In 2016, right before she graduated from college, Leah Thomas launched an eco-fashion blog called @greengirlleah. “I had noticed a lack of representation of Black women in the online sustainable-living space,” said Thomas. “Initially I was posting mostly food stuff and recipes, but when I started sharing more about my life, I began to find a community of other women of color who were also passionate about the outdoors, environmental justice, and sustainable living.”
Thomas, who has also served a stint as an interpretive ranger with the National Park Service and as assistant to Rick Ridgeway at Patagonia, has settled quite firmly now into the role of climate and social justice activist.
In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020, Thomas coined the phrase “intersectional environmentalist,” which she calls “an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet.” In a nutshell, intersectional environmentalism examines “how injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected.”
The term caught fire and within weeks she launched Intersectional Environmentalist, a media and resource hub for her fellow climate justice advocates. Her Intersectional Environmentalist Pledge has reached over a million people and it caught the eye of White House Deputy National Climate Advisor, Ali Zaida. An Instagram live conversation about the Biden administration’s plans ensued.
Thomas is now leveraging that personal connection with the Biden administration to make herself heard and to ensure that environmental justice stays at the forefront of policymaking. Along with her council, she has crafted a letter to President Biden, calling for continued attention to climate justice.
We chatted with Thomas just prior to her sending the letter. Below is an edited version of the conversation.
What prompted you to write this letter to President Biden?
The White House reached out to me shortly after the inauguration asking me to host an Instagram live conversation about Biden’s recently announced climate plans. I was shocked. I never thought that The White House would acknowledge a mostly social media outlet and platform. But it made me realize that a) collectively our community does have impact and b) we could be an asset to the Biden administration and really advocate for climate justice for all.
After the Q&A, we received several comments asking us how we can hold the administration accountable to ensure that environmental justice isn’t left out of the conversation and that this growing movement of self-identifying intersectional environmentalists could see themselves reflected more in environmental policy. We saw so many organizations releasing letters of support, but none seemed to fit what we are specifically advocating for, which is a commitment to growing a relationship with grassroots environmental media outlets to help climate policy information become more accessible to a wider audience, meeting with the Intersectional Environmentalist Council, working with grassroots climate justice organizers from different underrepresented communities, and prioritizing an intersectional approach to climate policy. Since we are clearly on the Biden Administration’s radar, we wanted to take a stand, so we crafted this letter.
During his campaign, Biden pledged to make his cabinet and White House staff look like America. How is he doing?
It’s only been a short while, but so far pretty good! I think he can continue to be more inclusive of BIPOC, LGBTQ+ folx, and people in the disabled community, and especially prioritize working with Indigenous people in all levels of government.
You ask for some very specific things of Biden and his administration. How optimistic are you that he will take these actions?
Thankfully we are seeing some movement already, even prior to the letter’s release, like the Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which is intergenerational and seems incredibly promising.
Do you think you’ll be invited to a meeting?
Is there a specific call to action for the outdoor industry related to this letter?
The idea for the letter itself came from Teresa Baker, who suggested we try to collectively take a stance with this new administration. So many of our council members are part of the outdoor industry. My hope is that our supporters in the outdoor industry—those who took the Intersectional Environmentalist Pledge or pledged to stand up against racism—show that they are really about it!
The complete text of Thomas’ letter delivered to the Biden administration
Dear President Biden,
We Need Climate Accountability + Action NOW.
The climate justice crisis is here now and Black, Indigenous and Latinx communities are disproportionately harmed by environmental injustice in the U.S and have been for decades. From alarmingly high rates of air and water pollution, to toxic waste sites and unequal access to green spaces, environmental policy has failed to protect all people equally.
The U.S. is the world’s largest contributor per capita to the climate crisis and the communities that are least responsible are most often targeted. Previous administrations promised to take climate action but have fallen short – both in addressing the climate crisis and focusing on environmental justice. An intersectional approach to environmental policy is necessary if we are to protect both people and the planet.
We are committed to holding the Biden Administration accountable. We are calling on this administration for climate accountability and to commit to the following:
- Meet with The Intersectional Environmentalist (IE) Council
Founded in the summer of 2020, the IE Council is a diverse group of activists, leaders, outdoor educators, researchers, and student professors, advocating for increased representation of BIPOC, LGBTQ+, Disabled and other under amplified communities within the environmental sector. Through our collective advocacy, we have built a community of over 300,000 people in less than a year who are dedicated to shifting the environmental narrative towards one that includes intersectional advocacy with a combined reach of over one million. We ask that this new administration, who previously hosted a conversation on our platform to continue this relationship and:
- Work directly with the Intersectional Environmentalist team, council and community who can be great allies in the fight for climate justice and are well connected with on the ground climate action
- Commit to cultivating strong relationships with grassroots-community-based media platforms and include us in press briefings + listening sessions related to climate action so we can work together to bring accessible and culturally relevant climate information to underrepresented groups
- Listen and Shift The Narrative
Traditional environmental education often leaves out Black, Latinx, Indigenous and Asian experiences and knowledge. Environmental training for government organizations must shift the narrative to be more inclusive and culturally competent; and must acknowledge that systemic racism has historically influenced climate policy in favor of white Americans.
- Listen to grassroots activists, organizations and communities most impacted by environmental injustice
- Provide space to hear their stories and work to build back trust in the government
- Take Action and Declare A Climate Emergency
Time is of the essence and environmental injustice is a direct consequence of systemic racism.
- Declare a climate emergency and address environmental racism in this declaration
- Invest in BIPOC communities when working towards a green recovery by prioritizing job creation, climate reparations and climate justice
We welcome a meeting with the Biden Administration + the new Environmental Justice Advisory Board to offer our support on carrying out these commitments.
Leah Thomas, Founder + CEO of Intersectional Environmentalist; Diandra Marizet, Co-Founder + Resource Director of Intersectional Environmentalist; Sabs Katz, Co-Founder + Communications Director of Intersectional Environmentalist; Philip Aiken, Co-Founder + Media Director of Intersectional Environmentalist; Teresa Baker, Founder of the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge + the In Solidarity Project; José G. González, Founder + CEO of Latino Outdoors; Pınar Ateş Sinopoulos-Lloyd, Co-Founder of Queer Nature; Aditi Mayer, Labor Rights Activist, Photojournalist, + Sustainable Fashion Blogger; Marie Beecham, Climate + Racial Justice Advocate; Sophia Li, Multimedia Journalist + Film Director; Wyn Wiley / Pattie Gonia, Drag Queen + Intersectional Environmentalist / Photographer, Creative Director, + Outdoorist; Ron Griswell, Founder + CEO of HBCUs Outside; Mikaela Loach, Climate Justice Activist + Co-Host of YIKES Podcast; Isaias Hernandez, Creator of Queer Brown Vegan; Kevin J Patel, Founder + Executive Director of OneUpAction; Abigail Adekunbi Thomas, Environmental Employee Engagement at Patagonia; Anushka Bhaskar, Student + Founder of Avritah; Jordan Marie Daniel, Founder of Rising Hearts; Kamilah Journét, Marketing Strategist, Writer, + Distance Runner; Andrea Pereze, Indigenous Environmental Justice Advocate; Jordan Chatman, Multimedia Environmentalist; Kristy Drutman, Digital Strategist + Host of Brown Girl Green; Sage Lenier, Environmental Educator