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A Double Shot of Environmental Leadership

A Double Shot of Environmental LeadershipTwo Tufts grads are poised to make a big impact on U.S. environmental policy as recent appointees to top positions at the Environmental Protection Agency

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [08.19.09] While green policy is at the top of the Obama administration's agenda, don't be surprised if it comes out looking a bit brown and blue.

Tufts graduates Michelle DePass (A'87) and Gina McCarthy (G'81) have been appointed by President Barack Obama to top posts at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where they will play a critical role in determining American environmental policy. Both were confirmed to their positions by the U.S. Senate earlier this year and report directly to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

DePass, the new assistant administrator for international affairs, received her bachelor's degree in political science from the School of Arts and Sciences. McCarthy, who serves as assistant administrator for air and radiation, received her master's in urban and environmental policy and planning from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

For DePass, A Complete Package

In her role overseeing international initiatives at the EPA, Michelle DePass will be working on a global stage. It's a place where she feels comfortable, thanks to her Jamaican heritage and upbringing in the melting pot of New York City and also her experiences with the International House at Tufts.

"Tufts was the first place where I met a lot of people from Middle Eastern and European descent," recalls DePass.

depass200DePass most recently worked as a program officer at the Ford Foundation, managing the foundation's initiative on Environmental Justice and Healthy Communities. That role took her around the world, including Africa, China and Indonesia.

Previously, she administered a bi-state workforce development training program for disadvantaged youth on superfund waste sites and served as executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. DePass says her experience at the community level has translated well internationally.

"It was an easy transition to be able to work on those issues, if you understand policy and how policies can impact the vulnerable populations," explains DePass. "When you think about the distribution of the benefits and harms, equating it between communities and working in the international arena is quite easy."

At the EPA, DePass is working under the charge of the Obama administration to create a "clean energy, low carbon economy and low carbon future." Part of her responsibilities will be to work with other countries, through bilateral negotiations and other means, to make that goal a reality. She credits her Tufts experiences in the TCU Senate and Pan-Hellenic Council with helping her early on hone the skills she brings to policymaking.

A key focus for DePass will also be addressing the impact of climate change on vulnerable populations around the world-work that is familiar to her based on her background in environmental justice.

"Many of the programs and policies this office has been working on get heightened by the climate crisis, whether you're talking about negotiation of a mercury treaty or working on issues of black carbon and how it's used with many populations all over the world," explains DePass. "A lot of it can come under the rubric of climate."

As someone who has worked in the environmental field for her entire career, DePass calls her new role "a wonderful way to package it all."

"It's not like I looked into a crystal ball 20 years ago when I graduated and said I wanted to be assistant administrator for international affairs at the EPA, but I knew I wanted to be in a role where I could make an impact and a difference with vulnerable populations," she says. "I'm very pleased that this is where the path has led me. I couldn't have asked for a better position."

McCarthy Keeps 'Thinking Differently'

Gina McCarthy recalls a science and ethics course she took with Professor Sheldon Krimsky in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP) that covered recombinant DNA, a technique used in cloning and gene therapy. In one of her first jobs after graduating from Tufts, as the public health agent in Canton, Mass., she applied that lesson quite directly.

"I can guarantee you we were the first town in Massachusetts and probably in the country to have a by-law on recombinant DNA," McCarthy says with a laugh. "It was a really good by-law, too."

mccarthy200For her new role overseeing air and radiation policy at the EPA, she has a career's worth of lessons to drawn from. Most recently, McCarthy served as commissioner for the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, where she addressed climate change issues through projects such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Previously, McCarthy spent her career in Massachusetts advising on environmental and public health issues at both the municipal and state level. As deputy secretary of operations for the Massachusetts Office for Commonwealth Development, she oversaw smart growth initiatives and the state's first Climate Protection Action Plan.

McCarthy says she is bringing a "can-do" attitude to her new job, inspired by the aggressive approach she says states like Connecticut have taken on addressing climate change.

"The one lesson I learned is, climate change is actually an issue that we can tackle and we can tackle it in a cost effective way," she says. "The states were doing it. They were providing leadership, testing models, looking at regional collaboration."

Her role, says McCarthy, is not just about encouraging big business to address climate concerns, but to empower individuals to take action.

"Right now, our challenge is to make individuals understand that there is much that they can do to become environmental stewards and help drive the change that we need," she explains. "A lot of it is going to be how we live as a society not just what power plants do."

McCarthy credits the multidisciplinary experience she had at Tufts-she studied environmental health engineering in addition to her coursework at UEP-with providing a good context for understanding the issues she has faced throughout her career.

"I think Tufts taught me to be a terrible bureaucrat," McCarthy jokes. "I don't separate health issues from environmental issues, or environmental issues from energy issues. I try to see it from the standpoint of human beings and what they need to have a sustainable world. I ended up in the environmental world because I saw the most direct overlap between what is happening in people's health and the pollution they were being exposed to."

UEP, says McCarthy, "made you think differently."

"I think that is what has served me best, is an ability to think about the same problem from many different angles so you can find about a solution that worked."

While McCarthy no doubt faces daunting challenges, she is excited by the prospect of what she can accomplish at the EPA.

"You feel like really good things are possible. That's the most exciting thing for me at this point in my career," she says. "I feel like I have an opportunity to make a difference."

Profile by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications. Photos courtesy of the EPA.

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