Why—and How—to Be an Intersectional Environmentalist


Environmental racism and environmental justice

BIPOC and other marginalized communities are disproportionately exposed to polluting industries, such as dumps, landfills, pipelines, and factories—both around the world and in Canada.

Sarnia, Ontario, for instance, an area that contains more than 60 chemical plants and oil refineries, has been nicknamed “Chemical Valley.” The Aamjiwnaang First Nation residents nearby are exposed to the area’s intense pollution. This is just one example of environmental racism.

The term “environmental racism” was coined in 1982 by Black civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis. It refers to race-based environmental injustice.

A key component of environmental racism is that communities with a high percentage of Indigenous, Black, and other people of colour are more likely to be affected by pollution and climate change. Furthermore, these communities have been left out of the decision-making process.

Enter environmental justice. Dr. Robert Bullard is known as “the father of environmental justice.” On his website, he explains that the term “embraces the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.”

What is intersectional environmentalism?

Lawyer and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw developed intersectional theory as a way to explain how forms of power and injustice collide and interlock in society—such as how racism and sexism intersect.

Sacramento, California-based Diandra Esparza (diandramarizet.com) is a community builder and writer, as well as a co-founder and the executive director of the nonprofit organization Intersectional Environmentalist (intersectionalenvironmentalist.com). “Environmental justice is the goal,” she explains, “and intersectional environmentalism is the lens.”

Esparza describes intersectional environmentalism as inclusive. “In the past, many environmentalists lumped together people and the planet, assuming that helping the planet would help people.” However, it’s more nuanced and complex than that, Esparza explains. “People need to be central in conversations—in the process. It’s about identifying injustices and connecting them.”

As an example, she describes the issue of plastic as one that is intricately tied to social issues. “Plastic production is a perfect example of why we need an intersectional lens. Just look at the social injustice involved in the mass production of plastic. Who lives nearest to the factories? Who lives nearest to the waste? Who bears the brunt of our plastic crisis? This is how you can use the topics that you’re already concerned about and view them through an intersectional lens.”

Black Birders Week

One wonderful example of intersectional environmentalism is Black Birders Week. Created by Black outdoor enthusiasts as a response to the 2020 Central Park birdwatching incident and police brutality against Black people, the week celebrates and normalizes Black birders and advocates for the ability of Black people to safely enjoy time in nature.

Vancouver-based Melissa Hafting is a prominent birder who is active in the BC birding community. She runs the BC Rare Bird Alert (<bcbirdalert.blogspot.com>), as well as her blog Dare to Bird (daretobird.blogspot.com) and her Instagram page (<instagram.com/bcbirdergirl>). She also founded the BC Young Birders Program in 2014.

Says Hafting, “… Black Birders Week has been really positive. It has taught people a lot … here in BC, there are only a couple of Black birders active in the community. The week gave me a sense of community and interconnectedness.”

In addition to connecting the community, Black Birders Week is important in raising awareness and calling for change, says Hafting. “… we’re here in the birding community. The outdoors belongs to everyone.”

It’s easy to get caught up in performative allyship, but real change is needed, explains Hafting. “It’s crucial for birding organizations to acknowledge systemic racism and work to make these communities safe places,” she says. Making boards and committees more diverse; having people of colour lead walks; and paying people of colour for their work, time, and emotional labour are also key.

Hafting is hopeful that young people are growing up in a more inclusive and diverse world. “In the BC Young Birders Program, I tried to ensure that everyone was welcome, regardless of gender, race, or orientation,” she says. “I wanted kids to feel comfortable and included.”

How can we participate in intersectional environmentalism?

One of our initial reactions to hearing these theories and concepts for the first time might be to learn more, such as following BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) and intersectional environmentalist social media accounts, reading books, and listening to podcasts.

Learning is a very important first step, but it shouldn’t be our only step, Esparza explains. “Intersectional environmentalism is a newer concept for wider audiences. Building online community around it might feel new. Beyond the newness of an online community, the second step is community building in your hometown.”

What does that mean? Community building has many different components, such as supporting your neighbours, donating to local nonprofits, and volunteering. “What’s happening in your hometown?” asks Esparza. “Find out who is vulnerable, and why. And then find out: what are the grassroots efforts that can help?” She recommends getting involved at the grassroots level. “Build community and take it into the real world.”

Did you know?

According to a 2019 US study, non-Hispanic white people experience approximately 17 percent less air pollution exposure than is caused by their consumption. However, Black and Hispanic people experience approximately 56 and 63 percent, respectively, more air pollution exposure than is caused by their consumption.

Interested in birding?

“Grab a pair of binoculars and explore your neighbourhood!” exclaims birder Melissa Hafting. Many local libraries offer binoculars for borrowing, as well as other birding resources and supplies. Hafting also recommends signing up for a guided birding walk, organized by a local community centre or birding group.

Intersectional Environmentalist

The environmentalists behind the nonprofit Intersectional Environmentalist are dedicated to educating people about the connection between social justice and environmental justice, while centring BIPOC voices. The group was founded in 2020 by Leah Thomas and co-founders Diandra Marizet Esparza, Sabs Katz, and Phil Aiken. To learn more and support their work, visit intersectionalenvironmentalist.com and instagram.com/intersectionalenvironmentalist.

Act locally [SUBHEAD]

Make a difference in the world around you by thinking “locally.” Here are a few suggestions.

  • Become involved in local issues and politics. Read the local newspaper and attend city council meetings.
  • Support the local businesses that make your community vibrant.
  • Volunteer with a local nonprofit or grassroots organization.
  • March in local protests.
  • Vote in local elections.
  • Take advantage of the nature around you in your local parks, green spaces, and nature conservatories.
  • Participate in the sharing economy in your community by giving or lending things to your neighbours, using Buy Nothing groups or local swap-and-shop groups, or sharing your unique skills with others.





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