Leah Thomas is an intersectional environmental educator, writer, and creative based in Southern California. Her passion for the relationship between social justice and environmentalism led her to found @greengirlleah and the Intersectional Environmentalist platform.
Leah was the first to define the term “intersectional environmentalism,” giving advocates everywhere a vocabulary for the future of environmentalism.
She’s the author of The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet — and the guest editor of The Intersectional Environmentalist Edition of the Goodnewspaper.
As a part of our collaborative Intersectional Environmentalist Edition of the Goodnewspaper, we wanted to learn more from Leah's journey in environmental and social justice.
So our editorial team sat down with her for an in-depth interview about everything from her new book to coping mechanism to environmental liberation realized.
In a time when sustainability and environmentalism feels overwhelming, hopeless, or unattainable, Leah provides some much-needed grace, compassion, and nuance.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A Conversation with Intersectional Environmentalist, Leah Thomas
On overlapping identities, privilege, practicing rest, and what our better future looks like —
Kamrin Baker (Good Good Good): So, Leah, we’ll start with the easy question. Give us a supersonic, super quick preview of your book. What’s it about, and why should people read it?
Leah Thomas: “The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People and Planet” — which is one of the longest names ever — is the textbook that I always wanted.
But instead of being a boring textbook, it has rainbows and art throughout. And it's all about intersectional theory, ecofeminism, the history of the environmental justice movement, and lots of examples of intersectional environmentalism.
Amanda R. Martinez (Good Good Good): Speaking of intersectional environmentalism, how do you define it?
Leah: Intersectional Environmentalism (IE) is an inclusive approach to environmentalism that advocates for the protection of both people and the planet.
IE argues that social and environmental justice are intertwined — and that environmental advocacy that disregards this connection is harmful and incomplete.
IE focuses on achieving climate justice, amplifying historically excluded voices, and approaching environmental education policy and activism with equity, inclusion, and restorative justice in mind.
Branden Harvey (Good Good Good): You mentioned earlier that this is an updated definition. Where did that evolution come from?
Leah: So, the first definition of intersectional environmentalism that I released into the world was on Instagram, and I honestly did it on a whim during the summer of 2020.
I was in my bed under my covers, frustrated and on Canva, and I just typed out, “okay, this is the type of environmentalism I want. I'm an intersectional feminist. I want to be an intersectional environmentalist. This is what it means.”
And it was similar, basically almost identical to what I just read, but I wanted to have a bit of a second chance to redefine what it meant to me and also my organization, knowing that IE will mean something different to everyone, which is the beauty of it.
But yeah, I just wanted to put a little bit more thought into it and not just, like, my bedroom Canva moment.
Amanda: Yeah, I definitely saw that intentionality displayed across your book! I was telling the team how I couldn't help but relate to some of the stories — thank you for including Latinx voices and the Chicana Movement! I loved that you covered overlapping identities. As a Latina, I've seen this play out on a generational level through the women in my family.
How can those who struggle to carry multiple identities — gender, race, ethnicity, etc. — practically find a middle ground of both honoring and advocating for these overlapping identities?
Leah: This is such a great question — and that's one of my favorite essays in the book. I have a story about this — and it may sound like a bit of a tangent — but I was on Twitter one day… And I don't like Ben Shapiro very much, and he was tweeting about how he hates intersectionality and he was talking about overlapping identities and why intersectionality is all about race and it doesn't make room for considering other religious identities, or even ethnicity, religion, spirituality, etc.
I was thinking about it in my head as if I were talking to him — or anyone — that intersectionality actually honors the argument that he is trying to make — because there's nuance. Even in something like white identity, there's nuance.
Like, considering, “okay, this person might be privileged in this area,” but there are so many other things to consider that impact how they're perceived by the world around them; from religion, to whether they're part of the LGBTQ+ community, ability, and so on and so on.
And I think when people don't consider that nuance and how those overlaps impact someone's experience, it's just a miss. And you can't really care or show up for people properly. So I know mentioning Ben Shapiro is probably a bit odd, but I was just thinking about that.
But I honestly think it's so important to consider. And even with myself, there's just so much nuance to my identity. Like, there are areas where I might hold privilege, but I know for sure being Black and a woman, those are not those areas where I hold privilege. So it's just really important to consider that nuance.
Like I was saying, to make sure you're showing up for people properly and you're also not offending people, and then the reverse is also true, acknowledging areas where you do hold privilege.
So me as a person who is Black and a woman, that doesn't mean that I shouldn't show up for other people who are also experiencing oppression in one way or another, based on an area of their identity, because that's just an act of lateral violence, which I talk about in the book.
Amanda: I know you touched on a lot of very big, heavy subjects so I'm just curious to know if there was one piece of it that challenged you while writing it?
Leah: I think something that I'm learning is progress over perfection. Even though [the book] was super collaborative and there were, like, four editors and me, I see there's three typos in the book, and it's going to be updated in future versions, but I think that was the hardest part of the process for me as a perfectionist, to know that this will be incomplete.
And I think that also goes into so many other areas of my life. Like I stated in the book, this is not a perfect book. I can never share every perspective.
And I think with IE, as a platform, we get a lot of people that want us to be perfect and they want us to do an in-depth analysis of every intersectional identity. And it's hard. It's really difficult. And I want to do that because I want each and every person to be reflected in everything that I write.
And I think grappling with the fact that I can never do that, especially in one piece of art.
But I can commit to a journey of learning, and then also, show people the pathways that maybe they can do that and they can contribute something that we might even share on IE or with their communities.
Kamrin: You kind of mentioned your Instagram origin story being in your bedroom on Canva, but I guess I would just like to know, how do you get so involved in this line of work or just environmentalism as a whole? And what's the journey that led you here?
Leah: I always have loved plants and animals and just, like, running around in nature. And then in school, I decided to go from biology to environmental science and policy.
So when I started studying environmental science at school, that was kind of the starting point of the Black Lives Matter movement in many ways, and also a lot of other things, like the Women's March, March for Science. Like, so many social and science-y things were happening at the same time.
So I was really active in social justice efforts while also studying the science behind the climate crisis. I was kind of being drawn to both movements and thought, “okay, there's actually a lot of overlap here.” And the same communities that I'm advocating for who are facing oppression are also not having access to all that Mother Earth has to offer because of things like air pollution, water pollution, proximity, the landfills on and on.
So, I think realizing that I didn't have to pick and choose, and learning a lot more about intersectional theory during college as well, because of things like the Women's March happening and learning about intersectional feminism, that kind of started me on this journey of, “okay, I feel like I should focus on this intersection between social justice and environmentalism.”
And even more, I started to realize that there's so much research that's been done since the 80s by people of color in the environmental justice space. It made me realize that it's not that the data isn't there, but it's not being taught and it's not being amplified. So that's how I started to kind of focus on talking about environmental justice history.
But onto social media, and the @greengirlleah origin story. Honestly, before I was about to graduate, I loved writing, and I had been doing freelance writing throughout college. I wanted to have some sort of digital portfolio that could show that I could curate a social media feed and kind of serve as an online resume.
And I also wanted to show other Black girls like me, like, just being Black outside on Earth, because I think representation is really important. So that was the initial purpose of @greengirlleah.
And then, over time, it just grew where I started to also talk about environmental justice advocacy. But it really did start out as a personal blog, and I'm trying to reclaim that a little bit because I feel like, in many ways, Intersectional Environmentalist is the resource.
Branden: I was going back through old Goodnewspapers the other day because we've done a few issues of the sustainability edition before — and in preparation for The Intersectional Environmentalist Edition — I was asking questions like: “What have we not included before that we want to include? What have we included that our audience already knows about?”
And I realized, before you made that viral post about intersectional environmentalism, we mentioned you in one of our issues of the paper, and I love that.
I know so many people discovered you through Intersectional Environmentalist, but it's really cool that you were making this impact on your personal account. You are helping make a difference.
And it's that idea that you do a lot of hard work every day and then sometimes just like that, hard work meets opportunity and then things explode, and it's cool that your origin goes back so far, and not everybody has seen that.
But that is what's making your work today so important and valuable. No question, just a comment!
Leah: That makes me really happy to hear. And I think it's funny because when my Instagram started taking off a little bit in 2020, I had a lot of people that were like, “who are you? You just showed up overnight, you just didn't do anything.” And I'm like, “Okay, first of all, no, but I have been an environmental science student for quite some time.”
And then like you said, who knows? Internet virality. It should happen to so many other people other than me. But sometimes, the algorithm just lines up in a certain way and I don't know, I'm just doing what I can with it.
But yeah, it is really interesting how that works out because I had my blog since 2016, and then in 2020 — four years later — it's just a thing now, I guess.
Amanda: What are the things on this beautiful planet that keep you grounded in your fight for justice?
Leah: I would say something that keeps me grounded is understanding the importance of community and that you can't do something alone, really. And the importance of resting because that's the great part about community and movements.
Like, it's not about one person, it's about all those people who are part of it. And if, say, one person— like me — needs to sit out for a little bit, that's fine. The movement goes on and on because there are other people that are there. And then when they need to sit out for a little bit, we can kind of hold each other up.
So I feel really grounded in the community that I've been able to find. And then also lots of narratives about rest and joy that are happening in the environmental and activism space, how people are kind of reclaiming the right to rest, to show up and advocate for what they care about.
Amanda: How do you rest during the week? What are things that you do to incorporate that?
Leah: I would say I have started going for runs and different things like that, just going outside to be in nature. I know that doesn't sound like a restful activity, but it's kind of like a mindful meditation in some way.
Really just spending time with my friends. And even if I can't see people because I'm so busy, like sending them a meme or sending TikToks, that's how some of my friendships have been sustained over the last year — it's, like, just TikTok DMs. And also watching things that have nothing to do with the destruction of the planet on Netflix. There are so many fun, amazing, funny shows out there!
Kamrin: How do you incorporate the teachings of intersectional environmentalism into your day-to-day life? I know you kind of just mentioned what that looks like on a community level with your friends, but we’d just love to know a little more.
Leah: I love nuance. So I feel like by, I don't know, like just kind of fighting against perfectionism, whether it's just individually understanding that I'll never be the perfect sustainable person and allowing room for imperfection.
And then I think, also, in conversations with people, even if they're an environmental activist that's, like, super-serious, it makes me happy to reassure them sometimes.
Like, it's okay if you had a plastic fork, it's fine. Or if you happen to travel because you went to this environmental event or whatever, like, it's okay, it's fine.
And kind of just talking about nuance… I don't know if this makes me a devil's advocate. I really wouldn't like to see it that way. But in conversations with, say, like, non-intersectional vegans, like, opening up the conversation to kind of root for the underdog and talk about Indigenous Peoples and the ways that they have participated in agriculture and not to place the blame on communities of color.
So, yeah, hopefully, that's not a devil's advocate and more of like an intersectional environmentalist advocate.
Kamrin: Yeah, definitely. I totally think it is. I think it's kind of the practice of just, like, finding those small moments where it's like, “actually, I think I can add a different perspective.”
We kind of just talked a little bit about rest, and this kind of acknowledges a bit of a double meaning with the word sustainability. But I'd love to know more about your creative process and how you create in a way that is sustainable for you. What are some practices that help you engage with the world without experiencing too much burnout?
Leah: I would say, in all transparency, I'm still figuring that out. There are some days in the week where I've been working, and I only had, like, chocolate today. That's not okay. And I think a mantra for myself, like you said, is redefining what sustainability means and self-sustainability.
I need to do these things in order to not even just do work, because sometimes it's like you need a rest so you can show up and work more, or so you can show up and advocate for the causes.
But I’m kind of reframing that. Like, I need to rest and take care of myself because that's what I need to do because I love myself. And I also love these causes that I care about. But to really care for causes, I feel like you have to love yourself properly in some ways.
Just like they say in relationships. Like, how are you going to love somebody if you can't love yourself? How are you going to show up for these causes that you care about if you're not really working on that self-love? So I try, but it's imperfect, and I’m figuring it out.
Amanda: What motivates you to keep doing good in a world that is increasingly demanding and scary, what makes you hopeful, what keeps you doing all this good?
Leah: I just have a lot of hope for the future. I took some personality test back in high school — I don't really remember what it's called — but it gives you, like, five characteristics of yourself or something that you're supposed to be. And one of them was, “futuristic,” which I thought was really cool. That's the only one I remember.
But, yeah, I just really believe that the future can be really cool and that the present can be not so bad if we, I don't know, just try.
And I also think that being good is so much easier than being bad. Like, you have to put so much energy into being bad. I just want to be joyful and do good.
Amanda: When it comes to doing good, what's ahead for your organization and the intersectional environmentalism movement as a whole?
Leah: IE, as an organization, yeah, I'm really excited for what's to come. We're kind of doing a rebrand right now and revisiting our mission and values and who we want to become.
There's a lot that we've done in our past year, from just, like, consulting behind the scenes to offering trainings, to student-led films and things like that.
And I think our main focus is: How do you put structure to grassroots online momentum? And it's a challenge, but it's good.
Something that we're investing in is our program called Earth Sessions. So these are going to be these really special music moments where we partner with BIPOC-led environmental justice organizations and artists, poets and creatives that care about the planet, bring them together, have a really cool event where artists get to be in conversation with these really rad environmental justice organizations. And then attendees get to learn and, like, boogie down. So, yeah, I'm excited for those.
Kamrin: To finish off, we just would love it if you could paint a picture of what a more just and equitable future looks like to you. Like, how would you love to see environmental liberation in practice?
Leah: I feel like once I start daydreaming, it's really easy for it to go into, like, a kind of utopia world. But you might as well imagine a utopia, and then maybe you'll land somewhat short of that, which is okay.
I guess your question is, what is environmental liberation actualized? I don't know. Just, like, thinking about people being able to breathe clean air and breathe and exist in every facet of that meaning. Being able to breathe and exist in a safe and healthy environment.
So really, it's just insane to me that in many ways, environmental liberation is like meeting basic human needs and rights, in my opinion, having clean air, having clean water, having food, the things that you need in order to achieve joy.
That's my dream. And I know that it's not a big one because people deserve basic human needs and basic environmental needs. So, yeah, that's my perfect future.
A version of this conversation was originally published in The Intersectional Environmentalist Edition of the Goodnewspaper in March 2022.
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