Mustafa Ali, a top official at the EPA and head of the agency’s Office of Environmental Justice, resigned in March 2017. He left in protest of the Trump administration’s plans to drastically reduce the EPA’s programs, capacities and staff. Ali had worked at the EPA for 24 years. Today, he serves as a Senior Vice President at the Hip Hop Caucus. On August 8, 2017, Ali spoke over the phone with Lindsey Dillon, an EDGI member and assistant professor of sociology at UC Santa Cruz. The interview is slightly abridged and edited for clarity.
MUSTAFA: I came to work at the Environmental Protection Agency as a student. I did an internship with the EPA. I was introduced to environmental equity then. I had gone to a conference [a few years] before, the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit [in 1991].
I was super blessed. Dr. Clarice Gaylord and Warren Banks were beginning to work on environmental equity issues. William Riley was [EPA] Administrator at the time. Stakeholders were really pushing the agency to pay attention to issues that were happening inside of communities of color and low income communities and indigenous populations.
I met Dr. Gaylord and she told me about the work that they were going to be focusing on, and that they were going to try and create an office at the EPA. I was super blessed that she asked me to join them. To be quite honest, I had never thought about working for the federal government. I came out of a social justice background and hadn't really seen the federal government engage with communities.
I will always be grateful to Dr. Gaylord for that opportunity, and for all the stakeholders who had worked for about two years, getting recommendations together, engaging with the EPA; those types of things. That began not only my work, but also the work of the agency in the hopes and aspirations of environmental justice.
I never thought that 20 plus years later we would still be facing some of the challenges that many communities do. Back then, it was more about convincing people that these issues were real and that they were happening.
I remember one of the first meetings I went to. I was walking down the hall, and I was young back then so nobody was paying any attention to me. There were two gentlemen walking in front of me; they were middle managers at the agency at that time.
I remember listening to their conversation. They said that they really didn't have any idea why they were going to this meeting [on environmental justice]. I remember getting into the elevator behind them and one of them said that these types of things couldn't possibly be happening in our country, that folks must be making it up or they were just misinformed.
Now, mind you, I'm still this bright-eyed student, listening to folks who had the responsibility of protecting public health and the environment of communities across our country. I remember following them, as we got off the elevator, and then walking into the room and sitting down at the table with a number of other folks, and them looking across the table and realizing that they had had that conversation in front of me. I appreciate them being truthful. It sets a benchmark for me, for how much work needed to happen both inside and outside the EPA at that time.
My hopes at the time were to help folks inside the federal family understand the urgency of this issue, to understand what was happening in communities across our country. If we could educate people, then there would be some enlightenment that these are real issues that we can work on, and we could make real change. In those early days, I was just hoping that we could get some of the basic infrastructure in place, to help to get people educated, and begin to properly engage with what communities were asking for, and start that long journey forward of helping to make positive change.
LINDSEY: How has the EPA's work in environmental justice changed over the course of your career?
MUSTAFA: It’s been a long journey. I like to make sure that folks are clear about the early days [of environmental justice], because there are lots of different narratives about the early days. I was blessed to be a part of it.
I always try to make sure that folks realize that many of the most successful programs and relationships with [environmental justice] organizations came out of those early recommendations from stakeholders across the country. So many of the elements and programs in place now came from a lot of hard work from lots of different folks.
For example, the creation of the Office of Environmental Equity, which became the Office of Environmental Justice, this came from recommendations from folks [in communities, working on the ground, and in grassroots organizations]. They were saying: there needs to be a central place in the government where communities can go, and which can help them navigate this huge [government] bureaucracy that exists. There needs to be an intersection point so that they can engage with folks and begin to have conversations about environmental issues, and not only the impacts on our communities, but also to help make real change happen.
One of the developments over the years—and this is one of the critical pieces which is necessary to address environmental justice—is the NEJAC, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. NEJAC also came out of those early recommendations [from grassroots stakeholders], and from engagement with Dr. Gaylord and the rest of us there in the Office [of Environmental Equity] in the early days. NEJAC was critical because it moved the conversation [beyond the federal government and local communities], it brought in business and industry, and tribal organizations, local and state governments, and faith-based folks into the conversation as well.
What NEJAC did was to say that we all have a role to play in this space. Because it was a federal advisory committee, it also shared important information about environmental justice concerns directly with the [EPA] Administrator. NEJACgave people a conduit. It gave them a way to help move conversations, to frame conversations and activities in a way that would be more beneficial to communities, and to make sure the communities had an active voice in the process—especially our most vulnerable communities.
A great example is the EPA’s Brownfields Program. The Brownfields Program, when it first came out, was very business-focused. It was about cleaning up [toxic land] and getting business back into those places. NEJAC played a huge role in getting the voice of communities into [the brownfields program]. It made sure that worker training programs and other resources [that are important in helping communities get engaged in the brownfields cleanup and redevelopment process] were in place.
Another example is EPA grant programs [for environmental justice work]. This grant program also came out of [early] recommendations [from grassroots stakeholders]. It worked with the Office of Environmental Justice and other offices in the early days, making sure resources were actually making it to communities, so communities themselves could be drivers of change. For example, helping to make sure that [brownfields] cleanups were happening in their communities; helping to make sure that education was happening in their communities, so they could understand the technical information [about toxic cleanups]; helping communities have a better understanding about asthma, and so forth. Other offices were not funding this kind of work, inside communities.
The Office of Environmental Equity, which became the Office of Environmental Justice, played a huge role in helping reframe some of the investments [going toward] communities. There was the Environmental Justice Small Grants Program, and the Collaborative Problem-Solving Grants that were out there, and then they began to move into other offices. There was a pollution prevention grant that had a strong EJ component. There was the State Tribal Environmental Justice Grant Programs, which played a huge role in [getting] seed money [to states] for them to help get this program started. We even had a Community/University Partnership Grant Program to help build relationships between academic institutions and community organizations to address issues inside the community.
Those early stakeholders, working in authentic collaboration with the Office of Environmental Equity, played a huge role in helping to build trust between our most vulnerable communities [and the federal government]. Before then, there had been a number of interactions [with the federal government] that was not always promising for communities. So there was a lack of trust in that space. It just hadn't been much of a focus [within the government].
LINDSEY: One thing I hear from you is that we need to recognize just how many years, even decades, of hard work it took for local communities to even have a seat at the table. It was the result of a lot of grassroots efforts, of pushing the government to recognize environmental injustices.
Under the Obama administration, there was some progress on environmental justice—for example, Plan EJ 2014 and EJ Action Agenda 2020—but not everything was perfect either. You were in the agency at this time. What were some of the challenges and frustrations you had about the ways that things weren’t moving forward on environmental justice?
MUSTAFA: As you said, some of the promising things [under Obama] were EJ 2014 and EJ 2020. On the intra-agency side, President Obama signed a memorandum in 2011, recommitting to the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice. [The Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice is important] because [grassroots leaders] have always asked for a holistic approach to problems within their communities. It’s transportation, it's housing, it's the environment, it's jobs, public health, and so forth. When you don't [take a holistic approach], you leave gaps in the process. It’s just not the way that you should do business.
The challenges under the Obama administration were traditional ones. First is priorities. With a number of different priorities that are out there, how do you keep environmental justice first and foremost in people's thoughts? Managers and other senior officials have a laundry list of things that they are trying to get done. It takes work and resources to make sure that that [environmental justice] is always there, or it's integrated into [the agency’s activities]. There have never been a huge amount of resources put in place for environmental justice.
Second is capacity. The capacity to do [this kind of] work takes a real focus. The interesting thing about environmental justice is that not every [individual] can do it. It’s not just training to be a scientist or engineer. In many instances, you have to be able to understand those complicated scientific issues, but you also have to be able to translate that into the voices of communities, to be comfortable with engaging with communities, and to understand the challenges that communities face. Building that kind of capacity has always been a challenge.
There are 17 federal agencies that have responsibility for environmental justice, based on Clinton’s Executive Order , and yet, I was the only senior official in the federal government tasked with environmental justice. That creates all kinds of challenges. One challenge is in policy. If you only have that one voice who is supposed to have expertise in environmental justice, and they are [only] at the EPA, and yet we had environmental justice needs in other federal agencies and departments, then there is no voice advocating [for environmental justice] at the highest levels of government, as policy is developed.
The second challenge is around budget. Once again, if you don't have somebody in place, advocating for environmental justice as decisions are getting made, then you are creating an unnecessary sort of gap, if you will. That was always one of the things that I advocated for. We need to have other folks, at the same level as myself, who can help to make sure that our policy is as strong as possible [on environmental justice], and who can help to make sure [environmental justice] gets the the right types of resources. Those were some gaps I saw—in capacity and resources.
If we're going to have a real conversation, there is [another challenge] in terms of experiences. If you don't have high level senior officials who come from [impacted] communities, it leaves gaps in policy-making.
I'm always looking for opportunities to strengthen things, and I think that we could have been even stronger if we would have had folks throughout the federal family, at the senior levels, who had expertise in this area [of environmental justice], including at the White House. There should have always been someone there who had expertise, no matter the administration. From the current administration all the way back to the beginning, we should always have had someone there who had a specific focus on these issues, to help the president and administration to build to navigate this very important work.
LINDSEY: From the beginning, environmental justice activists have raised the issue of the lack of diversity and experience in the federal government, and also in mainstream environmental organizations, like the Sierra Club. Did you see efforts to increase diversity in experience at the EPA when you were there?
MUSTAFA: I think so. Over the years, I saw a number of different training initiatives. I actually led some of those, to make sure that staff and management went through environmental justice training. I think we at one time had trained almost like 10,000 folks or something like that.
LINDSEY: Wow. Was that training voluntary?
MUSTAFA: Each office approached it in their own way. Some offices would made the training mandatory, and others highly suggested that folks took it. It took a lot of energy and effort, but we got it done, and we branched it out to other agencies and groups as well. We went on to develop online courses too.
That was one of the ways I saw folks trying to make sure the people [in the government] had a basic understanding of some of these issues. There was always work to be done—for example, to make sure we continue to hire folks who had these skill sets. We ran it through the National Enforcement Training Institute, and we actually had one of the highest scores for trainings. That was one of the ways we knew that people appreciated what we were doing. I will always be thankful for that.
If you want to make sure that environmental justice is moving forward, and that it is prioritized at the EPA or government agencies and departments, we need to build it into the performance evaluation system. All of us go through evaluations, both midyear and then at the end of the year. You prioritize the things that you are being evaluated on. I think this is one of the ways that we can help make sure that middle managers and senior managers and staff are, one, getting the credit, and two, getting evaluated on how they are moving [environmental justice] forward.
LINDSEY: What I hear you say is that it’s important to make sure that the government structures itself in a way that prioritizes environmental justice—through trainings and performance evaluations, for example. Do you have any other recommendations in this regard?
MUSTAFA: The budget itself. What types of resources and dollars are actually going to these issues?
Also looking at the regional structures and other teams that exist. It’s not just EPA headquarters. As you know, we have regional offices as well, and regional teams. We need to evaluate those areas of the EPA as well.
We need to make sure regional offices and teams have what they need to be successful, because they are the ones who are really doing work on the ground. Although, many folks who work in the Office of Environmental Justice are out there [in communities]. I spent probably 70 to 80 percent of my time with communities. I don't know how you do environmental work and not be out in the communities which are being impacted by the environmental decisions getting made.
LINDSEY: In many ways, the Trump Administration represents a significant break with previous administrations. It feels as if there is so much that is vulnerable right now. Are there programs or projects you are most worried about?
MUSTAFA: I'm worried about all of them, to be quite honest with you. When we really look at it, they all touch communities—even if they don't have the lens or the title of environmental justice.
We currently have an administration that does not put much value on science, which is one of the backbones of the work that happens at the EPA. It's science and law, those are the two backbones.
I have real concern about the Office of Research and Development, about the great work they are able to do, and how that will play out for communities. [The Office of Research and Development] is one of the very strong science-based offices. I know over the last two years, they have been really trying to make strides in better engaging with vulnerable communities.
Of course, the Office of Air. Most of the clean air and climate programs are run through that office. Climate, or the warming of the climate, doesn't seem to be something that the new administration feels exists. The Office of Environmental Justice. Because there is no statutory mandate, I worry about that office. The Office of Water. We've seen some of the things that [the new administration] has put out in relationship to the clean water rule. The Office of Children's Health is another one of those offices—if we are not focused on the next generation, and making sure that we are placing resources in that space, what does that say about how you view the future of our country?
There's not too many places in the agency that I think this new administration has not placed some really tough times ahead of. It's going to be interesting. It's going to be an interesting time.
LINDSEY: When environmental justice groups file administrative or legal claims with government, they go through Title VI. I'm wondering what you think about the future of Title VI complaints under this administration?
MUSTAFA: I was going to mention that, and this is another one of the areas that our current administration doesn't seem to place a lot of value on. The EPA works with the Department of Justice on many of these issues, on both civil and criminal issues, and Title VI as well. There hasn't been a lot of support for civil rights, let alone, Title VI.
I believe in real talk. The agency over the years has had some real challenges in respect to Title VI. The last year before I left, the agency was beginning to step up, properly, and beginning to get a toolkit for Title VI complaints in place. [They started to pursue] a strategy engaging with a number of Title VI stakeholders, and trying to move forward [on this issue]. I saw some small progress in that space.
That's why it's so disappointing to see an administration come in who doesn't see a lot of value in civil rights. This sends a message to the states, who in many instances are the front lines on these issues. Of course, folks have reached to the federal family when the states haven't been able to do the right things [on environmental justice]. So you're sending a message when you are not properly funding or supporting [these concerns]. For folks who have, in many instances, gone through every other process trying to get some relief, or some movement [forward on civil rights and the environment], and for this [support] not to be there—it sends a strong message.
Some of the other [federal] agencies have done a much better job [in this regard], like Department of Transportation and others. They have been able to utilize their Title VI programs [to move environmental justice forward in communities].
LINDSEY: What were the reasons Title VI was starting to move forward in your last year at the agency? Were there more resources, or more political will? How would you explain it?
MUSTAFA: For the last two EPA administrators that I worked with, I know they cared about Title VI, and were trying to the best of their ability to get some structural things in place in the office, and to hire folks who had expertise in that area. Getting the toolkit together, writing strategic plans, hiring folks who have expertise, these were things that probably should've always been happening. We made a lot of progress on environmental justice. We still have a long way to go. We hadn't made as much progress on the Title VI side though.
LINDSEY: This is, in many ways, a unique political moment. What are your thoughts about how environmental justice activists and allies should respond? Do we need new political strategies?
MUSTAFA: We’ve got some real challenges, but also, for the first time in the couple of decades that I've been doing this work, I've begun to see sort of silos breaking down. I’ve begun to see folks work together who have not traditionally worked together, which is very powerful. Many things are changing. Philanthropic organizations are beginning to shift their portfolios and resources toward this work, which is something that's always been needed.
There are some folks in business and industry who also understand that this work needs to happen, and know they need to get more engaged in this space. A number of the faith-based organizations have now built [environmental justice] in their platforms, and other priority structures as well.
The people have been doing this work are going to continue to do it. I've talked to many of the fellow leaders at the state level, and a lot of governors or other officials in the states. The folks who are sort of in the middle, I think are now beginning to lean a little bit more towards this work, and understand that it just makes sense to begin to address these issues. If you don’t, there are ripple effects.
A lot more needs to happen. If we want to address climate, for example, we really need to focus on our most vulnerable communities, where many of the fossil fuel industries are located, and where many other dynamics are going on.
A lot of folks are beginning to understand the value and the power in their vote. Many organizations are beginning to make sure that folks are getting registered, and to engage in elections. Not just the general elections or the midterm elections, but also on local and county and state races. There are folks who are going to run for office now, and who will be supportive of these types of community issues. More and more folks are now starting to get engaged in things.
LINDSEY: I hear you say there is a lot of hope. There are a lot of good things going on.
MUSTAFA: There really are. Things that don’t get covered much in the news. They’re more the nuts and bolts kind of work, that doesn't get a lot of attention, but yields really, really positive results. We even have the artists and entertainers who are beginning to speak out on these issues, from Flint to Standing Rock to East Chicago. You know people like Jay-Z and others talk about social justice, talk about civil rights; Beyoncé and so forth. That's powerful, because when that starts to happen, there begins to be a cultural shift.
We have to ask the hard questions. Over the years, did folks actually value the lives of people of color and low income communities and indigenous populations? If the answer was “yes,” then they would have been doing more. This is another component of [environmental justice work], that has to be a part of the overall analysis.
LINDSEY: Can you tell me more about the ripple effects you spoke of?
MUSTAFA: If you look at many of the communities that have environmental justice issues, or what folks label as communities with environmental justice issues, what you see is a disinvestment from those communities. The ripple effects come from those disinvestments. For example, because you are able to place certain things [like hazardous waste facilities] in those communities, their property values decline, and there are dynamics that [ripple] from that. It’s a kind of extraction of wealth too. Then jobs begin to move away. Other things move in to fill that space [where jobs had been] for folks to try and survive and make a little bit of money.
Then you have law enforcement and others who say, “Well, we've got to police stronger in these areas.” So they are ripple effects. If you really understand this issue, and really look at how restrictive covenants and redlining were used in many of these communities, then you begin to understand how some of these problems have been able to take root.
For me, it goes back to addressing the root causes, so that we don't create more communities with environmental injustices, and so that we can be focused on [the question], how do we help these communities move from surviving to thriving?
LINDSEY: In our conversation, I hear you say that things such as resources, and having more influence at the decision-making level, and putting environmental justice priorities front and center at the EPA and other agencies, are important recommendations in moving environmental justice forward. But how will these recommendations affect or change the root causes you spoke about? Like redlining, and its ripple effects?
MUSTAFA: I think there are a couple of different things that I've tried to push over the years. One is that we should not be creating policy that folks are not asking for. We need to take more time to properly engage with communities about what they are looking for. We should also not be creating policy that is not going to benefit our most vulnerable communities. Protecting our most vulnerable communities should be the template that we are working from. If we can protect them, then everybody else is going to be protected because they are the ones that are being disproportionately impacted.
It’s also about more than just having people at the table. One of the reasons that I stayed with the Office of Environmental Justice for as long as I did was so that the voice of communities was the driver in the design of our programs and activities.
I want to see communities play a much stronger role, not just in the work that the Environmental Protection Agency does, but in a number of the agencies and departments. Some really don't engage a whole lot with folks. You miss an opportunity to strengthen our country when you don't do that. If you give folks the opportunity, they will share with you what they're really looking for. If you really, really listen, there's a lot of innovation in what they're sharing. Then you just have to figure out how to translate that innovation into this crazy bureaucracy that we have, and to make it work.
If we can do these basic things, I think that we would then actually meet the mandate that people have placed in front of us. I also think folks in communities would have a much better understanding of what these government agencies and departments do, and their voice would be such a strong part of what [the government] is, what it looks like, and what it does.
LINDSEY: What would you say to people in the EPA right now, about how to keep working toward environmental justice?
MUSTAFA: I appreciate all of the folks who are still inside of the federal family, just pushing forward every day. The one thing I would say to them is something I shared with the Administrator, as I was leaving—to remember your oath, and why you raise your right hand when you took that oath. And, if you are at the EPA, remember that your job is about protecting the health and the environment of folks. If you're one of the other agencies and departments, there are other missions, but primarily, it's about making sure that we are doing the right thing, and what we’re doing is actually going to help folks and not hinder folks.
If you do that, then we can make sure that our most vulnerable communities are protected. That's what I would ask; to stay focused on the most vulnerable communities and making sure that we are doing everything in our power to help improve their lives and to stand up against injustice in whatever form or fashion that may present itself. When we raised our right hand, that oath that we took was to make sure that we were doing those things.
LINDSEY: That’s beautiful. Well, I have just a few closing questions. First, what were some of your proudest moments or accomplishments in your time at the EPA, and what were your biggest challenges?
MUSTAFA: The most proud moments were when I was out around the country, and when one of the elders whispered in my ear and would say to me, “You are doing a good job,” or give me a hug. Or just say, “Keep up the fight.” That meant more to me than all of the awards and all of the stuff that I got over the years, because that's what it was always about for me.
The first conference I ever went to was at Xavier University, with Dr. Beverly Wright. There was an elderly African-American lady who was there. She came up to me at the end of the conference. I was just a student at the time. I remember her whispering in my ear, to “always remember what you heard and what you saw and do what you can to help.” I took that with me over the years. Any time that the community—which was always my focus—told me that we were moving in the right direction, then that meant the world to me.
The work I did with young people, with youth [was also important] because I always saw myself in them. Creating an opportunity for them, that was part of the mission, for me. Anyone who works on social justice knows that we are always trying to give back and to help prepare the next generation to continue to move forward with the struggle.
The challenges were helping people to embrace their humanity and to understand that the issues that folks are facing in our most vulnerable communities are real. They are going on every day, and they should not be going on. Also, that we can make real change. That was always the challenge.
The other challenge was always trying to get people out to these communities, to get other senior managers out there, because if I can get them there, then at least I knew they saw it firsthand. I hoped that when they came back to Washington, they would feel a responsibility to do whatever they could and in their capacity to improve the process, to make it more inclusive, to make it more protective. That was always the challenge, of getting high-ranking folks to the spaces and places, and for them to sit down and spend real time with folks, and engage with them.
LINDSEY: My last question is; what kind of work will you be doing with the Hip Hop Caucus? Will you be working on environmental and climate justice there?
MUSTAFA: Definitely. I had lots of different opportunities when I left [the EPA]. Folks were like, “Well, why did you choose the Hip Hop Caucus?”
First, the work that they do is incredible. I knew I didn't have to convince anybody of how important [environmental justice] is, because they already have been focused in these spaces.
Right now I'm doing all kinds of work with the Respect My Vote campaign. The Caucus has registered over 600,000 people to participate in the civic process over the years. This is incredible because lots of the folks the Caucus engages with are not necessarily the ones who other groups are trying to engage with. That's powerful in itself. It’s important to help people to understand the power of their vote. Not telling people who to vote for, but getting them engaged in that process, and understanding how resources flow from your vote. How decisions are made based upon your vote. Then being a part of the People's Climate Music campaign. Getting the chance to watch and engage with all kinds of incredible folks like Common and Ne-Yo and Anthony Smith. Then on the rap side, folks like Wiz Khalifa and Vic Mensa.
I gave a speech the other day and I said: It's interesting that I can put 10,000 of the top scientists in front of folks, and share some information, and folks will say, “Oh, okay. That's great.” But it probably wouldn't stick. Then, if I have someone like Jay-Z or Beyoncé or Vic Mensa or a number of the other folks share something, millions of people are paying attention to it. That's the beauty of being at the Hip Hop Caucus and working with so many cultural influencers who are socially aware and socially conscious.
We’re also rolling out a new, powerful program—Revitalizing Vulnerable Communities. We’re creating a Revitalizing Vulnerable Communities Institute in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where the EPA had one of its more successful environmental justice projects.
Being able to do that, and take young leaders down there and train them, and share with them what's going on, and to translate that back into their communities, and to take cultural influencers, artists, entertainers, and athletes there too, for them to see how change can happen. Then to take local, state, and federal officials there [to the Revitalizing Vulnerable Communities Institute, in Spartanburg] and others, and for folks to begin to understand that investing in these communities makes sense. Not does it just make sense, it yields positive results. This is the way we begin to shift how people think. That's just a few of the things that are going on at the Caucus and why I'm so excited and blessed to be with Reverend [Lennox] Yearwood and the rest of the family.
LINDSEY: In getting people to vote, you’re helping maintain hope. You’re helping keep people from getting disillusioned, and instead to believe that in working together, they can make a real change. It’s easy to get disillusioned and critical. Hope is powerful.
MUSTAFA: I often say it's reclaiming your power. It's all about reclaiming your power.
LINDSEY: It's important to stay in that space of hope, in this moment. I really want to thank you for making the time to talk with me, and for all of the work you've done. It's inspiring, and I'm sure you've inspired hundreds of thousands of people, and have changed many things about how the government works, in bringing environmental justice into the conversation. So a big, heartfelt thank you.
MUSTAFA: Thank you and I'm very thankful to all those leaders who embraced me years ago and helped me to learn and grow. So I always give it back to them because without them, none of this would've been possible.