Story by Kirsten Fedorowicz, Editor-in-Chief
Photo Courtesy of the Wege Speaker Series
On Thursday, April 11, Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali spoke to a crowded Aquinas Performing Arts Center.
Dr. Ali was brought in by the Wege Foundation as part of the annual Wege Speaker Series. Now in its 23rd year, the Wege Speaker Series brings in diverse speakers to speak on environmental issues. Partners for this event included the City of Grand Rapids, Aquinas College and the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.
Ali is the senior vice president of Climate Environmental Justice & Community Revitalization for the Hip Hop Caucus. He is a former environmental justice leader at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, resigning when Scott Pruitt was nominated to run the EPA.
After an introduction by Aquinas President Kevin Quinn, local hip hop group All of the Above Hip Hop performed a piece to introduce Dr. Ali. Four rappers performed an original piece exploring themes that Ali would later speak on, including water access and air pollution.
When Ali took the stage, he started his speech by showing a video from the rapper Taboo, who is best known for being part of the group The Black-Eyed Peas. The song “Stand Up/Stand N Rock” premiered in 2016 and focused on the activism around Standing Rock Reservation.
In the body of his speech, Ali focused on how climate change disproportionately affects poor communities, in particular communities of color. Despite speaking on a scary and hopeless-feeling topic, Ali kept stating that “we have the ability to make change happen.”
Ali’s primary speaking points were about water and air pollution. Ali stated that more people are dying from air pollution than from gun violence or car crashes. He pointed to the Manchester community in Houston, Texas, a primarily Latinx and African American community surrounded by air pollution. By effectively centering climate change and environmental issues as current occurrences happening in our own country, Ali engaged the audience and called them to action.
Ali’s speech was highly interactive, as he often asked the audience to raise their hands or repeat statements after him. Near the end of his speech, Ali asked the audience whether they thought they were powerful, receiving only a couple hands in the air.
“We think that we don’t have power,” Ali said, “so we disconnect from change.”
Ali pointed to movements like the Women’s March, Science March, and Black Lives Matter as examples of people channelling their power. At the end of his speech, he had the audience stand up and hold hands with their neighbors, and instructed them to shout “I have power.”
The Wege Speaker Series partners with Aquinas every year. If you are interested in the event, look out for announcements of the next speaker come March 2020.
Kirsten Fedorowicz is a senior who is pursuing an English major with a writing emphasis and a Women’s Studies minor. She enjoys embroidering and social justice, particularly when the two are combined.