As part of my work to be anti-racist, I’ve been reading and listening to Black voices. While much of my effort is focused on the history I never studied, I’m also exploring the racism inherent in contemporary issues. In a recent post, I wrote about a term new to me‑— intersectional environmentalism. After a brief introduction, I wanted to learn more. I’ve been doing that, as well as discovering how much more I need to learn.
In So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo describes intersectionality as “the belief that our social justice movements must consider all of the intersections of identity, privilege, and oppression that people face in order to be just and effective.” I highly recommend Oluo’s book.
As I learned from Leah Thomas, the concept of intersectionality is central to the environmental movement. Leah’s writing is expanding my views and understandings about climate change.
This is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet,” Leah explains on her website. “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 + the planet.”
While studying environmental science and policy at Chapman University, Leah realized, “As my textbooks encouraged me to protect public lands so they could be preserved and enjoyed, I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘for whom?’
“I wanted to protect the natural environment,” she writes, “but I also wanted to protect vulnerable communities like mine back home [near Ferguson, MO]. I wasn’t able to separate my identity from my environmentalism, and this is when I discovered environmental justice.” Leah goes on to describe the term as “the intersection of both social justice and environmentalism, where the inequity in environmental degradation is also considered.”
In an interview with environmental blogger Christy Dawn, Leah explained she came to this concept after exploring intersectional feminism, “…a type of feminism that also advocates for BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] women and doesn’t silence the very real differences that exist within how different women are viewed or treated by society. If my feminism is intersectional, then I want my environmentalism to be too.” As a black environmentalist, Leah believes she can’t choose to ignore her identity and how Black communities “face the most environmental injustices. It just became really obvious to me that all these systems of oppression were connected and the same. To fight for social justice is to fight for the protection of the environment and vice versa.”
In my activism for the Salish Sea and climate change, I’ve learned about the heavy burden placed on BIPOC. The Dakota Access Pipeline on the Sioux reservation and lead-contaminated water in Flint, MI are two recent examples.
A June 3, 2020 New York Times article, Black Environmentalists Talk About Climate and Anti-Racism, features several activists who make the connections between racism and the climate crisis. Their comments are influencing my beliefs and actions, too.
Sam Grant, executive director of MN350.org, the Minnesota affiliate of the international climate activist group 350.org, explains, “Police violence is an aspect of a broader pattern of structural violence, which the climate crisis is a manifestation of. Healing structural violence is actually in the best interest of all human beings.”
Robert D. Bullard, is a professor at Texas Southern University. Often described as the “father of environmental justice,” he’s written for more than 30 years about the need to redress environmental racism. “The rich have a bigger carbon footprint than the poor, but it is the poor who are more likely to be people of color in this country and who are often most vulnerable to the impact of climate change.
“If it’s going to be too hot to work outside,” Bullard says, “we know who’s going to be affected. If we’re talking about urban heat islands, we know who can’t afford to run their air-conditioners 24/7. Climate change is more than parts per million and greenhouse gases,” he added. “The people who are feeling the worst impacts of climate, their voices have got to be heard.”
Heather McGhee is a senior fellow at Demos, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group, and the author of a forthcoming book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (now available for pre-order). McGhee suggests an anti-racist climate movement should be led by “a real multiracial coalition that endorses environmental justice principles; its goals should seek to uplift the most vulnerable. That means,” she said, “the creation of green jobs, rather than cap-and-trade policies that allow companies to keep polluting in communities of color as they have been able to do for decades.” Until the book is available next year, her TED talk in 2019 explains how “racism has a cost for everyone.”
I’m just at the beginning of my education about intersectional environmentalism, and I’m grateful to people like Leah and the other environmentalists I’ve referenced in this post. Their thinking, writing, and teaching are undoubtedly shaping environmental change. If they provide ways to pay them for their work, I plan to do that. I urge you to follow them through the links I’ve included.
There are many others for me to learn from. Below is a list of Environmental Justice Groups with a focus on environmental, economic, and environmental equity that you can explore to learn more. The list was posted by Leah Thomas at The Good Trade:
- Alternatives for Community & Environment (Roxbury, MA)
- Center for Diversity & the Environment (including Building Environmental Professionals of Color)
- Center for Health, Environment & Justice
- Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment
- Communities for a Better Environment (CA)
- East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (East Los Angeles, CA)
- Green for All
- Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice
- Groundswell (Mid-Atlantic states, community solar projects)
- Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (Chicago, IL)
- Louisiana Bucket Brigade
- Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment (Southwest uranium-impacted communities)
- Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (WV)
- Sierra Club’s Equity, Inclusion, and Justice
And more: Sources on Environmental Racism by @wastefreemarie
Clearly, I have much work to do. I’ll close with this image of Leah Thomas and a quote.