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EPA’s Jackson strives to bring minorities to environment table

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
EPA’s Jackson strives to bring minorities to environment table
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson at the New England regional EPA office on Dec. 3. Later in the day she spoke at a conference at Harvard University honoring the 40th anniversary of the EPA. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

African Americans and other minority groups often bear the brunt of pollution caused by industry currently or formerly located in their neighborhoods, yet these groups have been conspicuously absent from the environmental movement over the years.

Lisa P. Jackson is the first African American to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and she says she has a mission to reach groups not traditionally involved in environmentalism.

Jackson spoke with the Banner earlier this month at the EPA’s New England regional office in downtown Boston before heading to Cambridge to speak at a conference at Harvard University marking the EPA’s 40th anniversary.

“Too often environmentalism is seen as a place for people who are wealthy and have time on their hands,” she said.

The environmental movement began in the same era as the civil rights movement, she noted, and for many blacks environmentalism may have taken a back seat to desegregation and civil rights struggles. In addition, “all environmentalism is local,” she said. Those who grow up in cities without frequent contact with nature may feel less connected to its protection.

But Jackson wants to counter the notion that caring about the quality of one’s environment is a luxury to be chosen or not.

“If you breathe,” she said, “even if you don’t call yourself an environmentalist, you care about the work that happens under the Clean Air Act, and you care if it’s done well.”

The EPA was established Dec. 2, 1970, and the Clean Air Act came into being the same year. The law paved the way for some of the research findings that are now taken for granted, such as the hazards of lead paint or secondhand smoke or for landmark policy changes that cleaned up air around the planet.

While today’s lead warnings are likely to address peeling lead paint or imported toys, in the 1970s the culprit was leaded gasoline.

The EPA acted to reduce and then ban lead in gasoline, resulting in an 89 percent drop in airborne lead exposure, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Aspen Institute, titled “10 Ways EPA Has Strengthened America.” The report also says blood lead levels in adults and children have dropped by 80 percent between the late 1970s and today.

Of course, those dramatic statistics are averages. Some people still live and work in environments posing health hazards from poorly maintained dwellings built before lead paint was banned in 1978, soil still contaminated with lead, or from a host of other toxic materials.

“Many communities of color disproportionately suffer from unhealthy air or unclean water, or ‘superfund’ or ‘brownfield’ sites in their community,” said Jackson, using the government’s terms for sites of heavy industrial pollution requiring special cleanup action. “We want to reach the African American community and let them know that EPA works for them.”

She mentioned the “environmental justice tours” she’s taken this year, meeting with African American communities and increasingly with other groups such as Hispanics, rural communities and agricultural workers who suffer the brunt of pesticide exposure. “All those people need a seat at the table with what we normally think of as environmentalists,” she asserted.

Minorities are not only underrepresented in the environmental movement, but also in scientific careers. Jackson bucks that trend.

Growing up in New Orleans, she was steeped in the value of the marine and wetland environments surrounding her. Perhaps more important, she was good at math and science, and had parents and mentors guiding her toward success.

“The expectation — especially when my parents realized I was good in school — was not only that I would go to college, but that I would excel,” she said.

Her dreams changed shape with new opportunities, and with the times.

“I always thought I would be a doctor, because I really liked helping people,” she said. “But when I got to high school, there was a program to include more blacks in engineering. So I decided to try engineering for a summer, at Tulane University.” A Tulane professor, one of her mentors, helped her win a Shell Oil Scholarship that provided tuition as well as paid summer employment.

It was the late 1970s, and Jackson was reading news reports about Love Canal, the infamous Niagara Falls neighborhood plagued with illnesses and birth defects before the discovery that it was built over a toxic waste dump.

“I realized all this industrial waste, everything we were reading about, was created by chemical engineers,” Jackson explained, “and if engineers can create it, they can clean it up. So I got interested in environmental engineering.”

She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering and spent 16 years at the EPA, then headed the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection before being tapped for the top EPA post by President Barack  Obama in 2008.

Earlier this year, Jackson laid out seven key themes to guide the agency’s next few years, from “taking action on climate change” to “expanding the conversation on environmentalism and working for environmental justice.”

“I want to make every day count — to address environmental issues, to work for environmental justice, to clean up our air, to move toward cleaner energy,” she said. “There’s a huge legacy of work we’ve done, and a lot left to do.”

The recent midterm elections ushered in a wave of legislators hoping to curb the EPA’s power to do what’s still left to do — especially if it involves regulating polluters or capping carbon emissions — but Jackson admitted no discouragement.

“Environmental protection isn’t partisan,” she insisted. “The EPA was formed under a Republican president working with a Democratic congress.”

Still, maybe it doesn’t work as well when the parties are reversed. But Jackson described her job as a calling, and the best possible job for her.

“I think you have to follow what you really love,” she said.

She is aware that her example could serve as a model for young students. “I like to spend part of my time encouraging young women to stick with math and science,” she said. “There comes a time where suddenly it’s a question whether it’s cool, if you’re good in math and science, to stick with it. My answer to that is, absolutely, it is.”