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National Expert Shares Thoughts on Environmental Justice

Susan Bence
Milwaukee Public Radio
Jacqui Patterson spoke February 21 at the Urban Ecology Center in Washington Park

Jacqui Patterson works in communities around the country to engage African-Americans on climate issues. She directs the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program and helped build the program from the ground up.

"I think that the biggest thing that was clear from the beginning and continues to be clear is the need to help folks see, whether it’s environmental issues broadly or climate change specifically how they connect to every day issues that are in our communities.” Patterson adds, “How they connect to food, water, energy, basically the commons - the things to which we should all have access.”

Patterson says it’s her job to suggest ways to shift away from practices that drive climate change, while at the same time, help prepare for the fact that climate change is already here impacting communities.

“Whether it’s starting local food movements, community-owned solar projects, starting recycling projects – helping people know how they can be part of the change that we need to make,” she says.

Before Patterson joined the NAACP, her work included teaching, social and tackling a range of social issues.

"I wanted to be part of the systems change to eliminate the inequities as opposed to help people cope better within the inequities."

“Every time I’ve done those various things, it’s been clear to me that whatever kind of issue or problem I’ve been working toward, there’s a deeper systemic underpinning for it that needs to be addressed. Otherwise, it’s just a band-aid or we’re just making things better for people who are vulnerable, rather than removing vulnerabilities,” Patterson says.

She reports that progress is being made. “We’re part of a group called the Climate Justice Alliance. We have what’s called the Our Power Campaign and the notion is power with pollution, energy without injustice."

Patterson says throughout the country community-owned solar gardens are springing up. “That have resulted in coal plants being closed or shifting away from burning coal which is so harmful to communities. We have multiple communities we’re working in where the communities were previously food insecure and now they have networks of gardens where they have networks of gardens.”

In Milwaukee, Patterson cites the Urban Ecology Center as a model.

“Seeing those centers having formal relationships with schools where they’re including in the curriculum this hand’s on connection with nature and our role within our role within the ecosystem,” she says. “We need to be active and intentional about fostering harmony with nature in order for us to have a sustainable place of habitation.”

Patterson also points to community activism that helped shift the power plant in downtown Milwaukee from coal to natural gas.

“(And) the situation of the lead in the water, the coalition of folks coming together from all walks of Milwaukee society, health, civil rights all coming together to protect the well-being of the community,” she n says.

She calls these examples of intersecting efforts, fighting against the bad and advancing the good.

Yet, a myriad of environmental and climate justice issues remain to be conquered. Patterson says solutions need to come from within.

Patterson spent time in Flint, Michigan after its water crisis. “We sat down and had a series of visioning sessions. It’s not like I came in and I said, you should do this and this. They came up with all of the ideas and I was literally just the scribe. The best people to prescribe the solutions for Milwaukee is Milwaukee, for sure.”

More of Susan Bence's conversation with Jacqui Patterson.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.