I was recently asked how I came to be in the field of nonprofit advocacy with my academic background and career experience rooted in environmental studies and education. That’s an easy answer, I thought, because for me, social justice and environmental justice have always been indisputably interconnected.

Wanting to gain knowledge to support my position, I did what any of us would do: I started my Google quest for information. Almost immediately, I stumbled upon a book titled “The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet” by Leah Thomas. Backed by research, Thomas’ book provides “an introduction to the intersection of environmentalism, racism, and privilege, and an acknowledgement of the fundamental truth that we cannot save the planet without uplifting the voices of its people.”

The term “intersectional environmentalism” was coined by Thomas and is defined as an inclusive approach to environmentalism that advocates for the protection of both people and the planet. Historically, Thomas points out, environmental justice movements lacked “representation of Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, low-income, LGBTQ+, disabled, and other marginalized voices,” which has led to “an ineffective form of mainstream environmentalism that doesn’t truly stand for the liberation of all people and the planet.”

Anyone who reads the news can glean how marginalized communities are negatively impacted by decisions and disasters which also adversely affect our environment. Pipeline projects proposed through native lands, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina are just a few of the headline-making stories in recent years.

Several facts demonstrating the reality of climate injustice for BIPOC communities include:

• 71% of African-Americans live in counties that are in violation of federal air pollution standards.

• When compared to other racial groups in the United States, Chinese and Korean Americans have the highest mean cancer risk from air pollution exposure.

• More than 60% of Latinx communities in the United States are in areas impacted by air pollution, flooding, and extreme heat.

• Indigenous people in the United States are the least likely to have access to safe running water.

These jarring statistics reach beyond the United States, of course. We can look at global issues like waste disposal affecting vulnerable communities. Children in Guiyu, China have “higher than average lead levels in their blood,” because according to a United Nations report, Guiyu has become the “largest e-waste dumping site in the world, with around 70% of electronic waste globally ending up in that county.” We can actively observe displacement and predict refugee crises due to sea level rise in island nations. Many of these communities are already dealing with the dire issue of saltwater contaminating agricultural fields and sources of drinking water.

I’ll provide a part two on this topic next week, as Leah Thomas not only provides ample historical context, but also provides future considerations, a tool kit, and a list of resources to deepen one’s understanding.

In the meantime, I will leave you with several questions to consider, posed by the author:

• Do I view the climate crisis as a hypothetical future?

• Why have the demographics that have contributed the least to the climate crisis been hit the hardest by climate burdens?

• Do I acknowledge the realities of the environmental justice crisis that BIPOC and low-income communities face?

• How can racial progress and equality also aid in environmental justice?

Kara Ferraro is the senior director of programs for the YWCA Gettysburg & Adams County and considers herself an ally and advocate for people and the planet. The YWCA is dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all.

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