Intersectional Environmentalism: A Conversation with Leah Thomas

The Magazine: Intersectional Environmentalism: A Conversation with Leah Thomas

Leah Thomas is an environmental activist, writer and the founder of Intersectional Environmentalism, an inclusive environmentalism that advocates for both people and the planet.

Tell us about your journey to Intersectional Environmentalism. How did you first learn about intersectionality?

In college, I learned about Intersectional Theory through Intersectional Feminism, which is a type of feminism that is more inclusive than mainstream feminism that is very “white woman” focused.

Historically, what it typically means to be a feminist is that you are white and skinny and you have white skinny friends and you advocate for the advance of white women. And in mainstream feminist circles, I was seeing that if you bring up race or cultural differences, you get an “all lives matter” response. The narrative is, “uplift all women.” But what about the fact that indigenous women and Black women and Latinx women are making less?

I learned about Intersectional Feminism from some very woke white women, and they said, “Leah, this is the kind of feminism we want to be a part of because we love you and who you are, and we don’t want to ignore your identity.” So through my woke Orange County friends, I learned about Intersectional Theory, which was created by Kimberlé Crenshaw, and overtime I just put it together:

If my feminism is intersectional, so should my environmentalism.

It really clicked a coupe of months ago. I was furloughed from my position at Patagonia and I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted environmentalists to do, and I didn’t want them to remain silent during the black lives matter movement. So I coined the term and defined what Intersectional Environmentalism means to me. I didn’t know that it would go viral but I just put those two words together. It was a light bulb moment.

It came from a lot of frustrations, a lot of emotional exhaustion from people of color, and that led to me realizing that we need a new environmentalism. I don’t want to be a part of the environmentalism that doesn’t acknowledge environmental racism - it’s not good for my mental health and wellbeing. That’s when I decided to create my own environmentalism, called Intersectional Environmentalism. I thought, if people want to join me, they can, but if not, this is what I’m doing.

Why is Intersectional Environmentalism important to you?

When I was in environmental spaces, and even the most progressive environmental spaces, talking about race was the most difficult thing of my life, and I grew up in the midwest and went to a conservative private school, and for some reason it was more emotionally taxing to bridge the topic of race and identity with people that are supposed to be advocating for the protection of the planet, with people who typically vote progressively.

Honestly, I’ve had more difficulty discussing race and identity with environmentalists than anyone else. I think the issue is that when people are progressive and living sustainably, they aren't ever asked to take it one step further, and also examine the ways in which identity might play a role in the way someone experiences the world around them. Sometimes there’s a feeling of, “Oh I’m already doing this for the planet, why do you have to tack race onto it? Because if you tack race onto it, you’re asking people who are usually praised for their environmentalism to actually consider something they may have to change. Or you’re asking them to acknowledge the fact that they may be privileged in some way, and there’s a lot of defensiveness.

I think that race is the biggest blindspot of the modern environmental movement, and when people think about what a “sustainability enthusiast” could look like, they have this image of a white, skinny woman with mason jars and Birkenstocks and glass tupperware. Instead of thinking that an environmentalist that fights for the protection of both people and the planet, because those two things are so interconnected, and I don’t think you can be a true environmentalist without having both of those things.

The intention is to make environmentalism a more inclusive movement, and a powerful movement, by allowing people who are also passionate about social justice to be welcomed into environmental spaces. It’s important for us to unite and allow people to share their stories. We have to reckon with the fact that environmental policy, as it is today, hasn’t been equal. Who gets to experience the benefits of a clean, healthy environment? Or who gets access to green spaces? We need to reckon with a racist history and right the wrongs of the past if we want to move forward.

Describe a defining moment in your life.

A defining moment for me was right after college when I was working at a company and hired to do social media. I was very bright eyed and I had a lot of ideas, but my boss didn’t like my ideas and I felt like I couldn’t do what I was hired to do. Instead of letting that stop me, I decided to create Green Girl Leah. I built my own platform, and after a few months of growing my following, the CEO of the company went straight to my boss and asked why I wasn’t running the social media. That was a defining moment for me because I didn’t let someone tell me who I was and what I was capable of. I think that’s something that has inspired me to stay true to my values and do the things that I know that I’m capable of, and I’m not going to let anyone define what I’m capable of. When someone says no to something I know I can wholeheartedly do, I don’t just stop there and I will do that work on my own. I’m so thankful for that situation because without it I wouldn’t have given myself so fully to this work and through that, I got my dream job at Patagonia.

What is your ultimate dream for this movement?

My dream for this movement is, ironically enough, that we, as environmentalists, no longer need to preface environmentalism with intersectionality. I hope that one day in the future, intersectionality is just so deeply embedded into environmentalism, and it’s taught and understood that people and the planet should be considered, and the voices of the people that are most often unheard or that have historically been oppressed in some way, that is what I’d like to see. And that I don’t have to create a whole new environmentalism - I can instead be proud and happy with whatever mainstream environmentalism is, and hopefully that will be an environmentalism that cares very deeply about both people and the planet.

In this time of uncertainty, what do you know to be true?

There’s a right and wrong side of history, and the right side of history is the side where people are no longer being oppressed.

What or who inspires you?

Oprah. Hearing Oprah say that living a life that includes failure and pain can create even more change, and listening to her story and the work that she has done - it inspires me to keep going.

Do you have any daily affirmations?

Just that I’m capable. I think by having a coach for a dad and a mom who is a therapist, I really lucked out. I remind myself that I’m capable in my lowest moments, or even throughout the day. I still get Imposter Syndrome, so this reminder is very important.

What does wellbeing mean to you?

To me, wellbeing means truly listening to my heart and giving it what it needs.

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