Climate Justice Seminar Recap: Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali
On April 5, 2021, the UC Davis Coastal & Marine Sciences Institute hosted a conversation with Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, facilitated by Dr. Liz Whiteman. Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali is a giant in the field of environmental justice, and has spearheaded and served on many different roles throughout his career to uplift communities affected by social and environmental injustices. Dr. Ali’s career includes time as a Brookings Institution Congressional Fellow and 24 years at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He began at the EPA as a student, became a founding member of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), and ascended to the positions of Assistant Associate Administrator for Environmental Justice and Senior Advisor for Environmental Justice and Community Revitalization. Dr. Ali also led the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJIWG) and served as the Director of Communications in the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), where he led the Communications and Stakeholder Involvement (CSI) team. Following his work at the EPA, Dr. Ali became the Senior Vice President of the Hip Hop Caucus, where he led their portfolio on climate, environmental justice, economic quality and civic engagement. Presently, Dr. Ali is the Vice President of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation and is also the Founder & CEO of Revitalization Strategies.
Dr. Ali was joined by Dr. Liz Whiteman, the Executive Director of the California Ocean Science Trust. The Ocean Science Trust is a nonprofit organization created by state legislation that bridges the gap between cutting-edge scientific research and sound ocean management by serving as the advisory committee for the California Ocean Protection Council. Throughout the seminar, Dr. Whiteman posed questions to Dr. Ali intended to help scientists understand how they can leverage their training and expertise in support of environmental justice and specifically the climate justice movement. Summarized below are some of the key points that Dr. Ali shared in response to these questions.
What is Environmental Justice, and why does it matter?
Dr. Ali first highlighted the inverse of environmental justice—environmental injustice, typically due to environmental racism. He elaborated to define environmental injustice, specifically the disproportionate negative impacts that historically affected, and continue to affect, lower-wealth communities and communities of color, most notably Black and Indigenous communities. He defined the opposite side of the coin, environmental justice, as the process of revitalizing these most vulnerable communities, transitioning them from surviving to thriving.
Dr. Whiteman asked a follow-up question, “what does the transition from surviving to thriving look like to you? How will we know that we are on the right path?”
Dr. Ali paused before describing a successful transition to be where frontline community members were “not at the end of a policy process, but at the beginning. A space where their voices are honored, their innovation and ingenuity is honored, and they don’t just have a seat at the table but they’re framing out the direction that we are going in.” He gave the example of a project he had worked on in Spartanburg, South Carolina called the ReGenesis Project. The community, which had been subjected to years of disinvestment, received $20,000 in the form of an environmental justice small grant to address some of the issues residents were facing. By listening to the community members’ needs, they were able to leverage this money into $300,000,000 in changes in their community, including building new housing, new transportation routes, new medical facilities, and more. The community members even went through training programs to rebuild their community and help folks engage with the civic process.
The action of imbuing something with new life and vitality
“We have examples of how real change can happen; we just have to have the resources that will help those projects to be successful, we have to build the right frameworks of helping partners understand how they can be authentic in that space. And then, folks will make it happen - we just have to give them the space. We gotta make sure that the science is in there, that we are looking at our laws, and that we are looking for opportunities to make our laws more inclusive and fill in the gaps that exist. We have the ability to do this.” Dr. Ali stated enthusiastically.
But how does Dr. Ali stay hopeful and motivated to continue this work when it is sometimes difficult to see change right away? Many listeners on the seminar had this question - and in response, Dr. Ali pointed out that for folks living in these affected neighborhoods, they have to live with environmental hazards 24/7; yet they remain optimistic and continue fighting for their justice. “It’s okay to be tired because that’s a physical reaction; but on the other side of that, is that you can’t give up. These folks [frontline community members] don’t give up. So how can we give up?”
How can we involve more people in the fight against environmental injustice? Dr. Ali proclaims that we have to #MakeScienceSexy!
Art and music are highly underused resources for communicating science and environmental justice efforts. Artists and other celebrities often have larger platforms and more direct connections to the general public than scientists do, so they have a huge opportunity to share information in a way that is less threatening and less partisan. At the Hip Hop Caucus, Dr. Ali worked with hip hop artists to incorporate/imbue environmental justice into their artistry and connect them with scientists to build powerful partnerships and disseminate knowledge of these issues to a broad audience. Dr. Ali encouraged scientists to ask the question “how can I make sure the creatives are a part of this process so that we can really begin to get people thinking critically about the role they play in these impacts and these sets of opportunities?”. It is not enough for scientists to simply publish their work to academic journals and hope that their findings somehow reach the people who would be able to get involved and make a difference in environmental issues.
“Step 1 is to listen, step 2 is to be authentic, and step 3 is to raise up the voices of communities and other frontline organizations and leaders.”
- Dr. Ali on how to meaningfully participate in environmental justice efforts.
What is the role of scientists in the fight against environmental injustices at the community-level scale? How can scientists engage productively when it takes so much time to build community members’ trust?
Dr. Ali emphasized the importance of the ability “to actively listen to folks about what their visions are, what their needs are, and what their sets of expectations are”. He further underscored the role everyone can play given that everyone is blessed with a different skill set and different opportunities, including scientists - and anyone who has been blessed with privilege has a responsibility to use their skills and position of power to help uplift others who have been oppressed. He urged scientists to show up in an authentic way - show up to community meetings, offer your knowledge of technical information when applicable, and leave your contact information for them to use if they need it. “If we want to be effective in our work, then we have to truly listen and engage with communities, and then figure out, based upon where we sit in whatever organization it is, how we can make that become a reality.”
Dr. Ali recommended folks to reflect on deeply examine the organizations they are a part of or the organizations they are thinking of partnering with; examine who makes up the executive leadership in your organization, then work to ensure that it is reflecting the kind of diversity and ideals that you want to align with. He stresses that “if we don’t fix our own houses, it’s really difficult for us to show up in an authentic way for others.” Some people in the seminar asked how they can do that if they aren’t in a position of power in their organization; to that, Dr. Ali replied “You have power unless you give it away.” Power comes in many different forms, and it’s all about figuring out what kind of power you hold and then working on applying it to create change within issues you care about.
Dr. Ali concluded the seminar with the same optimism he held throughout it - “I know the future’s bright, we just gotta grab hold of it.”
Watch the Full Seminar:
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Jenna Quan is a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in evolution, ecology, and biodiversity and minoring in education. She has a passion for ecology and biology, especially in marine systems. Upon graduation, she hopes to pursue a PhD in ecology and continue on in academia. When Jenna is not working on research projects at BML or in a genetics lab, she is co-captaining the UC Davis Dance Team and working on her knitting projects!