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.”