Clean-air crusader Mustafa Ali spent more than two decades and most of his adult life as an environmental justice adviser with the Environmental Protection Agency before his abrupt departure under President Donald Trump. He helped found the EPA’s environmental justice office early on and labored to reduce water and air pollution in countless underserved (and over-polluted) minority communities across the nation. For most of his tenure, Ali managed to avoid getting pigeonholed into party politics and worked well with administrations that grew increasingly partisan. That is, until the arrival of the current president. Today, he is the senior vice president of Hip Hop Caucus, a social advocacy nonprofit that began working to build power in disadvantaged communities in 2004.
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Adam Lynch: Was your resignation from the EPA after November just a matter of protocol, or was there another motivation behind it?
Mustafa Ali: I was hoping that (my resignation) would be an educational moment for the new administration. In my letter I tried to highlight the challenges that exist inside our communities, but also the opportunities that exist. I shared with them various resources that they were proposing cutting and some of the other things that they were talking about getting rid of and how that would be detrimental to our communities. … So it wasn’t just protocol. I was trying to highlight [some priorities] for them, because when administrator [Scott] Pruitt was going through his Senate confirmation, he said he didn’t know a whole lot about environmental justice, so I thought I would take it as an opportunity to share with him the realities and opportunities.
So you were there long enough to see some of these destructive policies sitting in front of you, on paper?
Which one horrified you the most?
There wasn’t just one. There was the elimination of offices. When you’re talking about getting rid of the Office of Environmental Education, when you’re talking about cutting the Brownfields Program, or when you’re talking about the elimination of lead [removal] programs, all of these things are directly connected to what’s happening inside our most vulnerable communities. And then [I saw proposed cuts] in other federal agencies that have a distinct responsibility for environmental justice through Executive Order 12898 (Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, signed by President Bill Clinton). When you’re talking about eliminating certain aspects of agencies that are focused on certain communities, there is going to be an impact in our most vulnerable communities, who have never gotten the necessary resources or the focus.
What was the response when you made your concerns known?
It was early on in the administration, and they had not, at that time, had any focus on environmental justice. They hadn’t had any meetings. They had other meetings with other senior-level folks, but I was not invited into those meetings, and I had been doing this for a long, long time. That sent a signal that environmental justice was not going to be a priority. And if it wasn’t a priority, you know, you can work that through your mind, but it’s that it was not even a concern. And, to date, we are now six-plus months in and they have not yet visited a community with environmental justice concerns. They have not yet moved forward on a policy that would be beneficial to low-income communities, communities of color, or indigenous populations. Actually, just the opposite has happened so far.
You had the misfortune of seeing darkness fall.
Without a doubt. I’ve worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations — five administrations, in total. In each of those, I always saw at least a glimmer of hope, all the way from first Bush, Clinton, second Bush, and Obama. But, then, with the Trump administration — well, [my time there] was very, very short.
Did you suspect that the anti-environmental philosophies that candidate Trump expressed during the election would translate into policy so quickly? Some people just say things to stir up the base.
Exactly. And that’s why you have to take everything [spoken during a campaign] with a grain of salt, and you hope that it’s just bluster, that they really will begin to embrace their humanity and understand that these are real people’s lives that they are dealing with. But I am amazed that there hasn’t been any [community pollution] analysis done before moving forward. Most administrations that have come in, even if they have had divergent views on certain issues, they still would go through a process that would at least bring some legitimacy. With this one, I have not seen that, and I think that’s the reason they’re running into so many challenges.
You’re saying they just jettisoned that whole policy chapter?
Yes. Well, that’s what happens when you are disconnected from a large swath of America, when you don’t go to these communities and spend any time actually seeing what’s happening, and only then come back and craft policy or direction.
Business and industry have to forecast the future, and they have to make sure that they are surrounding themselves with a number of different types of folks, so that they are not missing anything and they can keep that competitive edge. That’s the smart move — but I have not seen that with our current administration. They seem to be surrounding themselves with folks who all have the same way of looking at the world. I think it places the country in a position where it can’t [meet] challenges that it’s going to be facing in a proactive way. If business and industry took these types of approaches, they would go bankrupt.
What impact are you having these days?
These days I’m senior vice president of (social advocacy nonprofit) Hip Hop Caucus. I’m extremely blessed because I’m with an organization that cares about what’s happening inside of communities, that is focused on linking culture with the civic process and policy, and using the voices of artists and entertainers and others to educate and share. It’s great to be in an organization that gets it.
What of your environmental advocacy?
Climate is a big part of the work that we do there. Voting rights is another part. Economic justice is another part. And, of course, we have People’s Climate Music (a series of Hip Hop Caucus-produced albums featuring pro-environment songs from artists such as Malik Yusef, NE-YO, and Common) and a couple of other things.
Plenty of people who are in poverty are too distracted to think about environmental issues. If you’re worried about paying your bills next month, how do you find time to think about recycling?
That has always been the challenge of the green movement: connecting with real folks who are dealing with a multitude of issues in their lives. Being from Appalachia, I get that. The beauty of the work that I’ve been associated with is helping folks understand how these impacts are taking away from them, and lots of times that will get people engaged in the process, when they think they’re losing something.
You talk to their wallets?
Yes. I talk about how we revitalize communities, and how we create economic opportunities as a part of this work, and that gets people interested. Renewable energies and how we use solar or wind, for example, or advanced manufacturing to create jobs — that gets people’s attention. Or when you talk about how your children are going to have difficulty learning because of the impacts that are happening, and they won’t be able to go on to college — that gets people’s attention.
But you have to meet people where they are, and you also have to honor the cultures that exist. In Appalachia, because coal plays such a big role in that culture, you can’t demonize that, and you can’t demonize the folks who work with it. But what you have to do is be able to create additional opportunities so that they have choices.
What role can government possibly play in a world with Pruitt running the EPA and public officials who outright deny the existence of climate change?
They still have a responsibility, because of the statutes and laws that exist. There are certain things that you just don’t get a choice in, and you just have to do, unless Congress decides to rescind those laws. Also, there are lots of great folks who still work in federal service who took their oath as seriously as I did when I raised my right hand, and they’re going to continue to do the things that they know are the right things for the American public.
There are still good people on the inside?
Oh, there are tons of good people on the inside, from all parties, and they’re going to continue to do what’s right. It makes it very challenging when budgets shrink, and there are less folks to do the work, but that’s when other folks begin to fill those spaces. Folks in nonprofits, and philanthropy, and faith-based organizations get engaged. So, between local, county, states, and outside folks getting involved, we’re going to move this agenda forward.
What can be done to further any environmental agenda under the current administration?
I believe in the power of people. It’s what our country is founded on. I believe that everyday folks can find different ways to get engaged. You can get involved with local nonprofits or your local civic organizations. You can get engaged making sure that elected officials know what your expectations are, whether you write a letter, send an email, or send a tweet. But then you also have your own personal responsibility inside your home.
You can take conservationist steps: turning off the lights, unplugging, recycling. Sometimes people think, ‘Well, that’s not so important.’ Well, yeah, it is important, particularly for vulnerable communities, because polluting power-generating facilities are directly inside those communities. So when you [conserve], you lessen some of the impact on those communities.
There are myriad opportunities for folks to get engaged, depending on your personal flavor, from basic conservation all the way up to advocacy. Those folks who don’t like what they see can always decide to run for office themselves — and be authentic about it.
Does throwing your fist in the air really make that much of a difference in our current governmental vacuum?
It does. It does because it raises attention —
Did you say “attention” or “a tension”?
It raises both. Just over the last six months you had a Women’s March that had over a million who got engaged. Nobody thought that many folks were going to show up, and many of them have now gone back into their communities, into their organizations, and are getting even more deeply engaged, and some of them are now thinking about running for office. Then you had a March for Science. I’ve worked with scientists for decades, and I never thought in a million years that scientists would ever come out of their labs, but you had tens of thousands of scientists who got engaged.
And then you had the People’s Climate March, and people said, ‘Well, you know, maybe 50,000 people would show up.’ Hundreds of thousands of people showed up. Millions of people showed up, across the country and internationally, and folks have taken that back to their communities.
So when folks ask me if it’s important when people stand up, yes, it’s important because it lets folks know that this is a priority. In our country there are two things that move policy. One is money. The other is the power of people. If women didn’t stand up, then the women’s suffrage movement would have never been able to move forward — although there is more that needs to happen there. In the civil rights context, if folks hadn’t been willing to stand up and say that these injustices on African Americans are not right, then we would still have the same situation.
Folks coming together, standing up and saying that we can make real change happen places pressure and accountability on folks who are responsible for either implementing things or for the creation of legislative policy. They actually hear when constituencies are saying that we need to do something different.
With what we’ve seen so far, do you really think it’s making a difference?
I know it is. I’ve been around long enough to know friends on both sides of the aisle, and I hear those conversations that are happening when the cameras are not around. I know that it’s going to take a lot of work and innovation and creativity, but change is going to happen. Folks don’t have a choice. We are literally talking about the lives of our countrymen.