Known for being an activist, ecofeminist, writer, and founder of The Intersectional Environmentalist, Leah Thomas shared powerful sentiments during Her Conference 2023 on June 24 in New York City. Her keynote focused on how she cultivated a career in environmental education while combining her passions for writing and social justice.
“I studied environmental science and policy, not because I wanted to, but because my mom wanted me to become a doctor,” she said of her journey to becoming an intersectional environmentalist. “However, I knew I wanted to get into communication, so I began blogging, and during my senior year, I started a platform called Green Girl Food.” Thomas admitted she was not being her authentic self, and Green Girl Food no longer exists, having instead become her personal Instagram account @greengirlleah. However, as she gained more confidence, she slowly shifted her platform to showcase her true self and her passion for social justice, advocacy, and being a Black environmentalist.
Thomas’s role in advocating for the environment was solidified in the summer of 2020, during the resurgence of Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd Movement. She made a post on Instagram, the message of which she emphasized during her keynote: If people want to “care for the environment, they need to care for its people.” The post went viral on social media. From there, Thomas knew she wanted her platform to be more than just a personal blog. She wanted to continue to focus on the intersectionality of the environment and provide accessible resources across the globe.
In addition to advocating for social justice during summer 2020, Thomas did not hesitate to share her thoughts regarding performative activism. “All activists are performative by nature because you are trying to bring as much awareness as possible to a cause,” she argued. She also asked the audience: “How would you know?” and reminded them to consider accessibility, disability, and access going to rallies, protests, and other in-person advocacy events before judging others for coming across as performative. Additionally, she also believes it is not her job to “value judge someone’s way of advocating for a cause … [I want to] make sure that I am making a difference through my writing, books, and speaking at colleges.”
Thomas also revealed during her keynote that she sometimes shies away from the term “activist” due to imposter syndrome. Sometimes she feels she does not do as much advocacy on her social platforms compared to writing or public speaking. However, she recognized that “you don’t need perfect criteria” to be an activist. She believes as long as “one is taking action, no matter how big or how small that action is, one can be an activist. Being an activist in your own way is a very beautiful thing.”
Looking back at her evolution from Green Girl Foods to the numerous platforms she oversees today, Thomas urged the audience to be “your authentic self,” explaining, “One of the reasons Green Girl Foods wasn’t successful is because I wasn’t being genuine to myself … [I was] reserved, but grew confidence through writing and graphic design.” During the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, Thomas found that the best way she could contribute to this cause was by “being herself,” which meant using her passions in writing and art to showcase the injustices within Black, Indigenous and POC communities.
Thomas also provided the audience with a history lesson regarding the origins of the word “intersectionality.” Intersectionality was created by legal scholar Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Crenshaw was analyzing a discrimination court case in which a company fired all the Black women in the office. However, the case was dismissed for not displaying racial or gender discrimination as there were still black men and white women working in the office. According to Thomas, Crenshaw recognized the importance of looking at the various intersections in our society, including the overlap of race and gender. Crenshaw’s discovery inspired Thomas’ passion for intersectional environmentalism, a term that she coined and now uses for her climate justice collective The Intersectional Environmentalist.
Lastly, when taking questions from the audience, many women asked Thomas why one of the components of her platforms is joy and hope. “[If we’re always in a state of] gloom and doom, we lose sight of all the beautiful things happening in the world and hinder us from imagining what our beautiful future can look like,” she answered. She referenced Marvel’s Black Panther as a prime example of joy and hope, as Wakanda is one of the most “sustainable” environments depicted in live-action films, and its characters cultivate joy through the vision and empowerment of each other.
Thomas left the audience with the advice she learned from her mentor — that even the shy people who might be uncomfortable being the face of a movement can make a difference by using their unique strengths. “Every movement needs an accountant,” she said as an example. “Show up to every movement you can to feed and nourish people on the knowledge they may not have access to.”