Jacqui Patterson is the Environmental and Climate Justice program Director at the NAACP. Jacqui has worked on issues across the social justice spectrum including women‘s rights, violence against women, HIV&AIDS, racial justice, economic justice, and environmental and climate justice. She has extensive experience as a researcher, program manager, coordinator, advocate and activist working on these issues. WEDO’s Malaika Elias had the pleasure of speaking with Jacqui about her involvement in environmental justice and her feminist solutions proposed which are especially pertinent in the wake of Hurricane Maria, Irma, and Harvey as well as the recent 5 year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy.
Malaika: Can you talk a little bit about the work you are doing at the NAACP and what drove you to get involved?
Jacqui: My work began internationally working on HIV/AIDS advocacy, and during the course of this work I saw a pattern of disproportionate impacts on women in different communities. I began making the linkages between socio-economic status and gender in terms of HIV on women around the world. This deepened my interest in gender justice, and in the course of implementing that work I ended up being connected to a lot of gender justice organizing conversations and was recruited to work with ActionAid International. A large part of this role was integrating a gender lens into ActionAid International’s work, with respect to climate change, food security, and macro finance. While working on climate change issues I noticed there wasn’t an extensive gender or race analysis around climate change in the United States, and this was back in 2008. So I helped co-found Women of Color United to link women in the U.S. to women internationally to bolster solidarity around HIV, violence against women, and climate change across borders. WOCU assisted in pushing for the mitigation we need to stop climate change. After I left ActionAid International I received a grant to go around the country and interview women (particularly women of color) who were impacted by climate change and/or working toward climate justice by doing work on disasters, food justice, water, and other surrounding issues. During this process I reached out to the NAACP (in 2009) and expressed interest in interviewing women and they just so happened to be looking for a director for their emerging Climate Gap Initiative and that’s how I got to where I am today!
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the intersections of gender, poverty and climate change? Why is it important to you to make these connections?
A: My entry point into climate change was through food and gender justice. One of the most impactful stories I had heard that solidified my trajectory in this work was when I was doing a focus group in South Africa on access to female condoms. Women in the community said they wanted girls in the community to be able to wear female condoms all the time when they were walking to get water. WIth the added drought ramifications of climate change, they went from walking 5 kilometers to walking 10 km daily to get water and the path was dangerous and susceptible to a high risk of sexual assault. This was a very potent display of disparity that epitomized this intersection early in my work.
Another story pertains to immigration in the United States. One of the women I interviewed on our Women of Color for Climate Justice Road Tour told a story of how her sister was leaving the Cameroon because the breadbasket had dried up in her area and agriculture production decreased to the point that she could no longer provide for her family. She left to a neighboring country, and in that border crossing she was sexually assaulted and became HIV positive; and so again that intersection of income/poverty, climate change- and race to an extent because this is an African Nation-topped with an undocumented status exemplifies the nuance and range of overlapping issues exacerbated by climate disasters. We see all of these things coming together in that one story. Such was also the case in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as significant domestic violence and sexual assault toward women transpired. Women are always vulnerable to assault in these post disaster situations.
We also see a level of displacement happening from disasters. Women are already likely to live in poverty, so when the disasters hit and displacement ensues, it is more long term because they don’t have the financial cushion to rectify the property damages incurred in these situations.
Q: What have your personal experiences as a woman of color in this movement been like?
A: As an African American person I will say that it has been a tumultuous journey. Often in environmental spaces and subspaces- particularly around energy and around environmental law spaces- I am so often the only or one of a tiny handful of African American people present. This is one dynamic that I find myself kind of struggling with because it just feels like we are perceived as the oracle of all African American related topics or the sole voice. It’s tough. Another troublesome aspect of doing this work stems from my identity as a woman of color and feeling like there are so few of people with our perspective and the power we hold. I feel this weight of responsibility and level of drive that makes me feel guilty to sleep or eat or do anything pleasurable because you are holding this responsibility for an entire community. These folks are your family or extended family in a way so you really feel the onus and as a woman of color that already has that cultural propensity to be a caregiver, it’s tough. You can’t really say someone has put it on you but you feel the need to overdo it. I feel like I’m putting myself into potentially unsafe circumstances because of that drive to do more. So I find myself driving at night and sleeping in random places because I’m trying to do so much. Also, in reflecting on the recent social media hashtag in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s allegations as a perpetrator of sexual harassment and assault, I realize that cumulatively, I’ve had so many of those #metoo instances because of some of the situations I have ended up in whilst doing this work.
Q: What is your experience with climate justice either directly or through the work that you do?
A: Besides the example of the focus group, after Hurricane Katrina I was on the last day of the job (infectious disease work) thinking of what I was going to do next and the T.V. showed scenes of Katrina. As I was sitting there watching, I thought: that’s where I want to be next. So I signed up to be part of Crisis Corps which is a program for people who were former Peace Corps volunteers to be a part of the disaster relief forces through FEMA. I went to Texas to work at a disaster relief center. I experienced so much while I was there: hearing the stories of women and their children who barely got out and hearing stories of people who didn’t get out at all, seeing how people were treated and seeing folks who were walking in flip flops and nothing but the clothes on their backs was gut-wrenching. I met a man with HIV who thought he was going to get drug resistance because he didn’t have access to his HIV drugs. There were also many hearing impaired individuals without access to a professional interpreter, and I had to act as the disaster center interpreter even though I had only one semester of sign language instruction. So just seeing how exacerbated these situations became by a substandard response to these disasters really propelled me into action. And just seeing how women and people of color and low income were gravely impacted and fatally impacted- that really changed the trajectory of my life.
Q: What is your feminist perspective on climate justice/injustice? What do you see as the feminist alternative response to climate injustice?
A: My first response is rooted in how we got here in the first place, because many of us know the reason we got here is because of the patriarchy, racism and all of the isms that has made our society how it is, based on domination, exploitation, and extraction. That is the root of the problem and needs to be dismantled to move away from climate change and mitigate its already existing impacts (i.e. GHG emission). From a feminist perspective we need to flip the patriarchy and ensure an economy built on cooperative and regenerative principles which look out for all people. This means the rejection of the male dominated and white supremacist society we are living in. We need to move away from fossil fuels driving climate change and move toward solar, wind, and renewables. We need to continue to move away from a society that buries and burns our waste to one that recovers, reuses and recycles and reinvents our waste and food systems into sustainable industries. We must move away from mass food production and transporting food long distances and get back to consuming and growing food locally. We need frontline communities leading our own solutions, or other groups that are most impacted whether they are people with special needs, LGBTQ, women or all groups disproportionately impacted by climate change; they need to be in the lead, pushing for the solutions we need. We need to have an actual democracy as we know so much of our political system is dominated by who has the most financial resources. We can’t continue to navigate and push for intentional change in a society where people are in offices where campaign contributions are directly tied to decision making. We need to get money out of politics so our votes count and our voices are heard.
Q: Why is it important for women-particularly marginalized women of color-to be included in climate solution discourse? How can environmental organizations and decision makers make these spaces/conversations more intentional and inclusive?
A: Right now as we all know, looking at all of congress, the UN or public utility and service commissions, women and people of color and women of color are practically non-existent in certain spaces. In its 8 year history, the Public Service Commission never had a person of color sitting on its commission, let alone a woman. This is tied to patriarchy and capitalism. We need get back to the definition of what democracy is and see it operationalized.
We also need to be more cognizant and deliberate of what it means to have an inclusive table. Not only do you need to have new processes redefining inclusiveness but also teach people how to be together with grace. We have to put in processes helping people to get to this point. This involves cultural interactions and cross-cultural collaboration- there has to be intersectionality in order for us to get to where we need to be. We can’t get so bogged down in conflict in these spaces that it inhibits our progress. We must acknowledge how necessary this is and be able to do this as seamlessly as possible. This begins with principles of democratic organizing and figuring out how to actually operationalize these principles.
Q: What do you want to see change or happen in the future? What does a climate just future look like to you?
A: Our future must be rooted in a just transition. This involves moving away from a society functioning on extraction to one rooted in deep democracy and to one integrating regenerative processes, cooperation and acknowledgement of interdependence and again, where all rights are respected (indigenous, women’s, and all marginalized communities) and honored. This absolutely must include earth rights as well. We have to respect the vessel. We have to get to a place where we can live in harmony with each other and the Earth.