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Jacqueline Patterson: Honoring Legacy in the Environmental Movement


The Frontline talks to environmental and climate justice leader Jacqueline Patterson on the legacies of the present and past.

Jacqueline Patterson grew up in the South Side of Chicago, surrounded by coal-fired power plants. “Growing up, who knew that was why half the kids in the school had asthma,” she said. She certainly didn’t.

Patterson, who is now a leading environmental and climate justice leader, wasn’t introduced to environmental justice until she volunteered with the Peace Corps in Jamaica in the ’90s. There, she worked with a community whose water was contaminated by Shell, the fossil fuel giant that clocked record profits in 2022.

Patterson has had many important stops throughout her career—including public health and policy work on HIV/AIDS—all of which led her to where is now: founder and executive director of The Chisholm Legacy Project, a Black-led climate organization building resources for Black communities to build power. The organization is named after Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first woman and Black person to seek a presidential nomination from a major U.S. political party.

Patterson’s group, which was founded in 2021, is working directly with Black communities to not only equip them for the realities of climate disaster—but to also empower them. The legacies of slavery, segregation, and pollution live on in many Black communities across the U.S. Patterson’s work is focused on leaving behind a new legacy for present and future generations: a legacy of liberation. Atmos spoke with her about this theme of legacy.

Photograph courtesy of Jacqueline Patterson


You’ve been such a leader in the climate and environmental justice space for a couple decades, focusing on Black folks. I’m excited to catch up and hear what’s been going on lately. I first wanted to raise this theme of legacy and how that shapes your work. Perhaps, it’s the legacy of your ancestors or the legacy you want to leave behind. What comes to mind for you when you think of legacy as it relates to the intersectional work you’re doing?


Thank you. Several things. One, the fact that people would come to me and say, How can we get Black folks to care about the environment? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people ask me this question. And I always say, We have always cared about the environment, both because of cultural tradition and heritage and a connection with the land. We are conservationists as a survival tactic, given the historic deprivation that we’ve had and how we’ve had to do with very little. I give examples of the ways our culture embodies the types of conservation that other people need to learn about. That our culture embodies the type of harmony with the Earth that other folks need to catch up with.

For as long as I can remember, we grew tomatoes, cucumbers, and mint in our backyards in the South Side of Chicago. There’s this nouveau thing with gardens now, but for us, that was just life. That’s just how we live. I remember my mom folding up little pieces of aluminum foil that most people consider disposable, but she always reused—whether it was the pieces of aluminum foil or the pie tins we used for sweet potato pie. We actually have a project called Picking Greens & Being Green: Lessons From Black Mamas on Culture, Conservation, and Community.

It is the legacy of our ancestors’ past that we have not only this relationship with the land and with the environment, but also with each other in terms of community. It is that community spirit of cooperation and the village, as they say, that is the way that we as a society need to be in order to not only weather the storms that are before us but to hopefully prevent the storms that we have in store if we don’t turn ourselves around.

So that’s one aspect of legacy. Another aspect is the name of the organization: The Chisholm Legacy Project. When we were doing the work at the NAACP, it was really Shirley Chisholm’s book Unbought and Unbossed that became a rallying cry for us because so many of our communities were often under threat of being intentionally co-opted by entities that would take advantage of their vulnerability by dangling money in front of them to act against their own interests, including oil and coal companies. So Shirley Chisholm’s legacy of saying, “We can be about our own liberation without accepting money from folks who don’t have our best interests at heart,” was a rallying cry.

And as we started The Chisholm Legacy Project, her other famous quote became a rallying cry, too: “If you don’t have a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” We almost called the organization The Folding Chair Project because that is what we’re all about: making sure communities not only have a seat at the table but that they’re a part of making the agenda, saying what’s on the table, and making decisions going forward. And again, that is all in the footsteps of Shirley Chisholm’s vision and the way she lived her life, centering community leadership.


Yeah, I really love the homage that you all pay to her with The Chisholm Legacy Project. I’ve never thought of her as a climate or environmental advocate, so I’d love to hear how she fits into that work. It feels like an important part of her story and, of course, Black history.


Well, that’s the very thing. A lot of times people will think very literally and linearly about the environment, but environmental and climate justice is about being unbought and unbossed by, for example, the fossil fuel industry. The environmental and climate justice movement is about frontline community leadership because we see that it’s been corporate interests that have been leading us here up until now, whether it’s our legislatures, our courts, or our regulatory system.

But if we’re actually being led by community, which was the very center of Shirley Chisholm’s work, then we actually have a society able to turn away from the extractive economy that has us on this course to catastrophic climate change. So she might not have ever said the words “environmental justice” or “climate justice,” but every principle and practice that she lived for—that served as cornerstones of her leadership—are the very principles and practices that we need today to dismantle the extractive economy.

If I can look back as I’m gasping my last breath and discernibly see that those changes are in motion, then, as they say, my living will not have been in vain.



And I understand that a big part of her work was shedding light specifically on the struggles of not just Black people, but of Black women, in particular. I’d love to talk a little bit about the role that Black women historically have played in the environmental and climate justice movement. What role do you see for Black women in the future? What role have they played in the past?


There are so many Black women in the past and present who have led on environmental justice—whether it’s Hazel Johnson in Chicago where I was born, who was famous for her work around toxic communities. Or this person named Annie Brown, whom I met in North Carolina. She was doing citizen science, documenting the people in her community who were sick. She attributed it to a coal-fired power plant and other toxic industries there. One day, when I was speaking at a North Carolina environmental justice conference, I put her picture up—and there was an audible gasp in the room. She had passed away two weeks before. And when I met with her, she was talking about not only all these other folks who were sick; she talked about adding her own name to the list because she wasn’t feeling so well herself.

We have started an initiative within The Chisholm Legacy project called Living Legacies, Thriving Stewards because there are so many folks who are living the legacies that we need to be following now. Beverly Wright, Vernice Miller-Travis, Peggy Shepard. There are so many of these leaders. The youth leaders who are really doing amazing work now: Eriqah Vincent from the Power Shift Network and Monica Atkins at Climate Justice Alliance. There’s Dany Sigwalt and Emira Woods at Green Leadership Trust. Leslie Fields and Adrienne Hollis. Colette Pichon Battle.

There are too many to name, but Black women are just holding down leadership in so many amazing ways. That’s why we’re focusing on Black women’s wellness. We don’t want to do leadership development. We don’t want to do capacity building. We don’t want to add more. We need to do things better. We want people to be well because we already are doing so very much.


The legacy of environmentalism in this country is rooted in white supremacy, in colonialism. But I am curious to hear how you see the legacy of Black history and Black leadership also influencing the world of environmentalism. You touched on this earlier about the ways Black folks have always practiced conservation. I want to hear more about that.


Some of the past things we talked about in terms of living in harmony with the land, if we had just followed those, we wouldn’t be at this place where we’re now having to fight as the land fights back against what we’ve done to it. People didn’t follow our leadership and live in harmony. And, of course, Indigenous folks were really pointing the way in terms of how to be in harmony with the land. Now, people have to follow our leadership on how to fight back against polluting industries and practices.

The same facilities belching out the emissions that drive climate change are facilities in our communities causing pollution. Because of our work and Black leadership, you have things like the Clean Air Act. You have legislation. And some folks have died in the fight for these types of regulations that we need to protect our communities. This is a living legacy of the past that we have put forward, even in terms of environmental regulations.


And when Shirley Chisholm spoke of the legacy she was leaving behind, she said, “I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.” What sort of change do you want to be remembered for?


I don’t know if I would say I want to be remembered per se, myself, but I’m certainly doing everything I can so that people have access to the information, skills, and resources they need to harness and wield self-determination. That’s what’s at the heart of The Chisholm Legacy Project: to ensure that people do have self-determination, which we see as a cornerstone to liberation. To be able to live life on one’s own terms. That kind of self-determination can turn into systemic transformation.

If I can look back as I’m gasping my last breath and discernibly see that those changes are in motion, then, as they say, my living will not have been in vain.