Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

Intersectional Environmentalism: Leah Thomas and Earth Day’s Complex History

On the laptop screen of over a thousand Women’s Summit participants, the face of Leah Thomas, framed by rounded square glasses and curly hair, smiled warmly. The annual Boston College Women’s Summit, a day-long event put on by the Women’s Center, was a virtual event for the second year in a row due to Covid-19 concerns. Leah Thomas joined Boston College students, staff, and community members via Zoom, waking up early enough to deliver her keynote address at 10:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, or 7:30 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. However, there was no hint of tiredness in Thomas’s keynote—in fact, her passion for intersectional environmentalism woke participants up, and weeks after the Women’s Summit, everything she said still rings true.

Thomas is a self-described “eco-communicator” and founder of the platform Intersectional Environmentalist. Her venture into climate activism on the internet began with her blog Green Girl Leah, and her studies in Environmental Science and Policy. However, her awareness of environmental and social issues began not at college but at home. Thomas grew up in Florissant, Missouri. Right before her sophomore year of college, police killed Michael Brown and the nearby Ferguson protests erupted. She discussed feeling distracted from school—she was learning about the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and “meanwhile people at home were drowning in tear gas.”

In order to get involved in social justice using the tools she had, she focused her academic research on the correlation between identity and access to resources like clean air and water, parks, and tree cover. “Map after map after map after map it showed the exact same thing,” she said. “Communities of color and low-income communities are experiencing the brunt of environmental hazards and injustices.” 

In her work experience, from being a National Park Service Ranger Intern to a PR team member at Patagonia headquarters, she was repeatedly shut down when she tried to bring up conversations about oppression. “I would bring about this data,” she said, “and oftentimes I was met with kind of confused looks and frustration.” These people were used to conservation being about “the polar bears” and protecting nature, she said. But environmental justice cannot begin and end with the rainforests and tundra. Environmental activists should be fighting for low-income individuals, people of color, and other marginalized groups who have been left out of previous environmental movements as hard as they fight for nature conservation.  “If you want to save the planet, you should want to save its people,” Thomas said. 

Intersectional environmentalism has been in the shadow, but not in the spotlight, of environmental movements for more than half a century. The Earth Day movement of the late 1960s began as an idea to have college campus teach-ins and protests against air and water pollution. When the movement went national, many protests sprung up across the nation. Despite this large-scale involvement, not everyone’s interests were represented. Many working people could not join in on demonstrations, according to Thomas. Working people had less time to dedicate to protesting and organizing because their top priority was getting by. Instead, the concerns of more affluent people were the ones getting voiced. This was not the intention, but it did end up becoming the legacy. According to Brentin Mock’s Grist article, national Earth Day coordinator Denis Hayes wanted Earth Day to be both environmental and social justice focused. He said the movement’s “goal is not to clean the air while leaving slums and ghettos, nor is it to provide a healthy world for racial oppression and war.” However, the original movement and environmental organizations since have been predominantly white, and collaborations across racial and class groups have been uncommon. This is not to mention the erasure of Indigenous people’s work to protect the planet, which came long, long before white people even thought of the Earth Day movement. There are, notably, instances of environmentalism and social justice once being intertwined, but obviously, there has not been enough cross-racial and cross-class organizing to even begin to eradicate the oppression inseparable from the climate crisis.

Because many voices were left out, Thomas said, the landfills were moved into the communities of the people who were not there to protest. Because the original Earth Day movement was not intersectional, the overlap between environmental degradation and oppression runs rampant more than 50 years later. 

Arturo Sandoval, one of the organizers of the first Earth Day in 1970, was one of the people pushing for an approach to environmentalism informed by oppression and colonization. “The physical environment is as important as the spiritual and political environment,” Sandoval said to Generation Justice. “I came to Earth Day because I saw how everything was connected.” Thomas cited Sandoval as one of her

When Sandoval, a Chicano activist attended the University of New Mexico, he helped establish a Mexican-American students association and a Chicano studies program. He then began organizing around Earth Day in Albuquerque. He led a march to the predominantly Mexican neighborhood of South Barelas, where the city had put a solid waste plant that produced a film of material and a horrible smell. “I wanted to make sure that people of color were featured in some way in the national coverage,” Sandoval told Bioneers, an environmental justice nonprofit. “We marched to the plant, and we were successful in getting the City of Albuquerque to move the plant much further south into the valley. People tell me that that was the first national environmental justice march led by people of color in the U.S.” Sandoval recognized that it was necessary for people of color to be included in the conversations and activism happening in order to get their needs met as well as the needs of the mostly white, middle-class Earth Day activists. Despite the historical flaws with environmental activism, Sandoval was inspiringly hopeful in a 2021 interview with Green Fire Times. “I have hope for the human species that we can still get our relationship right with one another and with the earth,” he said. “The seedpods of human potential are always waiting to germinate.”

Thomas attributed much of her optimism about the future to young people. “They give me a lot of hope,” she said of Gen Z. “They think intersectionally in ways that other generations haven’t.” The most salient advice she gave to activists young and old is to invest time and energy into local and state politics. Many people get burnt out only pushing for change at the federal or global level, she said, and in local and state governments there are faster results and faster turnarounds. She cited Cori Bush in her home state as a politician who has been diligent about climate justice. From town hall meetings to getting involved in community gardens, there is power in advocating for your community and knowing the people who are working to make a change.

She ended with some book recommendations: All We Can Save, Braiding Sweetgrass, Black Nature, and most excitingly, her forthcoming book, The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet. The book was released on March 8, and is what Thomas called “the book I wanted in college.” It contains academic terms, history, data breakdowns—all presented in an approachable way, and with a rainbow on the cover. 

Intersectional environmentalism is an essential framework to incorporate into environmental justice. As Thomas said, “Intersectional environmentalism is the lens to look at problems through, and environmental justice is the goal.” This is a goal that cannot be met, however, until we take a hard look at how we can truly strive to protect the planet and its people. 

English and communication major. WZBC 90.3 FM DJ. Lover of the Midwest, reading, and attempting to be outdoorsy.