Lisa Perez Jackson Biography

Engineer, Civil Servant, Chemist, Scientist, Scientist (1962–)
Lisa Perez Jackson is a chemical engineer who in 2008 became the first African American to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


In 2002, Lisa Perez Jackson joined New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, and in 2006 she was appointed to its top post. In 2008, she was named Governor Jon Corzine’s chief of staff, but her time in the position was short-lived. Soon after taking on the position, Jackson was nominated by President-elect Barack Obama to head up the EPA and accepted the position.


Chemical engineer. Born February 8, 1962, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Lisa Perez Jackson, a chemical engineer by training, 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.

Jackson was adopted at two weeks old by postal worker Benjamin Perez and his wife, Marie, a secretary. Jackson grew up with two brothers in New Orleans, in the middle-class black suburb of Pontchartrain Park.

While her immediate world didn't surround her with the depths of poverty and environmental issues that other parts of her city faced, Jackson was not unaware of how some of her fellow New Orleans residents lived. "She realized the differences and she knew that there were some people that didn't have the same things she had," her mother told the Associated Press. "She always realized that neighborhoods were different, she realized as she got older ... waterways and our pollution and our canals and the oil refineries and the drilling ... [are] detrimental to people."

Jackson, whose father passed away when she was in 10th grade, attended St. Mary's Dominican High School, an all-girls' Catholic institution. From there she made the leap to Tulane University where, as one of the few black women in her class, she studied chemical engineering.

Jackson was a self-described "geek", who didn't settle for mediocrity in the classroom. After graduating summa cum laude from Tulane's School of Chemical Engineering in 1983, Jackson moved north to Princeton University for her master's. She followed up her degree with a two-year stint at Clean Sites, Inc., a non-profit that manages environmental cleanup projects, many of them associated with the Superfund program. She then went to work for the EPA's Superfund program, making a name for herself as one of its staff engineers.

In 2002, Jackson joined New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) as an assistant commissioner. She was appointed to the top post in 2006.

As head of the DEP, Jackson brought what The New York Times described as a "policy-driven approach" to the job. It also required some political know-how. New Jersey's relationship with chemical companies is a complicated one, that has made it one of the most polluted states in the country. When Jackson stepped in as head of the DEP, the agency was bitterly divided politically over what it could do and what it should do to address the state's environmental problems.

Jackson, however, knew where she stood. She went hard after polluters in some of the state's more environmentally devastated areas, and 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. She was also a vocal critic of the Bush Administration's approach to environmental issues, labeling the EPA, the "Emissions Permission Agency."

But not all her work at the agency was lauded by environmentalists. She had her critics, who complained she was too lenient with big business and developers, particularly when it came to establishing tougher groundwater regulations and overseeing hazardous waste cleanups.

Still, Jackson proved so adept at navigating political minefields that in 2008 her boss, Governor Jon Corzine, named her his chief of staff. But her time in the position was short-lived; soon after taking on the position, Jackson, who had supported Senator Hilary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, was nominated by President-elect Barack Obama to head up the EPA.

It wasn't long before she drew the ire of the political right. In December 2009, the EPA declared greenhouse gases to be a danger to public health, which could set the stage for tougher regulations. "The difference between this administration and the last is that we don't believe we have an option to do nothing," Jackson explained to Newsweek in 2010.

Jackson, an avid cook who's famous for her gumbo, is still a proud New Orleans native. When Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005, she saw the devastation on the area and the lives it changed, firsthand. After the hurricane, Jackson's mother decided to pack up and leave New Orleans for good. "The Katrina experience made me realize that you can't fight; you have to accept what God has in store for you," she said. "I truly believe that God gave us this world and we have a moral obligation not to turn around and give the next generations a trash heap that they can't live off of."

Jackson is married to Kenny Jackson with whom she has two sons. The family resides in Washington, D.C.

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