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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the Dorothy Height Luncheon for BET's Leading Women Defined Summit, As Prepared

As prepared for delivery.

I’m proud to be here with you, and happy to have benefitted, as an African American woman, from the paths that the women here have blazed. With that history in mind, I want to spend my time today talking about an urgent call for our future, a place where I believe our leadership as African American women has yet to be defined. I want to talk about issues where it is incumbent upon us, as leaders, to do much better.

What I want to talk about today are the challenges we face, in our community, of protecting our health – and the health of our children – from the consequences of pollution in the air we breathe, from chemicals in the water that runs through our communities and into our homes, and from contaminants in the lands where we build homes, schools, businesses and churches.

This is, broadly, the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency. And it is a mission that requires your help. Being here today is a great opportunity for me. Because I know that, as true leaders, you are eager to act on the issues that affect our communities and our country. It is my intention to challenge you to put your talents to work on these issues.

Now, one of the reasons why this is an area where our leadership has not been defined is a matter of perception. When we talk about ‘environmentalism,’ it calls to mind great soaring vistas and wide open spaces. But what might not come to mind is an apartment building that still has lead paint in it. Or an inner city school where the air is polluted. Or an urban waterway that – instead of being a centerpiece for the community – is cluttered with trash and contaminated with runoff.

When we think of environmental protection, we don’t always recognize the connections between what the EPA does and the needs of those communities. And without that recognition – without your leadership and your voices in our environmental conversation – our communities face the consequences.

Think about it: Heart disease, cancer and respiratory illness remain three of the top four most fatal health threats in America. They account for more than half of the deaths in the nation. And all three have an overwhelming impact on black communities. I suspect we all know a family member or a friend who has battled with asthma or suffered from heart disease. My youngest son has asthma and I know just how difficult that can be for a child and a family.

Something else all of these illnesses have in common is a link to environmental factors – pollution like lead, mercury, arsenic, smog, particulate matter and other contaminants in the places where we live and work and learn. This is why we see blacks entering emergency rooms for asthma treatments at three-and-a-half times the average rate that whites do. It is why, tragically, African Americans die from asthma attacks twice as often. At the same time, mortality rates for cancer are higher for us than for any other group. And heart disease is the most fatal illness in the black community. Those reasons alone are enough for us to call for change. But environmental challenges have other far-reaching consequences as well.

For one, dirty air, water and land hold back economic growth and prosperity. There are costs to businesses that pay higher health insurance premiums because their workers are at greater risk of chronic diseases. There are costs to employers in lost productivity from employees calling in sick. There are costs to our future when students get ill because we've built schools in polluted areas. When environmental degradation turns potential investments and businesses and jobs away from struggling neighborhoods, economic possibilities are limited. Without those economic possibilities, crime and violence can take hold, drug use can grow, and the vicious cycle continues.

It also affects our prospects in less tangible ways. We have to ask ourselves: what have we taught our young people to take pride in and aspire to when they see that their communities are unclean, unhealthy and unsafe – and that the people around them are uninvolved in facing these challenges?

If we hope to be leadership defined, it is critical that we empower every community to act on the issues that affect them. It is critical to show people that – though they may not think of themselves as environmentalists – environmental issues play a role in their health and their prosperity. As the first African American Administrator of the EPA, I’m proud to be the voice that says to these low-income and minority communities that their issues are our issues. I’ve traveled the country, meeting with communities and encouraging them to have a seat at the table and a voice on environmental decision-making. But I know we cannot expect communities to take charge if they don’t have leaders setting the example. This issue of expanding the conversation on environmentalism goes hand-in-hand with another issue we face as a community, and one that is also very close to my heart. That is the issue of education.

Some of the most important actions we can take as women leaders are the actions that encourage and support young women seeking the tools and the knowledge to tackle complex environmental challenges. And because science is the backbone of environmental protection, that means opening the way for more of our women and girls to study and find careers in science, technology, engineering and math. As I said, this issue is close to my heart. I majored in chemical engineering at Tulane University in my hometown of New Orleans, and received a master’s degree in Engineering at Princeton University. It was a time when very few women were studying and working in scientific and engineering fields. When I graduated from Princeton, I was one of only two women in my class.

I felt a call to service and to issues of health, and wanted to use my technical degree to make a difference in the world around me. I originally wanted to become a doctor to help people when they fell sick. While studying chemical engineering, I realized that I could use my scientific training to clean up or prevent pollution in our communities, helping people by ensuring they didn’t get sick in the first place.

I started at the EPA working as a staff level scientist in 1987. Over time I witnessed the changes that took place and the doors that opened – not just to me but to all women.
According to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, around 154,000 women were pursuing master’s degrees in science and engineering when I was in school. By 2003, that number jumped to around 270,000. Fifty years ago, women earned less than 10 percent of the science and engineering doctorates awarded in the United States. By 2006, that number climbed to 40 percent.

Today I work with a number of brilliant women scientists, at EPA and throughout the environmental and health protection fields. I am proud to call them my colleagues.
I’ve even seen this growth of opportunity taking hold in other nations. Not long ago I was in Ethiopia where I met with the first female professor at Addis Ababa University – who is teaching biology. I spoke with her and some of her female colleagues who were part of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences.

To strengthen education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – or STEM – here at home President Obama is working to prepare 100,000 new world-class math and science teachers. The administration has also invested in a National Science Foundation workforce program targeted for women and minorities. At EPA, educating women and girls about the environment is part of our everyday mission, and is supported by a range of initiatives. An EPA-sponsored Women & Math Mentoring Program gives middle school girls a chance to learn with EPA women about science and their careers. We’re also working with the Girl Scouts to issue “Water Drop” patches for scouts that learn about their local waters and how to protect them. In our North Carolina Research Triangle Park office alone, EPA employees have worked with more than 37,000 young people – many of them young girls.
But my message today is that this is not all we can do. EPA can provide opportunities for African American women and girls to engage in STEM learning and environmental protection. But nothing will inspire the next generation of women leaders like the example of this generation.

We don’t have to look any further than Dr. Dorothy Height, the woman we honor with this lunch today, to recognize the truth in that. Whether you were directly inspired by Dr. Height, or benefitted from the advances she helped make possible, we all owe her a debt of gratitude. Let me close by saying that one of the great ways Dorothy Height defined leadership was by showing that it doesn’t end with any one accomplishment or any single example of forward progress. This is a woman who – after six decades – was still working to improve her community and her country. I met her when she was 96 years old, and she had come to the White House to talk about environmental justice and green jobs. We became friends and I came to admire for her for her personal strength and wisdom.

Before she passed she said that if Dr. King were alive today he would be marching for clean air, clean water and clean communities for every person. And in the last years of her life, she dedicated her time to those causes.

Dr. Height showed us that this is a place where we as African American women have an opportunity – and a responsibility – to lead. We can lead by demonstrating the importance of environmental issues in our own lives, and showing how they touch our health and our prosperity. And we can lead by nurturing the talents and drive of young women and girls who are working in the fields that will empower them to take action. I am encouraged to know that you share my commitment in this effort. Thank you very much.