EPA head in a long line of Black environmentalists


When Lisa Jackson leaves her post as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency later this month, she will be remembered for taking on oil industry groups and Republican lawmakers, and pushing to give African- Americans a greater voice on environmental issues.

Lisa Jackson is shown on Dec. 15, 2008 after being named head of the EPA by then President-elect Barack Obama.(NANCY STONE/CHICAGO TRIBUNE/MCT )
Lisa Jackson is shown on Dec. 15, 2008 after being named head of the EPA by then President-elect Barack Obama.

“Early on we set out to expand the conversation on environmentalism and environmental justice,” said Jackson who was born in Philadelphia and raised in New Orleans. “As the first African-American to lead the agency, it seemed that it was time, once and for all, to disprove the myth that the face of an environmentalist is a White face.”

Jackson said that the American myth is that an environmentalist grows up in the great outdoors, relishing horseback riding in the morning or hiking through Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. like President Theodore Roosevelt.

“I didn’t come to the environment from that side,” said Jackson. “I came to environment through the absence of that. I do not sleep outside. I do not camp. I don’t wear Birkenstocks. I will eat a granola bar from time to time,” she said joking with members of the Black press during a recent media roundtable at the EPA headquarters.

From Bishop to Carver
Despite the whitewashed American myth about who really cares about the planet, Blacks have always been actively involved in environmental issues.

Stephen Bishop, a slave from Kentucky skilled in geology, explored underground streams, discovered “eyeless and colorless river animals” and led tours at the Mammoth Cave in 1838, which is now the site of a national park.

Solomon G. Brown, built exhibit cases, cleaned furniture and studied natural history from 1852 to 1906 at the Smithsonian Institution. Brown, the first African-American employee at the world-renowned museum, also lectured about natural history in the Washington metro region.

As he worked in agriculture and botany, scientist George Washington Carver viewed nature through a religious lens and worked with Black farmers to grow sustainable crops and to conserve natural resources.

More activists
In 1985, Norris McDonald founded the African American Environmentalist Association focused on protecting the environment, utilizing natural resources economically and bringing more Blacks into the environmental movement.

More recently Jerome Ringo an environmental activist with a background in the petroleum industry chaired the National Wildlife Federation from 2005 to the 2007, becoming the first Black to head one of the most important conservation groups in the U.S.

According to a study by Paul Mohai, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, despite conventional wisdom, Blacks are more likely than Whites to weigh the environmental costs of everyday actions.

Dispelling myths
The study, titled “Dispelling Old Myths: African American Concern for the Environment,” found that 37 percent of Blacks buy pesticide-free foods compared to 29 percent of Whites.

Blacks also eat less meat than Whites (15 percent of Blacks vs. 8 percent of Whites) and drive less (16 percent versus 10 percent). The study found that Whites recycled at higher rates than Blacks (64 percent to 44 percent).

Although Blacks joined environmental groups at similar rates as Whites, they were less likely to join mainstream groups like the Sierra Club or the World Wildlife Fund.

“People that fished to put the fish on the plate, didn’t join clubs! They fished to eat,” said Jerome Ringo in a 2005 interview with Mother Jones. “So, therefore, the organized movement was mainly made of those sportsman and did not include people who couldn’t afford to join clubs and who were off feeding their families.”

As Blacks and poor people were off feeding their families environmental groups grew in popularity sorely lacking in diversity.

Black and green issues
A 2007 study by the Center for Diversity and the Environment found: “Thirty-three percent of mainstream environmental organizations and 22 percent of government agencies had no people of color on staff.”

The study went further suggesting that people of color “feel unwelcome and uncomfortable in institutions because of the homogeneous culture both within organizations and the movement,” adding that, “organizations that want to diversify often do not know what to do, where to start, and eventually either do nothing or venture down a path destined for failure.”

Minorities don’t always connect their creative money-saving acts to saving the planet or conservation, making it harder for them to connect to the mainstream environmental movements.

That’s because green issues are not always tree hugger issues, said EPA Administrator Jackson.

She shared the story of one of her staffers who had a grandmother that lived in the northeast. As soon as the early winter winds started to blow, the grandmother would get up on a ladder and tack plastic sheeting to the windows.

“That was energy efficiency, that’s home retro-fitting. She didn’t call it that. She was keeping the cold air out and keeping her utility bill down,” Jackson said. “We need to embrace that as something that we can do and society should be helping lower-income people do.”

According to a report by the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan research and policy group, embracing environmental movements could mean the difference between life and death for many Blacks living in the U.S.

“For many people of color, this air pollution is an unavoidable feature of daily life because they are more likely to live and work in the nation’s most polluted cities,” stated the Center for American Progress report.

Health concerns
The report found: “A startling 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, compared to only 56 percent of the White population.”

Not only do carbon emissions contribute to global warming, the pollutants also exacerbate symptoms related to asthma.

Action plan
During her tenure at the EPA, Jackson fought to bring environmental justice issues to the forefront, developing Plan EJ 2014 to address how pollution affects communities of color. The plan includes guidelines for assigning new permits for power plants to regulation enforcement and outreach programs.

“At the end of the day, environmental issues are health issues and if you have health disparities, because of the environment that becomes a moral issue and that’s a story that needs to be told,” said Jackson. “These communities are suffering.”

In 2012, Jackson helped develop an action plan to decrease racial and ethnic disparities associated with asthma and to increase asthma management through education.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here