As a child, Leah Thomas dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. When she arrived at Chapman University in 2013, her fascination with the animal world expanded to studying ecology and declaring a major in environmental science. But Thomas, now 27, was heartbroken to discover how often the environmental movement sidelined people of color. She writes about it in her new book, The Intersectional Environmentalist.
“Even though I’ve witnessed the horrifying reality of Black people being mistreated during protests, I still showed up for climate protests,” she wrote. “Even when the leadership of these protests wasn’t diverse or when environmental justice wasn’t on the agenda, I lent myself to the cause.”
Thomas felt a similar sting when she tried to get involved in campus women’s groups. “I felt a really strong rejection or hostility from many white feminists, who would dismiss racism as something that didn’t belong in the context of their feminism,” she said.
Then, in August 2014, when she was home in Florissant, Mo., for the summer, she got a call from a friend. Michael Brown, three years her junior, had been killed by a police officer in Ferguson, just a few miles from her home.
As protests near her hometown raged, Thomas returned to college and her environmental science courses, but her mind was back in Missouri. “How could I think about the Clean Air Act when my community was burning with smoke and tear gas?” she wrote. “I didn’t want to be an ‘environmentalist’ if that meant choosing between racial progress and environmental progress.”
Thomas was struggling to find a space where she could bring her whole self—as a Black, feminist environmentalist—when she went to her campus’s Black Student Union and first learned about intersectionality. The term, coined by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, describes overlapping systems of oppression that create distinct experiences for people with multiple identity categories.
She described the discovery as “an awakening.”
“I just felt like ‘Wow, I’m not alone. I’ve never been alone. And I can be in spaces where I can feel comforted and empowered at the same time and not [have to] separate those two things,” she said.
Years later, Thomas drew on those lessons as she tried to make sense of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. She created a graphic that read “Environmentalists for Black Lives Matter” in repeating rows and outlined a series of steps that environmentalists of color, and their allies, could take to “dismantle systems of oppression” in the environmental movement.
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Determined to share her vision of a more just environmental movement—and to draw on the experiences of others—she cofounded Intersectional Environmentalist, a climate justice group that centers BIPOC and historically under-amplified voices in the environmental space. Her book, The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People and Planet, will be available on March 8.
The book draws on 30 contributors, including José Gonzales, founder of Latino Outdoors, and Sophia Li, a climate journalist who speaks out against anti-Asian racism and brings to light the various ways race, gender and disability render certain communities more vulnerable to the climate crisis.
Through original research as well as contributor anecdotes, the book illustrates how Black Americans are disproportionately exposed to air pollution and Indigenous communities are often the most impacted by polluted drinking water. It also shines a light on the ways communities of color have historically made important contributions to the environmental movement.
Thomas said she hopes readers will use The Intersectional Environment as a toolkit. The book draws on the advice of dozens of activists on topics ranging from how artists can play an active role in the environmental movement to how advocates can effectively educate others on intersectionality. She also hopes it will add to a growing conversation about what it means to be an environmentalist.
Intersectional environmentalism is an inclusive approach to environmentalism that advocates for the protection of both people and the planet. It argues that social and environmental justice are intertwined, and that environmental advocacy that disregards this connection is harmful and incomplete.
It focuses on achieving climate justice, amplifying historically excluded voices and approaching environmental education, policy, and activism with equity, inclusion, and restorative justice in mind.
NB: How can intersectionality help us find solutions to the climate crisis?
LT: By prioritizing who is most impacted by the climate crisis, we can target our environmental efforts to better protect the most vulnerable communities—which are often women, people of color, disabled communities, and queer communities.
NB: You include a lot of different voices in your book from different points of intersecting identities. What were some of the most impactful things you learned?
LT: One of my favorite essays in the book is by Diandra Marizet [cofounder of the Intersectional Environmentalist] about Chicana identity. She wrote about how during the Chicano Rights Movement in the United States [in the 1960s], a lot of Chicanas were left out because of toxic masculinity and patriarchy. I read that as I was learning more about the Black feminist movement, and I thought, “Wow, there are so many shared conversations and experiences that we could have had.”
Another favorite essay was from a good friend, Abigail Abhaer Adekunbi Thomas. She has lived in Kenya and South Africa and wrote about narratives of saviorism in the environmental space when it comes to talking about Africa as a continent. Not acknowledging the impacts of colonization and colonialism and the extraction of resources can be really dehumanizing. Yet many white environmentalists view Africa as somewhere that they can save.
When I wrote this book, I knew that I needed to include as many voices as possible, because it’s not just about my experience.
NB: You used the term “endangered humans” to describe groups of people at high risk from the climate crisis. I think white-centered environmentalist movements prefer to think of endangerment as something that happens to majestic, exotic animals—not people. Do you think that’s because acknowledging that some humans are endangered means acknowledging that eventually, they will be too?
LT: [Yes,] and to deal with that fear, they skip over all the people who are being impacted right now, and instead, put all of their focus on the climate crisis and the future. I’ve heard so many white conservationists that are sounding the alarms for their great-great-grandchildren. But do you [expect] me, as a Black woman, to ignore the present-day reality for my people who are endangered because there is lead in their drinking water, not enough trees in their neighborhoods and [who are] experiencing natural disasters and sea-level rise?
You want me to put that aside, and for all of the philanthropic funding to go toward protecting the future for your great great-grandchildren? Am I not good enough? In the present, my little cousins aren’t good enough?
That’s so steeped in racism and it’s really, really frustrating. This focus on either the future, or animals in the wild, is a deflection from having to acknowledge the reality of what’s going on now for so many marginalized communities.
One thing that’s so heartbreaking for me, is that in so many conversations at white[-led] environmental organizations, I have to say, “This is also impacting low-income white people,” for them to give environmental justice a chance. And I don’t understand why it’s not enough to say this is currently impacting billions of Black and brown people.
NB: Have you had to sit with ways in which you may be removed from the worst impacts of the climate crisis? And where your role may be to learn and listen?
LT: Absolutely. Those moments come up a lot.
One of the contributors to my book is Vanessa Nakate, a Black climate activist from Uganda. She writes about how extractive industries have contaminated drinking water there, and how women are held back from being part of climate solutions when they’re denied an education.
I’ve also learned a lot from Vandana Shiva, a prominent Indian environmentalist, who has written about “subsistence feminism.” So many women in the Global North talk about things that are more theoretical, like liberation; many women in the Global South, and even in the United States, are thinking [about simply] being able to have basic needs met, like food.
I think one of the most important things that I’ve learned from talking to people is that [living] in the Global North and in the United States is an extreme privilege. Something that I try to do and need to continue to do is pass the mic to people in the Global South.