What is your name, age, and location?
My name is Jacqueline Patterson. I’m in Baltimore, MD and I am 47.
What is your profession?
Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program.
What did you study in school and what degrees do you have?
I have a BS in Special Education/Elementary and a M.A in Social Work as well as an M.S in Public Health.
What was your first job?
Senior Women’s Rights Policy Analyst at ActionAid International was the first position where I dealt directly with environmental and climate justice.
Who or what inspired you to break into your current line of work?
I guess starting when I was in Peace Corps in ’91, it was really getting a sense of the inequities in the world – whether it’s being in Jamaica and seeing the extreme income inequality within the country and then between Jamaica and other nations. There was the extremely inequitable distribution of wealth within Jamaica despite the fact that Jamaica is rich in natural resources. On top of that, I saw this against the comparative wealth of a nation like the United States and others. And as I read and learned more, began to see what this meant in terms of political influence within the United Nations and global economic and political systems more broadly.
Name/describe what has been your most rewarding project so far?
Working with communities on the EcoDistrict project. I helped to facilitate visioning sessions with communities and then connecting them with technical and other resources necessary to implement their vision; it has been richly rewarding. Whether it was community-owned solar, local food, community recycling, or green schools – whatever it is, just helping communities to be able to envision the future they wanted and actualize their vision.
Name/describe one incident when being a woman has helped your career?
It’s been helpful particularly with work on gender justice. When it comes to speaking with women impacted by domestic violence, HIV, or economic disparities, just being a woman and being able to relate and talk with women around what they want for their lives definitely made me a stronger advocate. Being able to understand and communicate woman to woman enabled me to advance the gender justice agenda more effectively than if I wasn’t a woman.
One specific incident was in helping a woman who was in Zambia after having been sexually assaulted in her home country of Cameroon. She was also abused by those who claimed to offer her safe harbor. So I was able to work with a network of folks to get her settled in Rwanda with a job in a safe and secure setting. Being a woman helped me to be able to relate with her and comfort her as well as anticipate needs and provide for her. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.
Name/describe one incident when being a woman has hindered your career?
I don’t know about career, but certainly there have been times where being a woman has resulted in people not hearing what I’m saying, literally, because I’ll say something and then a man will come by and say the exact same thing and be heard more than when I say it – definitely multiple instances of that. There have been instances of men viewing me in an objectifying manner, sexually or otherwise, and not necessarily relating on a professional level. That’s been a challenge for sure. And certainly there’s patriarchy throughout the world so I experience these things to some degree whether it’s in the United States or wherever I am and in certain countries it’s even more extreme – countries where women can’t even own land.
Most places when I was working doing the HIV and gender justice work, I was often the most senior person on my team. When I would be going out people assumed that I wasn’t the senior person on the team, especially if there was a man on the team, and would therefore deal with the man as opposed to me.
One specific incident was going out to visit a community that was impacted by HIV & AIDS. We were in a conflict region and were traveling at night in a very contested area. The clergy person with whom I was traveling decided to make sexual overtures, including physical, during the course of our travels. Being alone in the car with him in the dead of night, in a dangerous area, I didn’t feel like I would have any recourse if things went too far. It was frightening in the extreme and I noted that if I was a man, I wouldn’t have to be as careful about choosing when I travel and with whom, as I wouldn’t necessarily have been subjected to such overtures and felt powerless if it came down to a physical confrontation.
Who is your role model or mentor (alive or dead)?
I would say that I definitely have multiple role models, people whose way of moving in the world is something that I admire. And I’ll say as an example my friend Lillie who, no matter what, she’s able to find the humor and the light in all situations and she is generous in sharing her light and grace with others. My friend Alisa who works for the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in terms of her sheer focus – she’s been working at the IAF forever. The fact that she’s found this kind of niche in terms of the type of work she wanted to do and the places she wanted to do it and she’s just stayed singularly focused for, well, forever, I think that’s interesting. And then my other friend Lillian whose unwavering faith and ability to be such a loving, giving, and open person – I found that to be extremely inspiring. Also, my friend Dorcas, who is so intentional and deliberative about choices that she makes in work and personally. And I would definitely have to say my friend Curtis whose loyalty and devotion to family are deep and abiding to his very core. There are really too many to name truly so this is just a sampling of the wonderfully inspiring people in my life.
If you could give one piece of advice to a woman starting out in your field, what would it be?
It sounds trite but just stay true to yourself because in this world there are so many times that you would feel like either it’s tempting to contort to fit the circumstances because it will increase the chances of success. But if you stay true to yourself and true to your course, it will work out. And also: don’t take anything personally. This world is a sexist, racist, classist world and if you take those things personally, then you will be constantly subject to injury in a way that could damage your forward momentum. And so it’s important to really keep things in perspective, not take things to heart, and keep moving.
Follow Jacqui on Twitter
– Interview by Eve Richer
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