Green Is the New Black

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson ties environmentalism to minority concerns.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The office of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson lies halfway between Congress and the White House. The placement is appropriate; the 48-year-old New Orleans native—the first African American to run the agency tasked with protecting the air, water and health of Americans—walks a line between action and negotiation every day. She keeps a copy of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax—the mythical creature who “speaks for the trees”—in her office, alongside photos of herself grinning with Gen. Colin Powell; her former boss, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine; and President Barack Obama.

Alongside these power shots sits a framed political cartoon of a man representing the town of New Bedford, N.J., dripping with pollution and waste. His hand is outstretched, toward a shovel marked “federal stimulus”—which he will use to dig himself out of the surrounding environmental hell. His words for President Obama, seen at the edge of the cartoon, are simple: “Thanks, brother.”

The sketch epitomizes the radical changes that have accrued at the EPA since the Obama administration hired Jackson, a Princeton-trained chemical engineer and experienced political hand. Once a bastion of resistance to environmental action, the character of the EPA has been drastically altered in the last 12 months. On the first anniversary of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, which provided $80 billion of investment in alternative energy and environmental cleanup, Jackson touted the EPA’s impact on communities like New Bedford—hit hard by twin forces of social inequality and environmental pollution. “We’re here to help,” Jackson told reporters gathered in her office. “We have protection in our name. We’re not the Department of Defense, but part of our job is protecting human health.”

Jackson visited a long-suffering area of Mississippi this month, the first stop on a tour, organized with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, of sites across the country promoting the message of health, non-pollution, economic opportunity and environmental justice. Closest to her heart is the goal of awareness—“putting this agency in the minds of the American people, and not just those who consider themselves environmentalists,” she said. “I grew up in the city; I wasn’t a girl scout; I didn’t camp; I wasn’t a skier; I wasn’t an avid hiker—but the environmentalism I came to know was more about the effects of pollution in society.”

Jackson was born in Philadelphia, raised in New Orleans and most recently worked as chief of staff to Corzine in New Jersey. In addition to her 16 prior years of experience at the EPA, she has a son with asthma—a big concern for black Americans living in areas with above average pollution. Her nontraditional profile made her one of Obama’s most audacious cabinet picks—but she’s ideally suited to the job of overhauling the image of a green crusader in the 21st century.

“When you’re in charge of protecting human health and safety, it’s easy to try and do everything,” says Jackson. The EPA has multiple priorities under her leadership—improving air quality, ensuring chemical safety and transparency in labeling, cleaning up communities and protecting waters. First and foremost, she notes, is “taking action on climate change,” which she says Obama “absolutely” supports—despite his failure to sign major cap-and-trade legislation since taking office.

But even these statements present a major change from the George W. Bush years. Whereas one of Bush’s top advisers on energy, James Connaughton, asked “what’s that?” when asked about green jobs, Jackson keeps a copy of The Green Collar Economy, a manifesto on environmental opportunity written by former White House green jobs adviser Van Jones, at hand. And she is keenly interested in building economic bridges to communities typically disinterested in going green. Because the modern environmental movement gained momentum around the same time as the civil rights movement, ethnic minorities felt they had to choose, she explains. But today, “environmental rights [are] a natural extension of civil rights.” And tree-hugging activists, including herself, have adapted the message. “If I can’t make you understand based on the environment, then I’d talk to you about jobs; and if you don’t want to talk to me about jobs, I’d like to talk to you about national security.”

Green jobs—in areas like home weatherization, home energy auditing, operating pollution controlling devices or cleaning up brownfields—do seem to provide a win-win situation. But are these jobs reaching the communities where environmental justice lacks? While the Recovery Act cash in these areas was expected to create or save up to 700,000 jobs, a recent study from the Kirwan Institute for the study of Race and Ethnicity suggested that it did not act swiftly enough and in targeted fashion to promote green jobs for communities of color. Jackson aims to make these jobs attractive and available for a new generation of workers. “Careers of the future [are] in water,” she says, giving one of many examples. “Because the climate is going to change, and we’re going to have problems with too much or too little water, all across the country. If we can train our students early on, we’ll have a steady stream of talent.”

In making this cultural and political change, Jackson has powerful allies in the federal government, including White House domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and the first couple themselves. Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden is a prime example of rehabilitating the connection between communities of color and the earth. When Obama announced construction of two new nuclear facilities this week, he tied energy action to economic development. “The argument has been we can’t do this now because we have to do jobs,” Jackson says—referring to conservative and business opposition to clean energy incentives. But “he is rightfully reemphasizing and strengthening the connection between his clean agenda and his jobs agenda.”