The Intersection Between Environmentalism, Racism, and Privilege
A Program at Town Hall Seattle on May 10, 2022
Reflections by The Rev. Edie Weller
Leah Thomas, author of The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People and Planet (2022), recently spoke with Hannah Wilson, Farm Manager at Yes Farm, leader of the Black Famers Collective and co-chair of the Environmental Justice Commission of the City of Seattle, as part of a program offered by Town Hall Seattle. Their conversation focused on Thomas’ work in the field of environmental justice with direct focus on intersectionality—how to understand and give voice to environmental issues and actions through multiple perspectives of race, gender, physical and cognitive ability, age and other factors. A video of their conversation is available here.
Thomas described her motivation to enter into environmental advocacy because she realized she saw little evidence of contributions to environmental science and sustainability by Black scholars and professionals. This was especially so during the crucial time of protests related to both racial justice and climate change in recent years.
Here are some observations and recommendations from Thomas’ conversation with Wilson:
Environmental science curricula in both predominantly Black and white academic programs need to be more inclusive and deepen their focus on intersectionality around topics of racial & social justice, environmental racism, and climate justice.
Access to environmental education at all levels should be a priority. Social media has a role to play in expanding access to multiple levels/cohorts of people (though this is not necessarily the primary teaching platform).
Thomas advocates for increasing staff diversity (in terms of race and other dimensions) across every level of environmental organization, including academic programs. It’s not enough to have an officer for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. More opportunity needs to be given for BIPOC and other non-dominant voices to contribute to analysis, goal setting, community interactions, and overall action.
More established, white-led environmental organizations need to examine and confront their legacy of not hiring diverse staffs.
Thomas identified the need to broaden the funding of smaller environmental organizations (majority are non-profits), particularly those led by BIPOC staffs. She noted that 8 of the largest and best-known environmental organizations receive about 70% of grants and other funding, while Black-led organizations receive less than 2%. This distribution needs to shift to build capacity for action over a broader base.
Thomas and Wilson both advise getting to know local climate and environmental justice organizations and coalitions, as well as the issues most salient to that community or region. This will increase the capacity for advocacy as well as deepen relationships and coalition-building.
Thomas and Wilson both see a connection to disability justice, especially the need to include voices and ideas from those with ability issues who might not have an easy time physically participating in meetings or actions.
Both speakers were very clear that many serious environmental issues face BIPOC and other marginalized communities right now—action is needed to help people live healthy, productive lives now, not only in future (white) generations. The complexity of climate change and its impacts—and other environmental challenges—calls for an intersectional perspective and participation NOW!
White allies need to be aware and intentional in working with diverse communities:
- Be aware of bringing a “white savior” attitude (that whites need to help/lead others in defining the critical areas of focus and action)
- Recognize that there is always more to learn: be open to what BIPOC and others have to contribute from their own experience and priorities. Do not attempt to speak for communities that you aren’t actually a part of.
- LISTEN to others and respect their right to give input into issues of deepest concern to them.
Black Nature – A poetry anthology of the Black community’s experiences in nature across the last century
Generation Green – Environmental Liberation, for and by Black people
The Intersectional Environmentalist Platform – resources to accompany Thomas’ book
A Complete video of this program – from Town Hall Seattle