Leah Thomas, one of two keynote speakers at Boston College’s annual Women’s Summit, first considered environmental issues from a racial lens while she studied environmental science policy in college.
“It was really hard for me to learn about … all these laws that are supposed to make our world a better place, meanwhile a lot of people back home are drowning in the smoke of tear gas,” Thomas said.
The BC Women’s Center held its eighth Women’s Summit virtually this Saturday. The event aimed to empower attendees through workshops, speeches, and discussions.
Thomas—the founder of an eco lifestyle blog called Green Girl Leah—started her speech by describing her path to environmental justice.
“I didn’t understand why my peers were focusing on this hypothetical future and not focusing on that urgency of environmental justice. … This is an act of environmental racism … If you do not care about the reality and the negative health impacts that are happening to people right now,” she said.
As an intersectional environmentalist, Thomas said she advocates for justice and inclusivity with environmental education, highlighting how low-income and Black, brown, and Indigenous communities are experiencing the brunt of climate change.
“Communities of color and low income communities, especially when those two identities intersect, are continuously experiencing the brunt of environmental hazards and injustice,” Thomas said. “I started seeing statistics that state 70 percent of African Americans live in communities that are in violation of federal air quality standards.”
Thomas said she posted a pledge on her Instagram—which now has almost 230 thousand followers—that gained lots of attention.
“I posted on Instagram a definition of intersectional environmentalism, here’s the pledge if anyone wants to be an intersectional environmentalist, and I posted it online, and suddenly hundreds of thousands of people said they want to be [one],” Thomas said.
Later, alongside other activists, Thomas created the Intersectional Environmentalism Platform, a website to advocate for environmental and social issues with like-minded individuals from around the world, she said.
Thomas encouraged participants to focus on the intersections of race, gender, and income and how they compound to influence the way minorities experience the world around them.
“My identity influences the way that I care for this world and this planet,” Thomas said. “You should never have to silence parts of your identity to advocate for the causes that you care about.”
Thomas’ interview was followed by eight workshops which focused on topics including “Guiding Your Transition Adventure While Creating Your Personal Brand” and “Carving Out Your Path Towards a Meaningful Career.”
Sarah Kay—renowned spoken word poet, playwright, and founder of Project Voice—is a returning keynote speaker, as she also attended the 2019 summit.
Kay opened her speech with a poem about how her mother taught her to look for the color orange everywhere. The story, she said, is about how her mother’s positive outlook on life has inspired her.
“For example, while I spend my time getting caught up on the shittier parts of New York, my mother spends her time seeking beauty and following her curiosity,” she said. “I want to follow my mother’s example to look for what delights and to find beauty that is easy to ignore.”
Kay then read another poem that questioned whether narrators are responsible for their reliability.
“Don’t just be someone who can observe and describe but use language for aspiration not inspiration,” she said. “Use language to speak something into existence and not just any old something.”
Admitting she felt pressure when asked to give this speech, Kay said she hoped to find an appropriate tone of positivity and wanted to be sensitive to the audience.
“We are all dealing on a daily basis with so much grief and fear and personal burdens visible and invisible, and it feels like a pretty tall order to find anything of value to offer towards those efforts in your lives on most days,” she said.
Kay said throughout the pandemic, reading has helped her cope with her anxieties—she turned to the writings of other authors for an escape.
“It’s not about resolution or finding the answer,” she said. “You don’t need to condemn what you feel. … I like to pick up a book or listen to a podcast and see what’s going on in other people’s world.”
When asked by an audience member about whether her time off during the pandemic fostered creativity or posed challenges, Kay said the pandemic allowed for more introspective writing.
“I got to write poems that in some ways felt really personal and honest in a way that was really freeing,” she said. “But this has been a really challenging time for everyone, and my creativity has definitely been challenged. So it’s been both challenging and fruitful.”
One of Kay’s concluding poems asked what a society would be like with a Minister of Loneliness. Kay said she got the idea after discovering that the Japanese government created a new position called the Minister of Loneliness in response to increasing suicide rates.
“Something about that was really inspiring to me,” she said. “I was thinking about what it would mean to try and take on that kind of work.”
Kay asked the audience to reflect on the poem and consider what kind of world they want to help create.
“This final poem is an attempt to look at what is but also to ask you to join me in giving a little time and attention to what else might be possible,” she said.
Featured Image by Katie Dalton / For the Heights