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The Intersectional Environmentalist
How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet
By Leah Thomas
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From the 2022 TIME100 Next honoree and the activist who coined the term comes a primer on intersectional environmentalism for the next generation of activists looking to create meaningful, inclusive, and sustainable change.The Intersectional Environmentalist examines the inextricable link between environmentalism, racism, and privilege, and promotes awareness of the fundamental truth that we cannot save the planet without uplifting the voices of its people — especially those most often unheard. Written by Leah Thomas, a prominent voice in the field and the activist who coined the term "Intersectional Environmentalism," this book is simultaneously a call to action, a guide to instigating change for all, and a pledge to work towards the empowerment of all people and the betterment of the planet.
Thomas shows how not only are Black, Indigenous and people of color unequally and unfairly impacted by environmental injustices, but she argues that the fight for the planet lies in tandem to the fight for civil rights; and in fact, that one cannot exist without the other. An essential read, this book addresses the most pressing issues that the people and our planet face, examines and dismantles privilege, and looks to the future as the voice of a movement that will define a generation.
MY GRANDMOTHER, a farmer and descendent of people enslaved in the United States, was one of my greatest teachers, instilling in me foundational values of dignity, community, and love. I remember walking with her as a small child and her saying, with the sweetest Southern charm, “Walk in front of me, honey. Put your head up! Roll those shoulders back, swing those arms, smile, and walk with purpose, ba-by!” And I did!
She, alongside my mother and the matriarchs in our neighborhood, taught me that dignity comes from within—from the love I have for myself and my community. I was born into poverty, but I was raised by proud, resourceful Black women who took care of themselves, their people, and the land. I remember vividly how concepts like conservation and sustainable living were not theoretical to us, nor were they burdens to our way of life. They were how we got by, how we flowed in relationship to one another and our environment. We practiced the models that were passed down from generations before us, and we integrated our own experiences into lessons for the future.
My mother and grandmother made sure we didn’t waste electricity or water. We reused grocery bags and canning jars, and we recycled hand-me-down clothing among our cousins. We carpooled with our neighbors to save gas and carefully stewarded what we had. We shared eggs and milk with neighbors, and we composted leftover food. We did this because we cared for one another and cared for the places we called home. I learned that caring is a practice that is good for people and good for the earth.
These grassroots values were specific results of our Black, mostly feminine, and poor lives, which of course also included immense pain and hardship as we were on the other end of every stick wielded by those in power and upheld by race, gender, and class.
I was reminded of this time and these intersections in my life when I read Leah Thomas’s childhood stories of waste-free living out of necessity, when I read about her own relationships and joys living among three generations of Black women. I feel some of my experience and analysis reflected in short form on her Instagram feed and smile with recognition. Our paths first crossed when I was CEO of a grassroots climate justice organization in South Central Los Angeles and Leah was an intern at Patagonia. I am grateful that Leah helped elevate the term and meaning of “intersectional environmentalism,” inviting all of you, dear readers, into its life-affirming vision and values during a global pandemic, an escalating climate crisis, and popular uprisings for racial justice.
Intersectionality is one of those breakthrough academic concepts—this one coined by the inimitable Kimberlé Crenshaw—that, for millions of people, including Black women like her, and like me and Leah, is simply how we live. Just as Kimberlé Crenshaw’s own lived experience gave rise to this foundational framework of critical race theory, her story and scholarship have offered the world a glimpse into our daily reality. Seeing how we, as Black women, can transmute terror and trauma into a vision for something beautiful, collective, and strong is what makes intersectionality so critical to solving the global climate crisis. It is also what makes critical race theory so scary to those clinging on to treacherous power. Because if we can create the future we want despite the realities of not only racism, but also sexism, poverty, and other oppressive systems, imagine what all of us can do and be when those systems crumble and we are all free. As Leah says, the future is intersectional—just as the past and present are too.
The era of a single-savior, top-down, and siloed approach to change is over. The old way of thinking about environmentalism as a single, distinct issue is long gone, because people are seeing that the solutions to our problems come from within ourselves, and from within our communities. People are empowered and coming together to create the change they want to see, the future they want that reflects their values and visions. And our intersectional lives are at the center of it.
As Leah lays out in the book, it is up to us to change the status quo, because many gatekeepers in the climate movement are still catching up and most of their ideas continue to benefit the few. Intersectional-focused organizations working for climate equity and justice still receive less than 5 percent—by the most generous accounting—of the total $2.4 billion granted annually for the environment. Within that, an even smaller fraction goes to nonprofits led by Black people, Indigenous people, immigrants, and other people of color. Women of color receive just 0.6 percent of total philanthropic benefit in the United States across all issue areas, despite being the backbones of most communities.
This is why, as Leah explains in this book, the fundamental truth is that we cannot save the planet without uplifting the voices of those most marginalized. These solutions are already being born from organizers in communities of color on the front lines of the climate crisis, many of whom have lived experiences that give meaning to intersectional environmentalism, even if they’ve never called it that.
As CEO of The Solutions Project, I’ve had the privilege of working with many of these organizers as they address the issues facing their communities. Take Louisiana’s “cancer alley,” where over two hundred petrochemical plants line eighty miles of the Mississippi River. The EPA says the cancer risk for the area’s majority Black population is up to fifty times the national average. When the local government quickly granted permits for a new $1.25 billion plastics plant that would further poison the area with toxic chemicals, former teacher Sharon Lavigne and the community-based organization she leads, RISE St. James, organized, mobilized, and ultimately stopped the plant from being built. They gained recognition from the United Nations, Sharon was honored with the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, and her story was covered in People magazine.
Other everyday heroes come from the Four Corners region of the western United States, where fifteen thousand Hopi and Navajo families live in homes without electricity. This is despite decades of outsiders benefiting from coal, uranium, oil, and gas extracted from reservation land. Two Navajo women—organizer Wahleah Johns and engineer Suzanne Singer, PhD—started Native Renewables to design and deploy affordable solar photovoltaic arrays and storage systems that can, for the first time, bring electricity to far-flung off-the-grid homes on the reservation. Native Renewables also trains Indigenous people for clean-energy jobs. Now Johns is senior advisor for the Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, seeking to apply her experience to helping the more than five hundred other Indigenous nations within the borders of the United States.
The success of these women, alongside their communities, shows that a people-powered movement works—and benefits everyone. We need big, sustainable solutions that benefit the many, not just the few. And all of us can be a part of it. We all live at various intersections, and when we can see that, the invitations to participate are everywhere.
We can also hold on to the grassroots values that will create a regenerative, healthy, and equitable planet. These values connect us to our family, to our communities, and ultimately to one another. It is audacious—and requires tenacity—to have a vision for a world one cannot materially see. It takes courage to challenge old ways and create new ones. And it requires love. After all, love is the source of this transformational power. Love for ourselves, our people, and the land. My grandmother, my mother, and the grassroots leaders I’ve worked with have shown me that courage, dignity, and love are abundant no matter the circumstance.
Leah Thomas’s vision and this book are powerful testaments to this truth, and beautiful invitations for all of us to be a part of the future we want. Every day, more and more people are responding to a society mired in racism, sexism, injustice, and inequity by showing the rest of the world how justice is done. And this is just the beginning.
I look forward to seeing your contribution.
AS WE dive into what intersectionality means, it’s important to note that this theory stems from the thoughts, experiences, and emotional labor of Black women. It may evolve and take shape in different ways past its original intent, as with environmentalism, but this theory, defined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, is rooted in the duality of her experience as both Black and a woman. Any advancement or more broad adoption of intersectional theory should start with the fact that it was bred from the Black experience and was developed as a tool to help Black women feel seen, heard, and validated in their everyday lives. This theory reflects their experiences as they grappled with those two marginalized identities and faced double, interlocking oppressions and judgment. As Malcolm X said in a 1962 speech,
The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.
The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman.
The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.1
Black women deserve both protection and appreciation. So as we continue to explore and dive deeper into intersectionality and intersectional environmentalism in this chapter, hold space for Black women. Protect and respect their theories and their profound resiliency; know that even in their struggle, Black women have given their knowledge to us to grow and advance society. It is an immense privilege to create space for and hold a piece of their magic and legacies every time the word “intersectionality” is said or written down—so don’t use it lightly and please don’t dilute its origins.
DIVISION IN THE FEMINIST MOVEMENT
THIS SECTION will refer to the women’s rights movement, also called the feminist movement and the women’s liberation movement, in the United States. First wave feminist movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which predate the women’s rights movement, largely focused on the advocacy of legal rights for women (like the ability to vote, receive an education, and secure employment).2 Unfortunately, a recurrence through the different feminist movements in the United States is the lack of consideration for, and even hostile rejection of, racial equality within women’s rights efforts.
The women’s rights movement in the 1960s and ’70s, considered second wave feminism, broadened the idea of what equality could look like for women and included sexual liberation, workplace safety, reproductive rights, the deconstruction of gender roles, and more.3 But even with this broader feminism, the advocacy for women of color was not a focal point of the mainstream movement at large—nor did the movement give special consideration to queer and trans women. The dire need for safe spaces for women who weren’t represented in the mainstream movement led to an emerging Black feminist movement that advocated for both race and women’s equality during the height of the civil rights and women’s rights movements. This is where the seeds of intersectional theory were planted—which was later defined in 1989 by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.
What was the key goal of the second wave feminist women’s rights movement? I think a fair answer would be the equality of women in all sectors of life. This is an admirable goal, but if those who are setting these goals aren’t representative of all women, all women won’t be equally protected as a result. Even if everyone is united by the common thread of being women, there is a danger when what’s being considered a universal women’s experience is only reflective of those who are privileged in other crucially defining areas in society, like race, class, and sexuality.
The understanding of a “universal women’s experience” within the mainstream women’s rights movement did not include strong consideration for the role that race played in that experience. This led to the emergence of Black feminist theorists, activists, and scholars who wanted to challenge the notion that the goals of racial equality and women’s rights should be kept separate. As Audre Lorde perfectly stated, “I am a Black feminist. I mean I recognize that my power as well as my primary oppressions come as a result of my Blackness as well as my womanness, and therefore my struggles on both of these fronts are inseparable.”4 Inseparable, intertwined, and intersectional.
WHAT IS MISOGYNOIR?
MISOGYNOIR, A concept originally defined by Black queer feminist Moya Bailey, is a term to describe a specific type of sexism that Black women face.5 It stems from the term “misogyny”: the hatred of women.6 Misogynoir examines how race interacts with and compounds the impact of sexism and misogyny. Some examples include:
RACIAL DISPARITIES for Black women in the health care system and increased maternal mortality rates.7
THE ANGRY BLACK WOMAN STEREOTYPE, which contributes to the perception of Black women as threatening when they voice emotion.
THE STRONG BLACK WOMAN STEREOTYPE, which discourages Black women from showing emotion.
THE HYPERSEXUALIZATION of Black girls and women and the policing of their style choices. For example, natural hairstyles such as braids, locs, and Afros being banned in schools and workplaces.
THE DOUBLE STANDARD when styles or features are perceived as “ghetto” when worn by Black women but praised when worn by white women.
Misogynoir explains the added level of specific discrimination that Black women face and how this discrimination permeates society. Misogynoir was very present during the women’s rights movement and caused confusion at the intersections of race and feminism. In her book Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, civil rights activist Angela Davis explained, “Black feminism emerged as a theoretical and practical effort demonstrating that race, gender, and class are inseparable in the social worlds we inhabit. At the time of its emergence, Black women were frequently asked to choose whether the Black movement or the women’s movement was most important. The response was that this was the wrong question.”8
Being in the dominant racial group in society benefited white feminists to some extent during the women’s rights movement. No matter how radical they were, they were allowed to publicly demonstrate without the same level of violence enacted on BIPOC, and they had the advantage of more visibility around their efforts. This isn’t to say that their efforts should be minimized, but the purpose of this book is to raise awareness of unsung heroes, look beneath the surface, and reflect on missteps in social and environmental movements so that future movements can improve. With complete knowledge of our past, we have a better shot at improving the outcomes of our future.
Unfortunately, some early feminists had clear biases and chose to act only in their own best interests, disregarding the concerns of women of color and queer women because they felt that these topics weren’t related, they didn’t care, or they thought the inclusion of anti-racism or anti-homophobia would “complicate” the matter for white feminists. The prevailing attitude was that perhaps after their own liberation, they would create space for other people and causes.
It’s confusing that early feminists, who believed deeply in the equality of men and women, had caveats as to who could achieve that liberation. To me, it’s contradictory for a feminist to also hold racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, homophobic, transphobic, and otherwise anti-liberation beliefs. However, humans are complicated, and lateral oppression—the concept of marginalized groups oppressing other marginalized groups—is very real. Sometimes the allure of power, however paltry, can cause otherwise oppressed people to contribute to the oppression of others.
With Black women’s liberation seemingly an afterthought of women in the mainstream women’s movement, it makes sense that Black feminists chose to create safer spaces so they could dive into the many aspects of their identities and fight for their own equality without waiting for white feminists to grant them permission. Instead, Black women created their own theories and framework that ultimately would benefit all women and would be more inclusive.
THE COMBAHEE RIVER COLLECTIVE
“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free, since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”
—Combahee River Collective statement9
LEADERSHIP WITHIN the U.S. civil rights movement was largely male, and the leaders of the women’s rights movement were overwhelmingly middle-class and white. Black feminists found themselves at a crossroads. They lacked visibility and felt shut out of both movements. Even though they poured their emotional labor, hearts, and bodies into both causes because both were intertwined with their identities, they were left asking, Who will fight for us and where do we belong?
Twin sisters Barbara and Beverly Smith, Audre Lorde, Demita Frazier, Cheryl Clarke, Akasha Hull, Margo Okazawa-Rey, Chirlane McCray, and other Black feminist revolutionaries were tired of taking a back seat in their own liberation struggle. Together, they formed the Combahee River Collective in 1974, a small organization named after the Combahee River Raid in South Carolina, led by Harriet Tubman to liberate hundreds of enslaved people. The goals of the CRC were to combat capitalism, racism, homophobia, sexism, and more. The women wanted to dismantle several systems of oppression at once because to them, they were all interconnected.
The CRC, inspired by anticolonial and antiwar movements and the work of the Third World Women’s Alliance, argued that the liberation of Black women would result in freedom for all people.10 Black women were and are faced with racism, poverty, and sexism, and if Black women no longer bore the brunt of all these injustices, then everyone would benefit. This notion was revolutionary, because it is the opposite of white feminist ideologies that say that white women’s liberation should come first and will eventually have a domino effect, and it is counter to some of the male-led civil rights organizations’ positions that put Black women’s interests second. The CRC believed that any oppressed group has the right to take up space and advocate for all aspects of their identity; as Black women, they were entitled to a political identity that centered around their Black womanhood, as any other oppressed person was entitled to a political identity that centered around their full personhood.11 At the time, this was a radical response to being dismissed by other social movements that ignored the specific needs of Black women.
The CRC believed that oppressed people should be able to define their own political ideologies and organizations and advocate for their specific interests without silencing themselves; they termed this ability to self-determine “identity politics.”12 While the term has been misused since its inception, the intention was not to be exclusive, but to give oppressed people the right to advocate for their own self-interests and liberation. Black feminists did not view identity politics as a way to be separatists, but as a way to successfully unite and build stronger liberation movements.
“We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives. Although we are in essential agreement with Marx’s theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as Black women.”
—Combahee River Collective statement
The CRC’s stance was revolutionary because it expressed the complexity of overlapping identities and the sometimes double or triple marginalization that people with several oppressed identities faced. This multilayered approach to understanding oppression is the basis of intersectional theory.
KIMBERLÉ WILLIAMS CRENSHAW AND INTERSECTIONAL FEMINISM
BUILDING OFF the concept of interlocking systems of oppression and identity politics comes critical race theory and the theory of intersectionality, defined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989.
Crenshaw is a pioneer and leading voice in critical race theory, Black feminist legal theory, racism, and law, with over thirty years of research and advocacy on race and civil rights to her name. She is a graduate of Cornell University, Harvard University, and the University of Wisconsin and is a law professor at UCLA and Columbia. Her work has exposed several instances of structural inequality leading to the overcriminalization of Black children, such as the school-to-prison pipeline and the mistreatment of Black women in the criminal justice system. Critical race theory examines how race and identity intersect with power structures, like the legal system, and its foundational messaging began to emerge following the Civil Rights Movement in the ’70s and carried on into the ’80s and ’90s. Its evolution can be credited to legal scholars including Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, Richard Delgado, Cheryl Harris, Charles R. Lawrence III, Mari Matsuda, and Patricia J. Williams, as well as Crenshaw.
While these scholars’ individual analyses may differ, there are two recurring arguments that are fundamental to the critical race theory movement:
1. RACIST NOTIONS of white superiority have resulted in systemic inequality, and the legal system upholds this system of power; and
- "The founder of Intersectional Environmentalist is building toward a greener, more equitable future by advocating for both sustainability and social justice while spotlighting communities that have been underrepresented in the space... She's aiming to set the movement on the right path with her new book, The Intersectional Environmentalist."—instyle.com
- "Too often, environmentalist proposals and platforms appear willing to sacrifice people — usually the most vulnerable — in exchange for saving the planet. Leah Thomas’ The Intersectional Environmentalist aims to fix this problem, offering philosophical defenses for protecting those affected most by climate change, as well as strategies young activists can use to turn theory into practice."—Bustle.com
- "Vital"—The Revelator
- "An overarching yet detailed introduction to intersectional environmentalism...Thomas's work is essential brain food..."—Condé Nast Traveler
- "Read this book and save the planet."—Soho House
- "An essential read, this book gives voice to a movement that will define a generation."—Yale Climate Connections
- "[The Intersectional Environmentalist] shares data in an accessible, compelling, and engaging manner, and explores a variety of topics, including ableism, veganism, green energy, representation and more. It’s dense, but not overwhelming, and it also provides a “tool kit” and a supplementary reading list, to help you expand your knowledge once you finish this book. The Intersectional Environmentalist is at once a call to action, a guide to galvanize change, and a way to empower all people towards the betterment of the planet."—She Does the City
- "The Intersectional Environmentalist is a useful start for anyone looking to get involved with or understand more about environmental justice, and who wants to learn about it through a framework that ensures the most vulnerable are centered."—Shondaland
- "Intersectionality is kind of a clunky word and the literature around it has often been quite academic. Thomas makes in understandable, and perhaps most importantly, practical...this is a book that will read well in the community, with opportunities for learning together and doing things differently."—agreenerlifeagreenerworld.net
- On Sale
- Mar 8, 2022
- Page Count
- 208 pages