Leah Thomas sheds light on social injustice in environmentalism

Intersectional environmentalist Leah Thomas discussed the link between social justice and environmentalism on Thursday, April 14th, on a Facebook live Zoom call. WSU’s green group and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion took part in the conversation. 

Thomas’s recently published book, “The Intersectional Environmentalist,” touches on these social issues and her studies surrounding these topics. She also discusses her experience growing up in St. Louis, Missouri. 

“Being from the midwest, I just really really wanted to go to California as many midwesterners do,” Thomas said. 

From California, she began her formal education in environmentalism.  

Thomas said that growing up, she always enjoyed plants and the outdoors, but she knew little about sustainability. After spending most of her freshman year trying to learn about sustainability, she officially declared her major in environmental science and policy. 

Thomas was heading back to California in 2014 when she got a call that changed the course of her studies direction. 

“So I had about two weeks before I was about to leave for sunny California, when unfortunately I got a call from a friend if I knew a gentleman by the name of Michael Brown,” Thomas said. “And while I didn’t know him, he was only a couple of circles of friends away and I didn’t know at the time that his name would be remembered forever within American history.”

Thomas said that in the aftermath of protests and watching her city and hometown mourn, she had to return to school. 

“My parents were participating in protests, I had to leave and to go back to school,” Thomas said. “I wanted so badly to stay, and just completely dedicate myself to helping my community, but my parents really, really wanted me to go back to school.”

After returning to school in California, she became very isolated. She was the only Black student in her environment and policy class, and felt distant from her community.

With her thoughts consumed with the social injustice that had happened in her hometown, Thomas said it made learning about things such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act difficult.  

Thomas developed a certain degree of skepticism in her early environmental science program.

“I started to wonder, ‘How can we talk about the Clean Air Act when there are Black and Brown folks who don’t have the right to breathe in every sense of that word?’” Thomas said. “And as I dove into the research, I found out that it wasn’t just our right to life in the criminal justice system, but when I looked at air pollution and how it differed across different areas in the United States, I found really startling data.” 

Thomas’ studies found that 71% of African Americans live in counties that are in violation of Federal Air qualities standards, which is true for other communities of color across the nation as well.

“I’m going to try and make intersectional environmentalism legitimate, so people can understand what environmental injustice is,” Thomas said. “And not only the trauma of that, but I want people when they think of an environmentalist, to have an incredible indiginous rights activist pop up easily in their head, the same way that they can recall the name of someone like John Muir.”

Thomas’ book can be found on Amazon or her website Green Girl Leah.