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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the Kean University Commencement, As Prepared

As prepared for delivery.

It’s wonderful to be back in New Jersey.

Some of you may know that I lived and worked here for 20 years before taking the job in Washington, DC.

I am the Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency. That essentially means I am the top environmental cop in America.

You know how President Farahi is always working to make the campus more beautiful – then telling you to stay off the grass? I do that for the entire nation.

I’m proud to join you on this special occasion, to honor all of the work you have done, and mark this milestone in your lives.

Let me acknowledge that none of this would have been possible without all the parents, teachers, mentors, neighbors and friends that helped along the way.

We all owe them a big round of applause as well. So please join me…

I’ve been granted the privilege of welcoming you into the world as college graduates.

Obviously, my area of expertise is the environment. But it struck me that it wouldn’t measure up to the occasion if I were to come here and talk to you about environmental policy.

I know that Kean has been very active. You’ve launched a wonderful Blue Goes Green campaign which is helping to reduce your carbon footprint. You’re using clean, geothermal energy rather than coal, and you’re cutting the use of Styrofoam on campus, just to name a few things.

And those are the kinds of things that excite me. But I can understand if you don’t want to spend your commencement hearing about recycling, water regulation, and clean energy technology.

So I want to tell you about my mother, Marie Perez Rieras.

I came to New Jersey for graduate school and lived here for most of my adult life. But I was raised in New Orleans.

I lived in the Upper 9th Ward, one of the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina.

That may conjure strong memories for some of you because the storm hit in late August of 2005 – just as you were starting college.

My mother was still living in the city at the time. In fact, I was there with her. Her birthday is August 27. I went down there to visit and ended up driving her out of the city.

My mother lost everything she had – just like so many others. It was one of the worst natural disasters we’ve ever seen in this nation.

Now, my mother had always asked me why I became an environmentalist. She sent me to school to be a doctor.

After Katrina, she found out that one reason the hurricane was so devastating and the flooding was so bad was that marshes and wetlands – the area’s natural defenses – had been destabilized by siltation, and cut by oil and gas lines.

Today, she can go head-to-head with any expert on the effects of that environmental damage. She can make as informed and compelling an argument as I can about the need to protect and preserve those natural buffers.

Today, my mother is an environmentalist, whether she knows it or not.

Watching her transformation over these last four years has been an awakening for me as well.

We talk about environmentalism in terms of rivers and streams, polar ice caps and pristine lands. And that is part of the story. But in truth, environmentalism is all about the world directly in front of our faces.

It’s about wilderness as much as it’s about urban and suburban neighborhoods. It’s about the Pine Barrens and the shore. But it’s also about the Central Ward of Newark, and what kind of air they have to breathe and water they have to drink.

Environmentalism is about the place where you are.

It’s about taking care of the world around you. Not just because spotted owls and majestic trees live there. But also because we live there.

Recently, EPA initiated a program to monitor air quality around some of the nation’s public schools.

That was in response to a USA Today story about high levels of particulate matter in the air around the places where our kids go to learn.

When USA Today published the story, parents all across the nation read about the dangerous air around schools.

They read how children absorb toxic pollutants in the same quantities as adults – meaning they get a much higher dose of toxics for their body weight.

They read about how children are more vulnerable to asthma and other respiratory illnesses – and more susceptible to long-term complications that will be with them all their lives.

Then they sent their kids to school, wondering if they were putting them in harm’s way.

They were environmentalists, whether they knew it or not.

I’m sure your parents can understand that kind of situation. You can be certain that at some point between the day you were born and today, your parents protected you from something in your environment.

Maybe they put sunscreen on you to protect your from UV rays. Maybe they locked the cabinets to keep you away from potentially dangerous chemicals.

They wanted to make sure you would be healthy enough to get this far. They were environmentalists, whether they knew it or not.

My point is that this big idea of environmentalism is not much more than looking around at your world and wanting to make it better.

And it goes beyond, “Stay off the grass.”

You need to know that. Because this is your world now.

That’s not just lofty, graduation day rhetoric. Proof of what you can make possible is already here.

Most of the people in the audience today probably never believed they would see an African American President in their lifetimes. I certainly didn’t.

But young people like you stepped up and made it happen. You made it look easy.

From now on, every generation gets to live in an America where a woman, an African American, a Latino, an Asian or anyone else can become President. And all we do is shrug and say, “Well, where is she on health care? What’s his education policy? What are they going to do about social security?”

Future generations will never realize how blessed they are to take something like that for granted.

You have claimed the mantle of leadership in our country. The world is watching to see what you’re going to decide next. And every politician and marketing rep is trying to get your attention.

I know I’m looking to you for help. When I leave here I’m headed to New York to tape tonight’s episode of the Daily Show – because I know that young people like you are going to be watching and listening.

Whatever direction you decide to take this world is the direction it’s going to go. That’s a special, historical, unprecedented privilege.

Now, with great power comes great responsibility.

If you don’t bring change to the planet, then the planet is going to bring change to you – and it’s not going to be pretty.

Climate change is going to destabilize the economy you’re about to enter. It’s going to jeopardize public health here and around the world. It’s going to threaten the security of the country you love.

But these are just the warning signs on a road we don’t have to go down. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t entirely optimistic about your future.

None of us would be here if we didn’t believe in the extraordinary amount of good that you can do.

You have the capacity to make change in ways that no other generation has ever known before. Your thoughts and ideas reach farther. Your technology is faster and stronger. Your world is smaller but your horizons are so much broader.

In the years ahead, where we worry over rising sea levels, we can instead celebrate rising standards of living.

Concerns over widespread poverty can be transformed into the thrill of widespread opportunity.

Rather than waiting anxiously for the next devastating disease, we can work passionately to find the next great cure.

We have a planet that needs saving. And you are the generation that is ready to do it.

Thank you again class of 2009. Congratulations on your graduation.