January 18, 2018

STRANGER: Mustafa Santiago Ali
LOCATION: Bua Thai, 1635 P Street NW, Washington, DC
THEME: Learning about the Hip Hop Caucus and environmental justice

“I’m so busy, I rarely get a chance to eat,” says Mustafa Santiago Ali as we sit down to dinner.

Formerly a top environmental justice (EJ) official at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Mustafa now travels the country discussing EJ on behalf of the Hip Hop Caucus. EJ generally refers to low-income or minority communities disproportionately impacted by industrial pollution — think of cities with elevated lead levels in water, or homes by the fence-line of a refinery. EJ problems persist nationwide, he says, and that’s why he’s always traveling to raise awareness about them.

“To be honest, most of my time is spent in an airport,” he says with a warm smile.

So I’m grateful he can spare an hour on a cold Wednesday night in January to interview him about what first got him interested in environmentalism, life at EPA under the Obama and Trump administrations (he quit in March after 24 years at the agency), and the Hip Hop Caucus’ work.

We’re dining at Bua Thai in DC’s Dupont Circle at his suggestion, a place that’s not far from his office. He’s a fan of Thai food, a repeat customer at this restaurant. It’s an inviting place, with some walls painted light blue and green, while exposed brick covers another wall. The waitresses are friendly and attentive, and we quickly place our orders.

While Mustafa has a rare moment of spare time to chat with me, he tells me that the coming days and weeks will see him in his usual pattern of jetting from city to city — one day he might meet with civic leaders and others to discuss a local EJ issue of concern, or the next he might be presenting to college students about environmentalism and the future of the EJ movement.

As if he doesn’t already have a full workload on EJ, his role at the Hip Hop Caucus also touches on broader campaigns, things like get out the vote efforts. The organization gets major hip hop artists involved in helping to bring awareness to social and political issues. Mustafa’s full title with the group is senior vice president of climate, environmental justice and community revitalization.

What got Mustafa into environmentalism is the same thing that keeps him engaged on EJ these days: seeing, smelling and even tasting the pollution in EJ communities. He recalls with a grimace the time he visited the community of Manchester, Houston in Texas, where he says the air pollution is so bad that “when you roll your car windows down, you feel like you’re breathing in gasoline fumes. That’s not an exaggeration. And that’s what people are dealing with.”

EPA’s website devoted to EJ explains that the issue started to gain prominence during the 1960s civil rights protests before some site-specific sit-ins by African Americans in the 1980s to protest pollution from industrial facilities and its impact on nearby EJ communities. But it wasn’t until November 1992 that EPA opened an Office of Environmental Equity, which two years later it would rename the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) — still its name today. Mustafa was a founding member of the office and worked on EJ issues until he resigned in March in protest of EPA’s deregulatory agenda under current Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Although EJ as a social and political issue started in the 1960s, and there’s a dedicated federal office targeting it, Mustafa says equity problems persist and need to be tackled.

“There are still EJ problems because they’re communities of color, they’re low-income communities, and they’re indigenous populations, sometimes they are not always prioritized,” he says. “Sometimes they haven’t been valued, and there’s a reason; from the early creation of this country there were different types of communities, and some were valued and got resources and power, others have communities that are still struggling to get power and make change out it.”

During his lengthy tenure at EPA, Mustafa tried to use the power of the federal government to tackle EJ. And now at the Hip Hop Caucus he’s doing more of the same. “But with less bureaucracy,” he says, flashing another smile. He’s an incredibly charismatic man with an easygoing nature, it’s easy to see how he commands attention from politicians, students, and others. He’s not a lobbyist, instead he says he educates people about EJ and related issues. The big difference between his work at the agency and his current job is the involvement of hip hop artists and entertainers, but at all times he remains focused heavily on EJ.

There’s no one single big EJ issue, he tells me. “It depends on which part of the country,” he says. For some communities, Superfund sites — contaminated by hazardous waste and designated by EPA as needing cleanup to address human health or environmental risks — are the biggest problem. Flooding can disturb the contaminants at such sites, sending them into the waters of nearby EJ homes. In other neighborhoods (Flint, Michigan, and West Chicago, Illinois, to name two) lead contamination of water is the most pressing concern. And in Texas and Louisiana, home to many refineries, communities living on the fence-line are often most concerned about air pollution.

Mustafa is wary of a lack of EJ focus under the Trump administration. “The future of the environmental justice movement is going to be fine because it is grounded in communities, and they speak for themselves. But at EPA I’m very concerned,” he says.

Then a pause as our waitress returns, setting down our entrees.

Mustafa’s dish was tofu with vegetables in a garlic sauce, a dish he’s had several times before and enjoys. Bua Thai doesn’t disappoint him tonight, as he enjoys the food.

I’m having the Panang Gai; sliced chicken simmered with basil leaves in a curry peanut sauce. It’s a large portion, too much to finish in one sitting. But it’s delicious, tender chicken and a slightly buttery sauce, the peanuts providing a nice crunch with every bite. While we eat, our conversation sidetracks to our backgrounds, and Mustafa tells me about his childhood.

He grew up in West Virginia, where he saw the economic struggles in Wheeling with steel plants closing down. Except for a few teenage years spent in Southfield, Michigan, most of his childhood was in the Mountain State. At university he studied business, psychology, public administration and health management, unsure of his ultimate goal.

“I just wanted to help out,” he says. Raised in a family of religious ministers, “you don’t have much of a choice, it’ embedded in us that we’re supposed to give back. So you have to figure out what that is and what it looks like, is it civil rights? Workers’ rights?”

How did he come to settle on environmentalism? Because he grew up hunting and fishing in the countryside of West Virginia, he was familiar with some of the environmental harm from pollution on air and water quality. He still likes getting out in nature to hike, though his packed calendar means he doesn’t have that much free time these days.

In 1992 he did an internship at EPA, inspired by his growing interest in the environment. It’s there that he met top agency EJ officials including Dr. Clarice Gaylord and Warren Banks. “They introduced me to environmental equity, and it meshed for me, it made sense. These are communities I care about, communities I come from, or see myself reflected in.”

The internship inspired him to get a full-time job at EPA, working on EJ issues. “I never thought in a million years I would work for the government, it was never one of those career paths you were introduced to. And in certain parts of the country the relationship with the government is not one that is embracing,” he says of the feds and minority communities.

Nevertheless, he took on a full-time job with the agency in 1992 to help establish what would ultimately become OEJ. And he was soon overwhelmed by what he saw: communities with massive levels of bronchial-related diseases associated with air pollution, outdoor air that was so polluted it was hard to breathe, and people living next to landfills that “looked like mountains.”

He remembers being “transfixed” by the fact that people lived in such conditions 24 hours a day, seven days a week. OEJ was a way to get state and federal officials out to see such communities, rather than debating it back in an office in Washington, DC. “You put someone in the middle of that situation, it changes the dynamic, you have to go back and do something because you’re now accountable because you’ve seen the pollution, you’ve felt it, you’ve tasted it,” he says.

Working at the agency for 24 years, Mustafa became a key adviser on EJ issues under Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and Republican President George W. Bush. Under each administration he advocated getting officials out into the EJ communities to see what they are enduring, and to at least start conversations about how to possibly help. He was a senior adviser on EJ issues to former Obama EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, and saw a long-term future at the agency.

Then Donald Trump won the White House.

On February 17, 2017, Pruitt — Oklahoma’s former Republican attorney general, and a prominent critic of Obama EPA air, climate, water and other rules — was sworn in as agency administrator. He vowed to get the agency “back to basics” and focusing on protecting the environment, and said roll-backs of the previous administration’s policies were part of that effort.

The regulations that the Trump EPA has undone or is seeking to scrap including a policy defining which waters of the United States are subject to the federal Clean Water Act, a rule setting first-time greenhouse gas standard on existing power plants, and more. Supporters say the rules were overly stringent or exceeded EPA’s statutory authority and would cause economic harm on the regulated industries. Critics counter that scrapping the rules will worsen pollution.

Mustafa says that early in the Trump administration, he was alarmed by the efforts to undo environmental regulations, and wondered what might be the final straw that could prompt him to quit in protest. There was no one roll-back in particular, more a culmination of roughly a month of what he saw as a “mean spirit” in EPA policy, “almost a desire to harm, and that was very disappointing.”

The job of the EPA administrator should be to protect human health and the environment, he argues, whereas he sees Trump and Pruitt as focused on protecting businesses’ bottom line. “That’s not the administrator’s job,” he says. “If he wanted that job he should have gone to the Department of Labor, they would love to have him.”

He says that many of the rules EPA is looking to scrap provide a “critical safety net” to EJ communities. And so, in early March last year, he decided to resign in protest at the administration’s agenda.

People asked him why not simply keep his head down and work through the Trump administration, waiting to see if a Democrat wins the 2020 presidential race and could undo some of the current EPA’s efforts. “And I told them that the communities that I have served for over two decades don’t have time for people to be sitting around with their head down,” he says.

Still at EPA, he started to talk to his contacts about quitting. And that’s how he got talking with people at the Hip Hop Caucus and taking on a role with that group. “I liked its authenticity, its connection to communities, some of the big green organizations,” he recalls. “I liked the idea of being in a place that is innovative, where I can build and create, working with artists and entertainers who are interested in civil rights, climate, EJ and social justice.”

Just like he was part of creating OEJ, Mustafa realized that joining the Hip Hop Caucus would let him build up an EJ focus with that group, and so he decided to quite EPA and join it. He resigned on March 8, 2017, and didn’t have time to relax, beginning his new role the next day.

He vividly remembers walking to Pruitt’s office to hand in his resignation letter, and had hoped to speak directly to the administrator and urge him to concentrate on EJ. But Mustafa was told the agency chief was not available. So he handed over the letter, which he hoped would provide a “useful opportunity” to educate Pruitt about EJ communities and what was happening in them, the tools that exist both within and outside the agency to address some of those issues, and how to succeed in doing so.

The letter, which is optimistic in tone, concludes: “Administrator Pruitt, you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring people together, to ensure that all communities have safe places to live, learn, work, play and pray and to ensure that our most vulnerable communities, who have been struggling for clean air to breathe and clean water to drink becomes a reality for them and their children. I wish you well as you move forward on protecting the public health and environment of our nation, and as you help to make the American Dream a reality for all.”

The letter gained instant widespread notice, with articles in all major media outlets and elsewhere. “And now a million people have read that letter and it’s just bananas,” he says. He wasn’t expecting such attention, and had tried to stay out of the spotlight while at EPA. “I wanted to make sure the focus was always on the communities that struggled to get attention.”

Would he recommend that people interested in environmentalism get a job at EPA present day? “I think it depends on what they want to accomplish,” he answers. “I think there are still great folks at the agency who really care, but right now you’d be taking direction from a leadership that seems to be lacking both on a moral and spiritual side based on their decisions. If I was coming up now, EPA is not a place I would feel welcome or valued in.”

One argument Mustafa says he frequently makes is that the current administration is “utilizing people’s tax dollars to poison them. I try and get peoples’ minds wrapped around that. These are your tax dollars, and they should be used by the agency to do the right thing.”

Still, he swears off personal attacks on Pruitt and others. “All the time I’ve been speaking, it’s never been personal, I talk about policy and the policy’s effect, you make the decision for yourself.”

Pushing back against EPA’s current agenda is among the many things that Mustafa now does as part of his broad-ranging, and non-stop, work at the Hip Hop Caucus. “There are different artists who are interested,” in issues including climate change, social issues, EJ and more, he says “so I link them up with the information, put events together, hopefully get them out into communities or at community events or summits whatever it might be.” Events can include rallies, school and college discussions, speeches, and much more.

The Hip Hop Caucus also has studios in Los Angeles, letting artists and others use that space to create digital content to promote the group’s issues. “In this digital world if you don’t have something that catches peoples’ attention you might not get all of it out.”

One of his major concerns at the moment is the fact there have been “some broken promises to communities” over the years from the federal government on addressing EJ issues. He fears what the future holds given the potential for more broken promises from the current administration and an aging EPA workforce with many pending retirements. He says younger people looking to join the agency might lack sufficient mentors with enough institutional knowledge to help them in their work.

If Trump wins reelection, Mustafa fears that the changes happening at EPA will become a “done deal” and impossible to reverse for a long time to come. But for now he remains optimistic, and says there are still strong leaders on EJ, and an energetic base of younger supporters.

Perversely, for EJ supporters, the Trump and Pruitt agenda might even embolden and strengthen the movement through its push-back, Mustafa says. “Sometimes you need a wake-up call, people are understanding why democracy and their vote is so important, and sometimes we take it all for granted. So that’s why even in the dark clouds there’s a lot of sunlight.”

So Mustafa keeps on calling for local, state and federal assistance and more to help reduce the threat of pollution in EJ communities. He says everything he does is guided by his love of the environment and his faith. “I just pray to God: whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it,” he tells me. “I just want to help communities, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

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