Celebrating 10 years and 500 episodes
Engaging the World: Leading the Conversation on Environmental Justice is a series of informed, sustained, and enriching dialogues looking at how environmental toxicity and risk disproportionately impact populations based on race, ethnicity, nationality, and social standing. Environmental Justice brings awareness to these disparities, fighting to ensure that every voice is heard, every challenge is addressed, and every community has a seat at the table for a greener future.
Guest: Leah Thomas
Host: Jon-Barrett Ingels
Produced by Public Podcasting in partnership with Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Chapman University.
Leah Thomas is an eco-communicator, aka an environmentalist with a love for writing + creativity, based in Ventura, CA. She’s passionate about advocating for and exploring the relationship between social justice and environmentalism. You could say she’s tryna make the world a little more equal for everyone and a little nicer to our home planet.
She is the founder of eco-lifestyle blog @greengirlleah and The Intersectional Environmentalist Platform, which is a resource + media hub that aims to advocate for environmental justice + inclusivity within environmental education + movements.
Her articles on this topic have appeared in Vogue, Elle, The Good Trade, and Youth to the People and she has been featured in Harper’s Bazaar, W Magazine, Domino, GOOP and numerous podcasts. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science and Policy from Chapman University and worked for the National Park Service and Patagonia headquarters before pursuing environmentalism full time. Learn more about Leah and her mission in this BuzzFeed video.
[00:00:03] Leah Thomas: With our nonprofit, what we're doing is switching our focus to climate optimism and joy, and not just talking about the trauma of environmental injustice because for the last two years we've been sharing environmental justice resources with everyone and we'll continue to do that, but I think people just being bombarded with a lot of anti-racism, dismantling systems of oppression for two years, they're looking for something else to stay energized. I think joy and the possibilities of solutions for the future could help energize more people than learn about the trauma.
[00:00:40] Host: Chapman University's Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and Heritage Future present Engaging the World, leading the conversation on environmental justice. This series explores environmental racism and climate injustice. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have been choking our waters with waste, poisoning our soil and contaminating the air we breathe all in the name of progress.
The most vulnerable communities with the least amount of representation and power suffer through the worst effects. Environmental justice brings awareness to these marginalized communities, their activism, and the path forward, fighting to ensure that every voice is heard, every challenge is addressed, and every community has a seat at the table for a greener future. In this episode, we connect with Leah Thomas, author of The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People and Planet. Here is Leah Thomas. I love this book first and foremost, and I think that this should be required learning and reading for every high school student and every college student.
Ultimately, I think it should be required learning for everybody, but you can't require people out of school to read because it's hard enough just to get them to read an article, but it is incredible. I love that it's a learning tool, I love that it's a teaching tool, I love the questions that you ask, and I love all of the information you give for further learning, so I just want to start by saying thank you. Let's go back to the beginnings. I'd love to explore your path and how you found yourself studying environmental science and policy and what was it that led you down that path initially.
[00:02:41] Leah Thomas: I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian for a little while. I've always really loved plants and animals. I was a really soft-spoken kid that just really liked to be out in nature, but I didn't know that I wanted to study it until college. Even then, it was more so- to be completely honest because I was in a biology degree that I didn't really like and I just thought the environmental science program sounded a lot more fun. I didn't know that it was going to be something that just completely took over my life and I would be a park ranger intern and just the kind of environmental advocate that I am now.
I don't know, it was just a decision that I made, not really putting much thought into it one summer and then it just completely changed my life. That's how I studied this major. I didn't even visit Chapman before I showed up here. I just knew as a Midwesterner that I wanted to come to California, so I just showed up one day and I've just been showing up ever since. [laughs]
[00:03:43] Host: Where were you a volunteer park ranger?
[00:03:46] Leah Thomas: It was one of the least visited national parks and historic sites in rural Kansas called Nicodemus National Historic Site. I was there for about three months and then I also volunteered at President's Park in D.C. which is the White House Visitor Center and the White House lawn, which is really fun.
[00:04:07] Host: Cool. You talk about this a little bit in your book. Through your studies, you started to notice these gaps, these holes, these voices that were missing, and these populations that were ignored or not represented. Talk a little bit about what that discovery did for you and how it propelled you in different directions.
[00:04:31] Leah Thomas: I think it was, again, something that, I don't want to say stumbled across, but I kept doing research about environmental hazards in different classes so I think especially when I took a GIS class, geographic information systems and I got to make maps and visualize this data, and I started looking at studies about the placement of toxic waste facilities and going, "Oh, so Black and Brown and low-income communities have more toxic waste sites." Then I kept just testing other things, looking at air quality and water quality highways, on and on and on- landfills.
Then I kept saying, "This isn't a [unintelligible 00:05:09], this is happening." Almost all of the environmental injustices in the US in particular are impacting the same communities of people. Not only that, this research has been around for a very long time. People like the father of environmental justice, Dr. Robert Bullard, he told me that he's written like 15 books so I got to catch up, I got a long way to go, but this data has been there for a while, but there haven't been significant enough changes to address it. I think I just felt this cognitive dissonance when I was a student because it felt so urgent to me, and yet it wasn't being treated as urgently as I believe that it should be in the broader environmental movement.
[00:05:55] Host: When did you discover the work of Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who greatly influences your trajectory and you have continued her message and her theories as well?
[00:06:10] Leah Thomas: I would say it was definitely in college, probably around my sophomore year. Around the same time I was studying environmental science, which hindsight is 20/20, I didn't know in the moment that environmental science and intersectional theory would somehow mesh for me, but it was in the context of feminism, because there was the Women's March and a lot of women's rights movements simmering I guess when I was in college.
Being at Chapman transparently in Orange County, there's not a whole lot of people who look like me so when I would try to go to these feminist spaces, I wanted to show up as my full self and also talk about the advocacy of Black women specifically, but I felt a sense of whether it's intentional or not, a dismissive nature to also including things like race within the women's movement. Conversations of like, "We're all women, really just you need to unite." It's like, well, we can unite while also acknowledging which women are experiencing different outcomes based on those compounding factors like race and income and all these other things.
That's what I learned about intersectional feminism, that doesn't ignore those overlapping identities, but really examines them and sees how it impacts someone's experience as a woman. I think that I just gravitated towards that because I knew what I didn't want, and I feel like that's just been something throughout my life, just being a part of something and over time realizing, I don't really like these aspects of this, but this intersectional approach, it looks at those compounding factors and I want that for my feminist practice. I want that for my environmental practice, et cetera.
[00:07:58] Host: Let's give a little explanation of Kimberlé's work, of what your definition of intersectionality is.
[00:08:12] Leah Thomas: I would say I always refer to a court case, which was one of the first court cases that she was examining. It was a case against General Motors. I mentioned it in the book, but General Motors, a certain department decided to fire all the Black women specifically at this office. Those black women wanted to take this to court because they saw it as a clear example of discrimination, because all of them were fired and they were Black women.
The case was dismissed essentially because the judge felt there are still Black men who are working here so this is not a civil rights issue or race issue, and there's still white women who are working here so this isn't a gender-based discrimination, you all are just fired just for who knows what reason. Kimberlé Crenshaw was seeing that there were so many loopholes in the legal system, not arguing that we should create a completely separate class for all these compounding factors, but you should look at how these two things are compounding and contributing to a negative outcome within the legal sense.
It was a combination of being Black and women and separating those two things just led to a lot of harm. I think that's also really important within the context of environmentalism, looking at compounding factors that are leading to negative environmental outcomes. Oftentimes in conversations about social justice, I'll hear people say it's an income issue more than it's a race issue. It's all income and that's why there's more toxic waste sites. I rarely ever hear the opposite, that it's only a race issue, because usually it's a compounding thing, but things can compound and lead to different outcomes.
In the case of environmental injustice, there are certain environmental hazards where race is the number one indicator and income might compound onto that to lead to more negative outcomes. In a nutshell, that's intersectional theory, and I won't ramble on too much. [laughs]
[00:10:18] Host: Well, I need you to because this is like the crux of what you're talking about, and it makes me think of the movements of the '60s. You had these powerful movements fighting for and advocating for rights, whether it was civil rights or women's rights or gay and lesbian rights, or the LGBT rights or disabled rights. They were all working- or workers' rights, they were all operating at the same time, but there was never this moment where they came together to be like different fingers on one fist.
I think it was a challenge for all to reach the top at the same time. Your work seems to be turning those fingers into that fist. In this book, this book is such a perfect example. You have such a vivid, diverse group of leaders that you've collected, and I'd love for you to talk a little bit about that process of bringing these people together for the book and for the intersectional environmentalist council as well.
[00:11:31] Leah Thomas: I need to go back and do some research, but I don't know if it was called the Rainbow Coalition of the '60s or the '70s, I need to look back at it but they were trying to unite Chicano rights with immigration reform and civil rights and all that. I need to go back and see previous examples of people who have attempted to do something similar, because I think it is so important to unite and resist something called lateral oppression that I talk about in the book of just comparing our struggles to each other because for me, it doesn't take away from my advocacy of my people, of Black people to also advocate for disability justice and the rights of indigenous peoples, et cetera.
If anything, it's a way to show solidarity and also create more people power together, because we have a lot more in common than I think we have in our differences. I think that went into the creation of intersectional environmentalists, the organization, and the book. I wanted to show people that it's not just about me. This is something that I believe in, but there are so many people all around the world that are practicing intersectional approaches to environmentalism that are very particular to them, and I think that's what makes it so beautiful.
There's people, like a good friend of mine now, Pattie Gonia, the incredible outdoor drag queen and advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. Another good friend, José González, the founder of Latino Outdoors, and so many other people that are doing intersectional environmentalist work and creating space for everyone outdoors. It's just so beautiful, and we can come together and I think that's why I wanted to include as many voices as I could in the book.
[00:13:23] Host: Now, social media has been essential for the launch of your message and really igniting this movement, but I imagine that it's a double-edged sword. Social media is this incredible tool for sharing in information and inspiration, but it's also a distraction for many. It creates this illusion of normalcy or acceptance. I use myself as an example. I know I'm older and I'm of my own brand of person, but after the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, social media, at least my social media and who I follow exploded with information with resources to learn more, to advocate, to support.
It was shared across everyone that I followed and it was beautiful, this beautiful moment, more than just the simple black square. I got excited for what this tool could be, and I know that that's around the same time that your movement launched, but it didn't take long for that to disappear and everybody to go back to showing their lunch and pictures on the beach- and there's nothing wrong with that, but it is this distraction from the message.
[00:15:12] Leah Thomas: I agree. I don't know, I think people- because even when I think about the summer of 2020 and the racial awakening, that happened after five or so plus years of the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement, or specifically that hashtag, which started to pop up more specifically around Ferguson, so starting in around 2014 so it was bubbling for a really long time. I honestly think that might just be a part of history and culture, when something seems trendy or if a lot of people are talking about it, then more people will talk about it.
We probably see that also with the Earth Day movement. There's 20 million people who are really about the Earth for a couple of years and then now they went away- not went away completely. Obviously, there is still a lot of environmental activism, but it wasn't 20 million people taking it to the streets in the same ways. I do think there is something about getting fatigued, whether we're talking about organizers who are pumping out all that content just needing to simmer down, and then there are some people who are probably a part of it in a somewhat performative way, but even performative activism, I think counts and it matters.
That people power really does help create change, but it was really startling to see so many infographics and then suddenly they just all disappeared, but I think again, it was a learning fatigue in some ways. That is when intersectional environmentalists group, because people had a thirst for knowledge, and I think right now we're in a a phase where there is a bit of fatigue. People have taken in a lot of knowledge so we're trying to find ways to activate people in other ways.
With our nonprofit, what we're doing is switching our focus to climate optimism and joy, and not just talking about the trauma of environmental injustice, because for the last two years we've been sharing environmental justice resources with everyone and we'll continue to do that. I think people just being bombarded with a lot of anti-racism, dismantling systems of oppression for two years, they're looking for something else to stay energized. I think joy and the possibilities of solutions for the future could help energize more people than like, learn about the trauma.
I think even for organizers and activists and educators like myself, rooting our work in more than just the trauma is how we can sustain ourselves and also thinking about the joy of including diverse stories within environmental education. I don't do this work just for the trauma. I do it for a brighter future and for more representation of my people within environmental movements. It's a lot. There's so many double-edged swords happening.
[00:17:56] Host: Well, I'm sure that that answer is going to carry over into this question, but the other thing that happened in 2020 was COVID. With COVID, we created a divide. Social media especially has showcased this divide with misinformation and disinformation, and I'm curious how that has affected your work when interpretation of science is what has caused this divide in the first place. I've environmentalist friends who find themselves on both sides. They're strongly rooted on both sides of this conversation, and how do we move forward when we can't even agree on science?
[00:18:50] Leah Thomas: That's something that troubles me for a number of reasons because one, I think accessibility is so important so that's why I through my social media channels take fact-checked information and I might summarize it and make it fun and design it, whatever, but it is information where people can often trace the source to figure out where it's coming from. I think everyone deserves access to that information regardless of having a higher degree in environmental science, but as we know, now people are starting to not trust science in general.
I think social media is partially to blame because I guess when you are in an academic setting, at least you have a professor who's fact checking your bibliography and the references and they might check them and say, "This is from a conspiracy theory website. You can't use this," but on social media, there's no guidelines in the same way. I know that Meta, as they call it now, anytime you post about COVID-19, there's something that pops up automatically. Even if you briefly mention COVID that says it takes you directly to the CDC website.
There are things like that that are in place, but I think there needs to be more to help stop the spread of misinformation and disinformation, because it's leading to a really polarizing society and a distrust in science, which I am pretty afraid of. Especially when it comes to the climate crisis and people saying things like, "Oh, the Earth is doing okay," or confusing things like weather and climate. That is something that I really struggle with. I do think that social media platforms have a certain responsibility to help with until we can develop better standards for people to understand what's true and what's not.
I don't know. I don't want to be an academic snob and just say, "Hey, some things are true and some things aren't." I don't know the right approach, the most accessible approach to tell people like, "Hey, some of this is wrong. Please stop. It's harmful," because I want them to also have their own opinions. It's hard to base an opinion that isn't rooted in actual science. An opinion that's supposed to be scientific that you're basing off of something that isn't scientific. That's really scary for me.
[00:21:16] Host: It is very scary, because social media is where so many people get their information, all of their information. It's become the university of social media, which like we talked about earlier, is good, but also has this detriment to it as well. Also with regards to social media, there is definite generations who are more prone to spend more time on it. With that, I'm curious what you see the importance of youth and young people to not just be involved, but to be at the front of the fight for social justice and environmental justice.
[00:22:08] Leah Thomas: I think the coolest thing about social media education is that young people are taking their education into their own hands using social media. I've seen TikToks and things like that of, I don't want to say kids- I'm 27. They're kids that are doing book reports or book reviews on TikTok using dances and stuff like that to talk about the things that they care about, or if they're not learning about something in their classroom. I love when I see roundups or infographics created by students that are like, "Here's a little bit of info about the history of the disability rights movement in the US," et cetera.
They're filling in the gaps that they're not getting from their classrooms. By doing that, I've also seen a lot of educators use those resources that they're creating to better relate to their students and update their curriculums. I am really excited about that and the ways that the youth are using social media. I also love seeing digital media organizing. That's something that I wish I had a bit more when I was younger, where someone-- They can just create their own communities.
Like there's a student at Berkeley named Kiana. She made a group called Circularity Community that's all about mental health and environmentalism and tips to deal with eco-anxiety. Then she's slowly cultivated a community of 1,000 people across the country that are just talking about mental health and environmentalism. There's a lot of really exciting things that are happening there.
[00:23:41] Host: In the movement itself, and I think it's true with all movements, it has always been the youth, whether students or recently graduated who tend to be at the forefront, as opposed to, I don't want to say this, but us older people [chuckles] being the ones who lead the movement.
[00:24:08] Leah Thomas: Yes. I don't know. There's a certain level of like spunk, I guess, with young people. That's been really interesting for me because I came into this space around 25. I still feel young in some areas. There are youth activists that have been striking since they were 12. When I came into this space, a lot of people are like, "You're a youth activist." Technically, I'm on the cusp of Gen Z and millennial. I identify more as a millennial.
That has been really interesting to just be able to observe the ways that Gen Z are practicing activism. Like walking out of schools when they're in elementary school, middle school, high school. I've never seen something like that. I'm familiar with college students at Berkeley running around doing these amazing protests, but middle schoolers? Striking on Fridays for years? That's new and that's really, really cool. They shouldn't have to do that, but the fact that they are, that's really inspiring to me.
[00:25:13] Host: There's so many things that I got from your book, but I think it all boils down to all of the challenges of both environmental justice and social justice is profit over people and profit over planet. I really don't mean the pun here, but the billion-dollar question is, how do you combat that when profit is so powerful in legislation, in corporate power, in globalization. I know you just keep fighting, and you just keep moving, and you just keep plugging along. It does seem, when you see billionaires at the forefront of the challenge it seems like a really big uphill battle.
[00:26:17] Leah Thomas: It sure is. Something that gives me a lot of hope is just supporting your local economy and supporting local artisans and supporting local government. I personally, maybe one day I'll have more faith in the federal government. Do your thing, Biden. I have a lot more hope in local governments, because I've seen people show up at a city council meeting and somehow get more trees in their neighborhood.
If organizations, grassroots, environmental justice organizations had more resources and funding, I bet they would be able to create the communities that they want to see. I have more hope in that, because yes, that feels a bit more accessible than getting billionaires to stop being not the best to the world. [chuckles] I have a lot of hope. I think people just understanding the power, if you can, of supporting whether it's your local farmer's market or if there's someone in your neighborhood who's just doing small batched clothing items.
Just supporting them if you're able to, and the local markets and stores, et cetera. I feel like in some ways that's an act of resistance against capitalism the way that it is. Some people might call that conscious capitalism because it's not like I'm saying everyone needs to barter and just do away with money. That would be really cool. It is a way to practice a more conscious form of capitalism and support your local economy.
[00:27:46] Host: Do you want to leave us with any final message?
[00:27:52] Leah Thomas: I would say just always thinking about nuance. I think nuance is really important. Not in a devil's advocate way that's mean and contrarian, but to just consider different perspectives outside of your own. I know that sounds really simple, but it's so important. Even me as a woman of color, thinking about communities outside of my own and understanding that advocating for other people doesn't take away from the advocacy of my people. Those things can be done at the exact same time. That's all.
[00:28:24] Automated: If you would like to continue the conversation, visit greengirlleah.com for more information, or chapman.edu/wilkinson to hear her full lecture. For more socially conscious content, visit us at pastforward.org to hear all our episodes or follow us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you podcast. [silence]
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