This interview was first published on June 5, 2020
Trump on Earth is a podcast exploring the environment in the Trump era with deep analysis, clear information, and real talk from the critics, scientists and thinkers who know the issues. Hosted by reporters for The Allegheny Front and produced by Andy Kubis. Don't miss an episode, subscribe to the podcast.
There’s a growing understanding that racial disparities in the U.S. extend beyond policing, to public health and the environment. Communities of color are more likely to breathe polluted air, live near polluting industries and be exposed to toxic chemicals. And now COVID-19 is disproportionately threatening these same communities.
For our Trump on Earth podcast, our guest is environmental justice leader Mustafa Santiago Ali. From 1993-2017, Ali served as Senior Advisor for Environmental Justice and Community Revitalization and Assistant Associate Administrator as a founding member of the EPA Office of Environmental Justice. But when the Trump administration proposed drastically cutting EPA’s budget and eliminating the Office of Environmental Justice, Ali resigned in protest.
Before joining the National Wildlife Federation in 2019, Mustafa was the senior vice president for the Hip Hop Caucus, a non-profit organization that connects the hip-hop community to the civic process to build power and create positive change.
Listen to the full episode or read the full transcript below:
Reid Frazier: We are in a week of protests. Have you been out protesting and tell us what you’ve seen?
Mustafa Santiago Ali: Over the past couple of decades that I’ve been doing this work, a part of it has always been being on the front lines with those who are trying to help make change happen. What I’m seeing is a diversity of lots of different voices and faces and races coming together to say that these injustices can no longer be a part of our country.
But even beyond that, the injustices that continue to happen to people of color just speaks to the need for a cultural shift that we know is happening and the need to make sure that no community is being disproportionately impacted; that no communities, whether rural or urban, have to have their lives cut short.
RF: Do you see a link between the brutality that we’ve witnessed with the killing of George Floyd and others and the issues of environmental justice, environmental racism that you have worked on?
MA: Oh, without a doubt. There is a direct connection that exists in that space. Folks may not know that we’ve got 100,000 people who are dying prematurely from air pollution in our country every year. And that’s the conservative number. We know that communities of color, lower wealth communities and Indigenous peoples are the ones that are being disproportionately impacted from that.
They’re also losing their lives because of the chronic medical conditions that exist just from the air pollution side of the equation. These cancer clusters that are across the country. We also know that people are getting liver and kidney disease. People are getting heart disease, lung disease. We’ve also got 24 million people in our country who have asthma. It’s African-American and Latinx communities that are the ones that are disproportionately impacted by that. When we say ‘I can’t breathe,’ you know, Eric Garner literally could not breathe because he had severe asthma. Then we had police officers who did the nefarious things that they did to take his life.
Then when we look at what’s happening today with George Floyd and the police officer who placed his knee on his neck until he could no longer breathe. So there is a direct connection with the environmental injustices, the environmental racism that continues to happen, along with the disinvestment in communities of color and lower wealth communities, which in many instances creates these dynamics that allow people to assume that people are less than human who live in these communities.
We all know that in wealthier, white communities we never hear of police officers using these military-type tactics. But we also know that if we don’t put a spotlight on it, then nothing’s going to change.
RF: You’ve written a lot lately about the connections between COVID-19 and vulnerable communities. It’s well-known now that African-Americans are disproportionately being affected and killed by this disease.
MA: The direct connection happens both from air pollution and water pollution. There’s been a lot of focus on air pollution. There’s a Harvard study that came out that talked about COVID-19, and areas of our country that have higher levels of air pollution. Because of being exposed to that air pollution, those chronic medical conditions that I mentioned earlier, become more ingrained in those communities, therefore making you more likely to be infected and then, therefore, more likely to actually die from the disease.
“If we’re going to win on environmental issues and climate issues, then that has to be a part of the change along with the work and the communities that we’re focusing on.”
We talk about sacrifice zones. What we mean by that is that there are locations in our country where we place everything that nobody else wants. Because of the placing of those things, we’re putting people’s lives more at risk.
RF: So in this historic moment that we’re all witnessing, I want to ask you about some of the actions that people in the environmental movement have taken. Almost every national environmental group has released a statement supporting racial justice.
How does that square with what you’ve seen in the environmental movement throughout your career? I think we need to be explicit here that the overwhelming majority of leaders of these groups are white. And I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that they’ve been white-centered. How have they traditionally taken on issues of racial injustice? And are we seeing anything different right now?
MA: That’s an excellent question. The history of many of our conservation and environmental groups, of course, was not focused on communities of color. The environmental justice movement actually came to be because they did not have a seat at the table and their issues were not being focused upon. If we’re gonna have real talk, some of the older conservation organizations actually have a racist past, especially in thinking they’re doing the right thing and the taking of lands away from Indigenous brothers and sisters.
If you read some of the early writings of some of them, they were very exclusionary in their worldview. So there’s an evolution that has happened. I’m not going to say it’s been an easy evolution. But now there are organizations that are building into their priorities and strategic plans, justice-centered work. There are still others that have a long way to go.
You know, when we talk about structural inequality and if you want to know if real change is happening, then look at the boards. Who are the individuals there? They’re the ones helping to set the agenda and the senior staff at these respected non-profits. It’s a curious matter when you don’t have one African-American or Latinx person who is the president of any of these organizations. Even as you start to go down into the vice presidency and some of the other senior positions, we’re still a bit sparse when it comes to true representation and we have to change that.
If we’re going to win on environmental issues and climate issues, then that has to be a part of the change along with the work and the communities that we’re focusing on.
RF: Do you see a shift in some environmental organizations that are traditionally, let’s say, wildlife or habitat concerned — into issues like air and water pollution? I mean, these are issues that are disproportionately impacting Black, Latinx and low-income communities.
MA: I am seeing an evolution. I’d like that evolution to happen faster because that same pollution that is killing wildlife and making wildlife sick is the same pollution that’s killing people. Close to 90% of our national parks are now dealing with significant air pollution, which is mind-blowing. That is the same pollution that is making Black and Brown folks sick in urban centers and other locations.
RF: On top of everything that we’ve talked about, it is Black Birders Week, which ties into a lot of the things we’ve been talking about. Most people are aware of the situation with Christine Cooper and Amy Cooper in Central Park. Did you watch the video at all?
MA: I sure did. I’ve had conversations with a whole bunch of folks around it. As shocking as it is for some, that is not uncommon for folks of color, especially African-Americans. That’s one of the reasons that we need everyone to speak up.
Let’s tie it back again to these great folks in conservation, environment and climate. Part of that mission is making sure that people get out to open spaces, whether those open spaces are in urban parks like their New York City or many other locations. Well, if you are a person of color, it’s not always safe for you to go to certain locations because someone can pick up a phone and call a park ranger or call a police officer and say whatever they want to say.
That’s the exact same thing that happened there in Central Park, where, unfortunately, a lady decided that she wanted to weaponize her whiteness. It could have turned out in a much more tragic way. That’s why it’s so incredibly important. Black Birders Week, all the folks who are doing their best to be able to enjoy the outdoors, folks have got to come together and raise the issue that these types of injustices are happening.
But that can’t be the end of the conversation. We can fix this. That’s the beauty of the moment. If we decide to actually come together, we can actually put enough pressure that we can begin to get the steps in place that are going to be necessary to make sure that everyone is protected and that there’s accountability for those who do negative things.
RF: This Christian Cooper incident brings up an awkward and uncomfortable conversation around the conservation movement or just the outdoors movement, whatever we want to call it. Our national parks, our state parks are great. But do Black and Brown people feel excluded from these spaces?
MA: Well, I think a lot do. You know if you’re welcomed into a space or not. Now there are groups of folks who hike and ski and do all the other things. But the question is, do the majority of folks feel safe? And we’ve got a lot of work to do there. So when you go to the parks, you don’t see a lot of folks of color who are rangers. When you look at the marketing, you don’t often see a lot of diversity. When we work with our outdoor rec organizations and companies, some of them are evolving, but some aren’t.
RF: I want to get to some of your work in the Office of Environmental Justice at the EPA. You resigned from the agency in March 2017 when the Trump administration proposed steep budget cuts and proposed even eliminating the EPA Office of Environmental Justice. That ultimately didn’t happen. It still exists. But are they able to accomplish things in environmental justice under this current administration?
“I worked with Democrats and Republicans over the years. I never felt that there was an administration that was intentionally trying to hurt people and shorten people’s lives like this one.”
MA: You know, it’s just a tough situation. Everybody’s seen all the news stories about things happening at EPA, from the political leadership, the rolling back of all the laws. It’s just been very difficult. But there is still work that’s happening.
The great thing is, is that we’ve got just a few more months before we get a chance to vote and hopefully help make change happen. There are still some grant programs that are out there that are critical for folks. But I would be remiss if I didn’t give it to you real. There are also a lot of contractions that have happened and eliminations of critical stuff. I’ve worked with in over 500 communities across the country. So I ask the communities, ‘do you see value in what’s going on? What’s your evaluation?’ Because we don’t do that enough.
Communities are saying that they no longer have trust in EPA, that they no longer feel that there is a location where they can take their concerns and that they will be honestly evaluated and that there will be actions to help to deal with whatever those impacts are. The staff at EPA are trying their best to do the right thing. But of course, they’re not the ones who are guiding the ship.
I worked with Democrats and Republicans over the years. Everybody may have had slightly different policies, but I never felt that there was an administration that was intentionally trying to or going to hurt people and shorten people’s lives like this one. It was a completely different scenario.
The president told folks what he was going to do. He told you the kinds of people that he wanted to surround himself with and people still gave their vote. I knew that they were gonna make more people sick and, unfortunately, shorten people’s lives. I knew that I couldn’t be a part of that. It’s been much more damaging than I had ever thought.
RF: So I read that you were 16 when you started working on these issues. What got you interested in this?
MA: I come from a faith-based family. They never told us what we had to do, but they did say you have to find a way to give back. My dad and my grandfather were very focused on workers’ rights. I grew up in Appalachia and in Michigan. In the small community that I grew up in, we had these crazy cancer rates. Folks will sometimes say, ‘well, it’s your diet.’ Well, no, because people grew their own food. Sometimes people will say, ‘it’s a genetic thing.’ Well, my friends were white and their parents were getting these high levels of cancers also. So I began to pay more attention to what was going on. Then I was just super blessed that I was sort of adopted by a number of the civil rights leaders and early environmental justice leaders.
RF: One of the first things that put a face to the name ‘environmental racism’ was an incinerator put near a largely Black community. Is that right?
MA: Yeah, well, that a part of the history. But also in Warren County, North Carolina, in the early 80s, people are literally laying down to stop trucks from coming into their community that were carrying cancer-causing chemicals. When you look at history, when people were making decisions about where they were gonna place this landfill, that was going to hold this very toxic material, there were seven other locations that were better suited in terms of hydrology and a number of other factors. But they chose this African-American community to place it in.
There have been some great things that our country has done and then there’s been some just really egregious and unacceptable and damaging things. The environmental injustices are a part of that paradigm. If we look at how we displaced and took away Indigenous people’s lands. If we look at workers’ rights and we talk about how we gave slaves some of the most dangerous jobs.
When we look at our Chinese brothers and sisters who played such a critical role in building our infrastructure, especially our railroads, and how they were placed in some dangerous situations and weren’t allowed to practice some of their cultural practices. We’ve had these issues and these problems for quite a while. We actually can fix them if we decide we’re going to prioritize and do the right thing.