People of color are more likely to die of environmental causes, and more than half of the people who live close to hazardous waste are people of color. A 2017 article by Vann R. Newkirk II for The Atlantic stated environmental racism is the “new Jim Crow.” Black/African-American people have 1.54 times the exposure to particulate matter compared to the overall population. Apple and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are doing their part to not only bring awareness to these racial and socioeconomic disparities but also provide solutions and resources that create opportunities for Black and Brown communities to thrive and their business to capitalize from this growing industry.
Lisa P. Jackson, the VP of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives at Apple, and Michael Regan, Administrator EPA, Led a discussion on the intersection of environmental protection, technology, and social equity, providing insights on evolving policy, climate strategies, and diversity in decision-making at the tech conference in Austin. Aside from their common goal to impact our environment while creating equity in the environmental industry, the duo share a historical significance. Jackson and Regan are the only two Black administrators to lead the Environmental Protection Agency in U.S. history.
Lisa and Administrator Regan sat for an interview after their impactful panel at Afrotech to discuss environmental justice and more. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Michael S. Regan, the 16th Administrator of the US EPA, took office on March 11, 2021, making history as the first Black man and second person of color to lead the agency. Before his EPA nomination, Regan served as the Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, where he led initiatives to address climate change, transition to clean energy and clean up environmental contamination. He also established North Carolina’s Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board.
Under his leadership, the EPA has taken a hard stance on environmental justice and leveling the playing field for entry into the growing environmental industry. The government agency has created many opportunities for minority businesses to benefit from the ever-increasing industry through funding, resources, and planning strategies. The EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment through policy, grants, environmental research, and education.
Stephanie Tharpe: How can Black tech startups capitalize on environmental safety? Are there specific areas that are underserved or need more innovation?
Michael Regan: I think there is tremendous opportunity here for Black Tech. What we do at EPA is set technology standards, which are basically the rules of engagement for all of our regulated companies in this country. As we think about the solutions and reducing pollution, it will be all technology, innovation, and market driven. So, I believe Black entrepreneurs and tech innovators should see themselves in this space. In addition to the regulatory paradigm, we also have billions of dollars that we are investing in startups, Black and Brown communities, and Black and Brown companies so that they can participate in this new market. The direction we’re headed as a country is a multi-trillion-dollar market, so there’s a lot of opportunity to do good while making money and lifting all communities simultaneously.
Stephanie Tharpe: What is environmental justice, and what is the EPA doing to achieve it?
Michael Regan: Every community, irrespective of the money you have in your pocket, the color of your skin, and the neighborhood you live in, deserves equal protection under the law from pollution, hazardous lands, and hazardous situations. So, environmental justice and equity under the Biden administration is designed to be sure that all of our communities are getting a fair shot. We want where we eat, sleep, and pray to be clean and healthy so that all of our communities can thrive. Under this administration, we have designed a new national program office equivalent to our air, water, and land offices. It’s equal in terms of authority and power, focused on environmental justice and equity. Right now, we have billions of dollars dedicated to environmental justice programming that is going to be funded, funded primarily through that office, to be sure that billions of dollars land in the hands of those in the communities who have had these solutions for decades but haven’t had the resources. We’re working on ensuring that we have an institutional change that lasts for decades in terms of a new office, but we’re also making sure that these billions of dollars get into the right hands.
Stephanie Tharpe: Many Black students aren’t aware of the career opportunities in the environmental and clean energy sector. How did you find your passion in this field?
Michael Regan: I sort of stumbled upon it. I grew up hunting and fishing with my father and grandfather. So I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors. But I also grew up with respiratory challenges brought on by pollution and hot days. So, I’ve always been cognizant of that. I attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and pursued an environmental science degree. It was there some of the Black professors cultivated that love for the environment and science and pushed me toward the EPA. So what I’ve done in return is work with my staff to set up a historically Black college and university and minority-serving institution, Federal Advisory Council. This council will have Chancellors and Presidents sitting at the table with me as we think through this multi-billion dollar budget I manage, how we can ensure that proper research and development dollars get to our universities, and how we can create the pipeline for future employees. So, really focusing on that effort from an HBCU MSR lens is something I’m very passionate about.
I had a lot of people pour into me, but very shortly after the President nominated me, before I was even confirmed, and before anybody even knew who I was, I had another Black professional reach out to me and say, “These are my experiences and let me help you any way I can.” That’sThat’s Miss Lisa Jackson. Without even knowing each other or having any history, she reached out and has been pouring wisdom into it and offering her assistance ever since. It takes all of us continuing to not only kick these doors down but also to work with each other and cultivate each other so that we can be successful.
Stephanie Tharpe: Are there any grants or programs that the EAP provides to help diversify the environmental industry?
Michael Regan: Every single thing we do at EPA moving forward, we’re going to have environmental justice, diversity, and equity as part of our DNA. We have over $100 billion dedicated to improving our infrastructure for drinking water and focused on yellow school buses to reduce air pollution. We have some investment funds focused on low-carbon technology, and 40% of that must be invested in disadvantaged, Black, Brown, and tribal communities, so we have mechanisms in place to ensure that at least 40% of over $100 million goes to our community. We have opened up our agency to be sure that not only is there equal protection under the law, but there’s equal access to hundreds of billions of dollars.
Jackson oversees Apple’s efforts to minimize its environmental impact by addressing climate change through renewable energy and energy efficiency, using greener materials, and inventing new ways to conserve precious resources. She also leads Apple’s Racial Equity and Justice Initiative, which is focused on education, economic empowerment, and criminal justice reform, and is responsible for Apple’s education policy programs, its product accessibility work, and its worldwide government affairs function.
Apple has a 2030 goal to make every product carbon neutral by the end of the decade, including the entire global supply chain and the lifetime use of every device Apple makes. The tech giant’s plan centers on an aggressive 75 percent reduction in overall carbon emissions from 2015 levels.
The company aims to make an economic impact for Black, Brown, and Indigenous—environmental-focused companies through its Impact Accelerator. Through the 12-week program, selected companies receive targeted training, executive coaching, skills-development opportunities, one-to-one mentorship, and access to Apple subject-matter experts across the business. Another initiative to close the racial environmental gap is the company’s Racial Equity and Justice Initiative (REJI), a long-term global effort to advance equity and expand opportunities for Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Indigenous communities. Since launching REJI in June 2020, Apple has more than doubled its initial financial commitment to a total of more than $200 million.
Stephanie Tharpe: Since transitioning from EPA to the private sector, are there different approaches to tackling environmental protection and clean energy?
Lisa Jackson: The most significant difference in some ways is that in the last ten years or so, the environment has gone from a challenge to an incredible financial opportunity. There is an incredible opportunity in the sector, and it is cheaper in many places to be on clean energy than on traditional fossil fuel-based energy. The challenges are things like transmission or regulatory requirements that enable the legacy systems but need to make room for the new. That’s all the policy work the Administrator and colleagues have been working on to enable a level playing field. If you can level that playing field, any entrepreneur then has an opportunity to get some of that financial return. We go around the world working with our supply chain. For example, we have over 300 suppliers who have committed to 100% Clean Energy for their work with Apple. They’re not doing that as a charity; they’re doing it because we can show them concretely how that switch can also be a good one for their bottom line. We have this incredible opportunity in our community not to ignore this sector.
Stephanie Tharpe: Apple was one of the first companies to endorse the clean energy standard. Why is it important for large tech companies to invest in clean energy?
Lisa Jackson: We want to do two things: We want to demonstrate through our actions that clean energy is not only good from a health and policy perspective but also good business. So we’ve been running our own company on clean energy since 2018. Every Apple data center, Apple Store, and Apple Office are running on clean energy. We also use our voice as an American company to advocate for policy changes that enable the clean energy economy. Part of our responsibility as a business is to say, we’ve done it, and we know you can do it, and the country and economy, if the transition is done correctly. We even do that in other countries. We partner with our suppliers, and they’ll go to their government and say, “Hey, I’d like to switch to clean energy because Apple wants me to.” We’ll then help them with the advocacy and points to make them more successful.
Stephanie Tharpe: How does the Impact Accelerator program fit into Apple’s overall mission for 100% carbon neutrality?
Lisa Jackson: We’re now on our third class. We have thousands of suppliers around the world. We wanted to cross diversity —which is an important goal —with the environment, which is also very important to our company, and see if we can help to spot the businesses that we can hire in the future for services or products that we need to purchase. But sometimes, those businesses need additional support in terms of technical advice and how to scale. Apple has high standards — we want things to be at a certain specification. The idea of the Impact Accelerator was to start incubating some businesses so they understand best-in-class and how to grow their business in a way that sets them up for success.”
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