Environmental Justice & Local Activism, A Conversation with NAACP Leader Jacqui Patterson (Episode 38)

Jacqui Patterson, the director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program, joined ILSR co-founder and Waste to Wealth initiative researcher Neil Seldman and ILSR’s Communications Manager Nick Stumo-Langer for the latest edition of our Building Local Power podcast.

The discussion centers on the practical implications of environmental justice and how she balances her work at a national non-profit with the needs of 2200 branches and local chapters of the NAACP. The trio also delves into the difficulties facing local communities that attempt to make local ownership of energy resources a reality. Finally, Jacqui explains how her work intersects with a number of other activist spaces including organizing around women’s issues and racial justice in order to create a healthier environment and a vibrant local community.

Jacqui joins ILSR staffers in the Washington D.C. office.

“[I]t’s not as if I can sit here and say that we know the entire nation and every municipality, what they have and don’t have.

But we know starting with the ones we’re working with that actually have a vision of what they want to do and we kind of build out from there,” says Jacqui Patterson, Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program.

Nick Stumo-Langer: Hello and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast from the Institute for Local Self Reliance. My name’s Nick Stumo-Langer and I am the communication’s manager for ILSR. I am back in the host seat today for a great episode of our podcast. In this podcast Neil Seldman, ISLR’s co-founder and I interviewed Jacqui Patterson. Jacqui is the director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program. She’s a great leader and activist who tours around the country. Jacqui’s work is very important for understanding the impact that monopolies have on our economy, especially when it comes to environmental justice, energy democracy, and communities of color.

Now, here’s the interview.

Neil Seldman: Hello everybody. This is Neil Seldman, the Institute for Local Self Reliance. We are about to have a podcast with Jacqui Patterson of the NAACP. I just wanted to mention that Jacqui and the institute have known each other for many years. We overlap with work in the sense that we fight incinerators, so does she. We focus on environmental justice for all our projects. In a broader sense, the more Jacqui and her colleagues at the NAACP are successful in cleaning up industry just as we try to increase recycling, it leads to better jobs for everybody. The environment and jobs are quite compatible. I hope this discussion brings it out. So welcome to you, Jacqui.
Jacqui Patterson: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Nick Stumo-Langer: Yeah. So this is Nick Stumo-Langer here, the ILSR’s communication’s manager and I think we’ll just kind of kick this off with kind of talking about a little bit of the work that you do at the NAACP Environmental Justice Program and kind of how do you coordinate with local community groups and what is your average day look like, even though I’m sure that it’s a pretty crazy one?
Jacqui Patterson: Yeah. So I work with local communities. As you may or may not know, the NAACP has 2,200 branches and chapters across the country, including local, everything from sub-municipal. For example, in Chicago I think we have four branches because it’s such a big area to college chapters and so forth. Then also youth counsels and women in the environment groups. So we a lot of local groups. The Environmental Climate Justice Program literally lives to serve those groups. That’s the purpose of our mission. So we do everything from doing analysis, policy reviews analysis, and reviews of best practices around everything from energy to anti-toxics work to climate resilience and adaptation work. So we both review the practices that are out there and make sure that our units know what those practices are and how they can replicate them. We also review the policies that are out there. Federal, state, and local policies and help our units meeting our branches and chapters to know how they can effect those. Then we go in and we work directly with the units on developing strategies for whatever changes they want to advance at the local level.
Neil Seldman: About two or three months ago you were interviewed by McKibben, the founder of 350.org, and we were pleased and intrigued by one of our responses. That was to the question he posed as to the necessity of getting back to Democratic institutions. You pointed out the obvious, that we have to fight voter suppression and gerrymandering. Right after that you mentioned that work at the local level on waste and energy. You were kind enough to mention the Institute’s work. So I was interested in your mind on your daily activities. How do you balance the environmental arguments with the political arguments to increase Democratic participation?
Jacqui Patterson: We see that in some ways the environmental work that we do is both … It’s interdependent with democracy because we can’t really have a democracy when we have a fossil fuel based economy where the very money that we pay in our rate for our electricity bills not only goes to use a process to create energy that pollutes our own communities, but it also goes into the coffers of groups that take those profits to do anti-clean air lobbying, anti-clean energy lobbying, and they pay into groups like ALEC, which actually actively advancing an agenda around voter suppression.
Nick Stumo-Langer: Absolutely.
Jacqui Patterson: So we see it all. So when we talk about having local self reliance and local generation of energy and so forth, we’re really talking about building democracy because we’re having a distribution of wealth and we’re actively working to take money out of politics in that sense.
Neil Seldman: If I could just say, I read an article recently, I don’t remember the name, but it listed all the major corporations that everybody knows from day to day living who contribute to the ALEC’s of the world for voter suppression, to politicians who push this so they can get further donations. It was extremely depressing because it was just about every major Fortune 500 company. People do have to realize that these corporations that are taking our money and actually using it to suppress our rights. Of course, it’s good to be in the same category as the NAACP fighting these things. But it’s great that you’re pointing them out and making the links between environmental danger and the danger to democracy.
Nick Stumo-Langer: And for listeners of this podcast, I think what Jacqui said kind of about almost the cyclical nature of having to spend rate payers, captive rate payers having to spend the money on fossil fuel, assets that are being built, nuclear plants, natural gas fracking that they don’t have a choose of whether or not to get their energy from a different source is paying into these democracy suppressing groups. So I’m kind of wondering … It’s a big problem that you pointed out and that Neil helped to underline. So what are you seeing on the local level that’s really fighting against this because the problem seems really insurmountable. I know it’s probably a big question, but that’s why we like to do this podcast to answer big questions.
Jacqui Patterson: Yeah. No, that’s a great question. It is a big one, and it is one that we wrestle with every day, all day. I mean, we are of the mind that building a thousand points of light is important. So each community, each household that we get to help to pull away resources from practices and industries and corporations that actively push against our voting rights is the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. So even though it sounds like it could be insurmountable, when you think of some of the other great struggles that really just started with small struggles and just kind of built up. I can’t think of any examples off my head, but I know there are those out there.
Neil Seldman: Refusing to go to the back of the bus. Rosa Parks 50 or so years ago. I can’t keep track of the years.
Jacqui Patterson: It’s hard to imagine. Yeah, it’s true. There’s just so many.
Neil Seldman: Nick asked this, when you go into a community that’s threatened by pollution coming across the fence, what’s your biggest challenge? Is it to get to meet the people, are the people already organized, or is the NAACP the organizing instrument?
Jacqui Patterson: So yeah. It can be a combination of things. Usually we don’t … We’re not of the mind to go into a community and say, “You’re all messed up here. You need to do …”
Neil Seldman: Not a good starting point.
Jacqui Patterson: No, exactly. So our work really starts with being in response to the challenges that are posed by our branches and chapters and then supporting them in whatever their vision is. In some cases, we will work with units that might not necessarily be aware of what’s happening. For example, when we did our cold-blooded report, we looked at the cold fire power plants across the country and did this analysis and discovered these polluting plants and so forth. Then we did go to those communities just to share the findings of the report, and then share the findings of the report we had communities that said, “Wow. No wonder half the people in my church are dragging around respirators or half the kids in school are having to carry their nebulizers to school just to get through a day.” So it all began to make sense to them through those conversations. So there’s that. Then from there we help folks develop a plan towards whatever it is, the goal is that they might want to address what’s effecting their community.

So it’s kind of both end. So they’ll come to us with it or we’ll go to them with data. Then they can take it from there in terms of what they want to do with it. 

Neil Seldman: I want to bring up one recent experience in the city of Baltimore, and of course the NAACP is based in Baltimore and Jacqui works out of that office. This might take a minute to set up. But we’ve been fighting incinerators for many … Garbage incinerators for many years. Invariably, the pattern has been the environmental people start the concern because of pollution, but once the decisions are basically carried forward with citizens do the financial analysis and see that it’s preposterous to invest $500 million cost $1 billion after you pay it off. In Baltimore, things changed. In Baltimore, as Jacqui knows, there is a downtown incinerator, which we’re fighting and hope to eliminate soon. But in the southern part of Baltimore, in Curtis Bay a few years ago, it was a proposal for a 4,000 ton per day incinerator. The young people there, white, Latino, African American basically organized around Ben Franklin High School, and they managed to get the entire city on the environmental justice bandwagon, if you will. Got the museums to cancel contracts to get energy from this dirty plant. Other local governments, the board of education, etc. It was quite a marvelous example of how environmental justice was the driver as opposed to economic analysis. I’m wondering if you’ve had other experiences, not necessarily in garbage incineration but other areas of protecting low income communities and communities of color, which have been inspired by environmental justice?
Jacqui Patterson: One of the places is in Gulf Port, Mississippi.
Neil Seldman: Oh!
Jacqui Patterson: Yeah. Where we were working with a branch there. We started with a conversation around after we done the cold-blood report actually, and found that there was a plant there that got a D grade on our report based on the level of pollutants that it puts out and it’s proximity to people. Then the proportion to people who are of color, the proportion to people who were low income. It ended up with a D grade. So we went and had the conversation with them. Then the NAACP branch got very involved in organizing community members, organizing churches, organizing folks in genera around the plant. It went from that to them having a conversation around their community in general and what they want for their community. Most recently, they have developed a series of community gardens to deal with their food insecurity issues. They also got all of their fire departments, houses of worship, and so forth together to do an equity and emergency management trainings. So they’ve done a whole series of …
Neil Seldman: Terrific.
Jacqui Patterson: Yeah. Exactly. It was born out of the environmental justice struggle.
Neil Seldman: I think this is quite a coincidence. You may not remember, but both of us participated in NAACP state conference in Florida.
Jacqui Patterson: Oh, yes.
Neil Seldman: A while back. I met people from the Gulf Port NAACP and we started working with them as a result of that conference. Very, very lovely people. The need was great. I also from it very interesting that it was a good combination of older people, mostly retired, but people over 50, let’s say, who had social security and other pensions, could afford the time, and there were a lot of young people there. Not too many people in the middle. But it was wonderful to see older people and younger people working on the same issues. It’s wonderful to hear now that the community gardens is moving forward. That was one of the issues years ago that we discussed at the meeting down there.
Nick Stumo-Langer: You’re listening to Jacqui Patterson, director of the NAACP’s Environmental And Climate Justice Program. I’m Nick Stumo-Langer with the Institute for Local Self Reliance, and we’ll be back after a short break.

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So because so many different parts of your work seem to kind of intersect with local policies and state policies that may restrict. For example, a zoning ordinance that would maybe limit the size of a community garden that leads to decreasing the amount of food deserts and also revitalizing the soils that’s so important in some of these most polluted zip codes. How do you do it? How do you keep track of the state, local, and the federal policies that may be impacting the communities you work with? Maybe as a term of advice for ILSR, how do you get that repository and also how do you activate the folks on the ground to fight against either a specific zoning policy or a specific state law saying, “You can’t have a community garden offering compost within certain feet of x.” That type of thing. Just wondering how you kind of keep all those balls in the air as you’re juggling them.

Jacqui Patterson: Yeah. So we just actually had a community resilience convening in December, and out of that community resilience convening we talked about all the aspirations that the communities had for themselves and then the communities talked about what the challenges are to those aspirations. Some of them might be political will or interest or engagement in the community. Others might be these different policies that are out there. In that we also put out kind of a draft policy platform that looked at about 12 areas of land use policies and all these different policies, and then we looked at those against the vision that folks had. Then we started to look at what state, local, and federal policies are that support and hinder these. So that’s really where it kind of starts. It starts with the community vision and what it wants for itself. Then it looks at what the threats and the answers are to that vision. Then we just kind of work it from there. So it’s not as if I can sit here and say that we know the entire nation and every municipality, what they have and don’t have. But we know starting with the ones we’re working with that actually have a vision of what they want to do and we kind of build out from there.
Neil Seldman: As I observe your work and your career, it’s very similar to mine. I wasn’t trained for it, but basically we’re community organizers with different titles. I was trade in labor economics and became a fighter of incinerators and promoter of recycling. What was your background and how did you become an environmental justice campaigner?
Jacqui Patterson: That’s funny. So yeah, I also, like you said, I actually started as a special education teacher and really went from there into Peace Corp, where I started to really look at some of the specials needs of the kids I was working with and seeing how these larger systems impacted. So one of the groups of kids I was working with were three year olds who all had hearing impairments because of a Rubella outbreak that had happened three years before and that their moms all had Rubella. Therefore, I guess this is a consequence of it. Just knowing that the MMR vaccine is just something that we all just automatically get. It’s just taken for granted and the difference in a place where so many people are mass wealth from Jamaica, which is where I was. But yet, the majority of the people there who should be holding those assets themselves in terms of the wealth, and so they don’t even have the very basics of human rights to health and well being. So that really kind of got me into thinking about how larger systems impact people’s health and well being.
Neil Seldman: That’s very interesting.
Jacqui Patterson: Yeah. That was the beginning. So I went from special education to public health because public health influenced special education. Then from public health … So still in public health really but then also just kind of larger circles of intersectionality. Started to work on Women’s Rights and working on Women’s Rights, it really … I saw where internationally and in the U.S. how women are disproportionality effected by climate change. In doing that, that’s where it lead me to where I am now.
Neil Seldman: Well, learning that you were trained and worked as a special ed teacher, fits because I know several and I know how hard they work and how dedicated they are. So I can see you transformed that dedication to the dedication and work you’re doing now. As a matter of fact, I have a very good friend who’s a special ed teacher. She’s close to 70 years old, and she refuses to retire because she’s so attached the mission and the particular kids she’s working with.
Nick Stumo-Langer: And, Jacqui, preempted on of the questions I was going to have was talking about the intersectionality because some much of your work, from the work that you’ve done and masters in social work and masters in public health. These aren’t necessarily things that you would think go together into environmental justice. So I’m kind of wondering how you take maybe the renewed activism that has come up in I guess what we’re calling the Trump Era. People want to get involved in that community and wanting to change the circumstances they see around you. How do you get all those disparate folks together into funneling something like environmental justice, which maybe on its face, some of our listeners and folks around the country would say is a narrow scope. I think you’ve made a good case already about how it’s very wide. But I’m interested to see how you think about that intersectionality with environmental justice and maybe how we’re maybe misunderstanding just the buzz word intersectionality.
Jacqui Patterson: I was in Alabama. We were doing one of these visioning sessions and then someone stood up in the room after we were visioning and people were talking about education, they were talking about all these things in their communities and then how it was being threatened. Someone stood up and she happened to be the only white American person in the room. She’s like, “I thought this was going to be about environmental justice?” She was really frustrated. She ended up walking out in high dungeon. I mean, she was just undone. But not really recognizing that it’s all inextricably interconnected.

So as we talk in communities like that, whether it’s Baton Rouge where in the aftermath of the murder of Philando Castile and then the three retaliatory murders. Then the flooding happened after that. It was on a context where the social cohesion of that community had been completely shattered because of these racial injustice issues. So if we don’t deal with racial injustice, we don’t build social cohesion. Then when we have these environmental challenges, they’re exacerbated because it’s in a community that has these riffs that are going on.

We don’t have solid education systems then we have a situation where the folks … What we have now in terms of people in the public utilities commissions and public service commissions who are making decisions that most impact communities of color and low income communities, but they’re not represented on the public society. We have a place like Mississippi, which is 37% African American. Then the 80 year history of the public service commission, they have never had an African American on the public service commission. Georgia, similar situation. Not to mention the lack of women on public service commissions and public utilities commissions. So if we don’t think about democracy and government and governance and inclusivity there, then we’re not going to have the decisions that represent the needs of the vast majority of the communities that are most impacted by environmental issues.

So I could give example after example after example of how these things are interconnected.

Neil Seldman: From listening to you, I get the impression that not only are you taking on tough issues but you go to the toughest places in the United States. I hope you get to visit Paris every once in a while. I say that euphemistically. But having traveled to Mississippi and Alabama, rural Alabama, and looking at the garbage issues, I know your issues are much broader because you’re dealing with environmental justice more than signing of garbage facilities. We appreciate your work. Your work is necessary for our work to succeed. I always point out that the more environmentally intelligent people are, the easier it is to talk about decentralization and the impact on their lives of bigness, both big government as well as big corporations.
Nick Stumo-Langer: I think it might be helpful for some of our listeners because there’s a lot of theoretical talk about environmental justice, what it means, who it includes, and what kind of … All the way down the line of what that can look like. But if you are recommending something to maybe a larger national group of people, what would you say the number one thing communities can do to help have a stake in controlling both of their future and renewable energy, getting out of these contracts, as well as building a more equitable waste stream. So just maybe one recommendation for each of those types of things that you’ve seen in your work.
Jacqui Patterson: So I think one thing that we can do that would have positive impacts on everything is campaign finance reform and getting money out of politics. I’ll start there. But more specific because, again, we really do have to always think intersectionally. That’s a common denominator on everything and why we’re so messed up as it stands everyone can find a way to invest in the clean energy economy, and everyone should definitely think of ways that they could be more energy efficient. Certainly try to figure out how they can have energy audits in their homes and if they work with their utilities, some of them are actually mandated to provide resources for energy efficiency. So they should figure out whether that’s happening in there. That will save them money and it will reduce the amount of energy we need to generate in general. So that’s important.

Two, whether you’re a renter or a homeowner or otherwise there are ways that you can be a part of the clean energy economy. If you decide to go solar yourself as an individual household or if you decide to organize or be a part of an organized solar garden, so that your co-owing a community solar. You can even do what they call virtual net metering where you’re not necessarily engaged with a solar panel that’s in your community or on your home, but you’re buying into … So that’s another thing folks can do. They can get their energy through this organizations. Depending on where you live, of course, is the other thing too. Where you can buy renewable energy credits and so there are different ways that folks can be a part of the clean energy economy. But it does require a little bit of investigating depending on where you live as to whether you can do some of those, any of those really in some ways. But those are some avenues.

Nick Stumo-Langer: Just a good general recommendation to explore your options and know kind of what you can do. What I hear you saying also is taking ownership of this is a choice we can make and this is something we can actually impact ourselves, even if it doesn’t always seem like it. Because when you turn on the lights, you don’t necessarily see where it’s coming from. That’s why I think we appreciate your work so much.
Neil Seldman: When the recycling movement started post World War II recycling movement started in the late ’60s. It started with volunteers, mostly women, setting up drop off centers. Drop off recycling centers became both a symbol of change in how to approach the environment as well as an example of something you can do to make a difference. Well, that was ’68, ’69. By the mid-’70s, there were community collection companies that went curbside. Then by the ’80s the cities took over those programs. So small things started by citizens, men and women, often in their backyard or in an abandoned gas station or an empty lot, which is how we got started here in the Mount Pleasant area of Washington D.C. just a few blocks from here. Led to big things. It’s taken 50 years, but then again, as you said, you have to start someplace. Just about all democracy and justice movements have started small and happily taken root. Now we need another push, a little more energy given our current political situation.
Nick Stumo-Langer: So to end every episode we like to ask our guests to give us a recommendation. Reading, listening, watching, anything that can kind of help bring our guests from your perspective to something that’s really inspiring you or something that’s made you think. So what is your recommendation?
Jacqui Patterson: I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend the book Energy Democracy that has been put out by Denise Fairchild and Al Weinrub. So that is an awesome book that really inspires based on the awesome work that’s happening in many different places across the U.S. to advance energy democracy in different ways. So it’s great because it provides a number of different types of models and it just shows some inspiring stories of how people have really started from that nugget of an idea and organized from small group of community members to a movement. So I would absolutely recommend that.
Neil Seldman: In this field, I just wanted to mention two resources that we rely on. One is Home Grown. We have a Democratic energy project that’s based in our Minneapolis office. We also work extremely closely with Energy Justice Network. Mikey Ewall, Dante Swinton, and others who really not only compliment but augment our work.

In closing, I want to thank Jacqui for coming here and of course thank you for your work, which makes a lot of other people’s work, including ours, a little bit easier. Thanks, Jacqui.

Jacqui Patterson: Thank you. The feeling is very mutual. I look forward to more discussion about how we can work more together. Thank you.
Nick Stumo-Langer: Thank you so much for tuning into this episode of the Building Local Power Podcast. You can find links to what we discussed today by going to our website, ILSR.org and clicking on the show page for the episode. That’s ILSR.org. While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters, connect with us on Facebook and Twitter, and rate and review this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you find your podcasts. Once again, help us out by joining the conversation at #BuildingLocalPower on Twitter, Facebook, or wherever you use your social media. This show is produced by Lisa Gonzales and me, Nick Stumo-Langer. Co-host includes Stacy Mitchell, co-director of ILSR, and Christopher Mitchell, no relation, of our community broadband networks initiative. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_al.

For the Institute for Local Self Reliance, I’m Nick Stumo-Langer and I hope you’ll join us again for another episode of the Building Local Power Podcast.


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Nick Stumo-Langer

Nick Stumo-Langer was Communications Manager at ILSR working for all five initiatives. He ran ILSR's Facebook and Twitter profiles and builds relationships with reporters. He is an alumnus of St. Olaf College and animated by the concerns of monopoly power across our economy.