A month after announcing her retirement as administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Lisa P. Jackson, the first African American to head the federal agency, reflected on the mark she will leave at the agency, her impact on other minorities as well as what she hopes her successor will continue upon his or her appointment.
The 25-year EPA veteran said that as the first minority to serve as EPA Administrator, she ensured communities of color and other disadvantaged groups had a seat at the environmental justice table, which she considers to be the “unfinished business” of the overarching environmental movement.
“We said we wanted to make environmental justice apart of every decision we make, so it’s not something that happens after the fact. It’s part of how we think, it’s part of our DNA.”
To make sure that it permeated through every fiber of the agency, Jackson introduced Plan EJ 2014 two years into her term. The plan’s goals, according to the EPA, include “protect[ing] health in communities over-burdended by pollution, empower ing] communities to take action to improve their health and environment,” and “establish [ing] partners with local, state, tribal and federal organizations to achieve healthy and sustainable communities.”
Its second progress report will be released in 2013.
Jackson said that Plan EJ 2014 is one of the legacy items that she believes will continue to be a part of EPA for years to come.
Another legacy that the self-described “science and math geek” will leave behind is inspiring a young generation of women of color to pursue an education and career in STEM.
“You don’t set out doing these jobs thinking about the mark you leave in terms of an example,” she said.” Whether it’s STEM education – I’m an engineer – I’m so passionate about the need to get African American women into that field.”
A 2011 U.S. Commerce study reported that while women make up nearly half of the total U.S. population, only a quarter, or 24 percent, held a job in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematical field.
Additionally, Jackson will also be remembered for how she was able to engage voiceless, yet deeply affected communities in the environmental movement.
Because of a number of studies that prove environmental issues such as pollution disproportionately affect low-income and minority communities, she pointed out that communicating these issues are not challenging.
“You don’t need to have a degree in anything to know that toxic materials are bad, and when we deal with Latinos, we don’t even necessarily have to be fluent in the language, they know and don’t want their children exposed to those issues any more than the wealthiest American does,” she said. “There’s no separation. Oftentimes the challenge is not communicating the issue it’s making sure that they are communicating the importance of the issue to their elected officials.”
She is confident that the environmental justice conversation will continue after her official departure from the agency.
Going forward, Jackson would like the EPA and companies that are permitted to build their facilities in communities across the nation continue to have the people of those communities involved in the development and implementation process.
“I want to see the environmental justice permitting work moving forward because it’s not all about telling a community what’s good for them, but giving them a seat at the table.”
She also would like the EPA to continue to reach out to other industries and inform them about the broadness of environmental issues as well as researching and monitoring the science on disparities in communities of color.
With only a few weeks before she is officially retired, Jackson said she is looking forward to sleep and continuing to work in environmental justice. She also wants to give someone else the opportunity to keep the agency moving forward.
“My dad used to have a saying, which is “leave the party when you’re having the most fun,” Jackson reminisced. “Someone else should have the privilege and enough time on the job to really put their stamp on some of those issues with their leadership style. The job is…the best reward and the opportunity to serve under the president is literally matchless.”
“I leave here feeling good about 4 years of work.”