By AUDREY FISCHER
EPA is back on the job. This is what Lisa Perez Jackson wants people to know about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the organization she was selected by President Barack Obama to lead.
Jackson delivered this message during her keynote address on March 5 to begin the Library’s 2009 celebration of Women’s History Month. This year’s national theme is “Women Taking the Lead to Save Our Planet.”
“Thanks to President Obama’s budget, EPA will have its highest level of support in its 39-year-history,” said Jackson, the first African American to hold the position. “We are rising above past divides that have slowed down progress on the environment for decades.”
In little more than 30 days since coming to the helm, Jackson has led the agency’s review of a number of the previous administration’s policies, such as automobile emissions standards and air quality in the vicinity of schools.
“Parents deserve to know that the air their children breathe is safe,” she said.
A chemical engineer by training and profession, Jackson was one of only two women in the engineering program at Princeton in the 1970s. But times were changing and the status of women in the workplace was improving.
“I was searching for a way to serve. EPA offered a place for talented young women to come and to thrive,” she said, recalling the early days of the agency, which was founded in 1970. Jackson served initially at EPA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., and later at its regional office in New York.
“I received a promotion shortly after my second child was born,” Jackson noted. “Women shouldn’t have to choose between family and a career.”
Demonstrating a strong sense of history, the new EPA head acknowledged a debt to the women who paved the way for her, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, first lady Michelle Obama and other women at the forefront today.
“I am here because of a long line of women who took the lead to save the world,” she said, referring to women’s contributions to the environment and “other great challenges of our time, such as human rights, public health and equality of opportunity.”
She cited pioneers in the conservation movement, among them Rosalee Edge, Sylvia Earle and Rachel Carson. She noted that Carson’s groundbreaking book “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, has been credited with helping launch the environmental movement and setting the stage for the establishment of EPA less than a decade later.
“But there are also women who aren’t in the history books,” she said. “Mothers like my own, sisters, daughters …”
Her hometown of New Orleans is a case in point.
“The next environmental leaders arising from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina are mainly women,” she said. “They are from poor and middle-class neighborhoods, teachers, nurses. With love and advocacy for the city and environment, they are demonstrating a kind of strength never to be underestimated. It’s a strength that moves nations.”
Their strength, along with the increased number of women in Congress and the Cabinet, is a “source of inspiration” to Jackson.
“The struggle for equality is a struggle for the future,” she said. “We must protect the present to make a future. We don’t have to choose between a ‘green economy’ or a ‘green environment.’” Jackson said she is heartened to be hearing more about “green jobs, clean energy and smart growth.”
“I’m happy to be a woman leading the way, but we need the gentlemen, too,” she quipped. “It will take all hands on deck to stop the ravages of climate change and save the planet.”