Mustafa Santiago Ali could have gone to a major environmental group after spending more than two decades at the EPA, but instead last year he joined a small social-justice organization fusing hip-hop culture and politics.
“It was one of the places where I didn’t have to convince anyone about my ideas,” Ali, senior vice president of climate, environmental justice, and community revitalization for the Hip Hop Caucus, told Bloomberg Environment.
With chapters in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., the Hip Hop Caucus seeks to politically engage minority youth and warn of the consequences of climate change. Organizers can be found at music festivals and historically black college campuses.
The nonpartisan group’s Respect My Vote campaign has registered more than 600,000 young people in preparation for the upcoming midterm elections. The effort comes as Democrats expect a large segment of young voters disaffected with the Trump administration’s environmental policies and other issues to turn out in November.
The group’s goal, Ali said, is to empower young people with the notion that the environment is theirs to protect.
“We never tell people who to vote for,” Ali told Bloomberg Environment. “But you should be voting for someone who cares about your community.”
In his job, Ali draws on his years of experience in seeking to persuade the government that people of color matter in conversations about pollution and climate change. Building equity in the environmental movement, Ali said, is a “moral imperative.”
He seeks to raise the question of who speaks for the environment and who best represents the needs of the people that pollution most affects.
“There are organizations doing good work,” said Ali, who is black. “But of all the green groups that get huge amounts of money, you don’t have one African-American or Latina leading that organization.”
He was alluding to groups such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace Fund, Environmental Working Group, Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Alliance, Earthjustice, Ocean Conservancy, and Earth Island Institute.
“What does that say about where our [minority] communities rank?” Ali asked. " We never have conversations about that.”
Representatives of the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the Natural Resources Defense Council acknowledged a lack of diversity among large environmental organizations.
The environmental movement “has struggled with equity and inclusion, and he’s right in challenging us,” Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, told Bloomberg Environment. Leonard said her organization is working to highlight instances of pollution in minority communities.
The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg Environment is operated by entities controlled by Michael Bloomberg.
Race as Factor in Pollution Exposure
Ali’s involvement with the Hip Hop Caucus comes at a time when environmental justice advocates say their work is especially critical.
A federally funded study published last September in Environmental Health Perspectives outlined a correlation between race and consistent pollution exposure.
The study found that exposure to nitrogen dioxide—a vehicle emissions pollutant—is more influenced by race than income, age, or education. It showed that this disparity has barely improved in recent years, despite overall improvements in air quality.
“People talk about renewable energy, but they don’t talk about the things that need to be built in our communities,” Ali said, referring to hazardous waste cleanup in Puerto Rico and flooding in Princeville, N.C.—a town established by freed slaves after the Civil War and incorporated in 1885, making it the first in the United states chartered by black people.
Most recently, after Hurricane Florence ravaged the Carolinas, coal ash ponds and lagoons of pig manure flooded into low-income communities’ waterways. For years, activists such as the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network have called on companies to clean up industrial hog operations.
“It’s disappointing, because the [acting] administrator [Andrew Wheeler] should be visiting these communities,” Ali said of the disaster areas. “For the administrator to not actively engage with these vulnerable communities—the impacts are real.”
Starting a New Chapter
Ali helped found the EPA’s environmental justice office in 1992 during Republican George H.W. Bush’s presidency. He served during Republican and Democratic administrations, as an acting senior adviser on environmental justice to former Adminstrator Gina McCarthy until 2017. He was also McCarthy’s designated senior representative to the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice.
Ali said he decided to leave after the Trump administration took office because of what he described as a lack of consultation with experienced employees on decision-making.
“If you’re not consulting people who are career, nonpolitical experts on decisions being made, that tells you how much you value or trust that career leadership,” he said.
A representative from the EPA said in response that the agency is working with states and local governments “to support their integration of [environmental justice] considerations in their work.”
The EPA’s environmental justice budget has grown from $7.2 million in 2016 to $7.4 million in 2018, the representative added.
Public acknowledgment of the disparities of pollutant exposure between racial groups “was painstakingly slow” and “glacial at best,” Vernice Miller-Travis, an activist and co-founder of New York City-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice, told Bloomberg Environment. She said she is hopeful, however, that the subject is gaining more traction—with Ali’s help.
Looking to the future of advancement of environmental justice groups, Ali said states and local governments are becoming more aware of the need to consider low-income communities.
“There needs to be people inside the agency—inside and fighting,” he said. “But there also need to be people who are willing to stand up and put a spotlight on the issues.”