“It’s joyful to know that my work is also inspiring young women and young African American women.” –Lisa Jackson.
Lisa Jackson is a rebel on a crusade for justice.
Sitting at the head of a large glass-top table inside her cavernous office, Jackson, the first African American to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, talked about her mission to clean up toxic waste in communities of color.
“I wanted to expand the conversation about environmental justice because environmental justice is the unfinished business of the environmental movement,” said Jackson, who will step down from her Cabinet position with the Obama administration later this month.
“As the first African American to lead the agency, it was time — once and for all – to disprove the notion that the face of environmentalism is a white face – it’s not. It’s a person of color.”
In an hour-long interview with a small group of black journalists last week, Jackson shared her thoughts about the EPA’s achievements and challenges over her four-year tenure.
An outspoken leader, Jackson believes that environmental issues are undeniably linked to health issues and that government has an obligation to protect its citizens –especially people of color – who continue to suffer from airborne pollutants.
There’s no doubt that Jackson is a polarizing figure. Some listen to Jackson with quiet admiration while others say they don’t want to hear another word come out of her mouth.
She has many supporters – and she also has her share of critics.
Last week, Forbes magazine published a scathing indictment of Jackson’s stewardship under the headline: “The EPA’s Lisa Jackson: The Worst Head of the Worst Regulatory Agency, Ever.”
Clearly, not everyone shares Jackson’s concern about environmental justice as some business owners don’t want to be bothered with the high costs of cleaning up poisonous waste in black communities across the country. According to the EPA, it is estimated that there are more than 450,000 “brownfields” in the United States that call for clean ups.
Since 1995, the EPA has leveraged more than $14.0 billion in brownfields cleanup and redevelopment funding from the private and public sectors and created about 60,917 jobs.
Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, praised Jackson’s leadership.
“Lisa Jackson was an excellent EPA administrator, and she remains a capable environmental professional,” Cohen, who worked for the EPA in the late 1970s, wrote in the Huffington Post.
“She pushed forward on climate change regulation under the Clean Air Act, brought about improved fuel efficiency standards and was an aggressive advocate for a clean environment,” Cohen said.
Jackson is a unique scientist: She measures success by reaching out to people and touching lives. She believes in getting out of the laboratory and into communities from coast to coast.
“It’s about the air we breathe, the water we drink, the communities where we work and live and send our kids to school,” Jackson said. “Our communities are still disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution and disproportionately impacted by hazardous waste facilities.”
Because of these pollutants, Jackson says, African American and Latino children are at greater risk to develop asthma. “It’s easy for people to gloss over this,” she said. Jackson has personal concerns about black children with respiratory issues: both of her sons have asthma.
Jackson grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana and said she was a “geek” in high school who was interested in science and engineering.
When she proudly told her grandmother that she wanted to be an engineer, Jackson said her grandmother told her: “That’s fine baby – but why do you want to work on a train?”
But today, Jackson said, African American women can lead the way for a new generation of black scientists.
“They don’t have to do it the way guys to do – they don’t have to be the kind of scientists that are cold and emotionless and never leave the lab,” she added. “They can be scientists like me who are out in the community.”
“I believe that environmental issues appeal to people’s emotions and the love they have for their community,” Jackson said.
After graduating from Tulane University and joining the EPA in 1987, Jackson accepted the appointment to lead the agency when President Barack Obama was elected to the White House in 2008.
When asked if her vision for addressing environmental justice will continue in her absence, Jackson said: “I’m confident or I wouldn’t leave.”
Her one regret: that the issue of environmental justice has become politicized.
“We have a moral responsibility to this planet given by God and we should not give it back in a degraded state,” Jackson said.
So what’s next for Jackson after she leaves the EPA? “Sleep,” she said with a smile.
“My Dad had a saying,” she recalled: “Always leave the party while you’re still having fun.”