“Now that you’re here, and you’re listening and learning, you have a responsibility to help do something about this.”
Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali still remembers hearing those words as a teenager, surrounded by leaders of the social and environmental justice movements. It’s a message that gave him a lifelong mission, and one he will carry to NC BREATHE 2023 next month in his keynote address.
Dr. Ali came to environmental justice early. He grew up in a small Appalachian community, across the river from an old coal-fired power plant that emitted fumes into the air and dumped toxic metals into the water.
He didn’t yet have the language to describe what was happening to his community, but he knew something was wrong—too many people were getting sick and dying prematurely.
And he knew he wanted to do something to stop it.
Today Dr. Ali is a nationally renowned environmental justice thought-leader and strategist working to mobilize advocates. At NC BREATHE he’ll share his perspective on where we stand today, and challenge each of us to consider the role we’ll play in achieving his vision for a truly equitable future.
So what does environmental justice look like to Mustafa Santiago Ali?
The damage done by pollution weighs most heavily on our most vulnerable communities.
Thanks to a legacy of redlining and racist policymaking, BIPOC and low-wealth communities in the U.S. are consistently exposed to higher pollution levels from industry, agriculture, highways, construction…you name it. In fact, race is the number one indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in this country.
So the struggle for healthier communities is both widespread and formidable. For Dr. Ali, it’s also deeply personal.
“I grew up in a cancer cluster,” Ali says. “Meeting folks who were dealing with sets of exposures, seeing how these were deteriorating people’s bodies, had a huge impact.”
It’s driven him to fight for a future where everyone has the chance to breathe healthy air, drink healthy water, and lead healthy lives. In his words, environmental justice looks like “making sure the 250,000 people who die prematurely from air pollution every year are no longer getting sick and no longer losing their lives. It looks like the 24 million folks who suffer from asthma (and the 7 million kids) can breathe. It looks like the 60 million people…who’ve had to deal with unsafe drinking water can now have confidence that they’re putting something positive in their body.”
Dr. Ali’s goal, then, isn’t just to roll back the climate crisis. It’s to help communities chart a path to restoration. To help them move from surviving to thriving.
“I’ve worked in over a thousand communities now across our country,” explains Ali, “and there are just recurring themes of disinvestment. There are recurring themes of people being unseen and unheard. That has strengthened my resolve to make sure that changes.”
Dr. Ali hopes this could soon turn around. For the first time he can remember, he sees significant public resources being directed toward fighting the climate crisis and building a clean energy economy. Now we must make sure that equity and justice are guiding how those resources are spent.
“At the front of the line are those communities that have been disinvested in, and those who have been carrying the burden,” Ali says. “We should be uplifting communities and helping folks.”
That’s the only way we’ll achieve a truly just transition where no one gets left behind.
“The workers who used to be working in the coal mines, or on fracking fields, or in oil wells, who are just trying to put food on the table…[we must ensure] there is a space in this new clean energy economy for them.”
“In the words of my grandmother,” recalls Ali, “you have power unless you give it away. So utilize that power.”
Ali strongly believes political engagement can help us achieve policies that combat environmental injustices. He urges everyone he works with to vote—not for one party or another, but for candidates who understand and care about the experiences of their communities.
When we have voices from frontline communities engaging with the policy process, we’ll have politicians who are committed to infusing equity and justice into every piece of legislation on the federal, state, and local levels.
And he sees NC BREATHE as a great place to start. “[NC BREATHE] gives you the opportunity to build stronger coalitions, to make sure that when we look at the North Carolina statehouse that the right individuals will eventually end up there,” Ali says. “Some of those folks will be folks who are participating in the event, or who will hear the stories and sets of solutions that will be shared, and realize that there are those who see value in them and will support them.”
The environmental justice movement has always been an inter-generational movement. It has to be.
“It’s because of the innovation and ingenuity that young people bring to the process,” Ali asserts. “They haven’t been jaded yet. They still believe and know that anything is possible. And they are going to help us be able to reach people in new and innovative ways.”
This opportunity for collaboration and sharing new ideas will be at the forefront of Dr. Ali’s mind when he addresses attendees at NC BREATHE.
“The value of NC BREATHE is that folks from all across North Carolina have the opportunity to come together,” Ali says. “They have an opportunity to not only socialize and build relationships and partnerships, but also to bring forth sets of solutions to the issues that are impacting so many folks.”
Dr. Ali is optimistic we will find those solutions. But the movement needs everyone. We all have a role to play in securing a healthy, sustainable, and bright future for all.
“That’s why we have to stay committed,” Ali argues. “We have to make sure that we stay focused, and we have to make sure that we are also coming together to make real change happen.”
“Dr. King said that we come to these shores in different ships but we’re all in the same boat now… Many people are starting to understand we can’t win on the climate crisis if we don’t win on environmental injustice, and that by coming together we can actually make that become a reality. That’s a positive in this moment.”