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Former EPA staffer on why marginalized communities deserve a voice in environmental policy

Photo of the shoreline on Lake Michigan.
Isabella Isaacs-Thomas / Michigan Radio
“We’ve also got to make sure that our elected officials understand that we’ve got this incredible resource there." Mustafa Santiago Ali will be the keynote speaker at the Great Lakes Conference in Detroit this week. ";s:3:

The environmental justice movement aims to address the disproportionate impact that environmental degradation has on people of color, the economically disadvantaged, and indigenous groups. 

Mustafa Santiago Ali spent more than two decades at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency working to fight air, water, and industrial pollution in those marginalized communities.

The nationally-recognized environmental justice leader will be speaking this week at the Great Lakes Conference in Detroit, hosted by the Healing Our Waters – Great Lakes Coalition. 

Ali has worked on a range of environmental justice cases in more than 500 communities nationwide. Those cases dealt with issues like air pollution from coal-fired powerplant emissions and industrial farming's impact on local water quality. 

"We often place the things that we don't want in our most vulnerable communities," Ali said. 

The public health issues caused by pollution, Ali notes, affect other areas of life like housing, transporation, and employment opportunities. He says the environmental justice movement is about pointing out the interconnectedness of those issues.  

“It also deals with having the opportunity to have your voice reflected in the decision-making process, and also making sure that resources are actually going to the communities that need them the most,” Ali said. 

Ali co-founded the EPA's Office of Environmental Justice in 1992. He says that during his 24 years at the agency, environmental justice principles were slowly but meaningfully integrated into its policies.

But in 2017, Ali sent his letter of resignation to former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. He says he could no longer be a part of the agency because it was moving in a direction that was “going to put people’s lives in danger.”

Ali notes that the EPA has yet to find a replacement to fill his former position at the Office for Environmental Justice. 

In his keynote speech at this week’s conference, Ali says he plans to talk about issues like water quality and affordability, as well as the importance of holding elected officials accountable for protecting the Great Lakes. 

“I’m always helping people to realize that they have power unless they give it away, and that power can play out in lots of different ways,” Ali said. “In the civic process, making sure that you’re honoring your vote — never tell anybody who to vote for — but you should be voting for somebody who cares about your community, and you have to make the decision of who that is.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas. 

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