The participants of the Women’s Empowerment and Career Advancement Network group (WeCan) have spent this past month celebrating and commemorating the contributions of women of color, especially black women, to the fields of conservation, GIS, and other social causes. This, the final entry in our Black History Month showcase, honors the work and active legacy of Liza Perez Jackson.
Born February 8, 1962 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Lisa Perez Jackson was adopted two weeks later and raised in New Orleans by postal worker Benjamin Perez and his wife Marie, a secretary. Her mother notes her keen interest in the injustices of social inequality, economic disparity, and environmental issues. Growing up, Lisa vocalized her dismay at the social and environmental cost of pollution of the waterways and canals of New Orleans-- an environmental tragedy resulting from carelessly run oil refineries and unregulated drilling.
A self-proclaimed “geek”, and never one to back down from doing what she believed in, Lisa put herself on an educational path that would see her graduating from Tulane’s School of Chemical Engineering summa *** laude in 1983 as one of a few black women in her class. After graduating from Princeton with her master’s in 1986, she applied her chemical engineering degree to her work at Clean Sites, Inc.---a non-profit whose mission is to manage environmental cleanup projects. This was followed by her appointment as one of the staff engineers at the EPA’s (Environmental Protection Agency) Superfund program.
By 2002, Lisa Jackson had made a name for herself within the EPA and was appointed as assistant Commissioner to New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in 2002; by 2006 she was Head Commissioner. Prior to her appointment, the NJ DEP was politically divided in a bitter war over how to address the state’s environmental problems while not alienating the chemical companies stationed there who provided jobs but also polluted the state to the point where it was one of the most polluted in the nation. Jackson was unafraid. She went hard after repeat offenders in some of the state’s most polluted areas and put New Jersey on a path to healing by announcing a goal to curb emissions to 80% below 2006 levels by 2050. She protected more than 900 miles of state waterways by using the highest regulations outlined in the Clean Water Act and was a vocal critic of the Bush Administration’s dismissive approach to dealing with environmental issues.
Environmentalist critics did not always laud her efforts, complaining that she was too lenient with big business and developers especially when it came to establishing more stringent groundwater regulations and supervising hazardous waste cleanups. She was so adept at navigating this minefield that she was named chief of staff by Governor Jon Corzine in 2008—a posting that was short-lived due to her nomination to head up the EPA by President-elect Barack Obama that same year. Jackson is the first person of African American descent to serve as EPA Administrator, as well as the fourth woman and second New Jersey native to hold the position.
She went to work with a vengeance, declaring in a written statement on December 8, 2009, that the finding, which declares carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases a threat to public health, marks the start of a U.S. campaign to tackle greenhouse gas. In response to this public health threat, she put in place tougher regulations. In many public arenas, she vocalized the belief that the burden is on humans to reverse the damage we’ve done to the planet in order to face off impending, cataclysmic climate change.
On Dec, 27, 2012, Jackson announced that she would be stepping down from her position as EPA administrator citing her belief that the Obama administration would move to support the Keystone pipeline against her recommendation, and she did not want this to occur on her watch. Lisa now works at Apple Inc, and oversees Apple’s environmental issues as vice president of Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives.
Lisa Perez Jackson’s legacy will be one of demonstrating how immediate environmental action in the face of opposition can spark noticeable environmental change. This makes her a role model to young women of color everywhere: yes, your voice can be heard; yes, your work has value and can improve the lives of affected communities. Her work encourages us to never give up, to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves, and follow the science that bring us into a world where clean water, clean air, and environmental conservation is the primary goal, not an afterthought.
ARTICLE BY: Femi Aladi, Geocoding Developer