Klur Skincare’s Lesley Thornton on the Effects of Environmental Racism

The beauty expert launched her sustainable brand in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Sixteen years later, she is still fighting for environmental and racial justice.

Klur Beauty founder Lesley Thornton watched as Hurricane Ida ripped through Louisiana’s southern coastline on Sunday, August 29. Thornton, who has many friends and family living in New Orleans, was especially unnerved, as memories of Hurricane Katrina came rushing back to her. Sixteen years ago, before she became the success behind the celebrated skincare line, Thornton was putting herself through college as a working makeup artist. As she saw the havoc of Hurricane Katrina unfold on the Big Easy, she decided she needed to be there to help. With only $25 dollars in her pocket, she drove with 20 others in a caravan headed to New Orleans with the intent of helping the affected communities. Soon after, she launched her line.

On a recent phone call, Thornton reminisced about the work she did with the group during the 2005 crisis. “Every day varied, there was no one set job—we all did what needed to be done,” she said. “Lots of community outreach, health and welfare checks, food and supply runs to the disabled and elderly. There were hot meal preparations with food scraps and dumpster diving, we gutted homes, learned mold remediation, community gardening, bike repair for folks with no transportation.”

The lower-income areas in New Orleans were hit with the most destruction, both during Katrina and in the wake of Ida, which tumbled through the Northeast days later, leading to disastrous results from Pennsylvania to New York City. (In some areas of Louisiana, residents are still without electricity, food, or access to roadways—even three weeks later.) The EPA recently released a statement detailing the link between race and climate change, stating that the most negatively impacted will be minority populations, especially where Black and brown folks live. We discussed with Thornton Ida’s impact on the affected communities, the crisis of environmental racism, and climate change’s impact. She spoke on the importance of community, how change comes about through power in numbers, and the impact that one single person can make on a city that is in dire need of assistance and compassion.

It must be devastating to watch the situation in New Orleans unfold. Are you in contact with your friends and family there? How are they getting by in terms of shelter and their mental health?

I have watched every hurricane since Katrina. No matter how big or small, every storm is a threat, because it can set back the progress of New Orleans. I’ve been in contact with some friends who evacuated to Houston and Atlanta. They are planning to return after the grid is back up. I heard some folks are going to other parts of Louisiana and staying in Airbnbs now. I check multiple Instagram accounts several times a day for any updates—the problem is most people have little access to power so they can’t charge devices and there is hardly any signal. Those who have battery life need to save it. I hope to hear more updates as power gets restored. This why it’s so important to have boots on the ground.

Do you have hope that lessons were learned from Hurricane Katrina that have been implemented during the current crisis?

If you are from New Orleans, it’s like Katrina happened just yesterday—so lessons are continuously learned. One thing that’s for certain is Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate, and she will treat us how we treat her. So far, we have done a lot of taking, but not giving back. From Malibu to the 9th Ward, there isn’t a person who will outlive the planet. We are all on borrowed land. It’s time we look to the right people for guidance. Indigenous-led land management knowledge is vital to understanding the ground we live on. From the Australian wildfires to the hurricanes in Louisiana, both geographies have native land stewards. Indigenous people have long been ignored and displaced, along with their traditional land knowledge systems, like wetland rehabilitation and wildfire prevention and management. The lesson for the world is Indigenous voices must be part of the global strategy of healing our planet.

Lower-income areas have less short- and long-term support in the face of natural disasters. Do you feel there have been any improvements since 2005? Has legislation passed that gives funds to affected areas, regardless of their poverty line or what the racial demographic is?

Katrina was 16 years ago, and climate legislation is barely making its way to the mainstream conversation. That’s because the same corporations extracting the earth for profit are also responsible for 70 percent of the world’s emissions have long influenced climate legislation. This way, nothing ever gets done. For decades, Louisiana has had a notoriously corrupt local government who are easily manipulated by dollars, so residents see a little improvement and the rest of the funds get pocketed. If there have been improvements it’s because of community leadership—people like Malik Rahim and Mama D. Individuals who are deeply invested in the betterment of their neighborhoods and who have devoted their lives and resources to advocating on the behalf of their people. The truth is lawmakers don’t care about poor folks—most laws disproportionately harm people in the lower social and economic class.

Do you have hope that the current administration and FEMA will bring more assistance and improvements to the lower-income areas that have been hit?

Honestly, I have very little hope in our government response to anything. As we speak, the war in Afghanistan has just come to an end. In 2005, thousands of our military members were fighting overseas, while folks in the south were dying. In fact, Katrina hit Biloxi, Mississippi much harder than New Orleans, but the levee system collapsed and that is why New Orleans was underwater.

For years, the Army corps of engineers told the government what would happen, and they ignored the warning— instead, they diverted billions of dollars allocated to fixing the outdated levee system to the war efforts. Many of the same people in power then still hold power now.

Our government has long known the geography of New Orleans—it’s a sinking city, built on wetlands, and 10 feet below sea level. Summers will get hotter, sea levels continue to rise, and the gulf gets warmer—thus, storm strengths will get stronger. There must be a federally assisted evacuation plan in place for projected Category 4 storms to get people to higher ground, should they want to leave.

You have incorporated community building with your work, most notably with Klur’s efforts to help support local communities. During Katrina, you brought aromatherapy to help Katrina victims heal their frayed mental states. How do you personally keep calm in moments of stress?

It depends on the source of stress. I’ve learned that eating a balanced diet helps me cope with general stress. However, this past year and a half has been especially stressful because of Covid and the general state of the world; frankly at times, things feel hopeless.

One thing that helps me release stress is grounding. I walk barefoot in grass and recenter myself through internal dialogue. Basically, I’m openly talking to myself, or expressing gratitude. Even a few minutes of deep breathing from my stomach helps, too. If I’m at home and want to de-stress I absolutely incorporate aromatherapy.

How can we help the people currently suffering in Louisiana?

Mutual aid, giving directly to individuals or families, should not be underestimated. If you want to donate with your values in mind or a tax write-off is important, I suggest looking at Culture Aid Nola, the United Houma Nation, Common Ground Relief. You can also Venmo Nola Mutual Aid directly—this is a small group of local organizers raising funds for the community in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Grassroots organizations need support and have a long-term investment in their community.