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The University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy invited Jacqueline Patterson, senior director of the NAACP Environmental Climate Justice program, to discuss climate and environmental justice in the wake of the climate crisis. Kyle Whyte, professor of environment and sustainability, moderated the virtual discussion.

Patterson began by discussing the Chisholm Legacy Project, an organization that provides resources for Black environmental and climate advocates named after Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman in Congress. Patterson is the founder and executive director of the CLP and said she built the project on the foundation of four beliefs: community building, movement building, education and supporting Black women in advocacy positions. 

Patterson then spoke about Chisholm, saying she admired her for her determination and  advocacy in the face of discrimination.

“I’m sure there were times when (discrimination) dampened her spirits, but when you see her in pictures she’s (always) smiling,” Patterson said. “It’s not the kind of smile that you see on some people, where it’s just  almost a gritted-teeth smile. It’s a genuine smile, but she still was able to find joy and humor in spite of the opposition that she faced.”

Patterson also said the CLP aims to bridge efforts to fight against climate injustice and racial injustice, making each movement aware of the other and allowing them to fight together. Patterson said how society views  our planet is tied to how we treat one another.

“We’ve seen how environmental injustice happens with the extraction and the exploitation of the communities that are host to these extractive processes,” Patterson said.

Patterson then spoke about the costs of climate change and asked attendees to contemplate which communities are contributing the most in terms of carbon emissions. Patterson said while certain companies are creating solutions to combat climate change, some of these solutions still exclude vulnerable communities.

For example, Patterson said she knew of a prominent solar company who shifted to using reusable energy, but used prison labor to do so. Even worse, Patterson said, the company will not hire formerly incarcerated individuals, though Patterson did not specify which company she was speaking about.

Something similar occurred in 2015 with the Georgia-based solar company Suniva Inc., which used prison labor to create solar panels at a lower cost. The Daily could not confirm whether Patterson was referring to Suniva Inc. specifically. 

“(When you talk about) extraction and exploitation, the prison industrial complex cornered the market on that (value),” Patterson said. “When we challenged (the company), they said if we support this then the prisoners have a skill that they can use when they get out. We’re like ‘okay, that sounds semi-reasonable, at least in terms of intent,’ until we learned that they have a policy against hiring formerly incarcerated persons at their company.” 

While there were environmental benefits to the program, the incarcerated community is the one paying the cost, Patterson said.

In her analysis of environmental racism, Patterson compared the problems seen in environmental and racial injustice to systematic inequalities exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The climate is the same pattern of systemic inequities that led to the same pattern of disproportionate impact and system collapse,” Patterson said.

When asked about how students pursuing environmental and social justice fields should approach the industry, Patterson said schools should reframe how these issues are taught.

“If we recontextualize environmental studies in a way that actually is rooted in what’s happening in our communities, (then) we have a whole new kind of way that youth are thinking about it,” Patterson said.

Whyte, the moderator, ended the discussion by saying that Patterson’s talk is inspiring for students interested in studying environmental and racial justice.

“If I would have only heard what you just said when I was a student, I would have been powerful to solve the different roles and possibilities for people to apply themselves and to take leadership,” Whyte said.

Daily Staff Reporter Shannon Stocking can be reached at