Adopted when she was two weeks old, Lisa Perez Jackson grew up in the New Orleans, LA area of Pontchartrain Park with her adopted parents Benjamin Perez (a postal worker), his wife Marie and their two sons. While exploring less fortunate neighborhoods of New Orleans as an adolescent, she noticed the unsafe and polluted waterways and canals that plagued these areas caused by oil refineries and drilling. Lisa often expressed concern over the negative impact that these problems had on the surrounding environment and its residents. It was most then that she began considering a career in environmental protection. Lisa attended St. Mary’s Dominican High School, an all-girls’ Catholic institution in New Orleans where she admits she was a “geek” who would not settle for mediocrity from herself in academics. From high school, she made the leap to Tulane University where, as one of the few black women in her class, she studied chemical engineering, graduating from Tulane’s School of Chemical Engineering in 1983. After a successful stint in graduate school, she entered the field of environmental protection.
Why She’s Important: Lisa made history in early 2009 when she was confirmed as Administrator of the Environmental Protections Agency (EPA), the first African-American ever to lead the department. From the start, she set a clear vision for the EPA when she stated: “Just as much of the world looks to the United States for leadership on human rights, civil rights and the rule of law –similarly, much of the world looks to EPA to set the standard – the highest standard – for what it means to protect and preserve our air, water and land.”
Other Achievements: Even before her appointment to the EPA by President Obama, she had already made a name for herself as a skillful, no-nonsense fighter for safe environment in New Jersey (which was once known as the nation’s most polluted states) where she held key positions. For instance, as head of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), she went hard after chemical companies who polluted in some of the state’s more environmentally devastated areas. She set New Jersey on an ambitious path to curb emissions to 80 percent below 2006 levels by 2050. In addition, during her time as DEP head, more than 900 miles of state waterways were given the highest protection allowed under the Clean Water Act.
Education: Lisa earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering from Tulane University’s School of Chemical Engineering (graduating summa cum laude), and her Master’s degree in that discipline from Princeton University.
In Her Own Words: “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.”
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