“We’re All in the Same Boat”
Mustafa Ali has dedicated his life to combating environmental injustice, to lifting up communities in need, and to taking inspiration from grassroots advocacy. So when the Trump Administration announced plans earlier this year to slash funding for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – including the possibility of axing the agency’s environmental justice office entirely – Ali knew he had to take a stand.
In March, Ali announced his resignation from the EPA with a four-page letter to Administrator Scott Pruitt. His resignation marked the end of a 24-year career with the agency, one in which he helped found the EPA’s office of environmental justice, which he eventually came to lead. And it drew attention to the ongoing work that’s essential to support American communities fighting for clean water to drink and clean air to breathe.
Ali’s new role as senior vice president for climate, environmental justice, and community revitalization with the Hip Hop Caucus, a civil and human rights organization that uses culture and celebrity “change makers” as vehicles for transformation, marks a striking shift after a quarter-century in service to the federal government. When we spoke by phone, Ali mentioned the immensity of the challenges ahead more than once. But his optimism also came across, and he was clear that he’s hopeful about what the future holds.
How did you first become involved in environmental justice work?
Well I was really blessed. I guess there were two tracks that led me to the work that I’ve dedicated my life to. The first one, of course, is my parents. They very much instilled in [me and my brothers and sisters] that we have a responsibility to give back. And I was raised in a family of Baptist and Pentecostal ministers, so that’s just the natural progression, that you’re supposed to be focused on helping other folks. That’s one side of the track, if you will.
The other one was just being really, really blessed and in the right place at the right time, and meeting some incredibly courageous and incredible individuals. And being at the first people-of-color summit. And then actually really getting into and grounding the issue when I went to the first [environmental justice] conference that [sociologist] Dr. Beverly Wright had at Xavier University. And at that early conference, actually meeting a number of folks from the Cancer Alley area and other places throughout the South, and just hearing about some of the real challenges they had going on.
You know, you find that special moment with that special issue that just connects you, and you know that this is something that won’t be a job, that will be something that’s much, much more. And for me that was environmental justice.
And was there a specific moment when you had that realization?
There probably were a couple of them. I think one of them was at that early conference and meeting an elderly African American lady who was there, and seeing some of the things that had happened to her in her life. Literally the color in her skin had been stripped away due to exposure to chemicals. That was one moment.
The other one was with Hazel Johnson [who is often referred to as the mother of the environmental justice movement]. Hazel used to call me “the kid,” and at one of the earlier events I was out on the outskirts. She took me by the hand, she pulled me over, and she said ‘I’m bringing you here. I want you to sit down on this couch, I want you to listen, and I want you to learn so that the work that you’ll do in the future will be authentic, and so that you will never forget.’
I’ve taken that with me for the past couple of decades. To me it was transformational. Sometimes people forget that this work is about real folks and the real challenges that they’re facing, and they try to complicate these issues, or they try to make it about theory or process. And they take real people out of the equation – because when they are in that equation, that means you have to do something different.
You’ve been doing environmental justice work for a quarter-century. Do you think that people are beginning to better understand how these issues of race and economics and the environment are all interconnected?
You know, we’ve made some progress, but we have a long way to go. We’ve made progress in the sense that, when this issue was first coming to the forefront, there were literally a number of folks inside the federal agencies who felt that a lot of the things that folks were sharing couldn’t possibly be happening in our country. That folks were being disingenuous. And now, two-plus decades later, we no longer have to convince folks that environmental justice is real, that the impacts that are happening inside of these communities are real.
Now the real challenge is: How do we properly implement policy, how do we make policy more inclusive, how do we – in shrinking budgets – help to make sure that the resources that need to go to our most vulnerable communities are there, and how do we not move backwards? How do we honor all that hard work, all those lives that have been dedicated to this work? And [how do we] make sure that we’re moving our most vulnerable communities from surviving to thriving?
[First,] there had to be education. And what you’ve seen is, over time, that starting to [happen]. So now in academia, environmental justice is taught at the undergraduate and graduate level. Law schools have some courses in it. There are a couple of places you can get PhDs in this work. In the philanthropic world, it’s slow moving, but there has been some shifting of portfolios over the years to better support some of the organizations and networks that are out there.
And there’s also a real change in the demographics inside of our country. For folks that are 35 and under, you no longer have to convince them about the utility of these issues and the need to address them. It’s the exact same thing with climate. When you see and interact with younger people, they just naturally get it, and they just want to move forward with how to make the change that’s necessary.
So you see all of these various types of changes that have happened, but there’s still a huge amount of work that needs to help us move forward.
The Trump Administration has indicated that it might entirely eliminate the environmental justice program at the EPA. What would that mean for the communities the program serves?
Well that would be devastating to communities, and actually it would be very hurtful to our country. There is still a huge amount of work that needs to happen in relationship to our most vulnerable communities.
By eliminating that office, it does a couple of different things. One, it sends a signal to the states that this is no longer a priority. And it sends a signal also to those communities that their lives don’t matter or that they’re not valued.
It also weakens the new administration in a couple of ways. [It weakens it] because the Office of Environmental Justice has been and continues to be an intersection point for communities. It also affects policy development. If you don’t have a strong environmental justice voice in relationship to policy, then you are going to have gaps, you are going to have more folks who unfortunately are not going to be protected at the level that they deserve to be. More folks are going to get sick, and unfortunately, in some instances, people are going to die.
You put in so much time with the EPA. What was is like to make the decision to move on?
Well it was a difficult decision. It involved a lot of prayer. It involved a lot of conversations with mentors. But I had a huge responsibility to also stand up and do the right thing. How could I do anything less as someone who has worked on these issues, and comes from these communities, and has been raised by these communities? And when I saw some of the choices and proposals that were being introduced that I knew would have devastating effects on the communities that I serve, then I knew that it was not something that I could be a part of.
It seems like quite a transition to go from working for the federal government to working with the Hip Hop Caucus. I’d love to hear about your work there, and how it builds upon your experience at the EPA.
It’s definitely different. [Laughs.] Working at the Environmental Protection Agency, or any federal agency or department, there’s lots of bureaucracy, and things can move slower sometimes than you’d like them to. When I left, I wanted to be in a place that was creative and that would honor the work that has happened and that needs to continue to happen inside of communities. And when I looked at the Hip Hop Caucus, they were doing a lot of the things that I knew were necessary to help communities move forward.
I’m in charge of climate, and environmental justice, and community revitalization. And it’s really interesting because the Hip Hop Caucus focuses on the civic process and culture and bringing those together with policy.
One of the things that's extremely exciting is our work with cultural influences – with artists, and entertainers, and athletes. It’s funny, because I often say I know a huge number of super smart scientists and other folks, and I could get 10,000 of them together and have them speak in front of an audience, and you know, folks might pay a bit of attention. But if I have Jay Z, or Beyoncé, or Chance the Rapper to share some information, it’s just amazing. And some of it is because folks who they’re speaking to may come from similar communities, or similar circumstances, or backgrounds. And it’s just amazing to see how those cultural influencers can connect with folks.
Why the creative route specifically?
Well innovation is necessary in this work. I often say, if we continue to do the same things that we’ve always done, then evidently there are some additional things that need to happen, or the problems would have been fixed.
It’s really easy to make the transition from federal service and go work for one of the other big organizations that are out there, but I’ve never been traditional. Most of my work was outside of the beltway over the years, because I don’t feel you can do the work that I did and not be connected to communities. So I wanted to go to a place that was also connected to communities.
As I know you are aware, we’re already seeing a lot of the early impacts of climate change and we understand the ways in which it will disproportionately impact communities that are already overburdened. What are your thoughts about the US backing away from robust climate action? What are the implications for climate justice?
It’s really curious why someone would back away from the Paris climate accord. [The Trump Administration] could have stayed engaged in the process, and then if they didn’t necessarily agree 100 percent with the direction that it was going, then they could have played a role, negotiated [laughs] – since some folks are supposed to be great negotiators – based upon whatever their vision is.
Climate change is an additional set of impacts – an additional overlay, if you will – in many communities that are already dealing with a number of significant challenges, both to their health and also to their wealth. [On the health side,] our most vulnerable communities are dealing with the toxins that are in some of their communities, and all of the challenges that that brings. On the wealth side, many people don’t necessarily talk that much about that, but there are two different parts to that also. The culture that exists inside these communities is eroded from the impacts that are happening, and climate will also displace folks, so it will affect the culture. And then the other side of that is the economic impacts, not just when a terrible storm happens or a drought, but also the loss of wealth because your land or your home is now worth less because of the impacts that are coming.
So for someone to remove themselves from a process where almost every other country is saying Yes, this is important, yes we are going to be a part of a collaborative set of solutions moving forward, it makes me wonder how much they truly care about our country. For someone to not be thinking critically about how, based upon their belief system, they can stay engaged in this process and help to move it forward, to me is very shortsighted and puts our country more in jeopardy.
You’ve worked with several administrations of both parties. Do you have any advice about how we can get past politics when it comes to the environment, and climate change, and environmental justice, and how we can unify around these issues?
I sure do. It’s a really simple lesson. And I’ve shared this with our new administration, and I’ve shared it with other administrations: Remove yourself from Washington, DC and go spend some real time in these communities. Go and sit down in Mrs. Ramirez’s kitchen and have a conversation with her about what’s going on in her community, and the changes she’s seen, whether positive or negative. And then also go and spend some time on Mr. Johnson’s back porch and listen to him about his expectations and what he’s seen. That changes how you approach policy, because it’s no longer theory based. It is rooted in real people who are asking you for real solutions, and sharing some of their own real solutions.
And that’s what I find is one of the biggest challenges with folks in Washington, DC – at best they’ll do a drive by. And what I mean by a drive by is, they’ll come through a community, take a picture, and then be gone, and never spend any real authentic time with those communities. Or they’ll expect communities to come to Washington, DC. And I’ll often tell folks, they’re paying your salary. It’s not their responsibility to come to Washington for a conversation with you. It is your responsibility to go to their communities, and spend real time with them.
I’ve worked with some of the highest-ranking folks – I know how tough it is to find time. But if you truly care about what’s happening in our country, then you have a responsibility to go to where the people are, and not to expect the people to come to where you are. And then you have the responsibility of what you saw, what you learned, what you heard – to take that information back to Washington and then craft policy. Policy should never be developed without having spent time in the places that are going to be impacted. And that’s the simplest lesson, but it’s the hardest lesson for people to actually get.
And what do you think about non-politicians – how can those who may not themselves be overburdened by environmental injustices be good allies to those who are?
I think again, it’s about connecting with folks. You know, if there’s an organization, volunteer. That’s a great way of being able to connect. You know, the interesting thing with many of our [vulnerable] communities – whether we’re talking about reservations, or about communities in the inner cities, or out in the heartland – is that a lot of the time people never actually have the opportunity to be in those spaces and places. So I think it’s really important that folks have that opportunity to truly engage with folks and figure out what’s going on.
Dr. King once said that many of us came to these shores on different ships, but we are in the same boat together now. And in relationship to climate, in relationship to some of these other challenges that have been going on and are going on, we really are all connected, and we really are all in this same boat together now. And if we aren’t focused on making the changes that are necessary, those impacts, those challenges, are going to have a connection to all of us.
So, we have a choice. We can all begin to get engaged with each other. We can start to break down silos, which is starting to happen, and make real change. Or we can continue with the paradigm of the past and stay separated. And as these even greater challenges come, then we’ll all have to deal with those unfortunate impacts that will have devastating effects not only for our country, but also for the world.
How do you think we get even more people engaged and engage new audiences?
One of the things that the climate movement or the green movement or some of those movements have not done properly is to move from speaking to the choir, if you will. And I think that you really need to have an understanding of what’s going on in people’s lives.
I come from Appalachia. So, [for example,] you have to understand the culture that exists there, and to value that culture, if you want to expand the base. You can’t go to folks who work in the fossil fuel industry, and just say, Well, we just want to shut this down, and the conversation ends there. We really have to be thinking critically about the opportunities that exist around renewables and how we help to create a new base of jobs where folks have a certain lifestyle, so that they can then make the choices that are best for them and their family. We need to be focused on expanding the base and the opportunities, and I think that educating folks, creating authentic relationships, and honoring different views is extremely important, and it’s going to be something that will help us to actually build a more sustainable and brighter future.
What’s your overall outlook about things these days? Are you worried? Are you hopeful?
Well, I’m an optimist. I think if you’re not an optimist, then you probably would go someplace and hide in a corner.
There are real challenges ahead. They’re challenges because we currently have an administration that doesn’t value science, that says that it doesn’t believe that the impacts from climate are real, and that has shown a disregard for the lives and our most vulnerable: communities of color, low-income communities, and indigenous communities.
People continue to hope that our new administration will begin the evolutionary process (laughs) of coming into the twenty-first century and understanding that if we begin to address these issues now, if we begin to invest in building up communities instead of walls, then we’ll be better off. As businessmen and women, which [make up a big] part of our new administration, they should have a better understanding of investing today for a better future. Every great business leader that I’ve ever met – and I’ve worked with tons of them – they understand, one, about the investments that need to happen in the moment, and two, they understand the value that diversity brings to their industries or their organizations in helping them to foresee the future and be positioned to be able to help to move their organization forward. So that’s that side of the equation.
The other side of the equation is that I’m excited because many of the silos that I saw in the past are beginning to break down. Folks from lots of different organizations and stakeholder bases are beginning to work together.
I’m super excited because young people really get it, and I know they are the future. And so that excites me, knowing that there is this huge group of folks who expect something better, and they’re willing to get engaged. If you look at the Women’s March, or the Science March, or the People’s Climate March, no one ever expected so many folks to get engaged in those processes.
And as I travel around the country, so many folks say, “You know what, I may not necessarily value the current folks who are making decisions in Washington, and I’m going to get engaged at the state house or at the local level.” And a lot of folks who haven’t traditionally run for office are planning to run for office.
So I think it’s an exciting time. There are lots of challenges, but I also see folks really taking some personal responsibility, and I think over the next couple of years we’re going to see some real transformational activities happening across the country.
Zoe Loftus-Farren is managing editor of Earth Island Journal. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.