One of the greatest lessons that you can learn from nature is that everything is more than itself. A tree is not just the tree itself. It is the roots that anchor the soil, house for birds, it bears fruit for us to eat and gives us shade when it’s warm. Nothing in nature exists in isolation and neither do people. We are a collection of the many parts of our identity including our race, income, the language(s) we speak, gender expression, sexual orientation, physical ability, age and so much more–even the neighborhood where we were raised. The key to unlocking this understanding is to understand intersectionality.

Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality takes a deeper look at how the many parts of one’s identity intersect and overlap with each other. It takes into consideration that an individual can be affected differently by situations because of the various burdens placed on certain social groups. Intersectionality is often looked at through the frames of oppression and/or discrimination. One common example is that Black women are both Black and women and thus experience discrimination in different ways than a black man or a white woman because they are subject to both racism and sexism at the same time. Those who are disabled or identify with various other minoritized identities face additional barriers when having to rely on signage to navigate recreational areas. For example, signs that do not include braille or are positioned too high to be legible from a wheelchair could pose issues for disabled individuals, while signs written only in English fail to accommodate those for whom English is not a primary language.

The way people associate with the environment is often a reflection of their intersectional identities. While the environment may appear like an apolitical or neutral space to the dominant culture, to others it may be a source of pollution, inaccessibility, risk, or danger. Understanding intersectionality will help broaden the perspective on how people relate to their environment, as well as help inform strategies to increase access to open space and interest in outdoor education.

When hurricanes make landfall, we often see the same groups struggling the most in the aftermath. Low-income people may have trouble accessing a car or the money to evacuate. Disabled people who might not have had the mobility or social support to safely evacuate or access necessary equipment and resources. Houseless people who might not have access to information about storm shelters and resources or the ability to evacuate often struggle as well. Intersectionality looks at these three identities and highlights that having one or more of these identities means being burdened in different, and possibly more intense, ways.

At its core, environmental justice is about intersectionality and which groups of people are being disproportionately negatively affected by their surroundings due to their identity or experiences. To fix these issues we need to take a deep look at how certain groups are affected based on things like race, gender expression/ identity, disability, income, language barriers, and more.

Looking at climate change policies through an intersectional lens, it highlights that low-income communities, amongst other groups, are going to be hit especially hard. Not only because they are more likely to live in low-lying areas most likely to be hit with rising waters but also potentially negatively affected by policies to address climate change itself without considering intersectionality and other principles relating to diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice. The carbon tax has long been viewed to shift the cost of climate change and air pollution onto the consumer to try and make people more aware of their environmental impact. On the surface level, it seems like a great solution, but an intersectional view would tell us that a tax by itself could disproportionately affect low-income people and those who live in areas with inadequate or inaccessible public transportation. There must be some form of community investment to alleviate this disproportionate impact such as tax breaks or transportation subsidies for low-income populations written into the policy. Plus, true intersectionality also involves fixing the source of the inequity, not simply addressing surface issues. Maybe the tax revenue goes to improving public transportation or a program is created to help ease the climate change burden on low-income people. Addressing the root of environmental harm means progress forward for everybody.

In all areas of environmental policies and access, we need creative solutions so we can protect people now, but also replace or repair everything that threatens their wellbeing. This is not easy work, but it is necessary and rewarding. Just like nature, intersectionality shows us that everything is connected. We, as humans never identity as one thing, we are a collection of ideas, morals, experiences, and traits that have been passed down through generations. Who we are is impacted by everything from our race, income, the languages we speak, gender expression, sexual orientation, physical ability, age, citizenship status, and so much more all at the same time. Intersectionality shows us that, by paying attention to intersecting identities, we can find inclusive and effective solutions that don’t leave the most vulnerable people behind. It forces us to investigate the structures of our society and pinpoint who has been affected and how it happened. Any meaningful work is intersectional by nature and the environment is no exception.

Marissa McClenton is the author of this blog and a student at University of Delaware as well as the Clean Water Campaign’s Grassroots Organizer. Stay tuned for more insights and resources from the DEIJ Corner and Marissa in the future!