In a cavernous ballroom at Washington, D.C.'s convention center last Friday, nearly 2,000 guests gathered for the "Women Who Dare to Dream" luncheon honoring women of the civil rights movement. Originally planned as a lead-up to the postponed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial dedication, the glittering affair featured remarks and performances from civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams, poet Maya Angelou, farmworkers activist Dolores Huerta, singer Lalah Hathaway and Bernice King. Also on the program: Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, who spoke of how the civil rights movement informs her work.

"The struggle began fighting against obvious injustice — 'Whites Only' signs and terrible racial violence. Today the struggle continues in the fight against things that are harder to see — disparities in economic opportunity, achievement gaps in our schools, deeply ingrained institutional prejudices," Jackson said during her turn at the podium.

"The environmental movement took shape in much the same way, with people organizing against obvious issues like rivers so polluted they were literally catching on fire. After years of progress, we are fighting challenges that are harder to see — invisible toxins in our water and air, or disparities between rich and poor in the burden of environmental degradation."

It is this challenge of upholding environmental justice — the fair treatment of all communities when it comes to protection from environmental and health hazards — that Jackson has taken on from her first day on the job in 2009. Yet when decades of decision making and neglect have left mostly poor and minority communities with an overwhelmingly disproportionate share of landfills, nuclear waste, factories, polluted air and contaminated water, it will take quite some time getting there.

Under Jackson's watch, the EPA has introduced new regulations to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants, factories and cars; added dozens of new federal regulators to crack down on industries that don't comply with environmental laws; and appointed a senior adviser for environmental justice. To help Americans understand how these issues affect their health, she and other EPA officials have also traveled around the country to forums and town halls, talking with and listening to communities that carry most of the burden.

Jackson briefly spoke to The Root about some of the results of her environmental-justice efforts. Here the Cabinet member and Princeton-trained chemical engineer shares new air and water initiatives; how she can't "wave a magic wand" for overnight change; and why we shouldn't count out the importance of organized, empowered communities.

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The Root: You've framed your work as a civil rights issue, but it can be hard for people to get passionate about things like regulating carbon dioxide and testing the quality of streams and rivers. How would you rate your success in trying to get more African Americans to care and participate?

Lisa P. Jackson: I think we have made great progress, and we've done it at a time when people would like to argue that no one cares because they're worried about the economy. And yet we've seen community after community saying, "Of course we want jobs and economic prosperity, but we know what happens if someone's not there to protect our health, air and water at the same time."

It's been a two-way street. We are spending more time at EPA speaking to communities of color about these issues, but we are also spending more time listening and trying to incorporate their unique point of view into the issues we deal with.

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TR: Last year you joined the Congressional Black Caucus for a multicity tour of communities burdened by environmental hazards, and promised to follow up with an action plan for each stop. What were some measurable changes that came as a result?

LPJ: Some of them were sort of qualitative changes — better relationships between the community and local officials. In a couple of communities [in Savannah, Ga., and Mossville, La.] where they were doing Superfund site cleanups, the site managers hadn't really established relationships to hear the concerns of the black community. Now there are meetings where the community sits and goes over in detail engineering plans and community outreach plans.

We had another community [in Greenville, Miss.] with real concerns that Superfund contracting wasn't open to local black-owned small businesses, and we've changed our procurement requirements to make sure that the contract language seeks out those businesses to give them a fair shake.

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We've also worked to bring our SmartWay initiative to reduce diesel emissions to port communities. A lot of communities of color are in urban areas around big ports with lots of bus and diesel traffic, and this program can make a tremendous difference.

TR: A major problem has always been where things are located — elementary schools sited near diesel-spewing highways, for example, or toxic-waste sites in poor neighborhoods. Given the lack of EPA jurisdiction over city planning, what is the agency doing to protect people's health in those cases?

We also have school-siting guidance, which is totally voluntary, but in a lot of minority communities, schools are built on old [abandoned industrial] Brownfield sites. So [our guidance says that] it's important to make sure those sites are cleaned up before the school comes in. We almost act like the communities' consultant. We give them information on highly technical issues that make them understand how a decision will affect their health on the ground.

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TR: You mentioned voluntary "guidance" as part of your environmental-justice work. Much of your newly released Plan EJ 2014 (a blueprint for integrating environmental justice into both federal and local decision making) involves guidance for local officials — an approach that assumes politicians and businesses are willing to take extra steps to protect poor communities. How do you convince people that these aren't just mere suggestions with no teeth?

LPJ: There are regulations on the book right now — our civil rights laws — that are the remedy when people feel that they've been wronged. What we've learned is that getting to the problem after it's already happened is really a problem. The real cure is here is communities who speak up and are in the process at the beginning, whatever it may be, whether it's a cleanup process or a siting process.

One could wish that we could wave a wand and mandate environmental justice everywhere, but instead what Plan EJ 2014 does is have specific steps that we're committing to — to continue to put information out on how to write permits, how to do an EJ analysis quantitatively when you write a permit, or how to do enforcement to ensure that we're concentrating on those communities that have disproportionate impact and that have been neglected.

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TR: Speaking of enforcement, one of EPA's stated goals for the next few years is to keep raw sewage and storm water out of sewers, a problem caused by outdated infrastructure in cities across the country. How are you cracking down on such a prevalent issue?

LPJ: Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia has a "Green City, Clean Waters" program, with this whole idea of making the city green. Part of that is around water infrastructure — taking up pavement and putting in rain gardens, parks and open spaces where water can seep into the ground. That sounds kind of "bugs and bunny"-ish, but putting green space in the heart of the urban jungle has a wonderful impact on water quality and a great impact on the community as a whole.

EPA is holding Michael Nutter and the city of Philadelphia up as an example of our overall work on sustainability. We're negotiating with him a consent decree that changes his obligation to do just what we call "gray infrastructure" to address storm water, and puts green infrastructure as a major focus.

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Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.