Andrew Restuccia, Politico, May 31, 2015
The Sierra Club, the nation’s biggest environmental group, is out to prove that the green movement isn’t just for well-to-do white people.
The 123-year-old organization just elected its first black president. Its board condemned racial profiling in Ferguson, Missouri. Environmental justice has become one of its core campaigns.
That’s a major shift for a political and social movement long viewed as the domain of affluent white activists, and it’s been decades in the making.
Aaron Mair, who became the first black president of the Sierra Club’s board of directors earlier this month, said the group is dedicated to becoming more inclusive.
“The question is tokenism versus real systematic change, and we at the Sierra Club have embarked on real systemic change,” he told POLITICO in a recent interview.
But critics say the green movement still has a lot to prove, especially after years of focusing on broad national campaigns rather than local pollution and health issues facing lower-income minority communities.
“It’s gotten better, but I think we’re still talking about quantitative change, not qualitative change. They haven’t moved beyond tokenism,” said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which is partnering with other green groups to register 1 million climate-focused voters of color by Election Day. “Yes, they’ve changed over the last 25 years, but no, they haven’t changed fundamentally.”
Mair agreed that the movement as a whole is “not changing at the pace that it should.”
“For other environmental groups and other big green groups, the clock is ticking,” he said. “Privilege and those old habits need to be broken.”
The green movement’s dearth of diversity has long drawn criticism. In 1990, over 100 leaders of minority communities condemned the country’s biggest environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, for ignoring their interests and failing to build more diverse memberships.
“The lack of people of color in decision-making positions in your organizations such as executive staff or board positions is also reflective of your histories of racist and exclusionary practices,” the leaders wrote in a letter to the heads of the 10 top environmental organizations. “Racism is a root cause of your inaction around addressing environmental problems in our communities.”
A Sierra Club member since 1999, Mair said diversity, equity and inclusion will be his top priorities at the club.
Mair hopes to make the Sierra Club’s membership more diverse by showing people that the group cares deeply about the plight of minority communities. Young people of all races, he said, will be attracted to that message.
“The issue now is unlearning some of the baggage that is part of the old America and learning the values of the younger, millennial generation. They don’t have the same baggage about race,” he said. “The hope is that we start seeing the next generation of youth come together, including those forces that came together around the Obama election. That is the sweet spot for the Sierra Club.”
Sarah Hodgdon, the Sierra Club’s national program director and a leader of the staff diversity team, said the group has made progress since 2007, when the board adopted a statement aimed at promoting diversity across the organization.
“It started out where a lot of folks felt like it was another thing to put on the to-do list, and we’re really working to make sure it isn’t just another thing we do but a part of everything we do,” she said.
A July 2014 survey of 191 environmental nonprofits commissioned by the group Green 2.0 found that ethnic minorities occupy only about 12 percent of the leadership positions at the organizations. The membership of the environmental groups surveyed is mostly white, at 59 percent.