by Joanne Xu
If this year has taught us anything about silver linings, it’s that they always come when least expected and never show up without strings attached. Such was the exact case for Leah Thomas and Diandra Marizet, two environmentally conscious influencer-activist hybrids who, amidst the May lockdowns, social justice protests, and rising unemployment rates, found themselves called to create the now-social platform Intersectional Environmentalist.
Intersectional Environmentalism, according to the four-slide, Canvas graphic that Thomas made viral, is “an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet.” It understands that both must be mutually inclusive. The planet is not protected if all its inhabitants are not; the people are not protected if the planet they inhabit is not.
On its own, this idea has quietly existed in certain corners of the activist community for a long while. But with Thomas and Marizet’s help, and two very important capital letters, a theoretical idea has made way for a very visible, very national movement. With over 165,000 followers, and more eye-soothing infographics and reshareable TikToks than an environmental neophyte could ever ask for, IE is shaping up to be a quintessential example of Instagram activism gone right.
A few months into their newfound notability, the two co-founders open up about reclaiming space, the startup life, and doing what you already do to save the planet.
On Forming Intersectional Environmentalist
The Recreationalist: It’s been a whirlwind few months! How are you both handling it?
Leah Thomas: It’s been interesting. This is hard work. From the outside looking in, people forget that it’s only been three months of my life where I’ve gone from being unemployed to the spokesperson for intersectional environmentalism.
Diandra Marizet: Same. Before IE became a thing, I had just moved back to Houston from Manhattan and was really struggling to find my place in the scene. I really wanted to focus on this concept of diversity in the sustainable world, but there wasn’t this really great term for it at the time. So I reached out to Leah.
The Recreationalist: And then everything hit.
Leah: Yep. A couple weeks later, the pandemic was happening, I was furloughed by my job, and I really didn’t have much to lose. During the George Floyd protests, I saw people that had marched with me for endangered salmon, but weren’t advocating for endangered Black and Brown lives in the same way. And I just realized I didn’t want to take part in any kind of environmentalism that didn’t have the protection of marginalized groups embedded in it.
Diandra: A lot of things happened at once. Moments like that always bring about a very heavy sense of urgency. In that moment in time, I knew we were going to be able to take my little blog concept, with its 2000 followers, and transform it into something that was community driven.
The Recreationalist: Did you expect any of what followed?
Leah: No. I never would’ve expected that a pandemic and the reemergence of the BLM movement would be what made me go viral. Never in my life. And it still makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to benefit from Black death in any way.
The Recreationalist: Have you felt overwhelmed yet?
Diandra: Oh, a hundred percent. But one of the things I try to do is just be really real when I fail environmentally. I’ve had a lot of fails before I’ve had wins, but it helps to remember that I’ll be pursuing social justice forever.
Leah: Same here. I’m a recovering perfectionist. So now when I’m getting overwhelmed, I just allow myself to take space and laugh about it. Because the human experience is fucking weird.
Every time environmentalism was presented to me as successful, none of the leaders looked like me. Now I feel like I can reclaim my space in the movement for lonely little eco club kids that look like me and want to start their own clubs.
On Reclaiming Space
The Recreationalist: Where did your intersectionality and environmentalism meet as kids?
Leah: My grandmother is Buddhist, so I think growing up with the value of interconnectedness had a big impact on my gravitation toward intersectionality. My parents also did a great job at getting me Black Barbie dolls and teaching me about Black doctors and scientists. I thank them for that, because I could always see myself in the science world.
Diandra: It was a little bit of the opposite for me. I come from a very big Mexican family in Texas, but my upbringing was very Americanized. So growing up, I was always on the outside looking in when it came to the environmental movement. I was so happy just to be a part of it, but every time it was presented to me as successful, none of the club leaders or organizations looked like me. Now I feel like I can reclaim my space in the movement for lonely little eco club kids that look like me and want to start their own clubs.
The Recreationalist: As you’ve grown, have you now felt more accepted?
Leah: I’ll be honest, I’ve never fully felt accepted — even when I was working at my dream company. And especially with everything going on right now, I don’t know if a lot of outdoor spaces are even safe for people of color. It’s not because they wouldn’t enjoy them. There’s just a lot of pain and trauma there.
Diandra: All true. A lot of my BIPOC friends, myself included, grew up very aware of the dangers in being women of color. So unless I was with a large group of friends that liked the outdoors, I wasn’t outdoors. And if I wanted to find a large group of friends that liked the outdoors, it was usually white people.
Leah: I think that’s part of having that intersectional identity. As women, and also as women of color, being outside alone is scary. I listen to True Crime podcasts! I’m not about to go hiking alone in the middle of a forest.
Diandra: Same. Sometimes I’ll see my white male friends post about how they enjoyed a lovely morning by the creek with their book and I’m like, that sounds lovely! I would never.
Leah: And that’s why I love groups like Outdoor Afro and Hike Clerb, because we’re stronger in numbers. I recently went to Yosemite with a group of POC friends. We were outside just looking at the stars and all started cracking up because that park was probably not meant for us. But we were there and we were reclaiming that space. And it was so beautiful to be under the stars talking about culture and just having a good time.
“It’s wild to think that we’ll be meeting each other in person for the first time this October.” Shop the co-founders’ full looks at Outdoor Voices.
On Generational Environmentalism
Diandra: It’s great that the movement is youth-driven, but sustainability has always been present in BIPOC families. My family would never consider themselves environmentalists, yet we reuse butter tins and mash avocados in our traditional molcajetes.
Right before the pandemic, I came home with a thrift haul in these plastic mesh tote bags that have been used in Mexican culture forever. My mom told this beautiful story about her abuelita going to the grocery store with all her market bolsas. And because of that connection, my mom never goes to the grocery store without a bag now.
The Recreationalist: That reminds me of my mom too! She’d never let us throw away a good plastic grocery bag.
Leah: My grandma also had this huge container of plastic bags that we’d use over and over again. And my mom would always have a Danish cookie tin —
The Recreationalist: — I know the one!
Leah: [Laughs.] I don’t know why every family seemed to have one. She’d use hers for all her sewing materials. And we’d go thrift shopping — not because it was trendy, but because it was what we could afford. Thrifting was not cool when I was young. So I think it’d be cool to empower the people who are sustainable because they need to be.
Diandra: I think it goes back to this big “DIY” culture within the sustainability movement. It’s great for disempowering capitalism, but it’s not always practical. So let’s get down with the ways we’re already DIY-ing.
Leah: That’s so core to Intersectional Environmentalist too. There’s already so much shame in the world. We’d rather empower families and cultures in the things they’re already doing.
There’s already so much shame in the world. we’d rather empower families and cultures in the things they’re already doing.