In 1992, Clarice Gaylord was working in the human resources office at the Environmental Protection Agency when she got the call to head the agency’s newly minted Office of Environmental Equity — later named the Office of Environmental Justice. The office, created by President George H. W. Bush’s EPA chief, Bill Reilly, was the federal government’s first serious attempt at addressing the problem of pollution falling most harshly on communities of color and low income.

Gaylord, who holds a PhD in zoology, had worked throughout the 1980s as a health science administrator at the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and then as director of the EPA’s research grants program before she wound up in the agency’s human resources office. The HR post was somewhat of a demotion, she said, that happened due to racism. But it proved fortuitous for her: When she became director of the environmental justice office, she used those personnel skills to expand the diversity of EPA’s staff, even as she helped develop mechanisms for how the EPA could better protect communities of color.

She did this primarily by connecting residents of overburdened communities directly with science and public health officials in the federal government. Gaylord also established the first National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which brought grassroots activists together from around the nation to coach the agency on how to integrate environmental justice (EJ) into its policies and thinking. She was the director of the Office of Environmental Justice for five years, ending with an office made stronger when President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, requiring all federal agencies to incorporate EJ strategies into their plans.