Who am I? I feel like I’m still figuring that out. I’m passionate about environmentalism. I’m also a writer, and I love finding ways to communicate complex things to the masses, because I think that everyone should have access to education, regardless whether they have the privilege of being able to afford a higher degree. So, I guess I’m just a girl trying to make the world a little bit nicer, a little bit greener, a little bit better for the planet.
I didn’t really hear the word environmentalism until high school when I took an environmental science class. But I’ve always been really passionate about being outside. I love nature, I love science, I love animals. I thought I was going to be a veterinarian. But I feel like my upbringing is what really made me get involved. My grandma is Buddhist and a pretty big influence on my life. Growing up with her and having the interconnectedness of all beings flowing throughout my childhood is what made me gravitate towards environmentalism. Just understanding the cause and effect of what we put out into this world, and what we get back. Once I had the words—when I started taking environmental science and policy classes—it just clicked. Hey, this is really cool. There is science behind this.
The people we’re reading about might just be statistics to others, but those are real communities, like my community back home.
The same year that I started studying environmental science, Michael Brown was killed in my hometown and the Black Lives Matter movement began. I started thinking, What are the intersections between people and planet, and who are the people being negatively impacted by the climate crisis? That made me really zero in on environmental justice.
People in different places use different words for things. When I was learning about environmental education in southern California, there were all these fancy words like “sustainability,” or “regeneration,” but when I’d go back to St. Louis, or think about my family and the cultural traditions that they passed down to me—they were sustainable, even though it wasn’t necessarily called “sustainability.”
My parents and my grandparents were definitely environmentalists in their own right because they did a lot of things out of necessity. They were thrifting, not because it was cool, but because that’s what we could afford. They were reusing plastic bags and trying to use Tupperware. But they would never call themselves environmentalists. I realized that there are so many Black and brown folks who are basically already doing this, but it just is not written in a fancy textbook.
So that’s where there was also a disconnect for me. My family is doing this stuff out of necessity, but then I’m paying all this money and taking on debt to learn about sustainability with all these fancy words. And I’m not seeing anyone who looks like me reflected in these textbooks or any of my classes. It felt like a world away.
My family was really involved with the Ferguson protests. It was hard for me to focus. So much so that I almost flunked out of college. I was seeing all of this data that said that people of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by almost all environmental injustices, whether it’s not having access to clean air or clean water, or being closer to toxic waste facilities, or whatever it might be. I just felt this sense of cynicism and disconnect because the people we’re reading about might just be statistics to others, but those are real communities, like my community back home.
I was taking it really personally. I kept seeing the same people—Black, indigenous, and other people of color—getting the negative end of the stick in everything from environmentalism to healthcare to the criminal justice system. Systemic inequality rears its ugly head in so many places. Social justice as a whole is just so big and overwhelming.
I’m probably doing too much. I need to figure out my schedule! I have my personal platform, which is @GreenGirlLeah, where I talk about joy, social justice, and the intersections between that and environmentalism, and just creating educational resources. I try to show people through this curated Instagram feed that sustainability doesn’t have to look a certain way. I do some brand consulting, and speaking engagements about the importance of increasing representation.
I also have an organization, Intersectional Environmentalist, that is committed to the same thing: dismantling systems of oppression in the environmental movement and beyond. We have something called the Accountability Program that we’re piloting with a couple of companies. It’s basically a training program about internal and external communications, and how companies can do a bit better. We’re reflecting on everything that is 2020, and how some businesses released tone-deaf statements, or didn’t really know how to get involved and communicate both internally and externally about social injustice. It’s been really interesting to try to develop metrics for accountability in how businesses can be better to both people and planet.
It’s new for companies to realize, “Oh, social justice doesn’t have to be separate from our environmentalism. If we’re a sustainable brand, that means we have to start thinking about the communities, and the neighborhoods that might be impacted by our manufacturing,” or things like that.
There isn’t always an environmental justice component to corporate sustainability. They might be looking at sustainable materials, but they’re not necessarily thinking about the “who.” It’s about not just incorporating recycled plastic into their supply chain, and instead saying, “If we’re sourcing this recycled fiber, what are we doing to help the communities that we’re sourcing it from? How are we addressing the environmental justice issues as well?”
People are finally saying, okay, recycling is cute, but how can we also care about people?
I’ve mostly been the youngest person on my team. I worked at Patagonia for three years. I started at 22, and everyone else on my team was either 35 or above 70. It was a really interesting dynamic. I learned a lot from some of the Patagonia OGs, but it didn’t really seem like diversity and inclusion was a really big part of their conversation on environmentalism.
I think there is a generational disconnect. The only people that I’ve had pushback from are mostly older environmentalists. For years, they’ve had people just be like, “Oh my god, you’re so amazing, thank you for caring for the trees.” Then all of a sudden they have someone come in and say, “Okay, but maybe you should care about Black people, too.” Then there’s this defensiveness. Like, “I’ve got to do all this? I thought having a Tesla was enough.” So there’s pushback there because people are finally saying, okay, recycling is cute, but how can we also care about people? It’s a change in definition.
I’m not saying that everyone needs to also be a racial justice advocate. But I am just asking people not to deny that this is a problem. It’s funny, I’ve talked to some environmental organizations and they’re like, “Do we not advocate for the polar bears now?” And I 100% am not saying that. Maybe have a couple of people of color, maybe just like two, in your organization, I don’t know. I’m not asking people to radically change, just to acknowledge the people doing work in the environmental justice space and consider it.
I don’t know if it’s just because Gen Z have grown up with so much, but they’ve adapted super easily. When I talk to Gen Z people, they’re like, “Hey, my pronouns are this, that, and the other.” They don’t make a big fuss about it. There are lots of conversations about identity and individuality. There are more and more interracial marriages and relationships. They’re growing up in a world where the climate crisis is incredibly apparent. Growing up, I didn’t know anything about climate change. I heard about Al Gore and his movie, but that was it. It wasn’t until later for me that the climate crisis became super apparent.
But Gen Z has grown up in a world of Greta, they grew up in a world with climate strikes at their schools. For them, the climate crisis is already here, so they get that sense of urgency. They’re also having these conversations about identity in a way that I didn’t have access to. So intersectional environmentalism just clicks.
I love this agency, Futerra. They have this study where they refer to Gen Z as the “honest generation.” The studies they’ve done show that they’re expecting brands to take a stance. If they don’t, they get mad at them. They prefer brands that have some element of a diversity initiative, or an environmental component.
Coming to it at an older age, and being in Southern California, I felt very privileged to be able to just casually enjoy cannabis as a Black woman.
I also have another project that I did just for funsies, to be completely honest: The Green Girls Co. But because I love social justice, it’s slowly becoming another activist thing. So it is becoming work. But I want to learn a lot more about restorative justice in the cannabis space. And expand that platform to be able to talk about those things, and also sell some cool products.
I was a later user. In high school—not at all. In college, not really. I was pretty judgmental about it. But about two years ago, when I was 23 or so, and it was legalized in California, I started using cannabis and realized how great it was. I don’t really drink a lot of alcohol and it was an alternative for me instead of a glass of wine at night.
Coming to it at an older age, and being in Southern California, I felt very privileged to be able to just casually enjoy cannabis as a Black woman. I couldn’t help but think about the war on drugs, and Ferguson again, about my hometown, and how people are literally in jail over a joint. It just felt wrong.
I was a resident advisor in college and I remember there was a student who was literally drug trafficking. I had never seen so many drugs in my life—and not just cannabis. And the cop who came was like, “Oh, yes, you’re on the football team.” And he’s just sitting there talking with this student. He’s not getting arrested. I’m like, what is going on?
It felt like, Okay, so drugs have been destigmatized for a lot of white people for a long time. Even in states where weed is illegal. It just felt really weird that cannabis wasn’t also destigmatized for people of color in the same way. So I was thinking, how can I use my platform as an “environmental person”—because I’m not, I guess, what some people might envision as the typical stoner—and use that to help destigmatize cannabis usage for the Black community as well. I was really frustrated by all the different articles that were coming out as though cannabis is some new thing for wealthy white people, while there are still people of color in prison.
It just felt really weird that cannabis wasn’t also destigmatized for people of color in the same way.
I just happened to be talking to this local ceramic business in Ventura, and they were hit really hard by COVID. They were making these pipes already. So we decided to team up on some exclusive colors and launch the Greens Girl Co. with those. Honestly, I just love the design.
I’ve been collecting modern smokeware lately and I think it helps the destigmatization of it. Even my mom was like, “Oh my god, these are so pretty. I want one. Can I put flowers in it?” That’s what I want, and why I think using design really helps destigmatize it. Hopefully I can partner with more companies that have really cool modern smokeware as well.
I’ll also be using that platform to advocate for cannabis equality. I’m currently developing the Cannabis Innovation Fund, which is basically a fancy way of saying every couple of months we’ll donate money to different cannabis reform organizations that are BIPOC-led. I’m still figuring it out. But it felt right, so I launched it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Leah Thomas photographed by Jasmine Durhal at her home in Los Angeles. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies. Subscribe to our newsletter here.