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Monday, January 21, 2019

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Mustafa Santiago Ali is the senior vice president of climate, environmental justice and community revitalization for the Hip Hop Caucus. (Credit: Mustafa Santiago Ali) Mustafa Santiago Ali is the senior vice president of climate, environmental justice and community revitalization for the Hip Hop Caucus. (Credit: Mustafa Santiago Ali)

Hip Hop Caucus Leader is Greenfest Keynote Speaker

Mustafa Ali resigned from the EPA in protest last month, but continues his environmental justice work.
By Coleen L. Geraghty

Headlining this year’s Greenfest at San Diego State University is Mustafa Santiago Ali. His lecture is scheduled from 4-6 p.m. on Wednesday, April 19, in Montezuma Hall in the Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union.

Ali is senior vice president of climate, environmental justice and community revitalization for the Hip Hop Caucus, which works to create positive change throughout the country, especially in vulnerable communities.

He resigned last month from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he had served for 24 years in senior positions responsible for environmental stewardship and building bridges with communities. Ali worked across federal agencies to strengthen environmental justice policies, programs and initiatives.

He graduated from West Virginia University and was a Brookings Institution Congressional Fellow in the Office of Congressman John Conyers in 2007 and 2008.

Ali said he resigned from the EPA because he saw indications that the new administration of President Donald Trump showed no inclination to work for social and environmental justice in vulnerable communities.

"I want to make sure I am investing my time and talents in a place that is going to be supportive of that work," he told the independent news organization Mother Jones.

The New York Times has reported that Trump’s proposed cuts to the EPA budget seek to shrink spending by 31 percent, to $5.7 billion from $8.1 billion, and to eliminate a quarter of the agency’s 15,000 jobs.

Ali spoke to SDSU by telephone last week to discuss current events and his lecture at Greenfest, presented by SDSU's Associated Students.

How are you continuing to work for environmental justice with the Hip Hop Caucus?

We’re working with folks around the country to create a Vulnerable Communities Institute with models for revitalizing vulnerable communities and a grant program that will help stakeholders create the necessary changes in their communities. There is a lot of interest from people in the music industry like Chance the Rapper, Antonique Smith and Common, to address social, climate and environmental justice issues. They use their artistic platforms to educate a new group of stakeholders, to illuminate the impacts that are happening in our communities, and to motivate positive change. I really appreciate the incredible work the Hip Hop Caucus has been doing with Peoples Climate Music (PCM). Music has the ability to bring together people of all races and backgrounds, something we need now more than ever.

We are also involved in divestment and reinvestment campaigns. The focus is not only on divestment from fossil fuels, but also reinvestment in in our vulnerable communities, in housing, job creation and health. As part of the brownfields to greenfields movement, we’re working with folks to clean up contaminated land for the construction of community health centers.

Since you resigned from the EPA in March, have you noticed any new opportunities to work with the Trump Administration on environmental justice issues?

What I’ve seen has reinforced my observation that there seems to be a systematic deconstructing of basic protections necessary for communities to move forward. There is a set of actions and proposals that will have serious health impacts on all communities, but will devastate vulnerable communities. We see alarming rates of asthma across our country, and there are millions of children who have been exposed to lead; yet, we have an administration that is rolling back and eliminating the programs that are dealing with these issues—that just doesn’t make sense. We should be enhancing these programs so that we can get in front of these problems, and we should be focusing even more on communities where these environmental injustices are happening. I hope a number of folks will raise their voices and share with their representatives the importance of changing the current direction so vulnerable communities can move from surviving to thriving.

How can people reconcile the tension between job losses and the implementation of regulations to create a greener economy?

I believe that is a false narrative that doesn’t stand up to close analysis. Even as the EPA implemented strong environmental laws over the last few decades, our economy has continued to grow. In 2016, the solar workforce increased by 25 percent. I believe we have more than 260,000 jobs in that area and 70,000 jobs related to coal. We need to support workers in Appalachia by creating job training opportunities and creating diverse opportunities in this changing economy. One additional way we can help folks move to a greener economy is by encouraging the growth of small businesses, which hire locally and whose production won’t be outsourced or shipped overseas.

Have you seen evidence during your visits to college campuses that young Americans are more dedicated to environmental justice than their parents have been?

Yes, it’s part of their narrative and their vernacular. It’s a natural part of the way they see the world. They have expectations that these issues will be addressed. The Hip Hop Caucus has a strong focus on including the voices and the expertise of youth.