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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the National Association of Black Journalists, as Prepared

08/07/2009
Read the blog and see photos from this event.

As prepared for delivery.

Thank you, President Ciara.

To the NABJ Board of Directors and Membership;

To Mark, whom I had the pleasure of meeting yesterday;

I’m glad to be with you today.  I’ve been asked here to help answer a very important question:

Will the millions of green and clean energy jobs being promised reach the black community?

And the answer to that question is, “Yes – they have and they will.” 

Earlier this week I was at the White House with a coalition of groups launching an initiative called Green the Block. I was honored to be there with Dr. Dorothy Height, the last living person to stand on stage with Dr. King at the March on Washington.

This was a forum dedicated to the idea that putting environmental green on the block helps put more economic green on the block. 

And it was happening a few hundred feet from the Oval Office.

There, I announced more than $61 million to accelerate the clean up of polluted development sites.  Almost $7 million of that will go towards training workers in the community to fill those jobs.

And that’s just a fraction of what we’ve invested in clean ups and energy efficiency projects in our communities.

There are some other extraordinary things happening in our communities as well.

I visited West Philadelphia High School where students are working on an innovative hybrid car. The vast majority of students at West Philly – almost 100 percent – are black. Many of them come from disadvantaged, under served neighborhoods. The hybrid car they’re building has outperformed models built by university teams and private companies. 

These high school students from the inner city are taking their car to compete against other hybrid vehicles from around the world in the Progressive Automotive X Prize competition. The top prize there is $10 million.  

This is all great news. And it speaks to how our young people are embracing the green economy, not just as consumers, but also as innovators and entrepreneurs.

But, there is a broader issue I also want to discuss with you today. We know this is a moment of unprecedented opportunity. 

President Obama has lit a fire under people. He’s actively engaged in taking on big issues: energy; two wars; health care; the economy.

I haven’t seen a brother take on so many issues at once since Marvin Gaye put “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Mercy Me,” and “Inner City Blues,” all on the same album.

But here’s the thing: 

“What’s Going On” is all about violence. Plenty of us are working to prevent violence in our neighborhoods.

“Inner City Blues” – all about the economy. There’s widespread concern in the black community about the economy. People are hard at work making sure that growing up in the city doesn’t mean you’re in a permanent underclass.

But when it comes to “Mercy Mercy Me” and the environment, our voices aren’t heard in the same way. 

Our communities don’t seem to be as active. The issues don’t rise to the top as priorities.

For too long, environmentalism has been seen as an enclave for the privileged few.

Talking about the issue brings to mind sweeping vistas and wide-open landscapes. 

What doesn’t usually come to mind is an apartment building.  A city block.  Or a school playground.

Or, for that matter, an inner-city kid who has trouble breathing on hot days. Or a black business owner whose employees are getting sick.

But we know that environmental issues are as much a part of their lives as they are for anyone.

One of my African American colleagues told me about how, every year as winter was coming, his grandmother would get up on a chair and put up plastic sheeting over the windows. 

She didn’t say she was “greening her home.” 

She didn’t say she was “weatherizing the house.”

She didn’t call herself an “environmentalist.”

From her perspective, she was just keeping out the cold and saving money on the oil bill. 
But the issues that we label “environmentalism” were an important part of her life.

This disconnect is a significant challenge. But it’s also one of our greatest opportunities.

Today, the inauguration of the first African American president, and my confirmation as the first African American Administrator of this Agency, has begun the process of changing the face of environmentalism in our country.

More than most groups, the membership and leadership of NABJ understand the significance of shifting old, tired paradigms.

NABJ is fighting to make America’s newsrooms look more like America. In the same way, I’m working to make sure that my agency, and the movement that my agency represents, also looks more like America.

As you know for your constant, persistent struggles in that effort –  that’s not an easy lift. 

Change takes work. 

But think how far we’ve come: there was a time when my family and I would have been forced to drink unsafe water from an inferior water fountain – because of our race. Now, I have the responsibility of ensuring that everyone in this country drinks clean water – regardless of their race.

That progress took a lot of time and a lot of struggle. It’s going to take the same thing today to keep us marching forward.   

One of my staffers attended the convention of a leading organization focused on African American issues.  He mentioned to someone in leadership of the organization that we should be working together to expand the tent of environmentalism.

The response he got was, “I can’t sell the environment to my members.”

Think about that: they said they couldn’t “sell” the environment to their members.

As cynical as it sounds, in a way, they’re right. If we’re going to be able to “sell” environmentalism, we need to make clear to people that their stake in the environment is greater than they realize. We need to also make clear that environmentalism goes hand-in-hand with traditional civil rights and social justice issues in our community.

Take education, for instance. We can talk about our crumbling schools and how we need to rebuild them so our children can learn.

But that conversation must also include where we build these schools. We have to ensure we’re not building them in the shadow of polluters that will make our kids sick, that make them miss day after day of class with asthma or other health problems.

We can talk about health care. But we also have to talk about how the poor – who get sick at 2 and 3 times the average rates because they live in neighborhoods where the air and water are polluted – are the same people who go to the emergency room for treatment.

That drives up health care costs for everyone. It hurts the local and the national economy. 

We can talk about the need for more jobs and small businesses in our urban centers and metropolitan regions.  But that conversation must also include the understanding that environmental challenges in our neighborhoods hold back economic growth.

Poison in the ground means poison in the economy. A weak environment means a weak consumer base.  And unhealthy air means an unhealthy atmosphere for investments.

And in many neighborhoods, visible environmental degradation compounds other problems. 

When businesses won’t invest, economic possibilities are limited. As a result crime is higher, violence is higher – often times drugs use is rampant – and the vicious cycle continues.

So we can talk about crime too. What have we taught our young people (like my two teenaged boys) to value, to aspire to, or take pride in when they see that their communities are unclean, unhealthy and unsafe – and that the people around them seem unconcerned?

For those reasons and more, it’s my mission at EPA to broaden this conversation … to expand the tent of our coalition … to diversify the voices of those calling for environmental change – even if they don’t call themselves environmentalists.

There are powerful voices in the black community calling for change in our economy, change in our health care, change in our schools.  I urge them to join me in calling for cleaner land, air, and water. 

Their committed advocacy can help ensure that our children’s health is protected, and that the green and clean energy jobs being created are coming to our communities. 

To make that possible, I need to meet people where they are, and talk to them in a real way. 

And, to really listen to them and their stories.

And that’s where you come in.

You fight to tell the stories.  And there are stories to tell.

A week ago, I was speaking to a group of local environmental advocates.

At the end of my presentation I went around the table asking if anyone had any questions. 

I remember I was calling everyone by their first names. Then, I got to an older black woman who must have been in her 70s. There was a walker next to her chair and she was looking me straight in the eyes the entire meeting. 

Like, I said, I was calling everyone by his or her first name, but, I knew just from instinct that I’d better not call her by her first name. 

I’m no fool – this was Ms. Johnson.
 
Ms. Johnson has worked in her community for decades. She had come downtown that day from a public housing project. She wanted to know how we were planning to clean up her neighborhood, and who from the neighborhood we were planning to hire to do the work.

Ms. Johnson probably doesn’t call herself an environmentalist. But here she was, talking to me about the environment in her community.

I want to make sure Ms. Johnson’s story is being told.

I had a similar thing happen to me in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

I met with a group of environmental activists from the community. One of them was a man named Buddy. 

When I got to the meeting, they told me about Buddy. He was well known – and got that way by being a strong and demanding advocate.

And he was. He came to the meeting with his remarks prepared, with letters from people he knew, and charts and figures to make his point.

He told us about his community – which he loved and was proud of. But which needed our help. 

When the meeting was over I walked over to two people who had attended but not spoken. 

I asked why they had stayed quiet the whole time. One of them looked up at me and, without blinking just said, “Buddy speaks for us.”

It made me realize just how valuable Buddy is. And how much we need him in communities all across America. 

About a month ago, Buddy called the EPA headquarters. Understand that we get thousands of calls a day at the EPA. Yet, he didn’t say anything except, “Hey, this is Buddy! Do you know who I am?”

And they did. I think I’ve told his story so much that his name is now legendary around the EPA. 

But I want everyone to hear and understand Buddy’s story – and the stories in Buddy’s community. 

You hear these stories. You tell them in a language that people understand. 
 
It may sound funny, but every category of the news covers environmental issues. 

The front page. The business stories. The broadcasts on local issues. Pieces like what I saw on TV about air quality during the Beijing Olympics mean that even sports reporters are talking about the environment. 

And with the investments in the Recovery Act we’re hoping to see a lot more in the classifieds section as well.

“Environmentalism touches every part of our lives. I want our conversations on the issues of concern to reflect that truth. Because when our conversations reflect that truth, our environmental movement can reflect our country.”

You have a central role to play. Because you are the keepers of the conversation. I hope you will help us tell the stories that need to be told. 

I’m glad to have the chance to speak with you today. 

Thank you very much.