In her first public appearance as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson told a standing-room-only crowd on Jan. 30 that the EPA would work to regain the public’s trust.
“I understand that trust—especially for the EPA these days—is hard earned,” Jackson said. “I hope that when we’re done, we won’t be operating simply from a position of trust, but one of respect.”
Jackson was the keynote speaker at “Advancing Climate Justice: Transforming the Economy, Public Health and Our Environment,” a two-day conference hosted by Fordham Law School at Pope Auditorium.
Former head of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Jackson told attendees that President Barack Obama shares their sense of purpose, and that his stance on the environment will cast him as an environmental president.
“As long as he’s committed to the idea that you do not have to choose between environmental protection and the economy, we have a leg up on past administrations,” she said. “We have an answer for people who want to scare us into backing off strong environmental protections.
“In New Jersey, I was fond of saying that every time I saw a plant with emissions controls, or a Superfund cleanup, those were good-paying jobs,” Jackson said.
Addressing climate change, Jackson said she planned to listen to technical experts in the agency, calling them an essential resource for her, the president and Congress.
Jackson received some of the heartiest applause when she said the EPA would review a raft of rules and regulatory actions passed under the previous administration. She also pledged that the diversity of the staff would not stop with her, the first African American to head the agency.
“I want to make the EPA a place where talented young people like you and the folks you work with—when they get out of school and they want to work on environmental issues—the first thing they think is, ‘I wonder if I can get a job at the EPA?’” she said. “I want to grow a 21st-century environmental organization that is world class and looks like the people it serves.”
The conference, which was organized by West Harlem-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice, also drew U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Rangel challenged community organizations to use their collective power to push for change from the bottom up.
“The most important thing is for us to provide resources to grassroots organizations,” he said.
Rangel said that organizations such as WE ACT have the power to go into low-income areas and convince residents that environmental concerns should matter to them. That, in turn, creates the kind of popular support that federal lawmakers can use to fight for the environment.
“We have an opportunity to say that the people on the lowest part of the economic ladder can come to the table, not to be educated, but to see what they can do to save their communities, to save their country, and to a large extent, to save the world,” he said.
He cited the earned income tax credit as a classic example of how community groups translate actions in Washington into results at home.
“People who are supposed to get the credit believe that if they don’t have any tax liability, why should they file with the Internal Revenue Service?” he said. “But over the years, we have geared the tax system so that if people are working hard every day and have children, but have low income and are on the verge of poverty, the government gives them $1,200, $1,300, $1,500 because of their pursuit of a better life.
“You can’t explain this in Washington. It takes community organizations to educate people as to how important it is for them to be counted.”