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On a gray morning in Atlanta, Lisa Jackson arrives at the Coretta Scott King Young Women's Leadership Academy, where 500 middle school girls—all decked out in pink and brown, their school colors, and packed into an auditorium—are so giddy, so excited to see her, you'd think they were waiting for Rihanna. Or Beyoncé. But the head of the EPA? Since when does the nation's top environmentalist have groupies?

Jackson peeks out from the wings of the stage, through an enormous bouquet of pink and brown balloons, at the girls who've come to meet her, and looks like she's about to tear up. The schoolgirls, between the ages of 11 and 14, are resplendent in hair bows and jewelry. "Atlanta women," Jackson says. "They got it going on."

Since opening its doors four years ago, the academy has become a marvel of the Atlanta public school system. The first girls to attend were previously at the city's lowest-ranked middle school. This year the school's eighth graders earned one of the highest scores of all public schools in Atlanta on a state exam.

They're Jackson's sweet spot, these kids. African-American girls, who, like her, may have faced obstacles but are full of promise. "Listen," she says, "if these young women don't grow up strong and talented and committed to our environment, then our country's gonna suffer, not just them."

Her speech hits home: "You have a right to clean air and clean water," she tells the girls, touching on one of her core initiatives, environmental justice—that is, to give a voice to the people, usually poor minorities, who are most severely affected by environmental hazards and calamities. "You have a right to have a healthy school to learn in." But such heady rights come with responsibility. The girls must be willing to do their part, she tells them—to blow past the wheezing stereotypes that only young men wearing pocket protectors are good at math and science, and that black women don't set policy or lead. "You will bring clean air to your community," she tells them. "Which you can't do if you don't have the education."

Or, for that matter, if your mind hasn't conceived it and your heart can't believe it. Yes, Lisa Jackson, a new EPA administrator for a new and deeply volatile era, faces an uphill battle bucking big business and gimlet-eyed congressmen for the simple promise of clean water, clean air, and good health for all. It will be tons, not pounds, of work, but who's counting?

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