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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the National Urban League Green Jobs Summit, As Prepared

12/02/2009
As prepared for delivery.

Thank you all for being here. I know some of you have traveled a long way to join us, and we are happy that you could be here. As many of you know, like President Morial, I grew up in the 9th Ward of New Orleans. I know that tough times in the national economy come down especially hard on urban communities – and the current downturn is no exception. We are working to pull our country up and out of those economic challenges.

Along with tax cuts for the middle class and funding to keep teachers in schools and police on the streets, President Obama has made green jobs a centerpiece of the Recovery Act. We’re here today to talk about how we bring those opportunities to every community. There is a lot of work ahead to make that happen – but I’ve already seen great progress since I started with the EPA in January.

Not long ago I was at the White House with a coalition of groups for an effort called Green the Block. I was honored to be there with Dr. Dorothy Height, a woman who stood on stage with Dr. King at the March on Washington. I was heartened that she was there to support not just environmental justice, but economic justice. She shows us that these issues are the next step in the long march forward. This particular forum was dedicated to putting green jobs into inner city communities – based on 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.

In a different instance, 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 minority. Many of them come from disadvantaged, under-served neighborhoods. The hybrid car they’re building has outperformed models built by well-funded university teams and private companies with some very deep pockets. Yet, 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. They’ve just moved to the next stage of the competition, and survived the first eliminations when more than half of the other teams were sent home. The top prize in the contest is $10 million – and they are expected to do very well.

As I said, the Recovery Act is focused on creating green jobs. One of the signature initiatives provides funding to weatherize low-income homes all across America. That is putting thousands of people to work in their own communities. And it’s benefitting the places that have the greatest need for higher employment, lower electricity bills, and cleaner air – all in one policy.

These are all great news. But the change we need is more than a few good examples and a handful of policies. When we talk about bringing green jobs to our communities, what we’re really talking about is expanding the conversation we’re having on environmentalism.

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

As I just mentioned, we’re using Recovery investments for home weatherization – which will create green jobs, cut emissions, and save energy. That reminds me of what one of my African American colleagues told me: the story of 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.

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. We all know that’s not an easy lift. Change takes work.

One important idea we can communicate is that this isn’t just about green opportunities – it’s about all opportunities. The environment affects so many other critical issues.

We can talk about our crumbling schools and how we need to rebuild them so our children can learn and get good jobs. But we have to ensure we’re not building schools in the shadow of polluters that will make our kids sick, so that they 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 more often 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 must also understand 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. 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 teenage sons) 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, it’s my mission at EPA to broaden this conversation – so that we can bring not just green jobs, but jobs and opportunities of every kind to the places where they are needed most.

Let me close by telling you about someone I met recently. As I said, I grew up in the upper 9th Ward. Two weeks ago, I made my first official visit as EPA Administrator to my old hometown. While I was there, I went to some of the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina, including the lower 9th Ward and my old neighborhood in Pontchartrain Park.

While I was there, I met a man named Mr. Green. Mr. Green has lived in New Orleans most of his life. He’s an older man, and like my mother, he lost his home and everything in it to the floods after the storm. Today, they are rebuilding on the lot where Mr. Green’s house once stood.

His new home will be sustainable, energy efficient, and full of extraordinary innovative green designs and technologies. It’s one of many green homes that are being built in the community – by workers from the community. And standing next to the new house is all that Mr. Green has left of his old home – the concrete steps that used to lead up to his doorway.

I had a quick moment to talk with him privately, and I asked him – “You are here as a spokesman for this green building effort. You can tell me honestly: would you call yourself an environmentalist?” He paused for a second before saying, “Well – I wasn’t.” But, he said, after the impact of the Hurricane, he had seen how seemingly far off issues touched his life.

He mentioned the destruction of the coastal wetlands, which had been drained or cut away for oil and gas lines before the storm. Those natural defenses against storm surges and flooding weren’t there to help protect the community.

This is the kind of story I’ve heard often – in New Orleans and elsewhere. People who didn’t think about water quality until their kids got sick. People who never thought about pollution from the local plant until the plant shut down and moved out, and no other businesses wanted to move in to the contaminated lot. People who didn’t think about fuel efficiency until gas prices hit $4 a gallon.

After Hurricane Katrina, rebuilding New Orleans has focused on making the city sustainable, and tapping the potential of a growing clean energy industry. People are building efficient homes, riding hybrid buses, installing solar panels and working in green-collar jobs. Mr. Green is going to move into a new green home. The land that my old house is sitting on was recently bought by developers. They are going to turn the whole area – my old neighborhood – into a sustainable community.

This is the potential for rebuilding I see in every community. And green jobs are the key. Restoring and preserving the environment in our communities is a way to create new opportunities. It’s good economic sense to make our neighborhoods healthier places to live and better places to set up a business. It’s good economic sense to cut the pollution that makes employees call-in sick, or causes them to stay at home with a sick child. It’s good economic sense to fix those problems by training someone in the community for a good paying job cleaning up their neighborhood.

This forum is an excellent first step. A great beginning to a long journey. I hope you will continue to keep this conversation growing. Thank you very much.