Illustration by Jesse Zhang
Temperature Check is a podcast at the intersection of climate and justice. Season Two features climate leaders and their mentors in a series of intimate, insightful conversations about what it takes to find purpose, passion, and even enjoyment in the fight for a better planet. Listen to all the episodes now, right here (or wherever you get your podcasts).
Jess Stahl: Welcome to Temperature Check, a podcast about climate, justice, and the people making a difference. I’m Jess Stahl, editor for creative storytelling at Fix. And this season of Temperature Check, we’re turning over the reins to climate and justice leaders to talk about mentorship. For each episode, we asked one changemaker to tell us who inspires them, who supports them, and then, we brought them together.
Valencia Gunder: Your job is to go out and teach people all these amazing things you know about building power.
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger: Our friendship has been forged in these fires of mobilization and movement spaces.
Teresa Baker: What you have given me in our friendship is the understanding that I don’t have to do it alone.
Leah Thomas: Yeah, when we do this together, we can get things done.
Jess Stahl: This conversation is with Leah Thomas and Teresa Baker. Leah is an environmental justice advocate and founder of Intersectional Environmentalist, a climate justice community. She’s also one of our 2021 Grist 50 Fixers. Leah chose to speak with her friend, mentor, and Intersectional Environmentalist council member Teresa Baker. Teresa works with outdoor brands to increase inclusion as a part of her Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge. Leah and Teresa are here to talk about their shared mission and how intersectionality is crucial to environmental justice work. And now, I’ll hand it over to them.
Teresa Baker: I started hearing things about this woman, Leah Thomas.
Leah Thomas: I remember hearing about Teresa Baker and everyone was like, “She’s just this badass woman, like, shaking up the environmental industry. Like, watch out.”
Teresa Baker: Leah is an amazing voice in this work.
Leah Thomas: And you’re such a calm, nice but assertive person.
Teresa Baker: Yeah, yeah.
Leah Thomas: You know, if you’re assertive, some people are going to consider you to be like —
Teresa Baker: A rabble-rouser.
Leah Thomas: Yeah. You’re a completely normal human being who just speaks your mind.
I’m Leah Thomas, I’m based in Santa Barbara, California, but I’m from St. Louis, Missouri, originally.
Teresa Baker: I am Teresa Baker calling in from the Bay Area, Ohlone territory.
Leah Thomas: I am a person that probably talks a bit too much about the environment and intersectional theory and climate justice. I founded the now nonprofit Intersectional Environmentalist in 2020 and I’m just really passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoors.
Teresa Baker: I don’t really label myself an environmentalist or a conservationist. I am just someone that cares about the outdoors and making sure people from underrepresented communities are seen.
Leah Thomas: What do you remember about how we met for the first time?
Teresa Baker: It was at Patagonia headquarters in Ventura.
Leah Thomas: Yep.
Teresa Baker: I just remember us being in a room, being around a group of people talking about how we can lend our voices to continue this work. You know, I speak to everyone where they are. I don’t expect people to have all the answers, because I certainly don’t. And I want to be able to hear from people and I heard from you, Leah. And I think that’s what kept my focus on who you were and what you were doing.
Leah Thomas: I remember having like this really serious meeting where we were just reflecting on outdoor equity together, but then how quickly we were able to switch to a time of community where we also just got to have fun and meet each other and have food, and I think that really showed me the importance of you know, doing the work, but also making time to just get to know each other and have genuine conversations and —
Teresa Baker: Yeah.
Leah Thomas: Yeah, it was really cool to, I think, humanize you as well, because I was just hearing all these, like, rumblings and things, and I didn’t really know what to expect.
Teresa Baker: Yeah, I often get that from people. They’re like, “You’re not as I assumed you would be.” And I don’t put on any airs about who I am. There are moments when I am completely frustrated and it will show in my demeanor, but for the majority, I’m trying to bring people in.
Leah Thomas: Yeah.
Teresa Baker: And I know that there’s a perception about Black women, so I just bring my authentic self and another person’s perception of who I am, I can’t control.
Leah Thomas: And I also feel really inspired by that. You may have picked up on this, but sometimes I can try to be a people pleaser. I want to make everybody happy. Having a social media platform, I want to seem happy and like I could say yes to everything, and I think I’ve learned a lot this past year about showing up authentically and saying no and not being afraid to advocate for yourself.
Teresa Baker: Right.
Leah Thomas That’s something I’ve learned along the way. It’s OK to be an unapologetically Black woman and it’s OK for a lot of my priorities to center around my Black identity. Lots of learning lessons there.
Teresa Baker: Yeah, we learn as we go.
Leah Thomas: Also, I guess entering the outdoor space, there are a lot of existing relationships that I was not privy to. Like people in the outdoor space who had known each other for a long time, who may have had completely different theories of change from each other and it felt like I was walking into a lot of difficult relationships. And, I think Teresa provided a lot of wisdom on how to respect the ways that people show up in this space and that it’s OK, you don’t have to be, like, besties with everyone, but you can also respect the work that people are doing. And I think that helped sustain me because I can create the appropriate boundaries and stay focused on the work. It’s so easy, especially with social media, to get distracted from the work by getting caught up in people politics and things like that. So, I’ve learned this year to navigate those situations a little differently and ask myself the question, “Is this about the work? Is it not?” OK, it’s time for me to go. It’s not about the work.
Teresa Baker: So Leah, let’s talk about social media. How do you use Instagram as a tool in your environmental work?
Leah Thomas: So, I have my personal platform which started six years ago, which is @greengirlleah.
Teresa Baker: Yeah.
Leah Thomas: That’s all about sustainable living, everything from sustainable skincare, to activism and advocacy. And I actually created my Instagram as I was preparing to graduate college. And I knew I wanted to be a writer, I knew I wanted to work in communications, and I wanted to have kind of a digital portfolio outside of my resume that I could point people to. And if I was able to build an audience on Instagram, maybe the companies I wanted to work with could say, “Oh OK, if she knows how to market the writing she’s doing or the causes she cares about, maybe she’d be a good asset to the team.” And that actually ended up working out along the way. I would always show people @greengirlleah, things that I was testing out on the platform for various positions, but I think my most proud social media moment is the @intersectionalenvironmentalist platform, IE. And I just love using it because it’s a really accessible way to share opportunities, jobs, data.
Teresa Baker: Nice.
Leah Thomas: I honestly wish people knew all the people who are a part of it and that’s something that we need to do if researchers who are compiling information —
Teresa Baker: Yeah.
Leah Thomas: — synthesizing climate data, creating art about outdoor equity.
Teresa Baker: There’s a guy that I work with, Chris Perkins, and if not for Chris, I wouldn’t be able to do this work. Chris does a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff. He doesn’t want to be in front of the camera. We do this work as a community.
Leah Thomas: Teresa, how do you use social media? Sometimes I see memes every now and again, little funny things, and then I see serious things and thought-provoking things as well.
Teresa Baker: Yeah, for me social media is simply a tool. I use it to get the message out about who we are, the work we’re doing. But I also try to keep it fun, because there’s so much heaviness around us right now as a society. It’s great to be able to put a meme out there every now and again and to make sure I’m remembering to laugh, because once we get stuck in our minds on how heavy life is, we are really stuck. And, I want to always bring laughter to this work, because it’s difficult. And I want to find ways to continue to get this message out and to make them smile and laugh at the same time and understand that we must do this work as a collective. It’s not one over the other. It’s not competition over community. It’s community over competition. And that’s the message I want to get across.
Leah Thomas: How does our relationship, or the relationships with other people in this space, sustain you?
Teresa Baker: So, for me it’s just reaching out to individuals saying, “Hey, if you feel like throwing darts at someone, if you feel like cussing somebody out, I’m here. Let’s talk.” I don’t want people to feel the pressure of needing to have all the answers, because we don’t. We’re still learning. And anyone that comes to this work or any work and says they have all the answers, run the hell away from them, because that’s not how this works. Every day things are changing. So, I want to make sure people are keeping an open mind in this work and not feeling like they have to do it by themselves, so hopefully, Leah and others feel that way.
And I know, being Leah Thomas, that you have a million people coming at you on the daily. And it could be amazing opportunities. And I know it’s like, “Oh, this is a company I’ve always wanted to work with. Oh, I can’t say no.” So, how do you say no when you want to say yes?
Leah Thomas: Yeah, and this is also another thing I’ve been thinking of. A lot of people of color who are online creators, when they think about partnerships, it’s almost like, “Yes, yes, yes. Because, I don’t come from generational wealth, I want to make sure my family’s OK, I want to make sure my community is OK” And I’ve heard so many people that are BIPOC creators in this space express similar sentiment, but then it just causes so much anxiety and exhaustion and I’ve definitely felt that over the course of the last year, because I was like, “Oh my God, I have an opportunity to write a book. Let me just stay up until 3 a.m.,” and then it’s like, “OK, maybe I could also lead this organization,” and then I’m also accountable to all these different teams. But lately, I am really trying to take time to rest.
Teresa Baker: We have to understand that, you know, in order to be anywhere in our authentic selves, rest needs to be a priority. So, at some point, we have to learn to say no and make sure that we’re spending time with friends and families in these outdoor spaces that we’re working so hard to protect.
Leah Thomas: Yeah. And I’m looking forward to the projects that may flourish that will allow us to find community with each other and the outdoors and have that restful, peaceful time together. Are you sharing much about projects that you’re working on publicly yet or?
Teresa Baker: Yeah, I’m working on a project. It doesn’t really have a name yet, but the name we’re currently using is the Redwood Grove Retreat Project. And the concept came to mind when, you know, I would reach out to these organizations that are formed and have a platform already and I would say, “Hey, can you give me your space for a weekend so that I can bring a group of people together to talk about environmental protection, to talk about how we, as a collective, what we can do?” I was just asking for a space to gather and it was always something attached to that ask from their side. It was, “Oh, well, it’s only this day of the week,” or “It’s only this time.” “You can only bring this many people.” So I was like, “I have to find a way to fix this.” So I reached out to California State Parks and I asked, “Hey, I have this concept, this idea, will you give me some land to make it happen?” And California State Parks said yes. It’s at the very early stages, but it’ll be a place where we can come, where we can gather to rest, to talk about this work, to do this work and to be engaged in the spaces that we’re trying to protect. Hopefully, you know, within the next year or two, things will be up and running.
Leah Thomas: Yeah, I just think it’s so cool. Sorry if I had a little spoiler in there, but I’m really excited for this project. It’s so great getting phone calls from people I’ve met in the IE network, like, “I have this idea, there’s this thing I want to do,” and like, “OK, let’s bring it together.”
Teresa Baker: That’s how we make things happen is by having these ideas and reaching out to people to help us make them happen because again, we alone can’t do all this work. But as a collective, we can.
So Leah, what does intersectional environmentalism mean to you?
Leah Thomas: Intersectional environmentalism, to me, is a way of practicing environmentalism that can help lead to environmental justice, outdoor equity and things like that. It’s not a replacement term to environmental justice or climate justice or all these incredible terms that have been out there for a long time. But, I like to think of it similarly to intersectional feminism versus feminism, and how practicing intersectional feminism is inclusive of the experiences of trans women and Black women, other women of color, LGBTQ+ women, et cetera, and considering their overlapping identities and how it might contribute to a certain outcome. Because I remember when I was in feminist spaces that weren’t intersectional, and we’d talk about the women’s pay gap, but then I’d bring up what Indigenous women make, what Black women make, what Latinx women make, on top of that. I remember being in college in Orange County, like — “But we’re all women.” But when you don’t consider the nuances, it can actually be really harmful. So that’s why I wanted to apply intersectional theory to environmentalism because it’s important to consider those nuances of who is experiencing environmental injustice the most. Because if you ignore it, then how can you address the urgency of the inequity that’s present? You have to consider things like identity and race and socioeconomic status and on and on and on, because they are the largest determinants of whether or not someone lives with environmental injustices.
Teresa Baker: Yeah.
Leah Thomas: But, what does it mean to you, Teresa?
Teresa Baker: You know, to be honest, I never thought about intersectional environmentalism prior to you using it. I just understood that there were so many levels that needed to be included in this work and I don’t think I looked at it or defined it by it being intersectional, although I understood they were all interconnecting. And I think that’s how we are as a society. We’re so siloed in the work we do that we forget at times to look outside our own box to bring people in or along with us.
Leah Thomas: So what would you say to someone who decenters intersectionality or equity and inclusion and sees it as an add-on to environmental work? I’m kind of seeing a scenario in my head of, like, a conservation organization that’s, like, all white-led, and then someone’s like, “Care about Black people too.” And they’re like, “This has nothing to do with our work.”
Teresa Baker: Yeah. I would say look at the racial demographic shift that’s taking place in this country right now. If we are not including people from underrepresented communities, specifically communities of color, we are going to continue to fall further and further behind on this work. We’ve always been here doing this work. When you look at Indigenous communities, they are of the land. When you look at Latinx community, they are of the land, and certainly the African American community. We’ve always been a part of this work. So, my ask — and right now we should all be asking — is that we build a longer table so that we have different voices included.
Leah Thomas: It blows my mind, because in the science and conservation and ecology space, there’s so much talk about biodiversity and how to have thriving, diverse ecosystems, and then to have people who are talking about biodiversity not realize that Indigenous populations are protecting over 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, so they play a very important role in the work that they’re trying to advance. And it would be so silly to separate it, because wouldn’t you want to go to the people who are historically and culturally protecting the biodiversity they claim to care about?
Teresa Baker: Right.
Leah Thomas: And also humans are animals. I know we’re really separated from that, but I think it’s funny when people say, like, “Protect the animals.” Well, let me talk in their language. People are animals as well, and there are people who are endangered, and it’s important to care about in the context of any environmental work. I don’t know, I could go on and on and on, but to try to separate people from nature in any way, shape or form is just so silly.
Teresa Baker: Yeah. That’s why we are in the mess we’re in now, is because we try to separate it. And right now, we’re not fighting it as a whole. We’re siloing the work. It’s not just up to you, Leah. It’s not just up to me. It’s not just up to all these affinity groups that have formed daily to do this work. It’s about bringing in people like Al Gore to have these conversations with us. It’s about bringing in people who have a voice and say, “Hey, we’re here. Work with us so that people can see you care, not just about the environment, but making sure that people from underrepresented communities are part of that.” So we need these huge organizations and companies to stand with us so that we can accomplish something that’s for the betterment of humanity ongoing.
Leah Thomas: I definitely feel like I’m spending a lot less time trying to convince certain people, I guess. Even last year, a couple of years ago, I was, like, begging people to see the humanity of Black people. I’m like, “You know, that’s exhausting.”
Teresa Baker: Yeah.
Leah Thomas: I don’t know, I feel like that’s something I’m working on: trying to suss out whether or not it’s worth engaging and having that learning moment or if my time could be better spent elsewhere. And that’s why I think the work that you do is really important because you are reaching out to so many different people and encouraging them to grow and I feel like that’s such a central role in every movement — the people who can, reach out and spend that energy. How do you personally determine whether or not you want to spend more emotional labor on convincing someone about the importance of outdoor equity and inclusion?
Teresa Baker: I think I’m at the point, Leah, where I’m going to speak truth to power. Period. I’m going to talk about how companies and big orgs who have no people of color on their boards are really making this work of environmental protection more difficult. I’m not at the point where I’m trying to convince people. And I want to speak to people, I want to speak to the compassion and the humanity in people, that if you care about this planet, you’ve got to change the way things have always been done. I want to continue to speak to these affinity groups that form every day, making them aware that it can’t just be about getting people outdoors. It also has to be about protecting these spaces we like to get out into.
Miss Leah Thomas, what does mentorship mean to you?
Leah Thomas: Hmm, mentorship means looking at someone and kind of seeing their unique skills that they might have, that maybe they don’t know or maybe they lack confidence in those areas, and helping to nourish that and provide any recommendations so they can go off and flourish. I also think mentorship has a lot to do with affirmation as well, because I’ve also had people who have, like, wanted to be a mentor and it wasn’t a great situation. Like, you know when you meet someone you really look up to you — this hasn’t happened a lot or recently — and then they’re just like, mean and soul crushing and you’re like, “Wow, okay, there’s mean people.” But, I think the best mentors I’ve had are people who, regardless of their status, kind of see something in you.
Teresa Baker: Right.
Leah Thomas: I wrote a piece with Rachel Cargle, who is a really cool social justice educator, and throughout the interview, she just kept saying, “I like the way that you phrased this. I love the way that you worded this,” and just the affirmation from someone that I looked up to made me feel capable.
Teresa Baker: For me, it’s being able to inspire people. Just having a conversation with someone. I remember reaching out to people when I first started doing this work to share with them what I wanted to do and to have them give me some feedback. And not a lot of people were open to that. And that’s where I finally started to realize that people are putting competition over community. That sucks, because you never know the amazing mind that you may influence, and they can go on to do amazing work because of that one conversation they had with you. There are people that I look to, who are no longer here, and they are an inspiration just because of what they left for me to read over or to look at and, like, take on a different perspective than mine. So it’s about inspiring people and being open. When college students reach out, I always say yes, because that’s where change is going to happen, and be the type of person for others that I wish others would be for me.
I’ve learned to be more gentle. You have such a gentle approach and my approach hasn’t always been polite or gentle, you know, because there was a time when I just thought someone said “no,” they don’t like me. Or someone said “no,” they’re not trying to hear me. But what I’ve learned from you is that that’s not always the case. That I can step back, take a moment, and then step back in and do the work or deal with whatever the issue is I was faced with, so you’ve taught me to be gentle, and I appreciate that, because sometimes I’m like, “Why is Leah not screaming? Why is she just not cussing everybody out?”
Leah Thomas: It’s on the inside, Teresa. It’s on the inside, deep, deep in there.
Teresa Baker: And that’s what I’ve learned. I’ve learned to breathe and step back and take the Leah approach.
Leah Thomas: Because my thing is like, people are not about to steal my joy at the end of the day. And they have no right to steal any of your joy, so yeah. And I feel like I do see you as a gentle person, but also assertive in a good way. I feel like I’ve learned to be a bit more assertive from you. And it doesn’t have to be mean.
Teresa Baker: Yeah, yeah.
Leah Thomas: But you also don’t have to tolerate —
Teresa Baker: B.S.
Leah Thomas: Yep.
Teresa Baker: Yeah. And it’s a fine line at times, because you know how social media is ready to jump on you at anything you do. Social media is right there to remind you, we can come after you for any reason, big or small. So, I used to think about that all the time and now I’m like, “No. I’m not worried about that.” You know, I think I take the Zora Neale Hurston approach in that. Say what you will, I’m still going to get my work done.
Leah Thomas: Ooh. [Snaps]
Teresa Baker: And that, that is my approach to this work right now.
Leah Thomas: I love that. Say what you will, but I’m going to get my work done.
Teresa Baker: Right. That’s it. That’s it. I’ve talked a little bit about what I’ve learned from you. What have you learned? Hopefully, you’ve learned something.
Leah Thomas: I’ve learned a lot. I like the way that you’ve been able to build relationships with companies like Patagonia and use those different opportunities to build longer relationships. That’s made me think about consulting a little bit differently. The importance of relationship building, the importance of accountability, and understanding that accountability for a lot of companies and organizations is a journey.
Teresa Baker: Right.
Leah Thomas: You know, and maybe there can be redemption arcs for companies and organizations as well. So I’ve gotten a little bit more compassionate when it comes to orgs that have room to grow.
Teresa Baker: You know, when I first started doing this work, I was like, “I’m going to do it for a year and I’m going to change everything.” And then year one came and I was like, ‘Damn, I don’t see any change.” And then year two I was like, “I still don’t see change.” So I think I’ve learned through building these relationships that change can come slowly. You know, the outdoor industry is a multibillion-dollar industry, and to think that you can change it overnight, it blows my mind when I look back and think that’s what I thought, that I could change it in a year. It’s not that way.
What’s the future vision you have for us?
Leah Thomas: Hmm. I think seeing just the offshoots of projects and things that are happening and grassroots movements that are happening. Like just seeing the ripple effect of the learning lessons along the way — there are many — but, meeting all 20-something people that were part of the IE Council and then seeing them make friends with each other that they didn’t know and start their own projects together and grow their own organizations. Like, for example, Anushka, the youngest member of the IE Council, she’s in college, and then she started an intersectional health organization and is trying to advocate for intersectional health care, which is just so cool. I just want to see all those offshoots of ideas just grow and grow and spread in their own niches.
Teresa Baker: I want to continue to watch you grow Leah. And the guts that it took for you to step outside your comfort zone and do what you’re doing with IE, that’s inspiring. Five years ago, you didn’t have a vision for this. Three years ago, this came into being. And then look where you all are now. What you have given me in our friendship is the understanding that I don’t have to do it alone. I can step aside and let these younger voices step in. And for me, that’s what it’s about, because I’m at the stage where I’m about building legacy. You know, like, I look towards people who have gone before me. People like Audrey and Frank Peterman. People like Harriet Tubman and what she has given us in how she navigated the land during her time. And for me it’s like, how do I now navigate this work? And what you have done, Leah, is shown me that there’s other ways of doing this. I don’t have to always be the one that takes on an interview. I can bring up your name in an interview and be like, “Hey, here’s someone else that you should check out.’”That’s how we make progress, because it’s a list of 10 people that people are always reaching out to for interviews or to sit on a panel when this work is so much bigger than those 10 people. I can now point to you and be like, “Reach out to Leah. She has her own crew.” So it’s about the opportunity to have yet another voice to call on when people call on me. So thank you for that.
Leah Thomas: I don’t want to get emotional, but I don’t know, that reminded me of the process of working on the book that I’m writing and it’s funny, I remember somebody slid into my DMs being a hater and was like, “How did you get this together in a year and a half?” and I wanted to say, like, “Well, my name might be on the title, like this isn’t just me, this is a labor of love from over 20 people who contributed to this,” and that yeah, when we do this together and we bring our unique perspectives and we let each other shine in our own unique ways, we can get things done. And sometimes we can get things done much faster if we unite. So yeah, that’s been a really big learning lesson about coalition-building and understanding that we need community to do this work.
Teresa Baker: I agree. I agree.
Leah Thomas: Thank you, Teresa, for this lovely conversation. It was really insightful and thank you for your mentorship and friendship and I can’t wait to see the kickass things that you continue to do.
Teresa Baker: Thank you for mentioning to this crew that I was someone you would be interested in doing this with, I appreciate it. I just look forward to watching you grow in your authentic self.
Jess Stahl: Thank you so much for listening and thanks to Leah Thomas and Teresa Baker for sharing your time with us. This episode is one of six conversations we’ll be sharing this month as a part of our mentorship issue, which is more than just a podcast season, by the way. You can read more about mentorship at grist.org/fix, where we’re exploring the power of mentorship in climate work and how mentorship must change to make the space more inclusive and accessible. That’s at grist.org/fix.
Temperature Check is a podcast from Fix, Grist’s Solutions Lab, produced in association with Reasonable Volume. I’m Jess Stahl, Fix’s editor for creative storytelling. Fix’s Claire Thompson, Camille Williams and Josh Kimelman all contributed to this podcast with additional contributions from Fix Managing Editor Jaime Buerger and Designer Mia Torres. This podcast is produced by Audrey Ngo with Associate Producer Dominique French and editing by Elise Hu and Rachel Swaby. Sound engineering is by Mark Bush.
If you’d like to support what we do, you can rate, review and tell all your friends to follow Temperature Check and you can listen to all of our other conversations on mentorship right now, in this podcast feed. See you there.