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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at St. Mary’s Dominican High School in New Orleans, LA, As Prepared

View photos from Administrator Jackson's trip to New Orleans, LA.

As prepared for delivery.

Hello ladies! Thank you so much for joining me today. Let me say how much it means to me to be here with you. My name is Lisa P. Jackson and I am the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Environmental Protection Agency may not be something you’ve ever heard of – that’s alright. But I know you know what environmentalism is. If you recycle or your parents drive a hybrid car, or if you are concerned about protecting the planet and safeguarding the health of the people around you. That is environmentalism. And that is the work I do every day.

But before I became Administrator, I grew up here in New Orleans. And I went to school at St. Mary’s. This is my first official visit to New Orleans since President Obama called and asked me to join his Administration. I’m thrilled that I get to spend some of my time with the ladies from Dominican High. I’m also thrilled – as I always am – to get a chance to talk to some of the young people of New Orleans while I’m here. Because it is your generation that is leading the way in the work that I do.

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 is the kind of thing that young people like you are doing. It’s not something I would have imagined when I was sitting where you are right now. I grew up in the 9th Ward. And I started elementary school not long after segregation ended. My father worked for the Postal Service here in New Orleans. He used to deliver the mail down in the French Quarter. And my mother and my father sent me here so that I could go to the best school in New Orleans.

When I graduated from Dominican I loved being here so much that I decided to go to Tulane. I originally planned to be a doctor – because I wanted to help people. But what I ended up majoring in was chemical engineering – and let me tell you why I made that switch. I know that chemical engineering sounds like I spent my time in a lab wearing a white coat and filling test tubes. But what I really was studying was how chemicals affect people – our environment and our health. That meant a lot of time putting my boots on and going out into the wetlands. Or going into communities and talking to the families that lived there.

One of the things I was really interested in was our water. You all know that you can’t grow up in New Orleans and not understand how important it is to keep our water safe and clean. Here I was thinking about being a doctor and how they get to help people by treating them when they get sick. I came to realize that – if I studied chemical engineering, and started working to protect our environment – I could help people by making sure they didn’t get sick in the first place.

Studying chemical engineering also meant that I was often the only woman in my classes. Which – if you look around – you can see is quite a change from what classes were like when I was here. But I was glad that Dominican had taught me how to be a strong woman and handle myself, so that I could handle being the only one there. So that I could still excel.

After I graduated from Tulane, I went up to New Jersey to get my Masters from Princeton. I wrote my thesis on wastewater and I was one of only two women in my graduating class at Princeton. Right around the time I graduated, something happened in Love Canal, New York. You all are too young to remember it, but Love Canal was a neighborhood where a lot of people lived. And some of the people were getting sick. They town did some digging and they found 20,000 tons of toxic waste illegally buried underneath people’s homes – waste that was leaking into the ground and the water and making people ill.

I saw all this news about communities suffering from environmental challenges – and stepping in to help those communities and those families was the Environmental Protection Agency. So that was where I decided to work. I got a job and worked for the next 15 years. And today I get to lead the agency where I got my start. And I get to do a job I love, where I help people, and try to make the world a better place for you. That all started with what I learned, right here at Dominican. It wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t what I planned on when I was a senior and getting ready to go off to college like some of you are. But it has served me all my life.

Let me just close by saying that this is a defining moment for our country. Which means that it is a defining moment for you. We are likely to look back and see far-reaching changes starting here – from our financial system to health care to our role as a world leader. For our environment, this is a time unlike any I have seen in two decades of work on these issues. As a student and a young person here in New Orleans – you have a special role to play as all of these changes roll ahead.

Your city has been through an unprecedented environmental disaster, and an unavoidable national economic downturn. My mother was still living in the 9th when Hurricane Katrina hit. I happened to be visiting for her birthday, and ended up driving her to safety. Like so many others, my mother lost everything she had. And she was one of the lucky ones. She got out before the storm hit. She was not trapped on her roof or in the Superdome. She feels blessed not to have lost her life, or lost someone close to her. My mother’s story is one of thousands that have been told over the years about the tragedy that hit this community. But today the stories are starting to change. More and more, they are stories of rebuilding, renewal and revitalization. As the generation of young people who lived through that, your stories are going to be among the new stories that are told.

By being in this place at this time of rebuilding, your achievements and accomplishments mean something more. When people see that New Orleans is able to get on its feet again, when they see that it can emerge stronger and better – not only with jobs and prosperity, but with a sense of community and possibility, when they see that this school at the heart of New Orleans is turning out a new generation of strong women leaders – and maybe a few chemical engineers too – it shines a light on the road ahead of us.

There is still a long, long way to go. That is clear. But the things that are happening here, and the presence of so many talented young people give me hope that we can deliver for this city, for this country, and for your generation in this defining moment. Thank you very much.