Every time EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson walks into her office, she remembers her father. That's because the building was once headquarters for the U.S. Postal Service and the great seal of the Postal Service is on the floor. "My father was a letter carrier in New Orleans," a job which offered good benefits for the family, Jackson says. "It instilled in me the sense of real service to the community."
Jackson's parents stressed the value of education
Lisa Jackson was adopted shortly after her birth in 1962 and raised in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, a poor, largely African American neighborhood. Recently, she told high school students in North Carolina what it was like to enter kindergarten just a few years after school segregation had ended.
"And my family, like many families, had its share of struggles to deal with, but they knew about the value of education," Jackson says.
She says her parents made sure she recognized the importance of school too. A degree in chemistry, a graduate degree in chemical engineering and a passion for the environment would lead her in 1986 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. What she thought would be a job that would last a few years instead turned into an extraordinary career.
Jackson gains experience overseeing environmental policy
Jackson worked first in Washington D.C. and then in the EPA's New York region on regulations, directing hazardous waste cleanup and hazardous waste enforcement. In 2002, after 16 years with the agency, she left to become assistant commissioner for compliance and enforcement in the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. By 2006 she was its commissioner, overseeing 2,900 employees.
At Jackson's urging, New Jersey became one of a handful of states to pass a global warming law mandating steep emissions cuts. In 2008, New Jersey governor Jon Corzine tapped Jackson to be his chief of staff, a job she would hold for just two weeks before then President-Elect Barack Obama asked her to join his cabinet as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
As a cabinet member, Jackson advocates for environmental protections
Early in her tenure, Jackson sent a letter to the 18,000 EPA employees indicating that the agency would renew its efforts to serve poor and underserved communities. "I did that quite selfishly because I believed that if we do that we take care of everybody else. It is not us or them. It is not a pie that has to be split," she says. Jackson believes that empowering the poor, the underserved and those disproportionately impacted, "adds real meaning to our work."
Her position at EPA gives Jackson a unique platform for environmental advocacy. She wants people around the world to become more engaged in protecting their local land, air and water. "Clean air, clean water – here and abroad – are rights, basic rights," she says. "I hope that it becomes the bipartisan populist issue," not unlike 1970s activism that produced the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she says.
Jackson also hopes to infuse the Environmental Protection Agency with the new urgency for change that swept Barack Obama into office. She says the President supports a "clean energy, climate changing endeavor," which she says is "crucial to our future as a nation, our prosperity, jobs for our people[and] security."
Jackson says the EPA must move forcefully to reduce climate changing emissions, improve air quality, manage chemical risks, clean up hazardous waste sites and protect America's water all within the context of fair environmental protection under the law.