Wilson Center, Environmental Change and Security program/flickr

Until he resigned, Mustafa Ali was the EPA’s most senior official on environmental and climate justice.

The future of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice—which tackles environmental racism and enforces civil rights laws—was thrown into question when one of its founding architects, Mustafa Ali, recently resigned.

For the environmental justice movement (or EJ), this office was akin to a cloud server, where local EJ organizations could store data collected from their neighborhoods, share tips, best practices, and other vital documents. Before Ali’s departure, the office was already reeling from reports that its budget could be decreased as much as 78 percent. It remains to be seen how much the new administration will emphasize EJ. The prior EPA chiefs Gina McCarthy and Lisa Jackson were clear that EJ would be a priority for the agency; the new chief secretary, Scott Pruitt, has been far less clear about that.

Ali has started anew as senior vice president at the Hip Hop Caucus, an organization that enlists popular artists such as Common and Drake for environmental and climate justice work. CityLab caught up with Ali to see what’s in store now for the EJ movement.

How does the work change now, working with the Hip Hop Caucus instead of the federal government?

I don’t think the work changes, it expands, it deepens and highlights even more the need for revitalizing vulnerable communities, of uplifting the voices of those who are often forgotten, so I’m extremely excited about that. Hip Hop Caucus has been doing incredible work for years now making sure that youth have an opportunity to fully engage, to help make change, and to be the movers and shakers of the next generation, and bringing culture into the work also, which Rev. Yearwood has been helping for years now.  

You were with EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice from the beginning. Can you talk about how you got roped into that and what the expectations were upfront?

It was incredible, We had Dr. Clarice Gaylord, who is an iconic figure in environmental justice, especially for those who are in federal service. One of the things lots of folks are not aware of is the Office of Environmental Justice—what was first called the Office of Environmental Equity—came out of a set of recommendations that EJ stakeholders had presented to the agency. At the time, William Reilly, a Republican, headed the agency. It was birthed out of a movement of people who wanted to have that central point in the federal government.

At the time it was a very small office, but we got to do a lot of very creative and transformational things. There’s the creation of the EJ small grants program, which has helped over 1,400 communities and distributed around $25 million to those communities as seed money. The grants also helped them to educate folks in their communities about some of the disproportionate negative environmental impacts they were suffering from, and also to begin some strategic thinking and planning.

The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council was created, which helped to bring a number of different types of stakeholders together—business and industry, grassroots organizations, tribes, academics, states, local governments—who all came together to think critically about issues. And also the Interagency Working Group was formed, which came out of Executive Order 12898. It was just an exciting time those first few years to see this all of this develop.

But it was also a tough time, because it was a newer issue for lots of people. We were trying to educate folks that the impacts those communities were sharing with government officials were real. There were individuals in government roles who said that it couldn’t possibly be happening in our country. But there were landmark studies on this, and federal officials began visiting these communities, going out there and spending time with them. That changed the dynamic of people not believing that some of these impacts were possible.  

You were in a similar situation, in terms of leaving EPA, when George W. Bush became president. Why’d you choose to stay?

It was a different dynamic back then. Folks had their own sets of priorities and goals, but it didn’t seem at that time to me—and of course I was a bit younger then—that folks were as interested in dismantling some of those necessary rules, statutes, and regulations that were so important to communities. Now, as it relates to the budget, there will always be different priorities and some shrinkage, but there were never conversations back then about zeroing out and dismantling whole offices.

What was the last straw for you, that led you to leave this time?

Partly the budget and some of the proposals that are going on, [partly] the rolling back of regulations—or at least the proposals that have been talked about. As you know, all of our vulnerable communities have been struggling for years to help to get the regulations that are on the books to be more protective of the impacts they were experiencing. For me, that’s critical, and a strong enforcement program is necessary to help protect frontline communities from the devastating impacts that have been happening. It was necessary for me to take my talents and skills to a place where they would be valued and utilized, so I could continue to help make change inside of communities.  

How can cities and local governments take up the EJ mantle?

I think it begins on a basic level. If they’re not authentically engaging with communities with EJ concerns, they need to start that. There need to be honest conversations about a strategy moving forward. I think on that the ground there still can be some very transformative work. This is a local issue. In many instances there are some national overlays, of course, but for many of the challenges going on, it’s those local communities and local organizations that are fighting for change.

Right, the EJ movement is a local, grassroots movement, anyway. Explain what the role of the federal government is in advancing this cause.

One of the great things the federal government is able to do is be a convener, especially when there are contentious situations, by helping to pull people together and get people talking. There’s also the local government advisory committee—that is a federal committee of local mayors who’ve built EJ into the work that they’re doing. So the agency has been playing a role in helping people come together in a collaborative way, and to make change.  

What now becomes of EPA’s EJ 20/20 plan to help strengthen EJ policies throughout the agency?

That’s a good question. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if that is a priority for the new administrator. I hope so. There was a lot of thought and energy and expertise that went into that. A huge amount of engagement with lots of types of stakeholders across the country. I know the states have played a huge role in engaging in that and saw a lot of value in EJ 2020. So that’s a real positive and that’s a sign that there’s a need for it.

What’s the biggest misconception out there of what EPA’s EJ office is supposed to do?

If somebody thinks that it’s a place that is trying to hinder business, I’d say that’s a misnomer. And if folks believe that there’s not a value added—that’s the most important part. The EJ office is actually a value added. It helps a process to be stronger and more inclusive, and by doing that we help to protect our most vulnerable communities. It makes the positive change that’s necessary for our country to grow stronger.

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