TikTok users with any interest in a greener lifestyle know of St. Louis native Leah Thomas — or “Green Girl Leah” — for her sweeping hot takes on environmentalism.
Thomas joined Fashion Institute of Technology math and science professor Dr. Karen Pearson in a session Wednesday at the college’s annual sustainability conference.
Discussing her pathway into environmental policy and science, Thomas said the subject matter “stole my heart.” But it was really the quake in Thomas’ hometown of St. Louis, where the Ferguson protests catalyzed the Black Lives Matter movement — that solidified her social justice bend.
“As I was studying environmental science, I started to discover some solutions there [that] I didn’t know existed initially but maybe I could help in the world of social justice by ensuring that everyone had their basic environmental human rights, so access to clean air, clean water, etc. To me, I was, like, ‘Maybe this is one solution that’s not being explored enough that could also help with social justice and improve people’s livelihoods.’ So, it was a kind of roundabout way of always loving science and then being really passionate about social justice, especially after it impacted my hometown,” Thomas shared.
This year, Thomas wrote a book, “The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet” named for the community she cofounded in 2020 for intersectional environmental advocacy. In the time leading up, she has appeared in a host of fashion campaigns, the latest one debuting this week with Pinterest. In hopes of tackling climate misinformation policy, Thomas lent her voice — and tips — for the campaign titled, “Inspire a Better Future,” which guides Pinterest creators to make more sustainable choices.
The book acts as a “primer” on all things environmental justice, according to Thomas, and is meant to displace the education she had as a first-year environmental science student at Chapman University in California. There, she writes about the earth’s “unsung heroes,” like Dr. Robert Bullard, a pivotal researcher behind the first lawsuit (Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp., in which his wife argued the case) to challenge environmental racism using civil rights law. The case — and legal theory behind Bean — was that placing landfills, incinerators, garbage dumps in Black communities was a form of discrimination that denied Black communities equal protection under the law.
Hazel M. Johnson — an environmental activist in Chicago — also earns praise from Thomas.
Post-grad, Thomas went on to work at Patagonia’s headquarters as a communications assistant, but left the brand to branch out and evolve her own platforms. Since then, The Intersectional Environmentalist gained steam amid TikTok’s “EcoTok” and “ClimateTok” community verticals and culled nearly half a million Instagram followers.
On her book, Thomas said it’s about reframing social justice — and the varying intersections of one’s identity — within the mainstream environmentalist movement. “I just wanted to include as much introductory information as I could that was rooted in diversity, equity and inclusion and environmentalism at the same time for anyone who is just starting their environmental journey, whether they’re a traditional environmental student or in high school, or college or grad school — or someone who’s new to the world of environmentalism. I just really hope people take a glance at this as a primer to start their journey. There’s so many resources about organizations they can stay in touch with or other books that they can read.”
Thomas hopes readers of her book and followers of The Intersectional Environmentalist platform have this final takeaway: “You never have to separate parts of your identity from your advocacy for the planet. That’s something I felt very deeply whether it’s being a feminist or very proudly embracing my Black identity and culture and advocacy for my people. I’ve been in a lot of different spaces, and I’m glad that I got to test out a lot of things in college and early on in my career whether it’s working my dream job at Patagonia headquarters or as a park ranger intern or in an environmental science lab.
“I think that my culture and our cultures flow through our environmental practices whether we know it or not,” she added. “I just want students to take up space and come to the environmental movement as they are.”