After witnessing the fallout of Ferguson in her hometown of St. Louis, Leah Thomas switched her major to focus on environmental justice. She now works at Patagonia, where climate marches and communicating messages about a circular economy are on her daily to-do list. RANGE editor Johnie Gall sits down with “Green Girl Leah” to discuss thrifting, intersectional environmentalism, and why beauty brands need to diversify their shade ranges if they want to thrive.
“During my first week working at Patagonia, about a year ago, I kept hearing people talk about one of the biggest climate marches in history. I didn’t know anyone at work yet, but I felt really inspired by how passionate everyone was. I found a random bus ticket there and left home at 4am wearing overalls and heeled boots. I totally didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I was welcomed by this march of 30,000 people chanting and holding signs. It was amazing and beautiful to see not only what Patagonia was apart of, but that there were so many people from so many communities there demanding climate justice. I felt like, “Yeah, this is where I’m supposed to be.”
I went to school at Chapman University in Orange County. I was back home in St. Louis, Missouri, for summer break when Ferguson happened. The civil unrest and protests were all happening ten minutes down the street from my house. When I got back to school, my biology major just wasn’t connecting to me anymore. I started going on hikes to process what was going on and I realized nature could be this tool for healing. So, I switched my major to environmental science and policy with a focus on environmental justice because I wanted kids in communities like Ferguson to also, one day, have access to that.
I have my own blog, Green Girl Leah, and I also contribute to The Good Trade, where I write about green beauty, help people discover brands, and do stories and think pieces about environmental justice. Sometimes I break down the scientific differences between things, like leather and vegan leather. I personally love reading Selva Beat, Melaninass, Grist and Patagonia’s Cleanest Line blog.
The best part of my job at Patagonia is working with Rick Ridgeway, who is the raddest dude and the VP of Public Engagement. He was one of the first Americans to summit K2, so getting to be with him is like getting to work with one of the Rolling Stones. I coordinate his schedule and send him out on speaking engagements. The other half of the time I work with the PR team. No matter how many emails we get, we still feel really honored that people are reaching out to us for interviews, so we always try to handle that with care. We try to give a real human response.
THE NATIONAL PARKS SERVICE
After my sophomore and junior year in college I interned with The National Parks Service through The Student Conservation Association and AmeriCorp. I spent about three months during my summer breaks at two very different national parks and historic sites. The first year, I was an interpretive park ranger intern at Nicodemus National Historic Site in rural Kansas. It was such a lifechanging experience working at the only remaining western town established by African Americans during the reconstruction area period that followed the end of slavery and the American Civil War. We usually only got a few visitors a day, so I spent some time with the locals to learn about the history of resilience in the area and even connected with local farmers to learn about their current struggles. Sitting with them helped me paint a better picture of middle American and learn more about the political climate and the need for more support of farmers.
My next experience as a park ranger intern was when I worked at the White House visitor center/President’s Park (The White House) during the last year of the Obama administration. I got to assist the Park Rangers and Secret Service with White House tours, safety regulations on the grounds during protests, and work at the White House visitor center front desk across the street. It was so magical walking to work every day, waving at Secret Service officers and learning a lot about the park service history. I even got to attend an arrival ceremony on the White House lawn with President Obama and the Prime Minister of Singapore, and getting a glimpse of him was one of the best days of my life.
Both sites had cultural significance to me; they helped me realize that the parks are also a part of my history and that I can have pride in them, too, as an African American. I recently went to Yosemite for the first time. It was incredible and I couldn’t wait to rush to the visitor center to get my National Parks Service stamp.
I have a very hippie-ish grandmother. She’s got this big curly ‘fro and she’s always been into natural remedies and natural beauty, crystals and all that. I see a lot of myself in her. When I was in college, I worked for an actress named Kimberly Elise, who has natural hair. I helped her build her website and did a lot of writing about natural hair, and as I learned more about these super damaging ingredients in our hair care products, it made me realize I should be more conscious about what I was putting on my skin.
I love supporting natural brands, especially if they have a large shade range because that’s not something I’m seeing a lot. I don’t want to call out any website specifically, but maybe one that sounds like “boop.” I love it, but I go to buy foundation and my skin shade, which is not very dark, may be the darkest brown they have. That’s really problematic for me because I know that there are so many people of color who aren’t able to buy that foundation. So, when I get to a website and I only see like Dark Tan, Tan and Porcelain, they are doing something wrong.
Rihanna really capitalized on that problem with Fenty Beauty. I love Fenty and Glossier, which are both cruelty-free. That’s an amazing standard but maybe they don’t necessarily have the best ingredients.
I usually wash my face with Alba Botanical Enzyme Face Cleanser in the morning and at night to remove all the oil from my face. I don’t wear foundation every day; I’ll put on Murad Oil and Pore Control Broad Spectrum Mattifier SPF 45, Vapour Beauty Bronzing Stick on my cheeks and eyelids, and then I’ll touch up my brows with Glossier Boy Brow.
If I want to do a full makeup look, I’ll wash my face, use a primer, apply Fenty Beauty foundation and contour stick or Beauty Counter’s Dew Skin Tinted Moisturizer, Vapour Beauty blush and bronzer on my cheeks and eyes, Boy Brow and then finish it off with a setting spray. I usually use my hands to apply makeup or my Au Naturale foundation brush. At night, I wash everything off my face and apply a facial oil. My favorite is the Golden Elixir Phytoactive face oil. When I’m feeling fancy, I’ll try a Shea Moisture or homemade facemask.
I recently moved from Santa Barbara to Carpinteria, which I absolutely adore. There’s an alpaca farm down the street! My house is pretty close to the beach; I live there with two other girls. We’re still developing the space a little bit but I have a lot of essential oil diffusers and candles everywhere. I just love coming home and being welcoming but a bunch of different plants and succulents. They are my babies. There’s a little nursery nearby I get my plants from, but sometimes I’m just at Trader Joe’s and I’ll find a new plant. I’m still learning how to take care of them but it feels like they are purifying my air and it just makes a space feel homey.
My first job was at a natural cleaning product company. I learned so much about what cleaner does to our bodies and our clothes, how it deteriorates them. I love Mrs. Meyers, but my favorite is Branch Basics. They have one ingredient that you mix in different ratios to get floor cleaner, wood cleaner, laundry detergent. The packaging is pretty sustainable and you can customize it yourself.
Eighty percent of my clothing is thrifted, maybe more. I’ll spend an hour at Goodwill going meticiualy through everything. There’s a debate you shouldn’t thrift fast fashion, but if I see Free People or another brand like that, I’ll buy it when I normally wouldn’t because I believe I’m still extending its lifespace when normally it would go to a landfill. When I buy new, I’ll go for Christy Dawn since they use deadstock fabrics. Madewell is getting into sustainability more with their denim line so I try to support them. Organic Basics has great sustainably made basics. It’s kind of like Outdoor Voices, but more sustainable — I do love OV and they are trying! I’m learning to love Patagonia’s stuff more and more. We have some really cute styles coming out.
You’d be shocked to find out how many people in a 40-minute radius might not have the same air quality or access to fresh produce that you do. Once you dive deep into research and the current state of things, you can start looking for what’s currently happening to figure out where you can advocate against environmental injustice. Perhaps there’s a non-profit already at work or a grassroots movement already brewing that you can join and support. Uplift the voices of those that are impacted versus trying to lead without a full understanding of the efforts happening.
Getting politically active can mean a lot of different things, like joining a march in town, going to a court hearing, going door to door to help register people to vote, or just having conversations with your friends and family about environmental justice. Those compassionate conversations with your network are crucial and sometimes the most influential when it comes to mobilizing voters to fight against these injustices. I actually wrote an entire article on it. I also really like Patagonia Action Works, which is a platform that connects people directly with nonprofits they can volunteer with.”
As told to Johnie Gall. Photos by Johnie Gall.
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