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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the Blacks in Government 31st Annual Conference, As Prepared

08/25/2009
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As prepared for delivery.

Congratulations to BIG on your 31st annual conference. I’m glad to be with you today.

For three decades, this organization has shaped the work of governments at all levels and all across the nation. BIG and its supporters have not only made government a better, more inclusive place to work – they’ve made the work that government does better and more inclusive.

Let me express my own personal gratitude for the importance that work has had in my own life and career. For the last two decades – and for the foreseeable future – I have been and will be a part of government. In all those years on the job, I’ve seen how barriers have fallen and opportunities opened up, how leadership changes have been made, and how – slowly but surely – our government workforce has grown to look a lot more like the people it serves.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of that change in our country.

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 many times in my own line of work. But what it does provide is the opportunity to serve. If we went around this room, we’d probably hear stories about how people came to government out of that will to serve – or how the will to serve came to them once they saw what kind of difference they could make.

I often think of my father. In many ways, my inclination to public service came from him.

My father worked for the Postal Service n New Orleans, where I grew up. He had served in the Navy. And after World War II, when he came back to Louisiana, there were only two jobs a black man could get in the South: Pullman Porter, or Postal Worker. So he became a Postal Delivery Man. His route went through the French Quarter and other parts of New Orleans.

What I saw in him was not just a government employee who had a good job, or someone providing for his family, but a person who was serving his community. My dad was on the front line. He 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. And he was dedicated to his work. He took the “rain, snow, or shine” idea very seriously. I can remember watching him leave the house in some of the worst weather. I know that he worked just as hard during those hot New Orleans summers as he did at any other time.

It’s because he was helping people. He was proud of his work. And he was 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, of course, the Post Master General. As many of you know – 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 a community, and play a role in people’s lives.

So, while I didn’t follow my dad into the mail business, I did follow him into public service. I went to college at Tulane and studied engineering. In graduate school I wrote my thesis on wastewater. All of that was happening right around the time of Love Canal – the neighborhood in New York where they found 20,000 tons of toxic waste buried underneath people’s homes. There was a lot of news about communities suffering from environmental challenges – and, stepping in to help those communities, was the EPA.

When I finished grad school, there was only one place for people who were talented, smart, and passionate about protecting the environment – and that was the EPA.

Twenty years later, I see it as part of my mission as Administrator to return us to that kind of leadership.

I want to make sure we are building the best, the brightest, and the most diverse EPA ever.

I’ll talk more about how we plan to do that. But let me first explain why that is so important.

We have a critical need to broaden the conversation on environmentalism in this country. That is especially true when it comes to black and other minority communities, which are also often low-income communities that are disproportionately exposed to environmental problems.

For too long, environmentalism has been seen as an enclave for the well-off. 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 BIG understand the significance of shifting old, tired paradigms.

BIG is fighting to make American government 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 from your constant, persistent struggles in that effort – that’s not an easy lift. But think how far we’ve come…

When the very first chapter of BIG was formed, by a small group of workers at the Public Health Services out in Rockville, it must have been nearly impossible to imagine that the numbers of blacks in government would today include the President of the United States. Or when we think about environmental protection – there was a time when my family would have been forced to drink unsafe water from an inferior water fountain – because of my race. Now, I have the responsibility of ensuring that everyone 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.

We need people to see that their stake in a clean environment. 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 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 are unconcerned?

For those reasons and more, we need 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.

One way to do that is to follow the lead of BIG and make EPA a more diverse and inclusive place.

I’m proud to announce today that we are creating a new position at EPA to do just that. The new person will work directly with the Assistant Administrator for Administration and Resource management, and spearhead and coordinate diversity initiatives across the entire agency. We have a range of diversity initiatives happening all across EPA – from the Office of Civil Rights to the Office of Environmental Education and more. They’re staffed by people who are dedicated to the important work of opening up this agency.

We want to give them a single point person to help bring those efforts together, and that’s what this new position, the Associate Assistant Administrator for Outreach, Diversity and Collaboration, will do. Once we bring the new Associate Assistant Administrator on board, there will be a person at EPA charged to think strategically about how we broaden our conversation. Program offices will have a single point of contact – someone who can tell them what other offices are doing, and how they can work together across the agency.

EPA will have a person to bring together the many diversity efforts happening now, and move us towards the goal of a diverse collection of stakeholders, sitting at the decision making table, and sharing their insights with us.

We know that change inside government is a tool for making change outside government.

So let me close by saying this: we have to keep striving. We cannot rest.

As someone who has worked in government for a long time, and mentored my share of people, I know that there are endless opportunities to serve in government. If you haven’t found your niche, if you’re not enjoying your work or growing in your career, there is always a new challenge you can accept, or a new task to explore. You just have to find it. What we can’t do is become complacent. To just show up to clock in and call it a day.

The change we have seen – especially this year – should inspire us to redouble our efforts. We have to keep working for more and better opportunities. We have to keep setting higher standards of success. We have to show the leadership that our country needs in these challenging times. And we must make sure that every day, we are serving others.

That is what BIG has always been about, and that is what it continues to strive for. It’s how we live up to the examples that were set for us by people that came before – our leaders, our mentors, our parents. And it’s how we set that same example for our young people.

I look forward to working with you all. Thank you.