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Speeches By EPA Administrator

 

Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, 2011 Commencement Address at New York City College of Technology, As Prepared

06/03/2011
As prepared for delivery

Hello City Tech! Congratulations Class of 2011!

It is wonderful to be here with you today. Thank you President Hotzler for that kind introduction. And thank you to the faculty, alumni, family, friends and guests here today. I am very proud to join you in honoring the work these graduates have done, and marking this milestone in their lives.

I also want to acknowledge that none of this would have been possible without all the family, the teachers, the mentors, the neighbors and friends that helped them out and lifted them up along the way. We all owe them a big round of applause as well. Please join me in thanking them.

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that our moment of celebration is accompanied by a time of great difficulty for many of our fellow Americans – the people of Missouri, and many living along the Mississippi, as well as the people in Alabama and across the south who have suffered from tornadoes and flooding and are now working to rebuild. I ask that we keep them in our thoughts and our prayers today and every day as they work to recover from what has happened.

It is my honor to welcome you into the world as college graduates. It is wonderful to be here with you in New York City. I spent many years working at EPA’s offices here, and it is a city that holds many good memories for me. Let me also point out that, whatever you may expect from the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, I am very much a city girl.

There are plenty of good reasons for the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to be on this campus. One of them is that the EPA began with the mission of using science and technology to reverse environmental damage and protect our health and the environment.

Every day we use science and technology to set standards to limit the toxins in our air and water. We use chemical and electrical and mechanical engineering in our efforts to clean up contaminated rivers and lakes and rehabilitate abandoned industrial sites. We rely on biology and chemistry, and we count on innovations to help sustain our mission to protect our health and our environment. These are the kinds of things some of you know from your work doing bio-math mapping of the Hudson River and Gowanus Canal or learning how to build wind power in urban environments.

The fact is that environmental protection is a high tech enterprise - specializing in everything from smoke stack scrubbers to advanced water filtration equipment to solar panels and wind turbines. Institutions like this one play a critical role in our future, and I’m happy to be here to support all of your efforts.

On the other hand, I didn’t feel like a speech on environmental policy – as important as it is – would quite live up to this moment. Instead, I want to talk to you today about the pursuit of happiness – the inalienable right that is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, right next to life and liberty – and something that all of you take a major step towards today.

And I want to begin by telling you about a group of scientists. Last month there was a news story about a group of scientists and researchers who were wondering whether the qualities of narcissism and hostility are on the rise in our society. They had a sense that they were, but wanted to try and figure out something with certainty. So, they did what scientists do – they looked for data. And they looked for it in a place that would best capture what the broadest spectrum of people were feeling: on the radio. The scientists studied the lyrics of popular songs from the last 30 years to see if there were any trends in the words of the songs we choose to listen to.

What they found was, and I quote, “a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music.” According to the study, “the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ appear more frequently, along with anger-related words.” At the same time, “there’s been a corresponding decline in ’we’ and ‘us’ and the expression of positive emotions.”

Now, whether or not you accept the premise that pop music reveals our innermost selves, I think the researchers are onto something. You don’t have to look far to see a lot of narcissism…a lot of hostility…and a lot of anger in the world we live in. It’s in our music…it’s on our TVs…and it’s definitely in our politics. Around every corner there is someone telling you to forget about “we” and “us,” and that the important thing is to look out for number one.

Now, let me be clear: you should see all the great value in yourself. You are graduating college today. You have a lot to take pride in. And let me be clear about another thing: I’m not telling you to dismiss achievement or success or even making money. These things are going to be important to your pursuit of happiness.

What I am telling you is that there are greater achievements than showing everyone that you’re better than the competition. There are different ways to measure success than by how much you can get for yourself. And there are much better things to do with your life then spend it focused only on making money.

I know this from my own experience. That is what I want to share with you today.

The first point I want to share is this: if the path you take is only focused on “I” and “me,” you will lose the happiness of serving other people. I have spent my entire career working for the government. Now, I don’t think I have to remind anyone here that government work is not likely to make you rich. It’s not likely to make you famous – or even very popular, as I have found out many times. But what it does provide is the opportunity to serve.

That is something I first saw in my father. My father was in the Navy in World War II, and when he came back to Louisiana, two of the better jobs a black veteran could get in the South were Pullman Porter or Postal Worker. So he became a Postal Delivery Man in New Orleans, where I grew up.

My father was not just a government employee who had a good job, or someone providing for his family. He was a person serving a community. My father knew the people on his route. He would ring the bell if your Social Security check had come in the mail, to make sure you got it in your hands. He was dedicated to what he did. He was helping people. And he was proud of his work.

He was also setting an example for me. I used to tell him that I wanted to work at the Post Office. As you can see, I didn’t quite go that route. However, when my Dad worked for the Postal Service, his boss’s, boss’s, boss’s boss all the way up the line was the Post Master General. The building where EPA is located today was once the Post Office headquarters in Washington, DC. Every day, I come in and sit down at my desk in the same office where the Postmaster General used to sit. Every day, it reminds me of my dad. Every day, it reminds me that, like him, I serve people, and play a role in their lives.

The second point I want to share is that a focus on “me, myself, and I” won’t give you the opportunity to be part of a community. I still think of New Orleans as my home community. In fact, my mother was living there until five and a half years ago when Hurricane Katrina hit. I happened to be visiting for her birthday, and ended up driving her to safety. The house we left behind was destroyed, and like so many others, my mother lost everything she had.

I tell you this story because it was a time when – even though I was financially stable – I felt like I didn’t have enough money. For those of you saying, “Yeah service is fine, community is great, but I need to pay my bills,” I understand. I know about student loans. I know it’s hard out there. What I’m saying is – when you leave here and take a job, there is more to what you decide to do than how much you get paid to do it.

After the storm, my mother went back to her house and watched as the wrecking crew brought everything out and set it on the sidewalk in front of her. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to have the money to build my mom a new house. I thought that if I had gone into the private sector – if I had gone to get mine – I would be able to do something in this situation. I wondered why I hadn’t followed a more lucrative path, and I considered abandoning public service.

But I stayed in public service, and I went to work in a new direction. I saw that the environmental challenges of Katrina hit hardest in the poor and minority communities in New Orleans. I saw this same challenge all over the country, and I felt an urgent need to broaden the conversation. It was an issue I raised when President Obama asked me to join this administration. And it has been a priority since I started my work at EPA.

As the first African-American to lead the EPA, under the first African-American President, I now have an opportunity to change the face of environmentalism in a way I would never have in another job. Today there are new voices in this conversation, and new kinds of environmentalists taking action on critical issues that touch all of our lives.

I’m proud to say that a lot of that is happening in my community in New Orleans. All across the city, people are building efficient homes, riding hybrid buses, installing solar panels and working in green-collar jobs. My old neighborhood is being re-born, as a place where environmentalism and economic opportunity come together.

And on the site where my mother’s home once stood, they’re not just putting up one single new home – like I would have done if I’d had the money. Instead, the entire area has been slated for redevelopment as part of a sustainable, green neighborhood. That has happened because people came together as a community – and I am happy to be a part of it.

Now you may be saying to yourself, “This is all well and good for a graduation speech, but I’m about to step into the real world.” That is the third reason why I raised the issue of narcissism and hostility on the radio and on TV. Because it is giving you a false presentation of the real world. This is yet another lesson I learned at home in my community.

One year ago I traveled to New Orleans to meet with community members immediately following the Deepwater Horizon BP spill. The spill began as a human tragedy, when the rig exploded and killed 11 workers – the fathers and brothers and sons of the Gulf community.

It quickly became an environmental emergency as well, with millions of gallons of crude oil leaking into the waters and threatening the fishing that people make a living with, the wetlands that are the beating heart of the coastal ecosystem and the way of life of thousands of families in the region. This was, of course, just five years after hurricanes decimated the area. And as I said, the Gulf Coast was rebuilding. Suddenly – they were faced with a new crisis.

When I went down there, I prepared to meet with a great deal of anger. I anticipated the feelings of people who were all too familiar with deep anxiety and frustration. But what I found was something different.

At our public meeting, the men and women turned out in droves. The one thing they all wanted to know – the question I heard more than anything else was: “How can I help?”

Think about that: Here are people who have only begun to recover from one major setback. They are hearing that an environmental catastrophe could once again decimate their way of life. Some of the fishermen and shrimpers had just made the last runs before their waters were closed. No one could tell them when or if they would ever open again. The wetlands they grew up with, the jobs that they support their families with, even the air that they breathe had been suddenly thrown into jeopardy. It doesn’t get much realer than that. But they didn’t ask, “Who is to blame?” or “Who is going to pay for this?” They asked, “How can I help?”

The fact is, in the real world, when a neighbor has a problem or a community is struggling, people ask, “How can I help?” That may be hard to believe if you use politics and 24-hour TV news as your guide. But think about all the volunteers rushing to help out in Missouri and Tennessee and Alabama and the other states hit with floods or tornadoes. Think about how here in New York almost ten years ago, the people who were angry and who were scared turned to each other to ask, “How can I help?” Think about a friend you have, or a family you know that fell on hard times. Then think of all the people who asked, “How can I help?” That is the real world you are about to enter.

The last point I want to make is this: focusing too much on “I” and “me” takes away our ability to do big things. This is a lesson that is part of the life of everyone here. For me, it began when I started elementary school just a couple of years after segregation ended. I came of age in the Deep South in the late 60s and 70s – in the direct wake of the Civil Rights movement.

Forty years later, I have the incredible honor of being the first African American Administrator of the EPA, serving under the first African American President of the United States. Where my father’s options were limited to mail carrier or Pullman porter, everyone here has the opportunity to choose whether you want to run your own restaurant, or design buildings, or develop cutting-edge sustainable technology.

Making those opportunities available is a big thing that wouldn’t have happened if people had not decided that they would work and sacrifice for something that is bigger than “I” or “me.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t assume leadership of the Civil Rights movement because he got a signing bonus. Nobody joined the Freedom Riders because they thought it would look good on their resume. The words that gave people strength in the toughest of times were, “We shall overcome.”

This – then – is what I meant when I said I want to talk about your inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. It is important to remember that it took the tireless, dedicated sacrifice of others, thinking of something bigger than themselves, to make sure that every American has the freedom to their own pursuit of happiness.

My challenge to you Class of 2011 is to continue that legacy, to understand the value of serving others and being part of a community, to recognize that the real world is not full of hostile opponents, but people who want to know, “How can I help?” and to live up to the history of this nation, in which the right we have to individual liberty is best exercised by choosing to work together.

Let me close by saying that we will be right beside you. The people here who, through the course of your life, have always been there when you needed them. Your teachers and mentors, your family and your friends, your fellow graduates.

I’m happy to celebrate with you today Class of 2011. I’m excited to see where you will take us. Thank you very much, and congratulations once again.