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She's battling asthma and environmental racism

  • Story Highlights
  • Lisa Jackson is first African-American to head Environmental Protection Agency
  • Jackson says her overarching goal is to return EPA to its roots
  • "What the EPA has to do is ratchet down on emissions," Jackson says
  • Jackson says EPA feels they are still not accessible enough to the people
By Cynthia Gordy
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(ESSENCE) -- As the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson wears many hats: environmentalist, upholder of anti-pollution policy and toxic chemical regulator, to name a few.

Lisa Jackson wears many hats as the administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Lisa Jackson wears many hats as the administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.

But when she reflects on her role as the first African-American to head the agency, her aim is to make people see the connection between the environment and their lives.

Jackson spoke to ESSENCE.com about school safety, asthma, environmental racism -- and what she's doing to battle all three. The following is an edited version of that interview:

ESSENCE.COM: You've said that your overarching goal is to return the EPA to its roots, to serve the American people and show that your work involves issues that they care about. Can you give us some examples on how you plan to achieve that? Video Watch powerful women and grieving mothers »

Lisa Jackson: The example that probably best epitomizes it is what we're doing on air toxin's in schools.

USA Today did a front-page story saying they'd done some risk assessments, and think schools across the country have high level of toxins in the air around them. The American people are rightfully worried, thinking, 'So now you're telling me that when I put my child on a school bus, I have to worry about them once they're there?'

We're in the middle of a 60-site monitoring effort with states to get air toxins information from the schools that are among the worst -- schools near highways with cars, buses and trucks, or schools that might be near factories. We want to try to get a handle on this, not to comfort people, but to get them answers. ESSENCE: Lisa Jackson brings change to EPA

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ESSENCE.COM: You've also spoken about elevated asthma rates in communities of color. What can the EPA do to improve air quality when minority neighborhoods are already so congested?

Jackson: You have to think about the big actions that we do. We know that one of the main triggers is high ozone levels. You can't attack that in one area; that's a global problem.

What the EPA has to do is ratchet down on emissions from cars, trucks, factories and manufacturing processes that produce ozone. That's regulatory work -- setting permit levels low enough and making sure there's enforcement so that people abide by those levels.

EPA has also proposed a monitoring network near major transportation arteries to better understand the pollution that's happening in the communities that are located next to them. ESSENCE: Will the new green jobs go to black people?

ESSENCE.COM: Understanding that the EPA doesn't necessarily focus on the location of every bus depot or landfill in the country, it's still a big problem. The decisions to locate polluting sites in minority neighborhoods are usually made by people who don't live in them. Since their voices are so often not at the table, how can EPA regulate how those decisions are made, to break the cycle?

Jackson: That's what the environmental justice movement has been saying for a long time, that there ought to be some screen that you can use in permitting decisions to say, "Are we talking about a place that's already disproportionately impacted? And, if so, don't add to that pollution."

I think that is the policy challenge of our time. It's all about public participation to me. As you said, the decision is made not by the people who have to suffer the consequences of it. ESSENCE: Give back like your favorite celebs

People should be able to advocate and say, "Okay, you can put that here, but we want to make sure that the level of contamination coming from the stack is something that's acceptable, and that we believe is safe for our community." That's a big difference.

ESSENCE.COM: So, how do you educate them about this? What does EPA outreach to minority communities look like?

Jackson: I think it looks like the kind of outreach we're doing in general. We do it through enforcement, looking across a state and saying, "Before you make a citing decision, you have to get adequate public comment that it meets clean air standards."

The other side of it is that we have grassroots groups out there who organize against additional pollution. But we still haven't plugged in. We still don't feel that EPA is an accessible enough organization.

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I can play a role in that because communities feel more at home coming to us when they know there's an African-American woman at the head, and that she's making a real effort. They can trust that, when they bring their issues to the table, I'm not going to sweep them under the rug.

In our regional offices, there's a real emphasis now that one of our priorities is environmental justice, and making sure that disproportionately impacted communities -- low-income populations and communities of color -- feel at home bringing their issues to us and know that they have a voice.

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