To celebrate the arrival of Grist 50 2021, our sixth annual list of emerging climate and justice leaders, Fix is hosting a series of Instagram Live conversations between new Fixers and the past Fixers who nominated them. (Cute, right?) Starting off with a bang, this week we turned our IG over to José González, an inaugural 2016 Fixer and founder of Latino Outdoors, and Leah Thomas, a 2021 Fixer who was part of the crew that launched @intersectionalenvironmentalist last summer.
González asked Thomas about her work on intersectional environmentalism, how social media can be an effective engagement tool, and why joy is a form of liberation. Though the whole conversation is well worth a watch, we’ve rounded up a few highlights for you to check out. (And be sure to tune in next Tuesday for what promises to be a great convo between Lyla June and Josué Rivas!)
The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
What is ‘intersectional environmentalism’ anyway?
Thomas: The work that I do really pulls from intersectional theory, which was created by Kimberlé Crenshaw. That’s been very crucial and central to the feminism that I practice. I felt like I and so many of my peers were incorporating intersectionality into our climate justice practice already. I started to put those two words together more often in conversation and found that many of my friends were doing that, too.
I wanted to dedicate my life to studying and pursuing intersectional approaches to environmentalism that consider how the degradation of people and the planet are interconnected.
González: Like you mentioned, intersectional theory isn’t new — it emerged several decades ago and has been part of the work, along with the frame of environmental justice. How is it that more people are able to connect with intersectional theory at this moment?
Thomas: 2020 was the most intersectional year of my life. We started talking about intersectional environmentalism at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer. Though we may be able to trace this grassroots explosion back to a couple of posts, it’s really the people that were spreading this message on their own.
I think that happened because a lot of things made sense all at once. We can look at similarities between the degradation of the environment and the mistreatment of Black and brown people globally. We can look at the intersections between the healthcare system, which is failing a lot of Americans, and the way we treat the environment. Intersectional theory had this explosion. It’s especially coming from a lot of people of color, people in the LGBTQ+ community, that realize they shouldn’t have to separate their identity from the work that they’re so passionate about.
That’s the most beautiful thing about this term taking off: There are so many people who are saying, “I’m allowed to take up space. I’m going to create my own communities. I’m going to advocate for my existence.” It’s really empowering.
Joy as a form of liberation
González: I have a really hard question for you. I’ve often thought about what it means to practice liberated joy. Joy can be such a strong component of this work, which can be so draining considering the emotional labor that goes into it. How does joy factor into your climate and justice work? What does it mean to practice liberated joy?
Thomas: Joy is one of the most liberating things for me, and a way to “stick it to the man” — because I feel like we live in a society that doesn’t want to promote Black joy. Sometimes, activist communities promote this exhaustive culture of martyring yourself for a cause and not allowing yourself to experience joy. You need to always be on. It’s really cool that there are a lot of activists or organizers who are reclaiming their joy and saying, “I don’t have to exhaust myself for the cause — I actually need to nourish myself for the cause, because I can give back to what I’m passionate about if I’m able to take that time for myself.”
I want the next generation of activists and organizers to know that it’s important to take time for yourself. To answer your question more directly, how do I find joy? I try to rest, just take time to go to sleep, nourish myself. I feel the most joyful when I’m napping and waking up from a nap.
González: I love that. It reminds me of when I was back in high school, my friend and I developed this “nap theory” to be able to say, “Do I need a snack? Do I need a nap?” And then be able to account for that, because sometimes that’s exactly what the need might be.
Thomas: What makes you joyful?
González: There’ve been moments where I’ve questioned whether I’m in a space of joy. I recently received an email from a housemate from graduate school. They reminded me of how I used to ask them, when we made group dinners: “Are you cooking with joy? Or are you cooking with stress?” I had forgotten about that, but it reflected directly back to me now to be able to say, “What am I doing right now? What am I working on that I haven’t asked myself that question — am I doing this with joy? Am I doing it with stress? And how can that affect the outcome?”
I derive joy from watching squirrels and crows. Crows can be incredibly playful. That helps me get out of the human experience, then also lets me reflect and be grateful for it.
Social media as a tool for the movement
González: So, here we are on Instagram. And Instagram has its own impact, value, and ability, which I think you’ve leveraged incredibly well. What has social media meant to you as an engagement tool?
Thomas: It’s important to provide accessible education to everyone. For me, social media has been one tool to do that through Intersectional Environmentalist. There are people who are coming for knowledge, and it’s a community-based platform. There are so many community members that are trying to disrupt the current educational system and provide resources in a way that is accessible and nonjudgmental.
It’s also important for people to understand accessibility concerns. There are some people who may have an invisible or a visible disability, who don’t like language that says you have to show up at a protest to be an activist or that you have to practice your activism in a way that looks like me. For those who might have social anxiety or disabilities, online activism may be their only way of contributing.
González: What are you working on at the moment?
Thomas: Intersectional Environmentalist is having our first virtual summit — it hasn’t been announced yet, but it’s going to happen in April. We’re brainstorming, especially because our nonprofit arm is launching over the summer, how we can bring more open education to the people. In addition to that, I’m working on a book, which has been the most exhausting, but joyful, thing in my life so far. I’m really excited for that to come out next month. It’s going to be a year until it comes out, but in the meantime, you can follow us at @intersectionalenvironmentalist on Instagram.