This week on EarthTalk Radio, we welcome Mustafa Ali, a founder of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Department of Environmental Justice, where he served from 1992 until this year. During his 24 year tenure, Ali worked across agencies to advance environmental, health and economic justice and acted as a legislative assistant on foreign policy. Over the course of his career, he gave more than 2000 presentations and worked with more than 1,000 communities — and was the Environmental Justice Lead for the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Ali has served as a Brookings Institution Congressional Fellow and has been a guest lecturer at Yale and other universities as well as a blogger and radio host.
Currently, he is the Senior Vice President of Climate, Environmental Justice and Community Revitalization for the Hip Hop Caucus, which organizes activists from ages 14- 40 on social justice issues. EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman interviewed him in the Hip Hop Caucus office in downtown DC…
EarthTalk: So what’s your quick definition of environmental justice, and why is it so important?
Ali: The government defines environmental justice as the disproportionate impacts in people of color and low-income communities. I think for most regular folks, when we say Flint, we understand what environmental injustice is. When communities are being impacted by led, when their voices are not being heard, or allowed to be a driver in the situation. Or if we said Sandy Rock, and we know that indigenous populations have been trying to protect our water quality. Not just for themselves, but for the entire country, also protecting the cultural heritage that exists on native lands. Those are examples of environmental injustices, when folks’ voice are not allowed to be a part of the process and they’re not a driver, and they’re being exposed to toxic exposures.
E: Okay, great. Can you talk a little bit about the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, which you were one of the founders about twenty four years ago, and what it does…
Ali: Sure. The Office of Environmental Justice is a very unique entity, and the reason that I say that it’s unique is because it was actually created out of a set of recommendations from stakeholders. From folks from grassroots organizations, academia, and a number of other stakeholders, back in the late eighties and early nineties had a set of recommendations that they shared with the administrator William Reilly, saying that there needed to be a place in the Federal Government where communities with environmental injustices had a voice and also where we could begin to think forward on policy, on creating the right types of economic opportunities on grant programs, and the creation of FACE-US [Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations]. So the Office of Environmental Justice, which was first the Office of Environmental Equity, and then became the Office of Environmental Justice, gives voice to those communities who are often forgotten, or overlooked and marginalized.
E: Okay great. So it gives them power to fund their own status, relative to incinerators…
Ali: Exactly. When we’re dealing with landfills, it gives people an intersection point to be able to begin the conversation to make change, and so many other examples.
E: At which point, would have just always ended up in poor and minority neighborhoods who didn’t have access.
Ali: Yes. When we look at the environmental injustices that are happening, they are primarily happening in communities of color, and low-income communities, and on indigenous lands.
E: Right. Okay, so what about now that we have Donald Trump and the world has changed. What is the current status and likely future of the Office of Environmental Justice, and how is it actually going to effect people’s lives on the ground?
Ali: Well there is a proposal to eliminate the Office of Environmental Justice, like there are proposals out there to eliminate a number of those very important offices inside the Environmental Protection Agency, and other Federal agencies. If that happens, what we will see is that more people will get sick, and unfortunately more folks will die. If the regulations that they’re proposing getting rid of, if that comes to be, again, more people will get sick and more people will die, and that’s why it’s so important for folks to get engaged. For folks to share their voices and expectations, both to the Environmental Protection Agency, to administrative Pruitt, and also to the President, but also to those men and women on Capitol Hill. Let your voices be heard, let them know what your expectations are. Let them know that they should be valuing the lives of these communities. So we have power, we just have to make sure that we utilize it so that folks understand what our expectations are.
E: Right, and even if they don’t cut the office completely, they’ve already cut it so much that it can’t really function properly.
Ali: Yes. So you know, there are those budget cuts that are in the making right now, which will definitely weaken the office, but we also have to make sure that not only are we working on the Federal level, but also working with the states to make sure that they are also honoring and working on environmental justice issues, and the beauty of the moment is that folks are finally starting to come out of their silos. Folks are realizing that we’re all in this together, and that we need to be working on common goals and working to protect peoples’ lives.
E: We have seen some unique forming alliances at the many marches in Washington D.C.
Ali: The marches are a prime example. I think we started with the Women’s March. I don’t think there were some that thought that as many women would show up, but they showed up in force, made sure their voices were heard, and then they got engaged back on the local level. When you move to the Science March, most folks think scientists should just stay in their labs and just do the scientific work that’s necessary, but they also have realized that they need to make sure that their voices are heard also. To let people know that they are concerned and they care about what’s happening in communities, and they are invested in that space, and then People’s Climate March. Once again, hundreds of thousands of folks descended on Washington D.C, and very diverse. I think that’s the beauty of that march, you saw so many different types of folks who came to participate in the People’s Climate March, but not just here in Washington D.C, all across the country and literally across the world. Literally hundreds of thousands of folks made sure that not only were their bodies there, but their minds were there, their spirits were there, and there is a solidarity that is coming out of all of those movements. There is also accountability that is coming out. Folks are going back home, they’re getting engaged in the political process. They are folks who are going to run for office, who care about these issues, and that’s real power. They’re also going to hold those who are currently in office accountable, if they’re not doing the right things to protect communities and to build communities up.
E: Right, and it was just a different kind of [Inaudible: 00:06:11] then you would have seen in environmental protests in the past.
Ali: I would agree. I think it goes back to something that Dr. King shared with us decades ago now. He said we may have all come to these shores on different ships, but now we’re all in the same boat now. Nothing could be more true than under our current administration, which is helping us to realize that we’re all in this together. That the choices that are being made are going to impact all of us. Of course there will be even greater impacts in our most vulnerable communities, but I think that is galvanizing folks. It’s helping them to understand that we must come together to make this real change. We must come together that make sure that fossil fuels are not a part of our future direction, and we’re also making sure that we’re going to protect our most vulnerable communities.
E: Of course, fossil fuels, climate change, does impact the most vulnerable communities the hardest usually, which we saw in Katrina.
Ali: Our communities. As climate change and carbon plays out, most folks sometimes forget that most of those carbon polluting facilities are actually in our most vulnerable communities. So they take that hit right there in the beginning, and then, with the warming of the planet, they get the second whammy. So that’s another reason why we should be extremely focused on our most vulnerable communities if we’re serious about dealing with climate change.
E: And of course a lot of Native American reservations have become front lines for these issues with pipe lines and coal mines. What about the fact that the Trump administration has pulling information off of government websites, particularly about climate change? So how is this effecting either the Office of Environmental Justice or the broader environmental justice movement?
Ali: When you begin to eliminate information, that is a strategic plan to be able to weaken and dismantle programs, policies, activities. It also puts communities at a distinct disadvantage. Folks need to have an understanding of what’s inside of these communities, and how will these chemicals play a role in impacting their lives and their children’s lives. So I believe that there’s a real plan, when you begin to eliminate the access to information. When you begin to say science doesn’t matter. When you begin to dismiss scientists from advisory boards, then to me, that means that you don’t truly care about the health of our country, of our communities, or even the future generations, because you are putting them at a distinct disadvantage by removing that information, and then you also weaken policy. Without that scientific information, then you are guessing at best about the directions and the impacts from pollution. So we need to make sure that that information is available to everyone.
E: Right. How is the environmental justice movement working to counter all these threats, the disillusion in the office, the shredding of budgets, and the hiding of information. What steps are actually being taken?
Ali: The environmental justice movement, which has been around for over three decades so. Some would say even longer than that, but the flash point was in Warren County, North Carolina in the early eighties. The movement, the networks, organizations, and other individuals, and that goes back to folks breaking down silos, building authentic, collaborative partnerships where we’re all coming together. Folks are engaging with the EPA. When there are requests for information, folks are engaging in that process. People are protesting at the EPA, but they’re also being very mindful and working with their elected officials to let their elected officials know what their expectations are. If those expectations are not met, then they will find other individuals to represent them. So many of good conscience on Capitol Hill have the opportunity to do the right thing, and Mr. Pruitt has the opportunity also. If they don’t, there will be repercussions.
E: So individuals can actually get involved and make a difference. Any other suggestions on how, say, someone listening to this interview could get involved?
Ali: Oh, definitely. There’s simple things you could do. Folks look at recycling and really focusing at sustainable lifestyles, because when we do that, we have less impact in our most vulnerable communities, where the creation of energy sources are, or where landfills are. So you can do those kinds of individual things. You can also give consideration to economics, and how the utilization of your dollars play a role. There are folks who are working on divestment and reinvestment, so you can look at your overall economic portfolios and decide and make sure that you are investing your dollars in organizations and portfolios that make sense moving forward in a cleaner type of economy. You can also make sure that you’re volunteering with local organizations who are doing their best to be able to make change. So there’s lots of things that individuals can do based upon who you are, where you are, and how much you want to get involved.
E: Okay great. And from your relatively new position with the Hip Hop Caucus, how do you see the Caucus and your own role in advancing environmental justice issues?
Ali: Sure. I’m very blessed to be with the Hip Hop Caucus and I’m very thankful to Reverend Lennox Yearwood for the incredible team that he has put together here at the Caucus. We’re doing a number of things, we’re a part of both the national and international divestment and reinvestment campaign. We’re also launching a program called Revitalizing Vulnerable Communities at the end of the summer, where we’ll be hoping to leverage resources for our most vulnerable communities and help them to build authentic, collaborative partnerships. We also have the Respect My Vote campaign, where we are educating folks about voting, getting engaged, and the democracy and also the civic process, excuse me. And then we also have People’s Climate Music, which is extremely exciting because we have athletes, we have entertainers, and artists who use their platform to share about civil rights and social justice and environmental justice and climate justice issues, through their own voices and experiences, and that literally reaches worldwide. So I’m extremely excited to be a part of the incredible work that’s happening at the Hip Hop Caucus.
E: So People’s Climate Music is not just music.
Ali: No, it’s so much more than that. It’s all the things that come as part of culture. So yes, it is music, but it’s also poets, it’s artists, it’s folks who are involved in the fashion world. There are so many different elements. The beauty of the Hip Hop Caucus is that we link culture with policy, and other types of activities, and we give a voice to younger generations as well. We help people to understand that they have power, and that they can utilize that power to help make positive change.
E: Okay, thank you. Any final comments?
Ali: We should just be focused on moving our most vulnerable communities from surviving to thriving.
E: Great, thanks very much.
Ali: Thank you.