A Diversity Conversation with Jacqueline Patterson

Jacqueline Patterson

Jacqueline Patterson is the Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program. Since 2007 Patterson has served as coordinator & co-founder of Women of Color United. Jacqui Patterson has worked as a researcher, program manager, coordinator, advocate and activist working on women‘s rights, violence against women, HIV&AIDS, racial justice, economic justice, and environmental and climate justice. Patterson served as a Senior Women’s Rights Policy Analyst for ActionAid where she integrated a women’s rights lens for the issues of food rights, macroeconomics, and climate change as well as the intersection of violence against women and HIV&AIDS. Previously, she served as Assistant Vice-President of HIV/AIDS Programs for IMA World Health providing management and technical assistance to medical facilities and programs in 23 countries in Africa and the Caribbean. Patterson served as the Outreach Project Associate for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Research Coordinator for Johns Hopkins University. She also served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Jamaica, West Indies.

This interview was conducted on March 18, 2019 by Clara Fang.

Can you tell us about what you do and what the NAACP is doing to address climate change?

The NAACP is addressing climate change both on the mitigation side and the adaptation side of the equation. We have two strategic objectives surrounding mitigation, and the third is largely about adaptation. We want to make sure there is equity with both mitigation and adaptation.

On the mitigation side, our first strategic objective is to reduce harmful emissions, particularly greenhouse gases. We work with 1200 branches and chapters throughout the country on everything from passing clean air ordinances at the local level, particularly in places where there isn’t preemption, to clean air resolutions at the local level to at least start the dialogue around what quality of air folks want.

Before the 2016 election, we worked more at the federal level on protection and defenses of the Clean Air Act and rulemaking under the Clean Air Act, like the new source performance standards from power plants and the Clean Power Plan. Since the election, we’ve focused more on local efforts to reducing emissions. We work on clean air ordinances and with communities on a plant by plant basis. We also work with youth on doing citizen science projects, like testing their own air, water, and soil, and then helping them to develop an advocacy plan around the findings from this testing and monitoring. We have a primer coming out on April 1st that’s called “Fossil Fuels Foolery: The Top 10 Manipulation Tactics that Fossil Fuel Companies Use.” We’re excited because someone is sponsoring a cartoonist to help to illustrate it.

Our second objective is advancing energy efficiency and clean energy policies and practices. While we want to stop the bad, we also want to work on building the good. We put a lot of effort into making sure that not only are we transitioning to a cleaner and more energy efficient economy, but that communities of color and low-income communities are really a part of that transition and not just at the lowest rungs of the ladder. We want them to be at all levels and leading the new energy revolution.

We launched the solar equity initiative last year, where we work with GRID Alternatives and Sunrun to do solar installations for low income homes. We started by doing this on a community center, the Genesee Center for Domestic Violence Prevention and Intervention in LA. We’re working on making sure that people of color, low income people, and women are getting trained in the solar industry so that they are part of one of the fasted growing job categories. We’re working with the most marginalized in our society, like homeless veterans, to make sure they get connected, trained in solar, and placed in jobs. We also started a Power Up employment project for formerly incarcerated people to get trained on solar, as well as energy efficiency retrofits, weatherization, and so forth. We’re really trying to make sure it reaches all areas of society.

In Texas, we’re doing a solar installation on an immigrant rights center in Laredo, Texas, which is a border community. It’s in an area with 40% unemployment and a list of other challenges as an immigrant community. We are working closely with them to not only have solar so that they’re saving money on their electric bills, because they’ve had more days above ninety degrees than Death Valley, but also to set up a solar training center that would be the only solar training center within hundreds of miles. Normally, the NAACP just does civil rights advocacy policy change work. But with this, we felt like we really needed to be intentional about having people be able to touch this work closely in order to be better advocates. Otherwise, people might not necessarily see how it ties into our civil rights agenda. We’ve been very practical about our work there.

Our advocacy side is about advancing energy efficiency resource standards, renewable portfolio standards, community solar policies, and net metering policies. Our economic justice side is about passing policies around local higher provisions and disadvantaged business enterprise provisions for minority and women owned businesses

Our third objective is strengthening community resilience in the context of climate adaptation, recognizing that sea level rise is already displacing communities, disasters are already taking lives and displacing communities, and that shifted agricultural yields are making food insecurities in so many communities even worse. We’re both working on helping communities build adaptive practices and the policies that they need to have better systems that will be able to weather the storms, both literally and figuratively.

What are the challenges in what you do?

The reason we’re putting out that “Fossil Fuel Foolery” report and really homing in on the manipulation tactics is because those companies have historically targeted our communities to build relationships, make it seems like they’re our friends, and pretend like they’re acting in our interests. In reality, they are wealth-building monopoly schemes, and we want to uncover that. Up until now, it’s been a challenge because they have been very shrewd about integrating and incorporating themselves into our communities and incorporating some of the community folk into their operations. So, it has definitely been a challenge trying to confront some of that.

It’s kind of sad, like telling your friends that their partner is cheating on them, trying to tell people who have really built up relationships. It’s not just a money thing, since these companies have been very intentional about building relationships with these communities.

A challenge that we have managed to overcome by having this very practical project has been the notion of “what does this have to do with civil rights?” That is a notion that comes up both internally and externally, and even with other organizations. We have had to do some internal and external education about how completely connected this environmental work is to our civil rights agenda.

At CCL, we believe that carbon pricing is one of many solutions to the problem and we need to continue to address environmental injustices through other legislation. What is your opinion of carbon pricing? What are the concerns of the EJ community?

I think the concept of anything that’s going to reduce carbon emissions, given our catastrophic slide towards climate change, is worth discussing. The EJ communities, and various people within those communities, have had challenges around the notion of pricing something that kills. There is a concern about legitimizing it by making it part of the market as something you can pay for, like how you can pay for gum. That seems to be the basic language and framing of it, the notion that there shouldn’t be something in the market that’s unnecessary and fatal.

Another thing is that if we know that it’s more expensive to burn carbon in general, then we know from experience that it’s less expensive to burn carbon in communities of color and low-income communities. The concern is that it might actually result in reducing carbon emissions where it’s most expensive to operate, and therefore potentially increasing operations in places where it’s less expensive to operate. That’s another challenge around not having source-based regulations, and instead having a general price per ton on carbon. It leaves that level of flexibility and latitude.

Folks have concerns with the framing, language, and concept of carbon pricing, as well as the operationalization and ways that it may actually have a regressive impact. There’s also a concern that no matter how much the dividend is, it’s not enough or even comparable to the costs that communities are paying. That’s a critique, though it’s not as articulate as someone who works on this very deeply would be able to make, that you hear most often.

How might we communicate our response to the concerns of the EJ community?

That’s a good question. I think you can do so in a couple of ways. One would be to have more of a push towards the illegalization of carbon emissions. The tax should be framed more as a penalty rather than prices people can pay for a good or service. I think that outlawing and penalizing would be the kind of language that people would find more acceptable, as well as having some source regulations so that everything isn’t just at the whim of the market.

By having this kind of across the board price, it means that companies get to decide where to start and where to stop based on what’s going to be better for their pocketbooks, and marginalized communities will be on the losing end of the equation. Coupling this price with specific limitations that are put on the very facilities that are in those communities will decrease the chance of it having a disproportionate negative effect on those communities. If plants that are only in use at certain times become fully operational because they’ve taken other plants that are more expensive to operate offline, then these communities will be harmed.

Those types of moves would make it less challenging and would mitigate the negative impacts. We are currently putting together a carbon pricing paper that looks at the various models and recommendations and lays out some of the equity challenges around them, so that might be even more helpful to you.

How long has your organization been working to connect environmental issues with civil rights issues?

This is actually the ten-year anniversary of it being a part of a formal national program. Before then, it was happening more at the local level in areas that were facing very specific EJ challenges. As a national program with a framework around intersectionality with civil rights, we’ve only been working on this for ten years. We started this official work at the national level by having workshops on this at our annual convention. At the regional level, we started workshops at Civil Rights Advocacy Training Institutes.

In the beginning, people were bemused. When I first did a workshop, I was in Oklahoma City for Region 6, which is our Southwest Region, the name of it was Climate Justice 101. One of our clients thought that the workshop was going to be about the climate of workplace discrimination, the idea of environmental justice didn’t even occur to them. They later understood because we always use stories of things that are actually happening in our communities to make the link. Another time that we did this workshop, someone thought that the workshop was going to be about the climate of injustice in the world. They had no notion of what we were talking about.

We’ve come a long way from there in that we’ve built up a lot of state and local leaders who can speak to this from very real community-based perspective. Now, it’s not like we’re going into communities blind and asking for this topic to be implemented. We’re having these conversations at the national level and at the regional level. If people come wanting to learn more about it, implement a solar project in their community, or address a coal plant in their community, then we go to the community. We put our wares out and have these different forums so that if people say they want to learn more, they can invite us. We won’t go to communities uninvited.

At CCL, we are welcoming of all people who want to build political will for climate solutions, but we have low numbers of people of color. What is your advice for improving the culture of the organization to be more welcoming? (hiring diverse staff and leadership, anti-oppression education, EJ education, etc.?)  

I think that anti-oppression training is important, for sure. There are groups that could help with this, such as People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), and SURGE. I would start by having a conversation with a couple of those groups. There are also individual consultants that will help, like Angela Park, who is very good. She has worked with LCV and some of these other big green organizations, so she would be a great person to do that.

They can work with leadership to put together an action plan for doing these kinds of trainings. Whether it’s starting at the national level or connecting with certain chapters so that each chapter can get connected with the local SURGE and they do trainings together. There are people who can help put these trainings together.

What is your advice for doing outreach to people of color on climate change?

I think that without having anti-oppression trainings, it would be more harmful than good. Like I said, if I hadn’t been used to situations like the one I experienced at the National Conference, and if I was a different person, everybody in the world would’ve known about it. It would’ve turned that person off from the organization permanently.

So, I think that without doing the groundwork of trainings, it would be counterproductive in a lot of ways. Unless there’s an openness to really listen to EJ concerns, it would also be counterproductive. People would feel like you’ve wasted their time by asking them about this when you have no intention of changing in any way. That’s even worse than continuing on with what you’re currently doing.

After in-depth anti-oppression training, volunteers would get a better sense of what the best approaches are to having outreach conversations. Whether it’s having them join their local EJ group, meeting others where they are is what’s key. It’s not about trying to pull people over, it’s about meeting people where they are and joining forces with other groups to form allyship, understanding them, and building those relationships before starting to introduce whatever you’re trying to tell them. You should not go where you are not invited, and you should be understanding their problems, their solutions, and what they care about.

What organizations have done this well and transitioned to being good allies that we can look to as examples?

I don’t know if you’ve heard of the B Initiative, or Building Equity and Alignment for Impact. It is a national group that’s big green, philanthropy, and grassroots groups all coming together to really talk about where the common ground is and how we can build together. That might be a good group for CCL to explore because it could learn from the models that are out there and be part of a community of practice around integration of agendas with other grassroots groups.

There aren’t many models, but the Sierra Club’s EJ program, specifically, would be good to look at. It’s run by Leslie Fields, an African American attorney, and they have a group of organizers that have a certain ethos and are very deliberate and intentional about how they organize and build relationships. They tend to be well-received in what they’re doing, so I would definitely look to that model. I would even recommend that you all have a conversation with Leslie because she can really speak from a similar perspective as CCL as someone who’s walking a similar path.

What do you perceive are the barriers for people of color to be engaged in climate policy at the federal level and how could we address them?

I think the biggest barrier is that there’s so much happening that’s pulling on people’s time and energy. Just since the last few weeks, I’ve accumulated 2000 messages that all start with “Dear Jacquie.” That’s after I’ve filtered out all the listserves and non-essential things. That’s on top of the other stuff that I do, like writing proposals, running trainings, doing talks, etc. I could have two full-time jobs just answering emails.

That’s the problem with being a person of color in this work because people act like we’re unicorns, and we’re just constantly inundated. Even more so for folks that are on the front lines, there’s just so much that they face, especially since the returns are questionable. In particular, this is happening at the federal level now. We used to do a lot more with the Clean Air Act and all the rule-making, but now we focus more on clean air ordinances and things that we can actually influence and move now. People are just making a calculation as to where best to put limited energy and time. Even if people are middle class and don’t have income as a concern, they still have limited time and energy, and there’s always the calculation of where to best put those resources.

I think the important thing is to make sure that there are multiple benefits. For example, when the People’s Climate March was being planned, I was concerned because I wasn’t sure what it was going to result in, while making people spend the money, energy, and time to go there. I was thinking that to make the event worth it, we would have to have some workshops or something during that time so that people could go to contribute something, but also return with something they learned that they could implement in their community or a toolkit they could use at home.

Similarly, when people are engaged at the federal level, even if its symbolic or just kind of raising awareness and not going to have any immediate results, it’s important to make sure that there’s time built in for learning. It can’t just be a thing where people fly in, have a talk on Capitol Hill, and then fly back out. There has to be time for people to build fellowship or learn something so that it’s not just an action that they contributed.

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