Environmental activist Leah Thomas is a self-professed “tree hugger,” but she says that the green movement needs to have the well-being of people, not just nature, at its core.
Through social media, she is helping articulate a new vision for the environmental movement called “intersectional environmentalism.” With more than 160,000 followers on Instagram, her platform is encouraging activists to prioritize social justice and become more effective allies to marginalized communities.
Thomas’s journey to influencer happened quickly. In 2014, she was a biology student who – after some soul searching – had decided to switch her major and begin studying environmental science and policy at Chapman University in California.
But just as she set out on this new path, a major crisis unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, near her hometown of Florissant: Police shot and killed unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown. The event set off mass protests.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Yale Climate Connections: What was it like being in school during this time?
Leah Thomas: My experience with Ferguson and just kind of coming to terms with what it meant to be Black in America is very enmeshed with me beginning my studies as an environmental science and policy student.
I’m trying to learn about the Clean Air Act while my sister is getting tear-gassed back home in a protest. So it was hard for me to get excited about the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act because I would say, “For who?” Because if people in Ferguson back home are drowning in the smoke of bombs and liquid tear gas, then who is the Clean Air Act for?
And then when I learned about environmental justice and saw that Black people and BIPOC, which is Black, Indigenous, and people of color, are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards, I was just so floored.
I just realized, hey, Ferguson is happening, there’s social justice issues happening, there’s environmental justice issues happening, and it seems like this is all interconnected because the people who are facing the brunt of the climate crisis, as well as criminal injustices and things like that, happened to be people of color.
It seemed like other people in my class didn’t necessarily understand because I was the only Black face in that space. When I was reading the data, I didn’t have the privilege as a Black woman to ignore it. Because it would seem like people would say, “Oh, yeah, yeah, you know, people of color might be disproportionately located next to landfills. OK, flip the page. Let’s talk about conservation.” And I couldn’t just flip the page because I would say, “That’s me on that page. That’s my community. That’s my family.”
I think there is sometimes a privilege that would make it so social justice and environmental justice wasn’t always factored into the environmental conversation in my classrooms, or people didn’t really see the connection and why it was very important to focus on those things.
RELATED: What is ‘intersectional environmentalism’?
YCC: How do you see that same privilege factor into the larger environmental movement?
Leah Thomas: I think environmentalists are, generally speaking, pretty nice people, but I think people have been using that goodness as sort of a shield to say, “I’m an environmentalist. I’m doing enough for the planet, and I don’t have to focus on the social justice stuff.”
But at this point in history, especially, it is not enough to just care about recycling if you are not thinking about the people who in different parts of the world are getting shipped all of our recycling and having to deal with our waste. We can’t think about saving endangered salmon without thinking about the communities that might be relying on that salmon.
So I think that conversation just needs to go a little bit further, and we should recognize in environmental history the ways that a lot of cultural traditions from people of color have been appropriated without credit to be able to make the environmentalism that we have today.
A lot of indigenous wisdom, and the way that we’re able to understand regenerative agriculture and ecosystems ecology – yes, there’s the science component, but that science wouldn’t exist without observing the cultures and communities that are doing it that way. And a lot of times, they are Indigenous or Black and Brown communities.
So I think we can remedy this as environmentalists by taking a step back and amplifying diverse voices in this movement, and really just acknowledging the ways that modern environmentalism hasn’t been truly progressive because it hasn’t advocated for all people.
This past May, in what became a viral Instagram post, Thomas called on environmentalists to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. In her post, she defined what she calls “intersectional environmentalism.”
YCC: What is your definition?
Leah Thomas: Intersectional environmentalism is a type of environmentalism that advocates for the protection of both people and the planet. And it’s a more inclusive version of environmentalism that identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the Earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities and the Earth to the forefront and doesn’t minimize or silence social inequality.
I was able to create that definition by studying intersectional theory created by Kimberlé Crenshaw and also by studying eco-feminism, which similarly explores the relationship between gender and the environment. But that is what intersectional environmentalism means to me.
YCC: How are the concepts of “environmental justice” and “intersectional environmentalism” different?
Leah Thomas: I think it’s important to know that intersectional environmentalism and environmental justice are not competing. In my opinion, environmental justice is the goal, and intersectional environmentalism is a path to accomplish that goal.
Environmental justice, it’s been there, I’ve studied it, but still it’s been seen as an optional add-on to modern-day environmentalism. Not enough environmentalists, in my opinion, were actually focusing on that environmental justice component. And even though the fight for environmental justice has been around for a while, it seems like voices were still being marginalized.
Thomas’s Instagram post included an “Intersectional Environmentalist pledge” – a list of actions environmentalists can take to make sure that social justice is central to their work. It includes statements such as, “I will use my privilege to advocate for black + brown lives in spaces where this message is often silenced,” and “I will not remain silent during pivotal political and cultural moments that impact BIPOC communities.”
Since the post went viral, Thomas has created an Instagram profile dedicated to the topic. And she has worked with fellow activists to launch IntersectionalEnvironmentalist.com, a platform that includes resources, information, and action steps for individuals and businesses.
YCC: Why is it important for climate activists to become actively anti-racist?
Leah Thomas: It’s not enough to just “not be racist,” because a lot of “not-racist” people have allowed us to have the environmentalism that we’ve had, that unfortunately is inherently racist. The environmental community needs to reckon with that because, quote-unquote, “not racist” people allowed that to happen. And I think to move forward, we need to recognize that and be actively anti-racist.
And I as a Black woman can do that as well. My blackness doesn’t shield me from being an ally to other communities outside of my own, including Indigenous communities and other POC communities. And I hope we can do that together, because I would love for environmental policies to be protections for all people, and not just some people.
YCC: Have people shared personal stories with you about how your platform has changed their thinking?
Leah Thomas: One of the things that makes me just get really emotional is that we have a platform of people who are just like, “I need this. I’ve always wanted this in environmentalism.”
And it makes me think of myself when I was a young Black environmental science student and I didn’t see anyone that looks like me in my program. And then I just realized, wow, there’s so many other people who are like me, who were thinking the same thing and want a community that’s actually going to be representative of their voices.
And we just get so many stories and direct messages of people – whether they’re from the disabled community or the LGBTQ+ community or the POC community – that are saying, “Wow, I finally feel seen and heard and validated.”
We get story after story from people from prominent universities that are saying, “I tried to tell my professor about social justice and environmentalism, and they didn’t listen to me, and they told me that this is an environmental issue, not a race issue. Thank you for giving me the language to be able to tell them that it’s more than that.”
And it doesn’t stop with my platform, it doesn’t stop with my definition. I would love for this to evolve and for people to go on and develop whatever the future of intersectional environmentalism looks like. I don’t want to own this in any way, shape or form, but I’m just so happy that I could have potentially given people language to express themselves and hopefully create an avenue for them to be truly seen and represented in the environmental movement.