Green crusader: Lisa P. Jackson, in her office at the EPA
Sitting in her downtown office outfitted with two fireplaces and floor-to-ceiling windows, Lisa P. Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is the portrait of calm, all disarming smiles and casual charm à la the girl next door. But Jackson is rarely afforded the luxury of kicking back for long. Most days are devoted to defending the role of the EPA, heading off challenges to established laws like the Clean Air Act, and trying to push through new environmental policies that have been decades in the making—a Sisyphean task considering the current political climate.
"It's been a tough couple of years," she admits. "There's been criticism of this agency and even people asking whether you need an EPA, partially because Americans today are not confronted with the visible air and water pollution that so disgusted them in the 1970s, when the EPA was formed. And yet folks here have really just buckled down and kept working toward our mission, which is making smart and sensible standards that protect our air and water and land."
Jackson keeps a symbolic pair of boxing gloves hanging from the back of a chair at her conference table; it was a gift from the BlueGreen Alliance, a group that represents the interests of labor and environmentalists. And while most of her victories have been hard-fought—Jackson oversaw the passage of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards late last year, a rule that had been stalled in Congress for 21 years—she maintains the gloves are more of an icebreaker than a threat. "It's usually an opportunity to laugh, especially with folks who don't come here often," she says, alluding to the intimidation factor of meeting the head of a powerful agency—and perhaps to her role as a "greenie" and a defender of the EPA. "This is the stereotype they're worried about, and it gives them a chance to get past it with a little bit of a joke."
It is true that Jackson has had to stand strong in the face of opposition, but she shows a remarkable aptitude for disarming opponents with goodwill. Among the photos that pepper her office, she points to one of Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, a Republican and the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, posing with his family.
"We disagree on just about everything, but I keep his picture here for two reasons: One, he's a person with a family that he cares about deeply. And two, because you've got to work with people," she says matter-of-factly. "Actually, he'll tell you we get along just fine, and people are always amazed by it. But people are just people, right? I mean, that's part of what we're losing in this city today."
Consensus building aside, Jackson has been particularly passionate about fighting for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill cleanup as chairwoman of the president's Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the Ninth Ward native toyed with leaving New Jersey to serve her ravaged hometown; in the end, she stayed in New Jersey instead of uprooting her family, and today she views her position in the task force as a second chance to help. Becoming head of the EPA placed her in a prime position to lead the task force and made her better able to address the area's problems.
"That work has made me feel I made the right decision not going home, because I was in the right place at the right time to help the Gulf Coast deal with the explosion and the spill, and now the restoration," she says.
Jackson acknowledges the possibility of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards being overturned by Congress, but her sense of doing what is right for Americans buoys her when the challenges of the job threaten to become overwhelming. "Poll after poll shows that the American people do carry with them as one of their core values the belief that we need to protect our air and our water, that we need clean places to live," she says. "What's important, especially now, is making clear there's no choice to be made between a strong and healthy economy and a green and strong, healthy environment."
And if Jackson gets discouraged, she draws inspiration from the very people she's trying to protect. "When I go out to communities, especially when I meet young people who are active and engaged, I see the future of the environmental movement and clean energy," she says.
Jackson has spent a lot of time lately touring college and university campuses, talking to young people about that very issue: the future. She feels motivated and inspired by the many students who are well informed on the issues and value EPA's place in this movement.
But for the time being, maybe she should hang onto those boxing gloves.