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Intersectional Environmentalism Is Our Urgent Way Forward

by Leah Thomas

As a Black environmental activist, I always carry both identities with me and have never been able to separate the two. My Blackness and love for the planet flow through me, and over time I’ve realized I shouldn’t have to silence parts of myself to be an effective activist. Instead, intersectional environmentalism makes the opposite true. I believe that acknowledging our identities and cultural backgrounds can actually help create a stronger, more inclusive environmental movement. I also believe we must address environmental racism and the disproportionate environmental hazard risk in BIPOC communities. Ignoring these things only further perpetuates racism within the sustainability and environmental movement. 

The need for justice, equity, and inclusion within environmentalism is clearly supported by not only the lived experiences of many BIPOC people, but also the scientific data of who feels the brunt of environmental injustices and climate change the most. Lead positioning impacts children of color more often, hazardous waste sites are disproportionately located in communities of color, and access to clean air varies along racial lines. This data is startling, and made me realize the need for a new environmentalism, one that tackles environmental racism head on. 

I studied Environmental Science and Policy, interned as a National Parks Service Park Ranger, worked for one of the top sustainable apparel companies and deeply immersed myself in the environmental movement. However, I haven’t always felt fully seen or heard. When I would try to advocate for the need to implement diversity and inclusion strategy into an environmental organization, I’ve often been told that diversity “can wait,” or was met with confusion on how it aligned with an environmental mission. So when thinking about how I wanted to define myself as an anti-racist environmentalist, I kept coming back to the term “intersectionality,” a theoretical framework that takes into account someone’s overlapping identities to better understand the complexities of the injustices and prejudices they face.  

Often, the root cause of several issues might overlap—it isn’t a coincidence the Black and Brown people are both disproportionately killed by police and also exposed to environmental hazards. The same systems of oppression are at play. 

The word intersectionality was first used in this context by civil rights activist and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Instead of viewing race and gender as two isolated topics when discussing feminism, she advocated for intersectionality to avoid further marginalizing voices that were often unheard. 

It’s important to acknowledge the way race and culture can impact feminism, environmentalism and other philosophies to be truly inclusive. Especially when race adds an additional level of prejudice and increases exposure to things that are life threatening. It’s urgent. 

I practice Intersectional Feminism and identify as an environmentalist. One day it dawned on me that if my feminism can be intersectional, so can my environmentalism. So I decided to define the term Intersectional Environmentalism as this: an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront, and does not minimize or silence social inequality. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice for people and the planet. 

This is the environmentalism that I would like to see in the world, one that has anti-racism and environmental justice embedded deeply within the philosophy, and which acknowledges the intersections of social justice and environmentalism. 

One day I hope we won’t need the term “intersectional” to preface environmentalism. One day I hope that when people think of an environmentalist, they’ll automatically envision an activist that cares about both people and the planet. I truly believe that day will come soon if environmentalists wake up and begin advocating for those whose voices are unheard, and who face the largest threats of the climate crisis. If that happens, I believe we can create the future that we want to see: one that is greener, more sustainable, and more equitable for all people.

Written by Leah Thomas for Youth To The People