For Jacqui Patterson, advocacy around protecting the environment extends far beyond just Earth Day.
Patterson runs the Chisolm Legacy Project, which is a resource hub for Black frontline climate justice leadership. The project focuses on four “buckets,” as Patterson calls them— working with individual communities at a hyperlocal level; working with movements and organizations related to racial justice and climate change; bending the mainstream arc towards equity and justice by trying to get groups and individuals to integrate equity and justice into their environmentalist philosophies; and supporting the wellbeing and leadership of Black women.
Patterson says the idea for the Chisolm Legacy Project came from the high demand for the services it offers working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Patterson spent 11 years working on six different projects for the NAACP, one of which was an environmental justice program. Patterson says the program “reached a point that the container of being one of six programs was too small for the demand that we were getting.”
“Every day, I worked until I fell asleep on my laptop,” Patterson said. “I would just be working with CNN in the background until I fell asleep. In the morning, I would wake up and the laptop would still be on from last night and I would just finish the sentence that I had when I fell asleep.”
Patterson says the NAACP was constantly getting requests for speakers at events or to train staff at organizations on the intersections of race and environmental activism. She started Chisolm Legacy Project to focus her work on the intersections of environmental activism, race, and gender, and today the project employs 23 people.
Patterson says she was frustrated by the lack of mainstream media coverage of the intersections of race and climate change when she was working at ActionAid International in the 2000s.
“When you hear about environmentalism [in the 2000s] in the media and otherwise, so much of the talk about climate change, in particular, was by White people for one thing, and it was about polar bears and icecaps and wasn’t really about human rights,” Patterson said. “But it was after Hurricane Katrina and these other various disasters, that one was already beginning to see these differential impacts on Black communities and on women internationally.“
Patterson says there are still many racial and gender disparities in environmental outcomes in the two decades since Hurricane Katrina, noting that Black children are two to three times as likely as White children to die from an asthma attack, that Black children are more likely to be born premature, and that Black women have a higher maternal mortality rate. Patterson says many of the disparities in these outcomes come from facilities that release toxins, such as coal-fired power plants, which are more often located in Black neighborhoods.
“Just as sure as someone takes out a weapon and murders someone, these toxins are the weapons that are murdering our communities and are harming the planet,” Patterson said.
Patterson hopes to release a report in the next three weeks that will highlight 15 ways that Black women are differentially impacted by climate change and 45 ways that Black women are leading the fight for climate justice.
Patterson says the first step in achieving climate justice is to ensure a transparent and true democracy.
“We can’t have climate justice. We can’t have racial justice. We can’t have gender justice, in the context of an extractive economy that is doing what it was designed to do, which is enclose wealth and power in the hands of a very few at the expense of everyone else, including the planet,” Patterson said. “So, we have to advance policies like campaign finance reform so that we actually have a government by the people for the people. And at this point, it’s so much ‘by the corporations, for the corporations,’ and that’s literally why we are where we are.”
Patterson acknowledges that displacing corporate influence in government will be “pretty difficult,” so her other goals are based on mitigating as much harm as possible by adapting to the system as it currently is. One solution Patterson proposed is creating “cooperative solidarity economy models,” or communities that use collective ownership as a tool to decrease disparities. An example of a solidarity economy is the democratization of local utility companies by converting them into publicly owned cooperatives.
“The community would be doing the procurement, the community would have local labor doing the installment, the community would be operating in a way that in the solidarity economy, wouldn’t be about gaining profits—it would be about making sure that the entire community has access to reliable energy and that it’s doing so without harming the environment,” Patterson said.
Patterson stressed that she believes a racial and gender justice lens should be kept in mind when approaching issues of environmental justice, noting that some utility companies have never had a woman in leadership, or that some areas in Mississippi with large Black populations have never had a Black public service commissioner.
“We have to really double down on acknowledging racism, which is complicated in the extractive economy,” Patterson said. “We have to be very clear about our analysis around racial impacts and gender impacts to solve for those disproportional impacts.”
Patterson will give a keynote speech in Minneapolis at Climate Generation’s 2023 Benefit event this Wednesday, April 26.
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