This week, our Upper School students enjoyed a virtual visit from MICDS Class of 2013 alumna Leah Thomas who spoke about her experience as an intersectional environmentalist and eco-communicator. Leah founded the Intersectional Environmentalist platform, a resource hub that advocates for environmental justice and inclusivity in environmental activism and education. She is also the founder of the eco-lifestyle blog Green Girl Leah and has written articles for Vogue, Elle, The Good Trade, and numerous other publications.
In the virtual visit, Thomas shared her story of growing up in Florissant, Missouri, and her time spent at MICDS, including the AP Environmental Science class that piqued her interest in the field of science. At the time, she didn’t identify as an environmentalist and admits that she didn’t enjoy chemistry or physics but was interested in ecology and topics like carbon sequestration and community adaptations. Thomas attended Chapman University in California, where she began studying biology then quickly switched to environmental policy and religion. Inspired by religion as a child, Thomas was able to expand her view on how different cultures utilize sustainability practices.
When St. Louis was impacted in the summer of 2014 by the Ferguson protests, Thomas realized how much she didn’t know about racial relationships in her hometown. Returning to school that fall, she noticed it was hard to focus—much like during the pandemic—so she decided to incorporate these events into her studies by leaning into environmental policy. The more Thomas read about the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the more she wanted to enact change in black and brown communities, especially those close to home, who live every day without access to the fundamental human right of clean air and water. She referenced an EPA study that shows a large proportion of black communities live in violation of federal air quality standards. It’s a slightly lower proportion for Latin(o/a)/Latinx communities, and lower for white communities.
While much activity in the 70s paved the way for environmental justice, such as Earth Day and the creation of the EPA, it was on the heels of the civil rights movement and still wasn’t fully inclusive beyond white higher-income communities. Thomas remarked, “Many laws led to landfills being diverted away from wealthy white areas to black and brown communities, and redlining real estate practices still make an impact regarding environmental hazards. Climate crisis is not a hypothetical future. It includes the climate crisis we’re in every day for certain communities. Flint, Michigan, and fracking fluids in our water supply are examples of the most urgent issues at this time.”
Kimberlé Crenshaw also informed Thomas’s studies. She developed the intersectionality theory, an analytical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege. Thomas was able to apply that theory to environmentalism, which inspired her to work for environmental equality for all people. She worked for the Parks Service of the U.S. Department of Interior and then for Patagonia, a very politically engaged grassroots company.
So how did her Intersectional Environmentalist platform get off the ground? She shared with students that she started writing about the topic during the pandemic and began to distance herself from companies that aren’t actively practicing environmental justice. Then she found that approximately 300 other people wanted to do it with her, and it grew from there. Their overarching goal was to provide resources for environmental justice, how it relates to communities and the planet, and work to validate sustainability practices that are taking place but not well known (such as indigenous peoples’ communities). Thomas added, “We have the science down; now we just need to serve as eco-communicators to translate it to others.”
Thomas is often described as an environmental optimist and remarked, “Shame, judgment, and doom dominate quite a bit in the climate space. Optimism keeps me sane. I believe in innovation, and our generation is the bearer of solutions. I’m focused on: Who’s at the table of climate solutions and who can fund those solutions?”
Upper School Science Teachers Paul Zahller and Cassandra Galluppi were delighted to facilitate the collaborative period visit and discussion with Thomas. Galluppi shared, “I felt this talk was the perfect addition to our Environmental Science class. Leah covered topics connected to several units of course content, and she did it in a way that the students found accessible. It’s another way for the students to see the principles we discuss in a real-world context. It’s also great for them to hear an alumna, particularly one close to their age, talk about her path so far and how she has found success. She’s a great role model for the students, and she definitely got them thinking.”
Students shared similar sentiments about the opportunity to connect with someone active in this field:
“One of the most interesting things that was discussed was the intersectionality between environmentalism, religion, racism, and justice. Leah Thomas encouraged using intersectionality to one’s advantage to uplift communities and mitigate problems, citing her own religious upbringing and growing up in Ferguson as an influence on her career and platforms. The session was definitely rich with information and opportunities to learn from.” – Coumba Diallo ‘22
“She was wonderful! We’re so lucky to have speakers such as Ms. Thomas who are true professionals in their field of work; she spoke honestly and with compassion without displaying any animosity towards those who don’t always agree with her line of work.” – Olivia Thomas ’22
A robust Q&A session followed with questions ranging from “What advice would you give to someone interested in environmental law?” to “How do we go about fixing issues like Flint?” Check out the recorded session below for more!
Thomas is currently writing a book covering the history of the environmental justice movement and how we arrived where we are today, including a chapter for educators on how to get students informed and involved in environmental justice.
Thank you, Leah, for an informative and thought-provoking session with our students!