Former EPA official sees young people leading environmental ‘reawakening’

Climate-change activist meets with students during Grand Rapids visit

Mustafa Santiago Ali enjoys chatting with WMCAT advanced videography students (from left) Micah Garmon of C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy; Arieal Jackson of Grand Rapids University Prep Academy; Erion Adams of Grand Rapids Montessori; and Marc Ramirez of Grand Rapids UPrep

Kalil Adams loves hip-hop, but he never really connected it to global warming until he met Mustafa Santiago Ali.

The East Kentwood senior performed a hip-hop track about environmental justice for Ali, a former top official with the Environmental Protection Agency and climate-change activist with the Hip Hop Caucus. In recent performances at City High/Middle School and Aquinas College, Kalil and fellow members of All of the Above Hip Hop Academy rapped and danced an urgent message titled “There Needs to be Change.”

Precisely, Kalil said later.

“It’s something that should be paid attention to a lot more than what people believe it is,” Kalil said of global pollution and climate change. “It may not seem that big an issue, but there are people who literally are not able to breathe clean air.”

That’s the kind of passion about environmental concerns Ali says he is seeing in young people all across the country, as he brings his global-warning message to students through the lens of hip-hop culture.

“This is not a moment,” Ali said during a two-day string of appearances in Grand Rapids. “This is literally a movement,” similar to the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements. “There’s a reawakening.”

Students like Kalil are a leading force in that movement, seeing the perils that await their generation if they do not act to reverse climate change now, Ali added.

“I’m super-proud of all the young leaders. They’re changing the game. They’ve got folks on Capitol Hill shook.”

Leaves EPA over Trump Agenda

He took a break to discuss his work during a visit to the West Michigan Center for Arts + Technology, where videography students filmed a documentary about his talks there, at City High/Middle and at the Aquinas College Performing Arts Center as part of Aquinas’ Wege Speaker Series.

Ali recently joined the National Wildlife Federation as vice president for environmental justice, climate and community revitalization. He worked for 24 years at the EPA, heading its Office of Environmental Justice before stepping down in 2017, two months after President Trump took office. His high-profile resignation came as the EPA under Scott Pruitt proposed slashing Ali’s office budget and plans to eliminate it entirely.

The Trump administration’s agenda of gutting environmental protections, including Ali’s work around the effects of pollution on poor and minority communities, compelled him to resign, Ali said.

“The reason I had to leave was if they were going to go forward with the things they said they were going to do, I knew more people were going to get sick, I knew more people were going to die, and I knew who those people were,” Ali said. “I said I can’t be a part of hurting my people.”

His work with young people aims to enlighten them on how pollution and climate change hit poor communities especially hard. Diesel trucks roar by urban schools, smog settles over poor neighborhoods, and hotter weather exacerbates asthma that disproportionately afflicts African Americans and Latinos, he noted.

“Those are policy choices people made, and they determine who’s going to win and who’s going to lose,” he said.

Hip Hop Motivates and Educates

He sees young people increasingly alarmed by these trends – and motivated to turn them around. While some are resigned to “game over,” he said, “a whole lot of others are saying, ‘We’ve still got some time if we act now.’”

Events like the March 15 worldwide Climate Strike reflect students’ commitment to act, much like the March for Our Lives has for gun violence, he said. “Young people are going to have to run for office, and fill those positions where people don’t want to do the right thing.”

Hip-hop culture is a powerful motivator and educational tool to reach those future voters, he added. As vice president of Hip Hop Caucus, he championed environmental justice and registered more than 600,000 people to vote. He co-hosts the podcast Hip Hop Caucus Think 100%, a reference to achieving 100 percent clean energy.

In Grand Rapids he connected with All of the Above, a hip-hop program that began at Ottawa Hills High School and is now based at Covenant House Academy. Under the leadership of Matthew Duncan, aka Monk Matthaeus, students wrote and performed a track about pollution’s effect on disadvantaged communities.

Kalil said he learned much about environmental injustice from creating the piece, and was honored to perform it for Ali.

“I never thought I’d actually be able to do something on that scale with someone that big. To be able to even have an opportunity to perform in front of Mr. Santiago Ali, it meant a lot.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great story, Charlie! Thanks so much for your interest and thoughtful presentation of Dr. Ali’s message.

    • I was happy to meet him and write up the story, Jill. Well done on bringing Dr. Ali and his timely message to GR!

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