47
We are now officially crowdsourcing climate confessions. So please leave yours in the ratings and the review section. And we’ll shop next time and shout out to our fabulous team behind the
Maryam Pasha 24:00
pod. This episode was produced by Josie Coulter comes written by Tess Lowry, already designed by Rebecca Ming is curation by Marian Pasha mixing engineers by Ben Beheshti music
Ben Hurst 24:12
also by Ben Beheshti presented by Ben Hurst and Marian Pasha. Remember, stay curious