Tori Tsui on Intersectional Environmentalism, Radical Self-care, and Supporting Authentic Spaces for BIPOC Activists

Tori Tsui (she/her/they) is a EurAsian intersectional climate activist who uses her social media platforms to advocate for climate change action, mental health stigmatization and care access, and racial justice. I first came across Tori on Instagram and was captivated by the breadth and honesty of her activism. With 24,000 Instagram followers, Tori’s activism is a great example of the power of new media as an advocacy platform. Tori is one of three hosts for the Bad Activist Podcast and a member of the Sail for Climate Action movement. In this interview, Tori talks about intersectional environmentalism, the role of identity in activism, and how her eco-anxiety led her to where she is today.

Tori is originally from Hong Kong and New Zealand and now lives in Bristol, Australia. Before being a full-time activist, Tori has partnered with fashion designer Stella McCartney that allowed her to feature and grow her activism, conducted scientific research that sparked her interest in climate change, and shot a short film of the Arctic island of Svalbard. (Photo credit: Tori Tsui)

 

For our readers, could you please talk about what makes you an intersectional environmentalist?

I self-identify as an intersectional climate activist, but to understand intersectional activism you have to appreciate where intersectionality has come from. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term and used it primarily in terms of intersectional feminism to describe how her experiences with racism as a Black person was deeply intertwined with her experiences as a woman. Crenshaw is not the only Black innovator to talk about intersectionality: much of Audre Lorde’s work spoke about the interplay of sexism, racism and homophobia, without terming it as such. But intersectionality invites us to understand how different systems of oppression interplay and further propagate one another. To be an intersectional climate activist means that you understand how social injustices play into climate injustice. It means that you advocate for the justice of society’s most marginalized. Understanding myself and my own struggles has played a role in being more intersectional.

Why is it necessary to have intersectional environmentalism, as opposed to traditional and mainstream environmentalism?

To unpack this, I feel like we need to focus on how intersectional environmentalism is racial justice. The climate crisis is ultimately built on racial injustice, and we see it today. In this hyper-capitalistic system, we see marginalized people continuously exploited, so that a lot of privileged folks at the top can line their pockets. Meanwhile, it is those who are marginalized who will experience the brunt of the climate crisis despite causing the least amount of damage. Racism is also rooted in colonization, and it is no coincidence that current global power imbalances are due to exploitation of countries in the Global South or the exploitation of Indigenous peoples in what is now called the Global North. All of these systems are heavily intertwined. To be a climate justice advocate is to recognise these monstrosities of the past, present, and sadly future.

An example of intersectional messaging that Tori deploys on her Instagram. (Photo credit: Tori Tsui)

 

I find your work on mental health and climate change really interesting and super important. How do you balance being an intersectional climate activist while trying to maintain your mental and emotional well-being?

My interest in radical self-care and mental well-being is a direct response to how I work as an activist. Self-care to me, besides dismantling toxic systems, is about prioritizing my wellness and happiness. As a result, I think it’s really important for me to recognize that my self-care is also a form of activism.

There have been a lot of discussions about burdening Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) to improve the systems of oppression that white people and leaders perpetuate. What are your thoughts on this burden as a BIPOC intersectional climate activist yourself?

I would agree with this statement. There’s a real fine line between inclusion or amplification, and burdening BIPOC with the labor required. We should definitely spotlight folks, but we should also take away messages that encourage us to look inwards, continue learning, and dismantle outdated notions and systems of oppression that harm BIPOC people, myself included. I think it’s always important to make sure that spaces are inclusive and welcoming, without the expectation that BIPOC are to be anything other than what is authentic to them.

So, you did something really neat not too long ago: you sailed the Atlantic! What led you to do this and how was the experience?

I was part of a think tank called Sail To The COP, taking 26 European youth to the 25th UN Climate Conference of Parties. Initially I got involved because a person who followed me on Instagram told me about it; they ended up being on the boat with me. I had just finished a collaborative campaign with Stella McCartney, so Stella ended up sponsoring me to join. It was a wild experience to say the least.

Sadly, the COP got relocated from Chile to Madrid, so we found ourselves in the Caribbean working remotely. Afterwards, we ended up berthing in Cartagena, Colombia, where a few of us organized a project to charter the sailboat back to Europe to specifically raise the voices of Latin American and Caribbean youth. It’s safe to say 2019 and 2020 have been wild!

Tori was one of many youth activists who sailed the Atlantic Ocean to attend a UN Climate Change Conference as a demonstration for the need for more sustainable transportation. (Photo credit: Tori Tsui)

 

Was there an exact moment/event when you remember becoming an intersectional climate activist?

Like most people, my activism has evolved and shifted. Initially my drive to become a climate activist was due to the fact that I was incredibly eco-anxious and felt disheartened by the lack of mobilization around the climate crisis. Since then my worldview has expanded a lot, and as an intersectional climate activist, I’ve learned that being a climate activist for me is so much more than advocating for the physical environment. Environments have a lot of social dimensions, and to disregard how they have an impact on people as well as our planet is problematic. After all, so much of the climate crisis is owed to systems of oppression and how they harm marginalized people.

I always ask myself, “If my activism only focuses on my surroundings, then who is my activism even for?” It’s been a gradual process. A lot of what I talk about now has been a concern for me before, but coming to better understand myself and my own struggles has played a role in my becoming more intersectional. For instance, I never really understood what it meant to be a woman of color myself living with chronic mental health conditions. I knew I held a lot of privilege, and I did whatever I could to assimilate, and failed quite a lot of the time. Until the past two years, I’ve never really appreciated how my identity plays into my activism. And through understanding myself and learning from fellow activists, I believe I’m more able to champion intersectionality in a way that makes sense to me.

To learn more about intersectional environmentalism, check out intersectionalenvironmentalist.com. Visit this link to learn more about performative activism by white allies and what needs to be done instead.

To find out more about Tori’s work and current projects, visit her website and her Linktree.

Please feel free to visit the following resources if you seek help for any mental health concerns you may have; taking care of our minds is one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves!

  1. Mental health support in King County.
  2. Getting started with mental health care.
  3. Help for mental illnesses.
  4. Protecting emotional health.