Institutional Racism and Fossil Fuel Industry

Sarah Robbins '17 Assistant Features Editor

Divest Smith College hosted environmentalist Jacqui Patterson this last Friday to give a lecture concerning the intersection of racism and the fossil fuel industry.

Patterson is the director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, a branch dedicated to increasing awareness of the inequalities in the fossil fuel industry and creating policy change for climate justice. Unfortunately, Patterson arrived at Smith just as Friday’s campus-wide electrical blackout hit. With no power point, visual materials, or sound system, Patterson delivered an informal half-hour lecture, followed by over an hour of questions from the audience.

Two students in black blazers with pinned orange felt squares introduced Patterson with a long list of her accomplishments. As it was Family Weekend, many students sat with their parents and relatives, and several members of environmental policy organizations in the Pioneer Valley also attended. “We hope that this event helps students engage in ongoing dialogue about institutional power and responsibility,” Raven Folkes-Witten ’17 said.

Patterson mounted the stage and launched immediately into a discussion of the impact of the fossil fuel industry on certain communities, also known as climate injustice.

“At every level the system is set up to keep wealth in the hands of a few,” Patterson said during the lecture. “It’s the same players that are suppressing our votes and driving these policies.”

She talked about the disproportionate situation of factories in low-income communities and communities of color, causing health problems such as asthma and lung disease. She detailed how low-income communities are often vulnerable to and ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of climate change, such as flooding and hurricanes, yet have little say in climate change policies. As Patterson put it, “The folks least responsible for climate change are the folks who are most impacted.”

“It’s really important that Smith is having an event like this to address issues of racism in relation to climate change,” Kaylynn Crawford ’17 said.

Divest Smith College organized the event. They are an activist organization working to ensure Smith takes money out of the fossil fuel industry and focuses on sustainable forms of energy.

“The moral implications of remaining invested in the fossil fuel industry contradict the Smith College community’s longstanding commitment to being pioneers in social and environmental justice movements,” their webpage states.

In September, Divest Smith College presented a plan to pressure Smith into divesting $50 billion. The group’s main demands include that Smith freeze investment with fossil fuels, increase divestment, and publish an annual report detailing Smith’s financial involvement in the industry. Many of the members of this organization also attended New York’s climate march in support of clean energy and climate justice. Divestment in general, a movement begun by college students, has a history at Smith — in 1986, student protesters supporting divestment from apartheid South Africa barricaded College Hall and prevented administrators from entering the building, and the College eventually divested.  Divest Smith College has no such plans. “We think the administration will respond well to students actually recognizing that we have the same goals. Both the institution and students have the goal of providing a Smith education to students 20, 50 years down the line,” Ellen Monroe ’15, a Divest member, said. “Recognizing that we both have intergenerational equity at heart.”

Patterson’s talk ended with a question-and-answer session with the audience. One woman asked what Smith could do to combat environmental racism.

“I think dialogue is kind of the first thing,” Patterson answered. “And making sure that dialogue is based on the principles of equity and justice.”

Divest Smith College will continue to hold meetings and events dedicated to promoting justice in the fight for climate change policies. “Any institution that’s part of the system should feel some responsibility towards the system in which is exists,” Patterson said.