Leah Thomas is an intersectional environmental educator and writer based in Southern California. She has a degree in environmental science and policy and worked for the National Park Service and Patagonia headquarters before pursuing environmental education full-time. She first wrote about Intersectional Environmentalism in 2019 but gained international following after her post 'Environmentalists for Black Lives Matter' in 2020.
This week, intersectional environmentalist and writer Leah Thomas shares an excerpt from her forthcoming book, The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet, published by Profile Books.
I had a rude awakening during the summer of 2014. While on break from college in my hometown of Florissant, Missouri, I received a call from a childhood friend asking if I’d known Michael Brown. I searched for his name in my memories and didn’t find it, but little did I know that I, and the world, would soon know it forever. She broke the news to me that an unarmed Black teenager had been murdered by a police officer in an act of excessive violence (over six shots were fired from a significant distance); Brown’s body lay in the street for hours as the surrounding community tried to piece together what had happened without communication from authorities or news outlets. Tension boiled and uprisings soon followed; my sister and parents headed to vigils and protests. But I had to leave to go back to Southern California to start work toward my newly declared major in environmental science.
While I was in my introductory environmental classes, I couldn’t focus. How could I think about the Clean Air Act when my community was burning with smoke and tear gas? Spending time in nature during the aftermath of Ferguson helped me process the trauma that was unfolding back home, but I felt a deep sense of guilt at the same time and a kind of survivor’s remorse. While I could easily go to the beach or hike in sunny California after my classes, my family and friends at home were dodging tear gas during protests to fight for my civil rights. Why was I entitled to clean air, water, and an abundance of nature in this privileged and wealthy Orange County community when places, like Ferguson, around the country were not? This kind of disparity persists not only in times of unrest but in general, due to lack of environmental protections in communities of color, which inevitably results in higher instances of environmental hazards.
After the trauma of Ferguson, I was acutely attuned to subsequent events like the police-related murders of Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and Breonna Taylor. Each headline filled me with heartbreak and left me wondering “When will it stop?” I hit my breaking point when I heard the last words of a Black father, George Floyd, streaming across social media. “I can’t breathe,” he repeated while a police officer kneeled on his neck as he lay handcuffed on the ground. He died by asphyxiation, and his death was later ruled a homicide.
His final words matched those of Eric Garner, another Black father, who was murdered by excessive force by New York City police after being detained in a chokehold for selling untaxed cigarettes in 2014. I hit my breaking point, as many environmentalists did, during the Black Lives Matter movement uprisings of 2020. I felt alone and unheard, without much acknowledgment from the wider environmental community.
I couldn’t do it anymore; I needed to immediately depart environmental spaces that ignored the urgent need for social justice reform. Advocating for the human rights of my people, and so many other oppressed identities worldwide, simply cannot be optional. I didn’t want to be an “environmentalist” if that meant I had to choose between racial progress and environmental progress. Leaning into the theories of Black feminism and intersectional feminism, I found a home in what I call intersectional environmentalism. It would prioritize the concerns of my people and all marginalized people in addition to the protection of the planet.
So I thought about how a safer type of environmental practice could be defined, and I wrote it out a week after the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Stuck inside during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, I took my protest art to the digital realm and created a text-based graphic that read “Environmentalists for Black Lives Matter” over and over in repeating rows. I created another slide with my definition of intersectional environmentalism, followed by a pledge with action steps for dismantling systems of oppression in the environmental movement, as well as steps for showing how to be an ally. I posted these materials online for anyone who wanted to join me. I was furloughed from my job and felt I had nothing to lose; I never could have imagined what followed.
Hundreds of thousands of people followed me on social media, reached out, and shared the pledge and graphic. Intersectional environmentalism grew on Google’s search engines almost overnight, and some of the world’s top environmental organizations—Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion, NRDC, Fridays for Future, the Sierra Club, Patagonia, and beyond—shared the viral graphic and advocated for an intersectional approach to environmentalism. I suddenly didn’t feel so alone anymore as I saw how millions of people around the world were ready to learn more about intersectional environmentalism and the legacy of climate justice and reshape the narrative of environmentalism to be more inclusive.
As I dived deeper into the history of environmental justice, I also realized that I was never alone in the first place—nor are other environmentalists of color. As co-founder of the Intersectional Environmentalist council Diandra Marizet says, “Our ancestors are activists,” and even though we sometimes feel underrepresented or alone, our histories and cultures flow through the foundations of what is now considered “sustainability” and have done so since long before that phrasing even existed.
Environmental movements in the Global North—the wealthiest industrialized countries, many of which have benefited from colonization and are primarily concentrated in the northern part of the world— have failed to be truly inclusive for decades, from the advent of the Earth Day movement to the present. The largest environmental organizations in the world are grappling with internal and external legacies of racism, even within environmental policies and government agencies. Black, Brown, Indigenous, and impoverished people, and many communities in the Global South—countries that are newly becoming, or moving toward becoming, industrialized and often have a history of colonialism—are facing environmental injustices at alarming rates. Those least responsible for the climate crisis are bearing the brunt of it. I can no longer take part in a type of environmentalism that would allow these oversights and injustices to continue, and I invite you to join me. Without swift action and a deeper look at the ways social injustice flows through environmental movements and policies, the advocacy of my people will continue to be brushed aside. It is time to dismantle and reflect on what environmentalism means and reclaim the term so that it is inclusive of historically excluded and under-represented people.
We don’t have to wait to take up space. We can create our own environmentalism that is intersectional in nature and that truly advocates for the protection of all people and the planet—an environmentalism that allows people of color to have their stories told, their cultural values reflected in environmental education, and their voices heard in environmental movements, organizations, and policies. One day I hope that when people think of an environmentalist, they’ll automatically envision a person who cares very deeply about both people and planet. I hope that one day environmental programs will reflect all the world’s people and uplift their stories. I truly believe that day will come soon if we wake up to the realities of the climate crisis and environmental injustice and begin to unite and advocate for those unheard voices, the voices of people who face the largest threats of the climate crisis. If that happens, I believe we can create the intersectional future that we want to see: one that is green, regenerative, sustainable, and more equitable for all people—not just a select few.
The future can and will be intersectional.
CALL TO ACTION:
On her website https://www.intersectionalenvironmentalist.com, Leah Thomas has a resource page full of toolkits to help readers better understand the many ways social justice and environmentalism intersect. She urges you to explore all of them, but in particular the ‘Black Woman Saviour Trope’ Toolkit (compiled by Intersectional Environmentalist Fellow Thea Gay) which explores the history and continued impact of harmful stereotypes which position Black women as resilient martyrs strong enough to fight battles for others – often without support, and often without anyone fighting for them.
Leah Thomas is an intersectional environmental educator and writer based in Southern California. She has a degree in environmental science and policy and worked for the National Park Service and Patagonia headquarters before pursuing environmental education full-time. She first wrote about Intersectional Environmentalism in 2019 but gained international following after her post ‘Environmentalists for Black Lives Matter’ in 2020.