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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson works to ensure minorities are not left out of the burgeoning ‘green’ economy.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson works to ensure minorities are not left out of the burgeoning ‘green’ economy.

Enter into the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency and encounter something never seen in its history until now, a photo of the fi rst African-American to serve as the agency’s administrator.

Born in Philadelphia and raised in New Orleans, Lisa Perez Jackson is the new face of the EPA, and, just like the president who appointed her, Jackson represents change.

Only seven months into the job, Jackson has dived into a number of important issues largely ignored by the previous administration. Under Jackson’s leadership, the EPA has prompted the Obama administration to pursue legislation that cuts carbon emissions, limits green house gases and addresses climate change.

And while Jackson tackles what are, perhaps, some of the most diffi cult environmental challenges in a generation, her toughest assignment could be something less obvious — recruiting more minorities into the green movement.

“I am looking to open up the environmental movement to more people of color. As an African-American, I think there are still, sadly, people who see the environmental movement as belonging to White Americans and clearly the history of it is that way,” Jackson says.

“Everywhere I go, I see communities that are concerned about environmental issues. Those are communities of color. We need to make sure that they see themselves here [in the EPA] and that they feel comfortable knowing that the EPA is here to address issues of concern for people of color,” adds Jackson.

Prior to assuming her current post, Jackson, a chemical engineer, was just weeks into her new position as chief of staff for New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine. Before that, Jackson headed New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection after having already served at the EPA for 16 years.

Jackson insists that she is not daunted by any of the challenges before her. She is, instead, driven by them, particularly the mandate to diversify.

“The president’s election, my nation and the first lady’s obvious concern for the environment have literally changed the face of environmentalism almost overnight,” says Jackson, referring to a garden first lady Michelle Obama planted on the south lawn of the White House.

“Now, what we have to do is make sure that is not just symbolic change,” Jackson explains. “We have to be effective advocates and effective workers for all of our communities. The future economy is going to be a green economy. If our communities are not a part of that economy, we are going to be left out.”

An Exclusive Culture

Data show that minority environmentalists are struggling to make their way in. The Minority Environmental Leadership Development Initiative found that of 158 environmental institutions, 33 percent of mainstream environmental organizations and 22 percent of government agencies had no people of color on staff.

Part of the problem, says Dr. Robert D. Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, is the paucity of minority college graduates for these organizations to recruit, particularly at the graduate level.

In 2003, in natural resources and conservation related sciences, 2,334 White students graduated compared to 219 students of color. At the doctoral level, 458 White students graduated with doctoral degrees in agricultural sciences compared to 75 students of color, according to data collected by researchers at the Multicultural Environmental Leadership Development Institute at the University of Michigan.

That same year, 143 White students received doctoral degrees in natural resources and conservation programs compared to 13 students of color.

“There is a breakdown early on, before we even start talking about getting people of color into environmental organizations and federal agencies. The problem is that we are not getting enough young people graduating from high school and continuing their studies in the science disciplines during their undergraduate years,” Bullard says. “In order for one to move up the ladder professionally it takes more than one degree. With budget cuts and fi nancial aid dwindling, we’re seeing an impact on students of color completing degrees.”

The shortage of minorities on the professional environmentalist career-track is not due, completely, for lack of interest in environmental issues or holes in the pipeline. Some minority environmental justice advocates suggest that the mainstream environmental movement is an “unintentionally exclusive culture” that caters to tree-hugging, White middle-class suburbanites instead of low-income communities of color that carve out green spaces in urban enclaves, plant community gardens and use, more than any other group, public transportation.

“The historical roots [of the environmental movement] emerged probably about the same time that the civil rights movement was going strong,” says Dr. Henry Neal Williams, director of the Environmental Sciences Institute at Florida A&M University. “Minorities were focused on lots of other issues connected to equality and justice about the same time the environmental movement began gaining impetus. It took a while to switch gears. Now we are at a time where the civil rights movement has an environmental justice component.”

Marcelo Bonta founded the Center for Diversity & the Environment, an organization that works to diversity the environmental movement, after leaving a wildlife conservation group that had a homogenous culture.

While there may be a small recruitment pool for minority environmentalists, environmental organizations are also culpable. “Many of the so-called green groups have been slow to diversify their ranks in terms of their staff, their board of directors and their agenda,” Bullard says. After earning a master’s in environmental policy from Tufts University, Marcelo Bonta, a Filipino American, began working for a prominent wildlife conservation organization.

After a short period of time, he quit. Bonta was the only person of color on the staff.

“Environmental organizations focus their efforts on minority recruitment, but most of the people of color, do not stay. The culture of these organizations is not inclusive or open to diverse cultures and creativity,” Bonta says. After leaving the wildlife conservation group, Bonta, like other advocates of color, started his own organization, the Center for Diversity & the Environment.

“No one is intentionally excluding others but, when a homogeneous culture fl ourishes in organizations, which is common in environmental organizations, there is an expectation for others to conform to this dominant mindset in order to succeed,” Bonta says. “When everyone looks, thinks, and acts the same, then you create policies, programs, and practices that benefi t others that look, think, and act the same and exclude others that look, think, and act differently. ”

On the Frontline

Despite the dearth of minority environmentalists, minority communities have consistently shown an interest in environmental issues. “Polls and surveys are showing, increasingly, that communities of color are as engaged or in some cases more engaged in environmental issues than Whites,” Bonta says.

For decades ordinary citizens of color have fought against the development of oil refi neries, toxic waste dumps, solid waste sites and hazardous landfi lls in their communities. On the frontlines of these movements have been minority environmentalists Alan Hipólito, adjunct professor at the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College and executive director of Verde, a nonprofi t organization; Majora Carter, the former director of the nonprofi t Sustainable South Bronx; and Charles Sams, director of Trust for Public Land’s Tribal & Native Lands Program.

In 1982, residents of Warren County, N.C., which was predominantly Black, protested the construction of a hazardous waste landfi ll. After the district courts ruled in favor of the landfi ll supporters, a large demonstration erupted. More than 500 people were arrested, including Walter Fauntroy, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Later, the incident would compel the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice to produce its landmark “Toxic Wastes and Race” report, the fi rst national study to correlate hazardous waste sites and demographic characteristics. It found that race was the most signifi cant factor in locating the waste facilities. It took 20 years for Warren County residents to get the landfi ll site detoxifi ed by the state and federal government.

“The Warren County landfi ll protest proved to be a most important event for the environmental justice movement in that it became the catalyst that galvanized people of color around this country in the fi ght for environmental justice,” says Dr. Beverly Wright, director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University.

There are other examples: In 1988, a Hispanic grassroots organization Mothers of East L.A. defeated the construction of a huge toxic waste incinerator in their Los Angeles community. The same year, in Dilkon, Ariz., a small group of Navajo community activists spearheaded a successful effort to block the construction of a $40 million toxic waste incinerator.

Diversifying the Movement

At stake for minorities is not just the protection of their communities, but access to the burgeoning green economy.

“To date, most of the jobs in the green sector have gone to people with advanced degrees such as engineers, architects and landscape architects,” says Hipólito, executive director of the Oregon-based Verde.

“More recently, weatherization and stormwater management projects have produced jobs for low-wage workers. The pay scale for these jobs varies.”

The Obama administration’s economic stimulus package contains more than $20 billion for investment in a cleaner, greener economy, including $500 million for green job training. Whether this “green collar” economy will usher in a new era of socioeconomic mobility for low-income citizens or strengthen the existing middle class has yet to be determined, Hipólito says.

‘What is a green job? How do I get one?’ That is what people want to know, Hipólito says. “The term ‘green job’ has yet to be formally defi ned,” he adds.

Verde, an environmental justice organization, connects low-income people of color to the benefi ts of the green job economy by creating new job, training, and business development opportunities such as the Verde Native Plant Nursery.

Success, Hipólito says, will be dependent on whether there will be meaningful pathways and training programs that make green jobs accessible to minorities at every rung of the green job ladder.

Researchers, in a report co-sponsored by the Center for Diversity & the Environment and the Conservation Fund and titled “Diversifying the Environmental Movement,” argue environmental organizations must focus on cultural inclusivity, recruitment, retention, outreach and collaboration to integrate the movement.

Dr. Henry Neal Williams, director of the Environmental Sciences Institute at Florida A&M University, believes the appointment of Lisa Jackson as director of the Environmental Protection Agency will make a difference in the psyche of minority children who lack environmentalist role models.

The most obvious places for the EPA to begin partnership-building is with minority- serving institutions, says Williams of FAMU. In 2008, the university’s Environmental Sciences Institute celebrated the graduation of its 50th graduate student.

“If the government or private organizations are serious about addressing environmental issues for all communities, if they are serious about diversifying the work force, then they have to look to and invest in HBCUs [historically Black colleges and universities],” Williams says. “HBCUs can make an immediate impact both in training the next generation of environmental professionals and increasing awareness about environmental issues in minority communities.”

Jackson agrees. “Historically Black institutions and Hispanic-serving institutions are churning out young, talented people who are technically trained, who are interested in environmental sciences, biological sciences and chemistry,” she says. “We are going to make sure that we are recruiting them, so that we change our entry-level work force and make sure they are represented there. Students at universities are the catalyst for change at their own schools. Howard University, here in the District, we will soon be working with them on a greening effort on their campus.”

Williams is encouraged by the appointment of Jackson to the EPA. He believes that her presence will make a difference in the psyches of minority children who lack environmental role models.

“One of the biggest problems that we have is recruiting students to become majors, particularly at the undergraduate level. Kids need to know that there are champions like Lisa Jackson and that the fi eld has value. There is a tremendous value in being able to protect your community,” Williams says.

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