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Why Intersectional Environmentalism Matters To All

We can't talk about eco-friendly and sustainable living without understanding how environmentalism as we know it has not been accessible to all in the past, and still isn't today. Intersectional environmentalism puts environmentalism and social justice squarely together, and here's why it's important to everyone.

Written by
Brightly Staff

We can't talk about eco-friendly and sustainable living without understanding how environmentalism as we know it has not been accessible to all in the past, and still isn't today. The term “Intersectional Environmentalism” was first coined by Leah Thomas, a Black environmental activist. She defines environmental justice as “the intersection of both social justice and environmentalism, where the inequity in environmental degradation is also considered.” 

In an episode of the Good Together podcast, Brightly co-founders Laura Wittig and Liza Moiseeva sat down with Carolyn Finney, the author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. In addition to her lifelong work as a storyteller and cultural geographer, Carolyn has served on the U.S. National Parks Advisory Board for eight years. The Good Together podcast co-hosts had the pleasure of speaking with her about how the environmentalist and social justice movements intersect, and what listeners can do to make the outdoors more accessible to BIPOC.

Carolyn’s Story

Carolyn grew up on a private estate in upstate New York, where her parents were the caretakers. The owners of the property were only there on holidays and weekends. This meant that Carolyn and her two brothers essentially lived at a 12-acre park, surrounded by nature. 

In this wealthy, predominantly white neighborhood, Carolyn was stopped by a police officer at 9 years old and asked where she was going. When she gave her address, the officer asked if she worked there.

Carolyn’s parents moved off of the property when the owners passed away. Her father, in particular, became depressed and talked about missing the land often. A few years later, her parents received a copy of a letter addressed to the new owner thanking him for his conservation of the land. Her parents’ work in preserving and caring for the property was erased from its history. 

As an adult, Carolyn traveled to countries like Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Thailand, India, Turkey, and Egypt. She spent a year and a half living in Nepal and trekking through the Himalayas. She hardly ever saw other Black travelers, and when she encountered people from the United States, they never identified her as a fellow American. 

She equates this to the same line of thinking as the policeman from her childhood. People saw her doing the same thing that they were doing—walking home, backpacking—and became suspicious that she didn’t belong.

Being Black in the Great Outdoors

From their initial conception to the present day, accessing national parks and other outdoor spaces has always been more difficult for Black people and BIPOC in general. The conservation movement was initially led by eugenicists and racists. Among them were John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, and President Roosevelt, who is considered the father of our national parks system. 

“[John Muir] was an incredibly thoughtful and passionate man, about non-human nature. He was also a racist. I’m not being dramatic. All you have to do is read, in his words, what he said about Black and Native people. That’s how complicated we are as people...those two things can exist simultaneously,” says Carolyn. 

Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as a way for young men to work and for national lands to be well-cared for during the Great Depression. However, Jim Crow segregation laws meant that Black men and other POC in the CCC were met with “Whites Only” signs at stores and other establishments on their days off.

More recently, the issue of Black access to the outdoors was played out on the national stage when a woman in Central Park called the cops on a Black birder. He asked her to leash her dog in a leash-required area. She refused and then called 911, saying, “An African American man is threatening my life.” 

These are just a few examples of how Black and BIPOC access to the outdoors has been—and continues to be—gate-kept.

A Definition Of Intersectional Environmentalism

As BIPOC and low-income communities have less access to clean air, water, and nature in general, Carolyn believes it is important to ask what exactly we are trying to sustain when we talk about sustainability. She says, 

“the focus is often on the river, that piece of land, the mountain, you know, the woods, we’re going to focus on that to sustain that. Let’s just work together and do that... what is the relationship we have with each other? What are we? How are we going to do that work of protecting the river and somehow thinking that if we focus on the river, we don’t have to deal with the tensions that exist between us across our own differences?...The intention has to be about relationships across the board.”

As environmental organizations try to diversify, they often invite a BIPOC to have a “seat at the table.” The burden of integrating into the organization is often left to the BIPOC, and there’s little to no reciprocity in terms of amplifying the new member’s voice. 

Some people suggest throwing out the “table” altogether. Carolyn says, “It’s not saying that the table doesn’t have didn’t have things that we can use, but there’s a lot of things that are problematic about the way it has been constructed. And so it is not about throwing it all away, but throwing some of it away, so we can make space for something new and different...So we can allow new voices, new ideas, [and] new experiences.”

What We Can Do

So what can people do to embrace those new voices, ideas, and experiences? 

Carolyn recommends starting with self-education. Seek out Black creators’ work, including books, music, and movies, specifically about racism. 

Building relationships is also crucial. If you’re in a leadership position at work, hire Black people. If you see or hear a racist interaction, whether at work, school, or just out in your community, say something. Incremental change, such as questioning personal beliefs, self-educating, and speaking out, adds up and makes larger-scale change possible. 

Resources We Mentioned