Mustafa Santiago Ali to Speak at 2017 Sustainability Summit

As a national speaker, facilitator and activist for social and environmental justice, Mustafa Santiago Ali recalls learning from childhood on about the importance of sustainability. While growing up in Appalachia, Ali often took walks with his father, who emphasized how we’re all responsible for caring for Mother Earth and helping others. Ali was also enthralled listening to his grandfather talk about civil rights and social justice.

Ali took that passion for social engagement into adulthood and went on to teach, lecture and serve in senior positions at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where for 24 years through the Environmental Justice Office, he worked to ease the burden of air and water pollution on marginalized communities.

Ali resigned from the EPA in March and has since become senior vice president of climate, environmental justice and community revitalization at Hip Hop Caucus, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting civil and human rights issues through the voices of hip hop music. Ali will be the keynote speaker at the Dallas County Community College District 2017 Sustainability Summit on November 3 at Cedar Valley College.

How do you plan to approach your work with Hip Hop Caucus?

I’ll always be working on environmental and climate issues, no matter where it would be. I’m very blessed being in the Hip Hop Caucus. They’re focused on environmental- and climate-related issues, but also some of the other elements that are necessary for us to make the cultural shift. One of those is People’s Climate Music, so we have a number of artists and entertainers focused on making the change necessary by utilizing their voices and their platforms. When you have Chance the Rapper or Beyoncé talking about why we need to care about the climate and get engaged with those issues and why we need to care about civil rights and social and environmental justice, it’s just natural synergy.

The other aspect is the Respect My Vote campaign, which helps people understand how important their vote is, how it relates to power and how it can help create change, especially in our most vulnerable communities. For me, all the work I’ve done over the years—because I started working on these issues as a student—just translates perfectly to the work I’m continuing to do.

What issues do you plan to highlight at the Summit?

We’ll talk about the impacts happening inside some of our most vulnerable communities—and particularly highlight hurricanes Harvey and Irma—and focus on revitalizing vulnerable communities. How do we help rebuild and bring power back to these communities? How do we make sure that we’re thinking about the economics and creating jobs to move forward with renewables, housing and transportation-related issues? These are things that move our most vulnerable communities from surviving to thriving.

What can people do to help improve some of the most pressing issues?

We really have to get a handle on some of the fossil fuel pollution that’s harming people. One of the solutions is moving toward renewables, but it breaks down to cultures that also exist, so it’s important to honor the work that’s happened. I come from coal country, so it’s important to honor the hard work that miners did over the years and give them additional opportunities to find employment with wages similar or better than what they currently have. That also translates to those who work in the oil fields. We have to make sure we’re honoring that culture, and then moving forward in a way that’s beneficial to those workers and their families.

Are you optimistic about the direction environmental justice is heading?

I’m extremely optimistic. I see it play out every day. I’m not naïve to the challenges that exist because we currently have an administration that to date has not shown value when it comes to communities of color, low-income communities or indigenous populations. But on the flip side, I’m finally seeing people start to break down barriers and work together—the philanthropic community, the academic community, civil rights, social justice organizations and some business and industry—thinking more critically and moving toward addressing these issues, because we’re weakening our country when we don’t.

The seventh annual Dallas County Community College District Sustainability Summit begins at 8:30 a.m. Nov. 3, at Cedar Valley College, 3030 N. Dallas Ave., Lancaster. For more information, visit For information about Hip Hop Caucus, visit

Sheila Julson is a regular contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines throughout the country.


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