Lisa Perez Jackson was adopted as an infant and grew up in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward in the 1960s. The area was a vibrant center of African American culture with a high rate of home-ownership. Her father was a postman and Navy veteran who took great pride in serving his community and his dedication to the public good was passed on to his daughter. As a child in Louisiana, Lisa noticed that pollution deregulation helped the wealthy make more money but it was harsh for the poor who lived near waterways and canals fouled by the oil industry. She came to realize that environmentalism and equality were entwined and that people of color were most likely to bear the burden of environmental degradation. In her own words, “environmental challenges have the power to deny equality of opportunity and hold back the progress of communities.”
Lisa excelled in math and science in high school and was valedictorian of St. Mary’s Dominican High School in 1978. She entered to Tulane with aspirations of being a doctor. However, she was to lured to a summer engineering program by the offer of free fancy calculator given as a bonus for participation. Like many scientists, she had a love of gadgets! As her interest in chemical engineering grew, she became fascinated by the Love Canal environmental disaster. She reasoned that if a chemical engineer could cause such a problem, a chemical engineer could solve such a problem. She graduated summa cum laude with a degree in chemical engineering. She was admitted into the chemical engineering program at Princeton. Her grandmother, disappointed that she wasn’t going to be a doctor, said, “Baby, why do you want to work on a train?” Lisa had to explain how her profession could make people healthier as well.
Following her graduation with her master’s degree, Lisa worked at the non-profit environmental organization Clean Sites. Next, she served the Environmental Protection Agency and then the state of New Jersey as the head of Environmental Protection. Her projects included cleanup and regulation of hazardous waste sites, climate change regulations, and protecting over nine hundred miles of waterways under the Clean Water Act.
In 2005, she was back in New Orleans for her mother’s birthday when hurricane Katrina hit. Her family evacuated from the Ninth Ward which was destroyed by the disaster. Lisa knew that the tragedy was compounded because the protective wetlands were gone due to oil and gasoline production and the levees meant to protect the city failed. This cemented her dedication to working towards environmental balance and confirmed her chosen work.
In 2009 she was appointed Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States. To her delight, the headquarters were in a building that once housed the Postmaster General. As the EPA administrator, she was determined to improve air and water quality standards in the United States. Her job was not an easy one. Although Jackson insisted, as most chemists believe, that cleaning up the environment creates jobs and improves health, she faced aggressive and ridiculous questioning from environmentally hostile lawmakers who knew nothing about science or the environment and insisted that protections would harm job creation During one questioning she was asked irrelevantly if she liked puppies.
Lisa maintained that “At the EPA, science is the backbone of everything we do, and technology is essential to how we get it done. It’s how we clean up the air we breathe, and how we protect the water that millions of people drink. It is how we keep people from getting sick, and how we eliminate pollution that can cause serious health problems like asthma, heart disease, cancer and other problems.” Due to relentless obstructionism, she was unable to achieve her goal of stricter smog pollution limits. However, she was able to realize better fuel economy standards for automobiles and overhauled the Toxic Substances Control Act.
Having meaningful work that makes a difference has always motivated Jackson. In 2013 she became Apple’s vice president of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives. She works directly with CEO Tim Cook. According to the company, “Lisa oversees Apple’s efforts to minimize its impact on the environment by addressing climate change through renewable energy and energy efficiency, using greener materials, and inventing new ways to conserve precious resources. She is also responsible for Apple’s education policy programs, its product accessibility work, and its worldwide government affairs function.” Under her direction, Apple has reduced its carbon emissions, invested in sustainable innovations, and is 93% powered by sustainable energy. She is a sought after speaker on the subject of business de-carbonization. She oversees the ConnectED program that reaches out to poor communities to provide them with technology.
At home in San Francisco with her husband and sons, Jackson is known as an enthusiastic cook whose New Orleans roots can be savored with her famous gumbo.
Jackson is an example of a woman dedicated to the world community. She is not only an exemplary scientist—she’s a woman who has retained her humanity and is working towards a better environment and greater equality –for indeed, she sees the link between them. As she says “the environment is the greatest medicine.”
Written for Sheroes of History by Cathy Haustein
Find out more…
Lisa takes her science to Twitter and she has lots of interesting things to say.
Lisa gives advice on education, the importance of mentors, and the usefulness of engineering in this interview.
Watch Lisa Jackson tell her story here:
Here she is in a more recent video discussing clean energy:
In this video, she discusses Apple’s dedication to clean energy and repeats her mantra that a clean environment helps business: