For three years, the nation’s most prominent environmental organization has pondered its past and future. Like many other American organizations, the Sierra Club was shaken by the 2020 murder of George Floyd, surrounded by painful question about its mission and history, including whether its founder, John Muir, was prejudiced against people of color.
Now, the organization is trying to emerge from the other side of that assessment. It has appointed Ben Jealous, a civil rights activist, author, investor and nonprofit leader as its new chief executive officer.
Jealous, 50, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 2008 to 2013, was the first person of color to lead the Sierra Club.
With more than $149 million in annual donations, hundreds of employees, over a million members and supporters, and 64 branches around the country, the Sierra Club is a huge legacy of the conservation movement — cannot be missed, and is at the center of an expanding ecosystem of activists, nonprofits, and grassroots campaigns.
But Floyd’s murder and subsequent nationwide protests have shaken the foundation of this institution. Its CEO wrote that the Sierra Club played a “significant role in upholding white supremacy.” The blog post was an attempt to acknowledge the group’s failures, but it was met with public criticism from some board members and sparked a bitter internal battle.
That same summer, a Sierra Club employee claimed to have been raped by a former senior employee who was still volunteering for the organization, prompting investigations into other allegations of abuse when #MeToo movement continues.
And, in 2021, an internal report documented a toxic culture where bad behavior is tolerated and accountability is lacking. Weeks later, the chief executive resigned and a board member assumed public leadership duties, leaving the Sierra Club rudderless in the first year of Biden’s presidency, as transformative. Climate becomes a central political issue.
“There has been a pivotal moment for the Sierra Club,” said Mr Jealous. “Calculations are hard, and I’ve never seen anyone actually get it right. There was a lot of repressed emotion, and it all came out.”
Jealous said he hopes to harness that energy, get the Sierra Club more involved in environmental issues affecting minority communities, and find ways to attract more Blacks, who Hispanics and Asians joined the environmental movement.
His appointment came after a search that lasted nearly a year. He joined the Sierra Club after two years as president of People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy group.
Rita Harris, a Sierra Club board member who was involved in the search, said: “He shined and sparkled more than all the others we interviewed. “He’s definitely the one we need right now.”
Jealous, a Rhodes scholar who unsuccessfully ran for governor of Maryland in 2018, said his qualifications for the job go far beyond being a civil rights leader and he has always been an environmentalist.
Growing up in Northern California, Mr Jealous says his “first memories include sleeping inside redwoods..” His parents take him hiking in Yosemite National Park twice a year, and the Sierra Club magazine is always around the house.
At the age of 9, Mr Jealous said he became the youngest scholar ever at the local natural history museum. And as a teenager, he worked as a tour guide at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
He continued to work on environmental issues as a young professional. At the Public Interest Research Group, an organization founded by Ralph Nader, he helped launch Green Corps, a program that exposes recent college graduates to grassroots activism. And at the NAACP, he launched a climate justice program, an effort focused on environmental issues affecting Black communities.
“I was the first Sierra Club executive in a while growing up in a Northern California redwood forest, to sleep under them,” he said.
But as Mr Jealous prepares to embark on a listening tour during his first months on the job, he will likely listen to the opinions of employees who are still working through several difficult years for the organization.
In the summer of 2020, with Covid raging and protests erupting in the streets of American cities, a national conversation about systemic racism was in full swing. A parade of prominent corporations, universities and nonprofits has been caught up in public controversies as employees, consumers and critics pile up.
Yet even in those uncertain times, what happened at the Sierra Club stood out.
Michael Brune, the group’s longtime executive director, wrote a blog post titled “Pulling Down Our Monuments.” In it, he disliked Mr. Muir, who founded the club in 1892 and is credited with preserving Yosemite as a national park and initiating the American environmental movement. But in some of his writings, Mr. Muir described black and Native Americans as dirty and lazy. He was also friendly with some of the club’s early members, white supremacists and eugenicists.
The Sierra Club caused “significant and incalculable harm,” Brune wrote, adding that “when defenders of Negro life pulled down Confederate monuments across the As a country, we must also take this moment to reflect on our past and important role. in upholding white supremacy.”
Item caused a backlash from within and outside the organization, with some board members openly criticizing Mr. Brune and other prominent environmentalists and objecting to his characterization of Mr. Muir. Mr. Brune leaves the organization in August 2021.
Mr Jealous said he hopes to stay out of the controversy, but he sees Mr Muir as a conservationist first.
“When I look at John Muir, I see a man in the late 19th century, talking as much as men in the late 19th century,” he said. “The way I grew up is really appreciating him as someone who helped preserve the most beautiful places that were once the landscape of my childhood.”
Mr Jealous will also face an organization that, according to an internal report prepared by the consulting group Ramona Strategies, tolerated bullying by senior staff and lacked a strong culture of accountability.
“We had to deal with all the equity issues in the Sierra Club,” said Mr Jealous. “Those things totally include issues of gender, as well as racial equality and fair pay. We have people who are ‘chapter staff’ who are earning less than people who are ‘national employees’ for the same organization, doing the same job.
But while Mr. Jealous and the organization hoped to leave behind the recent chaos, times have changed. The Sierra Club is no longer simply focused on preserving pristine nature. Instead, it is embracing suffrage and other progressive causes that aren’t public about the fight to protect the environment and fight climate change.
“While previously, One hundred years ago we were interested in preserving the Sierra Nevadas, now we know that, to preserve that, we also need a livelihood that can be preserved for future generations. , good wages, all of that,” he said Ramon Cruz, Sierra club president, who has effectively assumed its leadership role since Mr. Brune stepped down. “It is impossible to separate these from each other.”
Mr. Jealous, who expanded the range of issues the NAACP addressed when he was chief executive officer – and in doing so expanded membership and raised funds – was eager to try and achieve success. Similar results at the Sierra Club.
“The Sierra Club, more than any other environmental group, has rapidly become more inclusive,” he said. “We cannot save the planet and not bear the ravages of poverty.”
What this means in practice remains to be seen. Mr Jealous said he hopes the organization will get more involved in local campaigns on everything from industrial pollution to the power grid. He added that the Sierra Club has a role to play in ensuring that the $370 billion in climate change funding included in the Inflation Reduction Act is not wasted.
“The only way it’s not political pork is if movements are built in every state in this country to make sure that those dollars are spent effectively,” he said.
However, efforts to expand wind and solar power are facing growing local opposition across the country, sometimes pitting Indigenous groups against energy project developers. regenerative.
“Those are the real conversations we’re going to be prepared to have,” Mr Jealous said. “And the only organization that can truly lead so effectively will be an organization that burns at the same time to protect the planet as it does for social justice. Ultimately, the best solutions will require us to figure out how to keep both of those things in our minds at the same time.”