With Pressure, U.S. Climate Movement is Becoming More Inclusive of Communities of Color

Posted Nov. 18, 2015

MP3 Interview with Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP's Environmental and Climate Justice Program, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

naacp

The U.S. environmental movement has long had a reputation for attracting mostly white middle-class activists. But for many decades, the struggle for environmental justice has been fought out in overwhelmingly low-income communities of color that border some of the nation's most polluting industries.

In 2009, the NAACP hired Jacqueline Patterson, the first director of the group’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program. The program, she explains, was established because at the time there was no visible racial justice component inside any of the nation's mainstream climate organizations. Over the past six years, Patterson has been at the forefront of helping front-line communities integrate climate activism into their agenda and pushing big green environmental groups to integrate a social justice lens into their daily work.

Patterson was one of the speakers at the third annual Climate Stewardship Summit on Nov. 5 in West Hartford, Connecticut, sponsored by the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network. In an interview with Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus, Patterson discusses some of the successes a more integrated movement has achieved and the challenges that remain.

JACQUELINE PATTERSON: When we talk about intersectionality in this climate space, it’s about the fact the entities that are pushing back on having regulations for clean air are pushing back on incentivizing and supporting RE&D on the expansion of clean energy and even energy efficiency are the same entities that are also pushing for stripping of voting rights and suppressing the votes in certain areas. The same folks who would vote in favor of the types of regulations that we need, the folks who are most impacted by dirty air and so forth are the folks whose votes are being suppressed. So we just see a whole intersection between environmental issues and the types of policies that we need and issues around voting rights and voter suppression.

BETWEEN THE LINES: There was a question raised by a white woman – and I’m saying race because I think it’s relevant to the point – she looked around the room and at least 90 percent of the people here are white people. I think her point was, we have to get everybody involved in this. And the first answer that was given by an African-American man was it’s survival issues. A lot of black people are struggling more just to survive, so they’re thinking the next hour, the next meal, and not necessarily down the road, even though they may understand the issues and they may want to get involved. Do you agree with that analysis?

JACQUELINE PATTERSON: That is true certainly of some people, for sure, and I think obviously if there had been time to have a longer conversation, I think he was raising that as one point, I don’t think he was saying that explained the whole thing. So I followed up by saying also that there are folks who are engaging on the front lines of environmental and climate justice struggles because, again, they’re the ones who have those things in their backyards, they’re the ones with the high rates of asthma, the ones dying of lung disease even though they’ve never smoked a day in their lives. They’re the ones who are facing all of this. So there are communities all over the country engaged in this all day, every day.

One of the questions is why is that this group isn’t connected to those groups. I think that’s the bigger question that we need to ask in terms of what kinds of relationships we need to be building at the local level so that, if there’s a group doing this work all day, every day, and if there’s another group having a similar conversation somewhere else, why it is that they’re not connecting together. Those are some of the questions I’d love to see asked, and then also, when we first did our report, "Coal-blooded: Putting profits before people," where we were looking at coal-fired power plants throughout the country, there were definitely communities where the coal plants might be right in their backyard, but they would say to us, "You know, we drive past that thing every day and we never tied it to the fact that half the people in our church are on respirators and half the kids in our schools are carrying asthma inhalers every day. We just never made that connection because that’s just the way our lives are. Like this is just the state of affairs. We didn’t know necessarily that it’s different from any other community."

So we started having conversations around these connections, and people haven’t done a good job – big environmental groups – in messaging these real human impacts. They’ve been talking about the polar bears, the ice caps, the bees – you know, all these different things that people don’t necessarily tie to their everyday life. And so we really have started with a whole story collection piece, and that’s what we’ve focused on, collecting stories around climate change and how it’s affecting communities so people do see it through a story-based lens.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I have to say, I’ve been a member of the Sierra Club for 30 to 40 years, so I get the magazine. And I have to say I think the most recent issue was the “climate justice” issue. I feel like – and I know they’ve hired a lot of folks around the country who do this work – they’re the biggest grassroots-based group of the Big Greens. Do you feel like the Sierra Club or any other “big green” group has been making progress toward incorporating issues of climate justice into their work?

JACQUELINE PATTERSON: Yeah, and that’s what I was saying in answer to your first question; that’s one thing I’ve seen in the evolution over the six years, that there has been definitely more of a leaning in and more of a conversation about how these different issues intersect. Sierra Club, in particular, they have a great environmental justice program and they’ve made a commitment to diversity and inclusion, and doing training around that throughout the organization, so that’s been positive. They explicitly leaned into the Black Lives Matter movement and that’s been positive as well. Not leaning into other issues in a quid pro quo way – like we’re going to do this and then we want you to do that, but really recognizing that these issues are directly intersectional – the fact that black lives are devalued in association with interactions with the police is related to the fact that black lives are devalued and that black communities are disproportionately dumped on or contaminated or polluted, so it’s really all the same conversation; it’s not trading engagement.

Also, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Earthjustice, Union of Concerned Scientists and others – some of these big greens – have leaned into this process called the Building Equity and Alignment Initiative, which is a collaboration between grassroots frontline community groups, big green organizations and foundations, where they’re all coming together to really talk explicitly about how we can change the way we’re doing this and how we can center anti-oppression work and real frontline community leadership in advancing this movement.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Also, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Earthjustice, Union of Concerned Scientists and others – some of these big greens – have leaned into this process called the Building Equity and Alignment Initiative, which is a collaboration between grassroots frontline community groups, big green organizations and foundations, where they’re all coming together to really talk explicitly about how we can change the way we’re doing this and how we can center anti-oppression work and real frontline community leadership in advancing this movement.

For more information, visit the NAACP's Environmental and Climate Justice Program at naacp.org/programs/entry/climate-justice; NAACP Climate Justice Blog; NAACP ClimateJustice Initiative Toolkit.

Related Links: