Women Speak: Jacqueline Patterson Brings an Equity Lens to the Fight for Environmental Justice

Jacqueline Patterson, Director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program at the NAACP, has worked as a researcher, coordinator, program manager, advocate and activist on issues spanning violence against women, racial justice, economic justice, HIV/AIDS and environmental and climate justice. As a Senior Women’s Rights Policy Analyst for ActionAid, Patterson implemented a women’s rights lens across issues of food rights, macroeconomics, climate change and the intersection of HIV/AIDS and violence against women.

In light of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network’s new Women Speak initiative Ms. spoke withPatterson about bringing an equity lens to environmentalism, bridging the work of frontline communities with national organizations and the need for holistic, women-led solutions.

To set the stage for our readers, could you talk a bit about the work you do and what what it means to be an Environmental and Climate Justice activist leading the fight at the NAACP?

My work is divided into two primary buckets. Our primary focus is to really work with our branches, chapters, state leaders to support their leadership on environmental and climate justice. This is everything from helping to make sure that there is research and analysis and materials that they can use to advance the advocacy they’d like to do, to working with them and training them on providing a strategy for development. For instance if there is a certain vision that they want for their community or state, we help them figure out what skills they need in order to actualize whatever their vision is. Two, is to really work with the broader field of environmental and climate justice and provide guidance based not only on climate and environmental justice from environmentalism. For example, for folks who are doing work on energy or conservation from a traditional view of environmentalism, it’s about helping those groups get a sense of what an equity lens looks like. I bridge the work that I do directly with frontline communities and help those who may be working purely on clean energy see how their work may be intersectional with education justice or health justice or criminal justice or voting rights so that they have a more nuanced approach to the work they are doing on environmentalism, conservation, energy, etc.

Environmental and Climate Justice is now number two on the NAACP’s list of issues. How did this come to be? What has the eight-year-long evolution be like?

One reason is the sheer demand in terms of issues that our branches and chapters are facing out there and the more we say we’re doing this work the more the units come out and say we need this or we need that, in terms of wanting to get more deeply involved in climate and environmental justice. Two, because of the influence that we’ve managed to make on the field, there is more demand for our engagement. When I first started I got 20 emails a day, a year later maybe 50 emails a day—now I get over 200 emails a day! That’s literally the level of our visibility and the demand both internally, in terms of helping with technical assistance, strategy development and training, and externally in terms of our sense, our analysis and helping connecting with our frontline community groups and advancing environmental and climate justice. Another part is growing an understanding broader than the NAACP in terms of whether it’s the prior administration or various states or city governments—a broadened understanding of climate change and the need and commitment to taking action.

Can you share your thoughts and experiences on why the voices and solutions of women of color working for social and ecologic justice are so vital at this time?

Three reasons I guess. One is the disproportionate impact of climate change and environmental injustice on women in general and women of color specifically. Two is the differential leadership role that women can play in advancing principles and practices of environmental and climate justice because of perspectives, cultural aspects of women and feminist organizing and leadership. And three is because of the absence of women in elected office. There are a lot of women in leadership. But when it comes to elected office, leadership of environmental organizations, and other decision making positions—in particular in the energy industry—women are grossly underrepresented. So that’s a call to action in and of itself, in terms of greater parity in decision-making spaces.

Now around the disproportionate impact, it’s everything, on both sides of the climate change continuum—from the drivers of climate change and environmental injustice to the man camps in North and South Dakota where instances of trafficking and sexual assault are through the roof, to the fact that women are exposed to toxins that harm reproductive health and result in birth defects, to the fact that women are more likely to experience violence in the aftermath of climate disasters. Whether its the BP oil disaster or Hurricane Katrina, in both of those instances there’s documentation of the extreme spike in sexual violence and domestic violence as well. In countries around the world, there has been a shift in agricultural yields due to drought and flooding, and women have experienced increased domestic violence as a result of not being able to play their roles in the household, as well as due to an increase in overall household stress. Those are literally just a handful of the many ways woman are disproportionately impacted.

Solutions have to be led by the people that are most impacted, so this is a call for women’s leadership and given the current degree of under-representation of women in decision-making positions.

Some people say the Environmental and Climate Justice movements haven’t yet fully come together as one movement, despite their many connections. Do you agree with this, and if so what do you think is impeding this relationship and what could be gained from a more intersectional approach?

Many people say it’s a false separation because the climate is part of the environment, so really climate justice would ideally be in the context of environmental justice. Environmental justice has traditionally been more defined around disproportionate burdens of toxic exposure and contamination, as well as uneven sharing of environmental benefits such as access to open space, green spaces or wild spaces. And with climate justice being a relatively recent topic of focus, much of the conversation is around the varying of the disproportionately negative impact on certain communities from the whole climate continuum, as well as the fact that these same communities are the least responsible for climate change. Then there’s also the disparity in terms of power over solutions in climate change. I would hope that most would agree that climate justice is a subset of environmental justice.

Civil rights activists will often argue that issues like like police brutality and high unemployment, for example, are more immediate and as such should take precedence over environmental and climate activism. How do you challenge this argument?

We also talk about how, in some ways, climate solutions are similar to solutions to some of these other issues and we need to think about holistic solutions with co-benefits. For example, instead of thinking of racial profiling, and the police brutality that results, and the whole prison-industrial-complex, as only criminal justice issues, we can consider an integrated campaign that includes prison abolition as well as creating employment opportunities for formally incarcerated persons in a new energy economy as an antidote to recidivism and as an opportunity for community economic development. So thinking holistically and not having a competition of issues, we must, instead, have integrated solutions.

Is there one issue, under the larger umbrella of environmental and climate injustice, that you think is the most pressing?

In some ways, campaign finance reform! A lot of where we are today is because the wrong people are in power and those people are prioritizing the luxurious of the few over the necessities of the many, including prioritizing their wants over the sustainability and vitality of the earth on which we all rely as a core necessity for our existence. As long as we have decision makers who are profiteering without regard for human rights and Earth rights as their focus, we’re going to continue to be in this situation. Until we get money out of politics we are going to continue to have that circumstance.

Jessica Merino is an editorial intern at Ms. Her focus is on women’s health and climate and environmental justice. 

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