In late May and then in June when companies and individuals were posting black squares across social media as a symbol of their commitment to Black lives, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, eco-communicator Leah Thomas was thinking of a more concrete, tangible way to improve the environmental movement in a way that intentionally includes Black, Indigenous and other communities of color.
In that moment, Thomas founded Intersectional Environmentalist (IE), a mission-driven organization committed to dismantling systems of oppression by amplifying historically silenced voices in the environmental movement, along with co-founders Diandra Marizet, Philip Aiken and Sabs Katz.
"We want transparency. We want people to be inclusive, and we want people and companies not to be silent on these issues anymore because that’s how we’ve gotten to this point in the first place," said Katz, director of communications at IE. "By continuing to be silent, we will only perpetuate these negative aspects of society."
I spoke with Katz (pictured left) about what the organization has been building since it was founded in June, its new partnership with TAZO and the Intersectional Environmentalist team’s hopes for 2021.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deonna Anderson: What has Intersectional Environmentalist been up to since you founded the organization a few months ago?
Sabs Katz: It has been a little bit of a whirlwind just really understanding the amount of growth that we’ve had in less than six months. But we’ve been focusing our efforts on a couple of different pillars that are really central to IE as a business. One of them is community building. We do that through our Instagram page. And we have a website as well that aggregates a lot of educational resources that look at different topics and look at different communities for people who are interested in learning more about intersectional environmentalism. So we’ve been focusing on community building there.
We’ve also been developing an accountability program for businesses to incorporate intersectional environmentalism into their workplace. And we’ve been focusing on really developing and hoping to set a standard as a business and show other companies that you can be a mission-driven company and still pay your workers fair wages. You can still be profitable and have all of these positive initiatives that can make a difference in the world and yeah, not really compromise your values.
Anderson: Can you describe what intersectional environmentalism is and how that’s different from environmental justice and climate justice or how those things might work together?
Katz: I’ll start off with a little bit of background. Intersectional theory and critical race theory has been studied largely by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor and a lawyer. And she really inspired Leah Thomas, our founder, to incorporate this idea of intersectionality into environmentalism because a lot of times, when we do hear the term intersectional it’s applied to feminism. So Leah, when she was in college, heard and understood intersectional feminism and identified with that but noticed that within the environmental space there wasn’t really a lot of that applied to people’s environmentalism.
And historically the environmental movement has been very white-washed. So after the murder of George Floyd in May, she came out with this graphic that ended up going viral that said environmentalists for Black Lives Matter and defined intersectional environmentalism, a form of environmentalism that advocates for both people and the planet and identifies the ways that injustices are done to certain groups of people without minimizing or silencing under-amplified voices within this space. Intersectional environmentalism ... is more of a framework for one to achieve environmental justice. So someone can be an intersectional environmentalist with the goal of attaining climate justice.
Anderson: Because the GreenBiz audience is mostly corporate sustainability professionals, I’m curious about your business accountability program. Can you tell me how that program works?
Katz: Right after we were created, there were a lot of companies reaching out to us who wanted to partner with us in different ways or just to find out how to incorporate a more intersectional perspective into their business, into their CSR goals. We developed this accountability program because we wanted people to continue doing the work, and we didn’t want to lose the momentum of people being activated and using their voices. The accountability program is made up of four modules over the course of four months, so there’s one module per month.
There are a couple of different aspects but one of them is largely an online coursework program where the company can participate and learn more about intersectional environmentalism. They can learn more about why it’s important to have sustainability goals and also have diversity goals. I feel like when we see a lot of companies that participate in sustainable practices, it’s very non-human-focused in many ways.
For example, a lot of fashion companies might use organic cotton or maybe they’ll use recycled plastic. But one thing that they might not necessarily talk about is how the production of plastic can cause pollution. A lot of chemical factories or factories that create plastic are located in largely BIPoC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] communities and cause negative health consequences. We want to really encourage companies to lean into those conversations and not minimize those conversations that are deemed maybe a little bit too political. Because what we’re seeing a lot of is that a lot of new folks in Gen Z, a lot of millennials, want to be supporting companies that are transparent. They want to support companies that have a stance against social injustice and environmental injustice. So it’s not only something that is good for moral's sake. It’s good business practice as well.
Anderson: It sounds like you are encouraging businesses to take a more holistic approach to the way that they achieve sustainability within their business versus just their bottom line and thinking more about people.
Katz: Absolutely. And within the environmental space for so long, the conversation has been very focused on conservation or it’s been focused on like plastic in the oceans, all of which are obviously very important conversations to have. But we are not really talking about the ways that humans are being negatively impacted by the effects of the climate crisis and disproportionately BIPoC communities and low-income communities are being impacted. And those are the voices that continue to be erased within the environmental movement because it seemed a little bit too political. But when these are realities that are happening every day, it does no good to continue ignoring or to continue silencing those voices when we should be all fighting for an environment that is just for everyone. So that is one of our main goals with this program.
Anderson: Intersectional Environmentalist recently launched a partnership with TAZO Tea to help with the launch of IE’s first cohort of interns, with a $50,000 donation from the tea brand. I’m curious about how the internship program works and also how the partnership came about.
Katz: Leah Thomas, our founder, had been in contact with somebody from TAZO. They’re a huge fan of Leah herself. And so this has been a conversation that’s been going on for a little bit going back and forth because TAZO has been wanting to take a stance and wanting to invest in environmental justice organizations. We as IE have always known that we want to pay people for their work, and we don’t believe that people should be giving free labor. And we believe unpaid internships should be abolished because they’re just frankly not fair. And they take opportunities away from people who might not be able to work for free.
A large part of what we do is find ways to make sure that we can pay all of our activists, all of the activists on our team. We’re still pretty young. Sometimes our budget’s a little bit scrappy. But we don’t want to take advantage of people. So this partnership is really a collaboration in many ways because of TAZO’s desire to really support a lot of these environmental justice initiatives.
It does no good to continue ignoring or to continue silencing those voices when we should be all fighting for an environment that is just for everyone.
And our goal is to continue growing as a team and also ensure that everybody on our team is paid fair wages. All of our interns are paid $21 an hour. And we just want to make sure that we set the standard, like I said before, to show companies that regardless of how big or how small you are, there are ways that you can fund your interns. And so we don’t want these huge companies, especially companies that are much larger than us, to think that it’s still OK to have unpaid internships when there are ways to really fund that.
Anderson: Has the internship already started for these folks?
Katz: Yes, the first official day was Nov. 10 on Tuesday right after the election. So it was kind of a whirlwind. But yes. They started a couple of weeks ago. We have a creative cohort of interns. We have eco-communication, social media, environmental justice research interns. And it’s been really exciting hearing the feedback. I know we received well over 1,000 applications, and the applications were only open for a week. So it really shows the desire and the need for more companies to really be imbuing these ideals of social justice and environmentalism within their business. And it’s showing that people want to do this work, and people really want to make their voices heard and be a part of a community that is making a real difference in the world.
Anderson: It seems to me that your partnership with TAZO is kind of unique. Are there opportunities for other businesses to get involved with IE? And do you have visions of ways that businesses can get involved outside of your business accountability program and things like this partnership with TAZO?
Katz: Absolutely. I think one thing that I forgot to mention earlier is that we do partner very thoughtfully with certain businesses. For example, today we’re doing a series of cookouts with Impossible Foods. We do a lot of social media partnerships. We partnered with Allbirds, a sustainable footwear company. And they created a bunch of posters that were put up in New York City. They were put up in [Los Angeles] and San Francisco in partnership with IE.
We are very open to doing partnerships in many different ways. That being said, we want to be very thoughtful and considerate and develop relationships with these businesses rather than having it be a one-off thing because we’re really focused on that community-building aspect. I would say there are definitely other ways to partner with us, not just within that accountability program respect.
Anderson: I’m looking forward to seeing what those other partnerships become. Pivoting a bit, 2020 is almost over — it’s been an interesting year, and IE was started this year. I’m curious as we go into 2021, what are some of IE’s hopes about the impact that you have on the environmentalism movement?
Katz: I’ll split it up into two different answers. The first one, what are our hopes? Our hope is really to bring intersectional environmentalism to the mainstream environmental movement and have that be the focus of every future environmental conversation. We don’t want it to just be talking about the polar bears. Obviously, we want to talk about the polar bears. But we want to really have the conversations of how are people being impacted? And who are the folks who are most impacted by the negative aspects of the climate crisis? We can no longer continue to ignore the ways that BIPoC communities are being disproportionately impacted.
We’re already seeing climate refugees, folks who are no longer able to live within their communities or within their countries because the weather is too hot to live there or the conditions, the air conditions, the air pollution conditions make it no longer a viable community. We really want folks to not shy away from these conversations. When we look at a lot of environmental organizations, a lot of environmental nonprofits, the largest ones are ones that focus on conservation. They focus on nature. They focus on animals. All of which are absolutely wonderful.
But when we look at how often environmental justice organizations are funded, the amount of money that goes to funding these companies and these initiatives is minuscule compared to something like the World Wildlife Fund or the Nature Conservancy, not to disparage those organizations whatsoever. But I think it reflects a larger issue in that why are we not funding this research? Why are we not funding these initiatives? So we’re really hoping to shift that conversation in many ways. We’ve already heard stories of students in universities who are asking their schools to implement intersectional environmentalist courses into their coursework and make those required courses for any environmental majors.
Those would be one of the more grassroots initiatives that we hope to see, and we hope to continue seeing. And then in terms of IE as a business, we are looking to expand a little bit. Right now we are a for-profit, and we very consciously decided to become a for-profit because we wanted to show that you can be a mission-driven organization and still make money and you can still pay people fair wages. One of our goals for 2021 is to create a nonprofit arm so that area can focus on doing a lot more of the grassroots work, whether that’s through our mentorship program, which we’re still continuing to flesh out, or funding grants for sustainability of intersectional environmentalist organizations.
We’re fleshing out that arm in 2021. We’re also hoping to create a media house almost like Jubilee with the goal of really highlighting a lot of these stories of environmental injustice and really bring it to the forefront so that people can no longer ignore these conversations.
Anderson: Is there anything we didn’t talk about that you feel is important for GreenBiz readers to know about the work that you are doing at IE?
Katz: I just want to reiterate that a lot of people and a lot of young consumers nowadays, they want to be able to support companies that take a stance when it comes to social justice, when it comes to environmentalism. We don’t need to see just the black squares on social media. We want to see real action being taken. We want transparency. We want people to be inclusive, and we want people and companies not to be silent on these issues anymore because that’s how we’ve gotten to this point in the first place. And by continuing to be silent we will only perpetuate these negative aspects of society.
And not to shy away from them because, like I said, folks want to be supporting these companies ... There will always be some folks who don’t want to have that conversation, who don’t want companies to necessarily feel like they should be having that conversation. But at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do. And it’s the way of the future. And we have to continue having these conversations in order for us to have a future that is intersectional.
This article has been updated to correct the amount of TAZO's donation to Intersectional Environmentalist. The tea brand donated $50,000 to IE and it was part of a larger $250,000 it committed to environmental justice groups.