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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to students at Southern High School in Durham, NC, As Prepared

09/08/2009
As prepared for delivery.

Thank you all for sharing some of your time with me. President Obama will be on to speak to you in just a few minutes. Before he does, I want to talk briefly about why this is so important. Now, let me say: I know you just got back into school. And I know a lot of you are wishing you were still on summer vacation. I’m sure you’d rather be heading down to Southpoint tonight to see a movie instead of doing homework. But I’m glad you’re here – for a lot of reasons. Today I want to talk about just three of them.

First, this is where you start the rest of your life. The only way to make sure that you can make your own decisions and follow your own path in the future is by excelling in school right now. I know that from my own life.

I grew up in the in 9th Ward of New Orleans, which is a neighborhood with many challenges. Some of you may remember the 9th Ward because it was one of the places hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina four years ago. A lot of the people on the news because their houses were flooded were from the 9th.

It wasn't always easy. School segregation had only recently been abolished in the south. And my family had its fair share of struggles. My parents worked hard and neither of them had finished college. A lot of people might have written me off. They might have found it easy to believe that my circumstances would hold me back. That I would not have the chance in life to make my own choices, and that my circumstances would make the choices for me.

But I never wrote me off. I let my education work for me. Just like you can let yours work for you. I worked hard in school, which helped me get to college, which helped me get to graduate school, which helped me find my career. Through that, I got a job protecting the environment – something that I care deeply about, and love to do. Today, because of the work that I did back when I was your age, I get to go to meetings with President Obama, and work along with him in a job I love.

Education starts us all off at the same place. You don’t need money. You don’t have to come from the right neighborhood. You don’t have to have a certain skin color. In school, those barriers and obstacles go away. If you do your work, and do well in school, no one will be able to deny you anything. Education is power, especially in a world that moves as fast as this one.

Which brings me to my second point: You live in a world that is changing faster than we’ve ever seen before.

I was your age not all that long ago, and even in a short period of time things have changed dramatically. We did a lot of the same things, but how we did them was entirely different. If I wanted to call my friends, I had to go into the kitchen to use the telephone, which was attached to a wall. If I wanted to type up a paper for class, I went to the closet and got out a typewriter. No one I knew had a computer at home. If I had to do research, it came from a book because there was no internet and no Google. There was no email. No Twitter. No texting.

And in a short time, it all changed.

I just got an iPhone. I use it to check out my facebook page when I’m on the road. These are things I would have never dreamed of in high school. In the time between now and when you are my age, your world is going to change like mine did – only it’s going to happen faster.

One of the things I work on and talk about all the time is the revolution that we are seeing in the ways we use and produce energy. This is definitely a place where, in the years ahead, you’re going to do a lot of the same things, but you’re going to do them differently.

How many of you have a car? Before you know it, instead of pulling over to fill up the tank with gasoline, you might be pulling over to change out the electric battery. You may turn on the air conditioner at your house – but rather than running off the energy from a coal burning power plant, it will be powered by solar panels on your roof. If those solar panels are generating more power than you need, you may be able to sell that energy back to your utility company, or to your neighbor. One day you will get to go to the movies again. If you buy a coke and some popcorn at the theater, the trash that you throw away – instead of just ending up in a big pile outside of town – could be broken down and transformed into energy that helps power the entire mall.

And here’s my third reason: you are the ones that are going to make all that possible. Since I started this job I’ve been to wind farms and manufacturing plants and spoken with scientists about solar panels. But one of the most interesting and innovative clean energy projects I’ve seen was being done by high school students.

Earlier this year I visited West Philadelphia High School where students are building a hybrid car – a car that reduces pollution and saves people money by running on both electricity and gas. The vast majority of the students at West Philly are minorities. Many of them come from the poor, disadvantaged, under served neighborhoods around the school. And from this place where no one would have expected it, where people might have counted them out, when others might have been ready to give up on them, they are doing something extraordinary. The hybrid car they’re building has outperformed others built by teams at the most advanced universities and the best-funded private companies around the world.

High school students from the inner city are taking their car to compete against other hybrid vehicles from around the world. They’re entered in a contest called the Progressive Automotive X Prize competition. If they win – and a lot of people think they have a good shot – they take home $10 million.

That’s what education can do for you. But you have to stick with it. It’s your education and your future. President Obama is going to have much more to say about that in just a moment. And I look forward to hearing what you all think about it when we get a chance to talk after the speech. Thank you very much.