(Social Justice)

Leah Thomas Is Redefining The Environmentalism Space For Black Women

The activist on climate justice and the whitewashing of sustainability.

By Janell M. Hickman-Kirby
Photo: Ye Rin Mok

Like the wellness space, the “faces” of environmentalism haven’t been presented as a particularly diverse group. Oftentimes, those positioned at the forefront of climate change and environmental justice come across as elitist, rather than inclusive, despite the fact that multiple issues disproportionately affect communities of color at higher rates. (FYI: Residents in Flint, Michigan still don’t have clean drinking water.) But Leah Thomas, intersectional environmentalist, founder of eco-lifestyle blog @greengirlleah, @thegreensgirlco, and The Intersectional Environmentalist Platform, is out to change that.

Born in Florissant, Missouri and now residing in Santa Barbara, California, Thomas found herself literally at the intersection of juggling her reality as a Black woman and her concern for the environment at large. Could she do both? The answer is a resounding yes.

By definition, “Intersectional environmentalism, a term largely inspired by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and her work with critical race theory, is an inclusive form of environmentalism that advocates for the protection of all people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices affecting marginalized communities and Mother Earth are interconnected.”

I asked Thomas, a year after COVID-19 lockdowns and the anniversary of George Floyd’s death if her perspective of intersectional environmentalism has shifted. “Personally, I still do stand by the definition. However, I think that it's something that needs to evolve and I think this year I've drawn even closer to maybe more Black feminist ideologies even more,” she explains. “Just the specificity of holding space for myself as a Black woman, because I think at times I would feel the need to use terms like ‘BIPOC’ or ‘people of color,’ when it’s really Ok for Black women to just take up space, feel seen, heard, and ultimately, validated.”

Thomas is quickly becoming a prominent voice in the environmental space, having already been featured in Vogue, W, Teen Vogue, National Geographic,and more, placing a much-need emphasis on how the environment and race are intrinsically intertwined. “I've also learned about what intersectionality can look like for other people. I've been learning about anti-Semitism, disability rights, and the current Stop Asian Hate movement,” she explains. “So, on one end of the section, I'm growing even closer and just taking a deep dive into Black feminism and on the other end of the spectrum, it's expanded my mind even more to so many things that I haven't thought about. There are many other underrepresented groups that I think that I can be a better advocate for, and center more in my work.”

Privilege is a common theme that Thomas is working hard to dismantle. “It's frustrating to me, even when climate scientists act like if you didn't get a degree — which is in many ways a privilege — but you can't speak on these issues. There are so many people, especially people of color, who are living with the realities of the climate crisis every day with higher incidences of air pollution, or water pollution. So to me, these are people that we should be talking to and considering even more. The gatekeeping in this space was really apparent. I think it's funny having more of a public platform now, there's a lot of people who want to tell me what advocacy should look like.”

Instead of looking at others with judgment, Thomas tries to meet people where they are, especially on the sustainability front. She previously worked on the PR team at Patagonia and saw up-close-and-personal how making internal shifts takes work. “[For example] if one of my followers is a Target shopper, maybe I can point them in the right direction of a more sustainable beauty product or piece of clothing. [Making change] doesn’t have to be super difficult or inaccessible. I used to be really stern like ‘people have to buy ethical and sustainable and organic,’ but then I didn't realize I'm just preaching to the choir and I really want to get other people involved and think that they can be environmentalists.”

Unfortunately, there has also been a “Colombusing” of sorts in the sustainability arena, like the gentrification of thrift shopping without credit given to BIPOC or lower-income communities. “There are so many people who only thrift shop because that's the only thing available to them. So, by default, you should also call them environmentalists, too,” says Thomas.

She explains that, “It's hard for me to listen to a white, wealthy, sustainable fashion influencer, shaming people, especially BIPOC for shopping at fast fashion stores, while they promote a ‘sustainable shirt’ for $300. And, that influencer is likely gifted that item anyway. So, yes it’s easy to preach that mindset, or maybe they can afford it, but they aren’t recognizing the real price barriers there. I hope people realize that shame, especially shaming people of color, isn’t beneficial in this space.”

But Thomas is realistic about what is feasible in terms of individual sustainability practices, especially within the fashion space. As she says, “[In my opinion] there's an over-focus on the individual and not the corporation necessarily. I'm never going to shame someone — even if they're shopping a sustainable H&M collection. Maybe that's the only thing that's accessible to them. And that's the first step that they can take.”

To expand her mission’s reach, Thomas launched The Intersectional Environmentalist Platform last June. She describes her launch as “really fun” and a resource to those curious about climate justice. “People can visit our website or Instagram, and they can find a compilation of organizations to support. They can find case studies, we're showing you how to do those and also a bunch of resources.”

If you follow Thomas on Instagram, one of her pillars is encouraging BIPOC people to find joy outdoors. “I feel like it's something that Black people, particularly Black women, have to reclaim in so many ways. Growing up in the Midwest and spending time in the South, there was real fear in my family about going hiking. Scary stories of if you go out into the woods, you might not come back. There's really deeply rooted trauma within the Black community when it comes to nature. I feel like in so many ways I always had this hesitancy to venture out.”

“However, in the last couple of years, I've been going out with groups like Outdoor Afro or with my friends who are people of color and reclaiming these spaces — being in nature is a part of what I feel like our ancestors did. So, there's a special joy of Black people being carefree outside, given the historical context in the United States specifically,” she adds.

Ultimately, Thomas wants to remind people that this journey is personal. “[My advocacy] can look like me talking about climate justice, and then talking about vegan food, and then dancing, and then doing a partnership. But I'm like, you know what? This is what I want to do. I'm a holistic person. And I think we need to remember the humanity of people, if you even ask for this, and allow them to experience joy at the same time. I like skin care. I like taking care of myself. I like experiencing joy. I like little scrubs. [This is] a way for me to balance out the trauma of talking about injustice happening to the Black community.”