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Leah Thomas 17, an environmental activist, shares an encouraging message about Earth Day with Chapman students

Leah Thomas 17, an environmental activist, shares an encouraging message about Earth Day with Chapman students

Leah Thomas reads from her book.

Leah Thomas (17, activist and writer) speaks to Chapman University students to talk about her journey as an environmentist. She could easily point out a number of milestones and accomplishments in her early career.

Leah Thomas reads from her book.
Leah Thomas reads a passage from her book “The Intersectional Environmentalist.”

She could display her articles in Elle or Vogue, or her climate diaries from The Washington Post. She could highlight her social media presence @greengirlleahThe account has gathered hundreds of thousands on Instagram. She could screen her 2021 Super Bowl ad together with Lil Nas X, and point to her participation at the Glasgow, Scotland, 2021 COP26 climate conference.

She sat down with her but she was not happy. Chapman Environmental Science and PolicyThomas spoke to students about her feelings as she walked across Chapman campus to join them at the McCardle steps in. The Keck Center for Science and Engineering.

She had a sense of community and confidence that was hard to find during her time at Chapman.

She said that she wanted all of you to feel the same feeling, as you are so powerful.

Thomas often returns to Chapman in order to assist students on their journey to empowerment. She spoke out about the importance of bringing the voices of those who are often excluded from the discussion on climate change and the environment during her recent two-day visit, which took place a week before Earth Day.

Intersectional Activism: Tap into the Power

Her newly published book The Intersectional Ecologists: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression for People + Planet highlights the contributions of climate writers Sophia Li and Vanessa Nakate from Uganda.

Georgiana Bostean with Leah Thomas
Sociologist and environmental science professor Georgiana Bostean joins in a “Fireside Chat” with Leah Thomas in the Bush Conference Center.

Thomas also shared stories from her own path to becoming an activist for women of color.

Thomas admits that she kind of stumbled into environmentalism in one her Washington Post diary entries. I initially thought I wanted to become a veterinarian because I was fascinated by animals. But I began to gravitate towards ecosystem ecology and sustainability.

Thomas was raised in Missouri, where in summer 2014, Black teenager Michael Brown was killed by a Ferguson police officer. The killing caused unrest and prompted the Black Lives Matter campaign.

Two weeks later I was able to board a plane and begin my studies in environmental science and policy. Thomas recalled this during a Fireside Chat that Thomas held with students at Chapman Halls George Bush Conference Center. I struggled to concentrate in those introductory classes. How could I talk to people back home about the Clean Air Act if they were not granted the ability?

Thomas decided that she did not want to be involved in any type of environmentalism, which didn’t advocate on behalf of my people and for so many other oppressed persons worldwide, she said.

A new platform for environmental advocacy

Leah Thomas holds up her book.
Thomas’ book lifts up the voices of those too often left out of the conversation on issues of climate change and the environment.

She was pursuing her Chapman studies, then a career, and she looked for ways to advocate at intersections of race, environment, feminism and justice.

Thomas was furloughed by Patagonia from her position as a marketing communications specialist when COVID-19 struck the U.S. in 2020. She turned a setback into an opportunity.

I was on unemployment for my first time in my entire life, and I felt like there was nothing I could lose. I am shy and reserved, but it was a moment when people actually listened to me. It felt so good. I thought: What if people could feel the same satisfaction in having their voices heard in the context of environmentalalism or any other movement?

So she started a climate justice group called Intersectional EnvironmentalistImagining a more equitable and diverse future for environmentalism is what we are doing, as stated on the IE website.

Thomas smiles, saying that Thomas thinks it is a natural thing when shy girls finally get heard and can’t stop talking. Since then, I haven’t stopped talking.

Thomas also includes a message of urgency for climate action, dismantling oppression systems, and a call for self-care in the interconnected environmental movement.

“Taking care of yourself is also a radical and revolutionary act,” she says. “We’re living on a burning planet, but being joyful in the world is a way to say, ‘No matter what systems are at play, my smile is something you can’t take away from me.’”

See Also

Thomas uses her voice to bring about cultural change in education systems and corporations. Chapman is also listening.

She said that she is excited to hear that there is now an Eco-feminism class.

She supports the requirement of environmental justice courses for environmental science students in higher education. She is happy to see people exploring intersectional study in other disciplines like economics and health care.

She says, “This is growing in ways beyond what I ever imagined.”

Thomas knows that oppression systems and exclusion are slow to change. This was reinforced by her participation at the COP26 conference on climate change, where she was disappointed to find so little tangible progress.

However, that disappointment is nothing compared to the powerful feeling that comes from bringing in more people, she says.

She says that conferences won’t save us all, especially if we don’t have binding treaties. But how powerful is the power of organizing together? That can change the world, I believe.


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