Earth Day 2017: Ex-Environmental Justice Chief for EPA on Using Your Power to Save the Planet

Mustafa Santiago Ali (courtesy of Hip Hop Caucus)
Mustafa Santiago Ali (courtesy of Hip Hop Caucus)

Long before Mustafa Santiago Ali helped establish one of our nation’s most esteemed federal programs, he was a child raised in a Baptist and Pentecostal church. He was born in a family passionate about social justice and civil rights, and his faith laid the foundation for a life of giving back.


“It’s really important that you do what you can to help others. And then with the injustices that we sometimes see, we’re like, ‘Well, somebody has to do something about this.’ You just have to decide if it’s going to be you, in partnership with others, to help try and make change,” he told The Root.

In the early 1990s, Ali was a founder of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office on Environmental Justice. After 24 years with the agency, he resigned in protest of President Donald Trump’s budget proposal, which included a decrease in EPA funding of $2.6 billion.

In a two-and-a-half-page resignation letter, he wrote:

There are still many disproportionate environmental impacts occurring in our most vulnerable communities. ... Communities of color, low-income communities and indigenous populations are still struggling to receive equal protections before the law.

The budget cuts would essentially shut down the environmental-justice program, affecting the agency’s efforts to ensure that all Americans have clean air, water and land.

“It’s going to be devastating to families across the country. It just doesn’t make any sense. We know the impacts of air pollution. We know the impacts of asthma. We know the devastating effects of lead on a community,” Ali said. “For them to be rolling back regulations that lots of people worked on sends a message that they don’t care about families; they don’t care about children; they don’t care about the future.”


He said that a cut in the EPA budget will cause an increase in cases like Flint, Mich., including illnesses and conditions like asthma or cancer. This will result in more visits to the emergency room, which will require access to health care, and trigger a domino effect.

“Unfortunately, folks are going to take off time from work to take their kids to the emergency room. So then there’s the economic impact,” he said. “And unfortunately, there will be more folks, especially children, who will probably pass away because of some of the choices that are being made.”


Ali cited a study presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science last year, which indicated that more than 5 million people around the world die from air pollution every year, including nearly 80,000 people in the United States.

“I can go across the country and cite numerous communities who have really been doing all that they can and doing all the right things to be in a better place. And, now, we’re sort of pulling the rug out from underneath them,” Ali said. “These communities have been surviving for years trying to get traction. And we need to be laser-focused on moving our most vulnerable communities from surviving to thriving.”


Environmental activism has seen a national increase over the last couple of years, largely due to the Flint crisis and others like it. According to Ali, there is a lot that advocates can do to make sure their voices get heard.

“Sometimes it’s tough for us to realize that we have power, but we actually do. I think we utilize that power by one, beginning to build stronger coalitions; two, better utilizing social media to capture what’s happening in our communities; and getting that out across the country and the world,” he said.


Some of the other opportunities he mentioned are engaging with high-level organizations that are paying attention to America’s challenges, such as the United Nations; holding state officials accountable the same way federal officials are held accountable; and letting stakeholders know what the expectations are and what will happen if they don’t meet them.

A month ago, Ali accepted a position as senior vice president of climate, environmental justice and community revitalization for the Hip Hop Caucus, a nonprofit focused on civic engagement, community organizing and leadership development.


In this new role, he will continue his work to empower low-income and black and brown communities.

The Hip Hop Caucus has several programs and initiatives that will impact human rights on many levels, specifically “Respect My Vote,” “People’s Climate Music” and “Divest and Reinvest.” They are also launching a program this year called “Revitalizing Vulnerable Communities,” which will support populations on their journey toward transformative change.


“It’s a community-driven process where folks begin to identify the challenges in their community, but also the opportunities,” he said. “And bringing the right folks together to be supportive in that space, identifying the right sort of resource mix, and building authentic collaborative partnerships where we’re honoring the voice of communities.”

The Hip Hop Caucus is a partner with the March for Science on Saturday and the Peoples Climate March next Saturday, April 29, both in Washington, D.C., and nationwide. Ali will speak at the March for Science.


“Our communities have been marching and getting engaged for years. And one of the first marches around environmental justice actually happened in Warren County, N.C., back in the early ’80s, where folks were literally willing to lay down their lives on the roads to block those trucks that were coming into their community with cancer-causing chemicals,” Ali said. “But I want to make sure people understand that there is a foundation and a historical context to why vulnerable communities get engaged and why we march; beyond marching, why we are focused on making real change inside of our communities.”

Freelance writer. TV/film writer-producer. Blogger. Sci-fi nerd. Chai lover.


Not Enough Day Drinking

Wow that takes me back. I interned at OEJ a couple of summers back in college. Used to be in the Ariel Rios building, now I guess it’s the William Jefferson Clinton Building, 2 blocks down from the White House on Pennsylvania avenue. Still remember it was the Federal Triangle Metro stop.

I met him a few times. Always seemed genuine. Unfortunately all I remember from the office was boatloads of paperwork and talk. 300 page reports that no one would read. Meetings about talking about maybe doing things. Other than the Superfund projects, I don’t remember much of anything being done.

Could be I was just there at a bad time (summer after Ws election and summer after 9/11), but I kind of got the impression that it was just a job to most of the people there. When I started, I guess I was expecting more enthusiastic, ideological people, but they turned out to be mostly just government stiffs.