EPA headquarters is a grand affair of marble and columns, a few blocks from the White House. Massive bronze statues of men on horses greet visitors in the reception area. With its three-story ceilings, dark butternut-paneled walls, and buffed marble floors, Jackson's own office would be daunting if not for her personal touches. And Jackson herself.
"It's freezing in here," she says, with a warm hug hello, on a crisp December day. "If you want a jacket, just let me know. Do you want some coffee? Tea?"
In a snazzy departure from the ice cream–colored power suits one typically associates with women in government, Jackson is wearing black stiletto ankle boots, a well-cut tweed suit, dangling earrings, and a wide black Michelle Obama–style belt. Her hair is still wet from her morning workout. "I'm all about showing people that environmentalism isn't just Birkenstocks," she says with a laugh. "I mean, we love Birkenstocks, but we've moved on." Banishing the retro, tree-hugger perception of the EPA is, for Jackson, a priority. "This job is about outreach and trying to make sure that you're accessible to a broad swath, including industry, enviros, folks that really don't see themselves in our mission at all. Because part of my message is, 'You should know what we're about.'"
There is plenty of artwork on the walls—"You can borrow paintings from the National Gallery," Jackson says, noting an enviable perk of the job. "So I tried to get all paintings that were by either women or people of color. And I tried to make it modern, because this office is so, um..."
"Yeah, that's the word."
There are also the requisite framed photographs of Jackson with the president, with the president's aides at Camp David, which Jackson quickly bypasses, eager to show me a cluster of pictures on the shelves. "This is my Saints corner," she says, referring not to the bleeding martyrs of her Catholic faith: "That's Drew Brees," quarterback of the New Orleans Saints. She is such a fan, in fact, that she threw a big Mardi Gras party at her Silver Spring, Maryland, home "when the Saints were marching to victory," says secretary of health and human services Kathleen Sebelius, one of the guests that night. Janet Napolitano, secretary of homeland security, hobbled over on crutches, having broken her ankle playing tennis. Hilda Solis, the secretary of labor, was there as well, and remembers the food as being spicy even by Latina standards (cooking—with a glass of Chardonnay and Zumba music blaring—is how Jackson decompresses after a long, hard week). "Red beans and rice, great music, great friends," says Sebelius—"not your typical stodgy Washington who's who list." Jackson's warmth has proved to be a strategic asset: The women of the cabinet say she has subtly changed the culture of the place with her ability to find common ground, to coax agencies to work together without worrying about turf. "Lisa always has a sense of joy about what she's doing," Sebelius says. "It's pretty infectious. You can't be around her and feel bad." According to Solis, the first Latina to serve in a presidential cabinet, "Our passions are the same in that we want to get things done, we know how to do them, and we know that the most vulnerable populations are our own: women and people of color."
"This is Dorothy Height, who just died," says Jackson, continuing the office tour. "She was the only woman to stand with Dr. King on the platform when he made his 'I Have a Dream' speech." She pauses. "And this is my father—he died when I was in high school. That was in front of Martin Luther King's grave before they built the King Center. We took a car trip to Atlanta."
Jackson's parents adopted her from a Catholic orphanage in Philadelphia in 1962. As family lore has it, they were "going for a boy," Jackson says, but when her father first held her, Jackson looked up at him with the most beatific smile ("It was probably gas," she jokes), and he was hooked. "It was no thinking or nothing," her mother, Marie, recalls. "It was just like she was ours." They also adopted a 14-month-old boy the same day; Marie gave birth to another son five years later. Jackson never bothered to inquire about the woman who'd deposited her in the arms of the nuns at the orphanage. "I never wanted my mother"—Marie—"to think there was something missing," she says. "Like most adoptive parents, they changed my life, with one unselfish decision."
Benjamin worked his entire life as a mail carrier without complaint, despite his considerable intellect. "There weren't a lot of jobs for the extraordinary black men coming from WWII in the still-segregated South," Jackson says about her dad. He also toiled at a second full-time job at night, as a hardware clerk at Sears, to save for his children's education. Every night when he came home, he'd put a little bag of cashews—Jackson's favorite—on top of the radio by her bed, while she was asleep. Then at 49, the age Jackson is today, he died of a massive heart attack. "Lisa took it very, very hard," Marie says. "She sat at my feet and cried and cried and cried. I'd say, 'Let it out, honey,' and she'd say, 'I just miss Dad so much.'" The day Benjamin died, Marie sat her children down. "I said, 'Daddy's gone. But you will still have the best education that you can. And the best doctors.' That's all a mama can offer. 'Don't you worry about anything.'"