Environmentalism Won’t Work Without Everyone
The environmental movement has an inclusion problem. Leah Thomas is a leading voice to make sure that caring for the planet is inseparable from caring for the people who live on it. All of them.
Interview — Mark Mann
This is part of the Dossier Black Lives, Green Spaces.
Intersectional environmentalism is an idea whose time has finally come, and few people are doing more to popularize and advance the concept than Leah Thomas.
“Social justice… is not an optional ‘add-on’ to environmentalism,” she wrote in a viral Instagram post on May 28. “It is unfair to opt in and out of caring about racial injustices when many of us cannot.”
Her call to environmentalists to stand in solidarity with the marginalized people who are most affected by environmental injustices was shared by thousands and launched Thomas into a full-time career as an environmental activist—one who puts racial justice at the heart of the movement.
What was your process of realizing the extent to which the environmental movement has neglected or ignored racism?
I came to social justice first, and then I came to environmentalism. I started studying biology and it wasn’t really clicking for me, so I gravitated toward environmental science. The same day when I changed my major to environmental science and policy, there was a police shooting of an unarmed Black teenager about 10 minutes away from my house. That was Michael Brown. I started studying environmental science and policy, but I was so distracted by everything that was going on.
My sister was protesting, and it was a really strange parallel for me to be learning about the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act when I knew that she was being teargassed.
I think I was the only Black person in the environmental science and policy major at the time, and when we talked about the data, we would briefly mention how Black and Brown people in lower-income communities are disproportionately located in areas of environmental injustices. But it seemed like it was just something that was glossed over.
I was also practicing intersectional feminism at the same time, which was created by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who’s an incredible lawyer.
Throughout my career, I worked at the National Park Service as a park ranger intern. I worked in corporate sustainability at Patagonia at their headquarters for two years, up until maybe two months ago when I started my own journey. I was working in all of these prominent environmental spaces and people just weren’t getting it. So I realized that if my feminism is intersectional, my environmentalism should be too. It just clicked.
I was so frustrated during this second wave of the Black Lives Matter movement [in the Spring of 2020] because the environmental community was largely silent. So I posted the Environmentalists for Black Lives Matter graphic, along with my definition of intersectional environmentalism, and also an intersectional environmentalist pledge and I put it out there.
Yes, I find it strange how we can congratulate ourselves about, say, recycling, and then completely gloss over other things that are so much more critical, like environmental justice for marginalized people. I’m definitely guilty of that.
That’s why I’m very thankful for intersectionality as a framework. Because when you talk to someone about wealth inequality, for example, they’ll say, “Oh, this has nothing to do with racism.” And what intersectional framework and theory do is say that these things are interconnected. Of course, you can specialize in specific things, but to say that these things have nothing to do with each other is silly.
Photo: Vladimir Kudinov
What are some of the ways that Black people are excluded from the environmental movement? You’ve written about how the experience of racism drains Black people’s energy. That’s one factor. What are some of the other contextual things that make it difficult for Black people to participate?
There are several cultural factors. I worked for Patagonia, where some of their core sports are very white. Surfing is a big one. Skiing, climbing, they’re predominantly white. And they would have a lot of conversations about “Where are the Black people? Maybe they just don’t like to do this.” But that’s looking at D in the equation, and not A plus B and C. The A component might be ancestral trauma. Black people were displaced and stacked body by body on boats and then enslaved. And then even when they get their freedom, there’s segregation and Jim Crow laws that are essentially excluding them from things like water sports and activities in general or being out in wild spaces for the fear of their own safety.
At this point, over 60 per cent of African Americans and a similar percentage of the Latinx community don’t know how to swim. That’s a generational thing that’s really rooted in trauma.
And then also when you’re talking about public land in the United States—land that was stolen from Indigenous people—the national parks are often really far away, they’re not always super accessible. Until I was a park ranger, I didn’t even know about the national park service system. I knew about specific parks, but I didn’t know that there are over 400 national historic sites in this country. And some of them are very relevant to Black history. Since my parents didn’t know that and instill it in me, then it’s not something that I’m going to think about. So people should think about the cultural factors that may have excluded people from just experiencing a relationship with the outdoors.
Also, a lot of white environmentalists don’t know that some of their privilege has led them to think of the outdoors in a very specific way. So they’re thinking about Yosemite National Park, but they’re discrediting a lot of Black and Brown communities because urban gardens are just as great in many ways. I think it’s a bigger societal issue of people not realizing their place in this global ecosystem.
It doesn’t matter if you’re living in a city, you’re still in nature. A lot of white environmentalists still view nature as something that they go to, instead of thinking, nature is all around me. And that means that nature is also all around these different communities of colour, even if they’re living in a city.
Can you talk about the ways that the environmentalist movement needs racial justice to succeed?
To put it frankly, the environmentalism that we have today is inherently racist, because if it were not racist, then people of colour wouldn’t be disproportionately harmed by every environmental injustice. When you look at air quality, access to water, proximity to toxic waste sites and landfills, access to green spaces, access to national parks, who’s impacted the most by hurricanes… people of colour are disproportionately affected.
It’s not to say that people within the movement are racist, but that it was designed in a way that excluded people of colour, and Indigenous people whose wisdom was used as its blueprint. Also, if you look at the 1960s and 1970s, there was the civil rights movement, and then there was the environmental movement right after, which was largely white-led. They appropriated the same tactics that they learned from civil rights protestors. And then, of course, we have the first Earth Day, which is super amazing, but if you look at pictures, you see white people wearing headdresses. And now we’re at a different point in history where we have in 2019 and early 2020, the biggest climate marches, and then right after that, side by side, we have another civil rights movement happening at the same time.
What we can do differently this time is unite! Let’s do this together. I think environmentalists should right that wrong of simply appropriating different cultures and instead allow them to actually have a place in the movement.
The “white savior” mentality is pernicious. What can people do differently?
It’s important for people to realize that if they want to use their privilege in the right way, amplify the voices of the people who have historically been unheard.
Because they’re there. I think when a lot of people learn about environmental racism, they think, “How can I save these people?” But they don’t think about “What have I been ignoring to allow this to happen?”
Ask yourself, Who are the people in these communities that are doing the work? Because I promise you they’re there. Say, “How can I help their message be spread?” and not, “How can I take their message for them and advocate on their behalf?” Because these Black and Brown activists are strong people. I know them. They’ve been fighting for it.
So instead, share their social media posts, sign their petition, amplify their work. And I’ve seen how that works. People shared my graphic and I went from 13,000 followers to over 120,000 in a matter of four weeks. It’s not about followers, but because of that, I’ve been able to dedicate my life to activism full-time.
I also wanted to ask about your intersectional environmentalist platform. Can you describe how it came about and what you’re trying to achieve with them?
We just announced our intersectional environmentalist council, which is very exciting. It’s got 19 environmental activists from very diverse backgrounds and as a coalition, our reach and following is over a million. The platform serves three functions. One is just an educational resource and also building community. Because we need a space for these diverse youth activists to provide shareable content about intersectionality and environmentalism. So that’s the social media platform. And the website has an editorial component to it; we have resources and personal essays coming.
The second function of the council is going to be our intersectional environmentalist business accountability program. A lot of organizations want to be certified as intersectional environmentalist, but after working at Patagonia and other places, I realized that existing certifications did nothing to protect me as a Black individual within an organization, or didn’t do anything to help provide a pathway for me to grow within the organization. So we want to offer a full-on curriculum, basically a year-long commitment for companies that want to partner with us to participate in a learning program with 50 to 100 other companies. So they can understand that accountability is a lifelong process. It’s not just a certification.
And then the third aspect is funnelling things to grassroots environmental activism and social justice activism because we feel like they are one and the same. And that means for voices that are often unheard: people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community, those advocating for accessibility, and others.
We’re going to be operating as a for-profit business because we want to be able to show these other businesses that there’s another way to do business. As a social enterprise we really believe that we can address wealth distribution and close the wage gap by paying people adequately.
Wow! That’s just amazing. I can’t believe it. You’re on a real rocket ship!
I am ready. I’ve got a team of people, I’ve been a blogger, not being compensated fairly. So I just want to do everything that I can to support this team of people who’ve gotten behind me and provide them with a way to make money. I feel very passionate about this work. I’m going to make mistakes along the way. I’ve probably already made a ton, but I just want to give it my all.