No one is more important to the history of environmental conservation than John Muir — the “wilderness prophet,” “patron saint of the American wilderness” and “father of the national parks” who founded the nation’s oldest conservation organization, the Sierra Club. But on Wednesday, citing the current racial reckoning, the group announced it will end its blind reverence to a figure who was also racist.
As Confederate statues fall across the country, the club’s leadership said in an early morning post on its website, “it’s time to take down some of our own monuments, starting with some truth-telling about the Sierra Club’s early history.” Muir, who fought to preserve Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Forest, once referred to African Americans as lazy “Sambos,” a racist pejorative that many black people consider to be even more offensive than the N-word.
While recounting a legendary walk from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico, Muir described Native Americans he encountered as “dirty.”
Muir’s friendships in the early 1900s were equally troubling, the Sierra Club said. Henry Fairfield Osborn, a close associate, led the New York Zoological Society and the board of trustees of the American Museum of Natural History and, following Muir’s death, helped establish the American Eugenics Society, which labeled nonwhite people, including Jews at the time, as inferior.
The Sierra Club isn’t the only organization that is shaking its foundations. Leaders of predominantly white, liberal and progressive groups throughout the field of conservation say they are taking a hard look within their organizations and don’t like what they see.
African American and other minority employees are pointing out the lack of diversity in green groups and the racial bias that persists in top and midlevel management.
The most startling example is a manifesto by Ruth Tyson, an employee at the Union of Concerned Scientists who quit recently after she “woke up feeling resentment and agony” because her job there was unbearable. Tyson flipped open a laptop to write a short email explaining why she was quitting with only a three-day notice but didn’t stop until she had written 17 pages of searing criticism.
She sent it to 200 people.
Her open letter ripped the organization’s casual indifference to black workers. Their ideas were routinely dismissed and the community outreach jobs they were hired to perform were a low priority. Tyson said the Union of Concerned Scientists, along with other groups, has fallen woefully short in its efforts to make its workplace more diverse and help communities disproportionately impacted by pollution.
Tyson was one of four black women on a 14-member team when she started work three years ago, watching as they quit or were forced out. Now there are none.
“They simply baited us in with the language of equity without making significant infrastructural, cultural, and procedural changes to prioritize and accommodate the [people of color or] the actual work of racial equity,” she wrote. “As if anti-racist work were something you could just sprinkle on top.”
Remarkably, her bosses agreed.
“I’ve read the letter many times,” said Ken Kimmell, the organization’s president. “I thought it was fair, yeah. I think this is part of a larger issue in all of society and there is real meaning to the culture of white supremacy.
“There are ways that a white-dominated workplace doesn’t make it welcoming to persons of color,” Kimmell said. “I have subsequently learned that many of the things she raised in her letter were not unique to her and things other people of color have experienced.”
Now, like other green groups, the Union of Concerned Scientists is vowing to look at the way it’s structured; diversify its board, workers and managers; and police casual racial bias.
At the 53-year-old Environmental Defense Fund, Fred Krupp, its president, also promised change. “The pandemic has exposed for the American public inequities that have existed, including access to health care, neighborhoods that are much more polluted than others,” Krupp said.
“I don’t feel EDF is being pressured. I’m feeling pressure from the facts, the inequities that have been laid bare by COVID and the events following George Floyd’s murder and that EDF hasn’t done nearly enough on environmental justice issues and issues involving racism,” Krupp said.
Even a coalition of nontraditional groups, GreenLatinos, issued a statement about racism in its community during the racial reckoning. “In the Latino community, we have had a problem of anti-black racism for a long time. We’ve finally started to recognize it,” said Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš, a founder and director of the ocean conservation group, Azul, the Spanish word for blue.
“I grew up in Mexico and very much present as white,” Gutiérrez-Graudiņš said, referring to her skin color. “I grew up in this area of anti-black racism, it was benign. We have this way in Latin America to say, ‘That’s something that the Spanish did.’ We have a way of rationalizing that and say, that was not us. Two years ago, Televista still had people doing black face on their comedy shows saying it wasn’t a big deal.”
But no statement was as forceful as that of the 128-year-old Sierra Club, the nation’s oldest and most venerable environmental group. Michael Brune, Sierra Club’s executive director, recently addressed 800 staff and 4 million members and volunteers with a note that was unusually frank and acquiescent.
For years, Brune wrote, the Sierra Club’s staffers of color “have led the call for transformative change and I and other white leaders have not responded with the urgency nor at the scale that the opportunities and challenges demand.” He promised an overhaul of executive leadership, the reallocation of $5 million to reduce pay inequities and to devote greater attention to the communities suffering most from “environmental racism” and “structural injustice.”
As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, the group’s Wednesday statement said, “John Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color who come into contact with the Sierra Club.”
“Such willful ignorance is what allows some people to shut their eyes to the reality that the wild places we love are also the ancestral homelands of Native peoples, forced off their lands in the decades or centuries before they became national parks,” the statement said.
Early Sierra Club members and leaders such as Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan “were vocal advocates for white supremacy and its pseudoscientific arm, eugenics.” Jordan supported forced-sterilization laws “and programs that deprived tens of thousands of women of their right to bear children.”
The roots of American environmentalism are grounded in a reverence for nature and racism. Muir’s contemporaries at the turn of the last century included Madison Grant, a co-founder of the Bronx Zoo who wrote “The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History,” an argument for white supremacy in which he decried the decline of Nordic people.
Former president Theodore Roosevelt, who created the first national parks, praised the 1916 book, which helped shape the views the future leader of Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler, who would go on to write the anti-Semitic autobiography “Mein Kampf,” called Grant’s book, “my bible.”
Given the troubled history of the groups, black and brown activists who have long complained about unfair funding and lack of attentions to their communities, weren’t impressed.
“The big white green groups have all issued racial justice statements — a good first baby step,” said Robert Bullard, a Texas Southern University professor and activist who helped restart the National Black Environmental Justice Network this month.
“In my opinion, none of them have taken a strong stand in the way their white privilege sucks up damn near all the green dollars from foundations and donors, away from people of color.”
Environmental and climate justice groups work in communities with the greatest need, said Bullard, a founder of the environmental justice movement that started when African American, Latino, Native American and other environmentalists gathered for the first time in Washington D.C. in 1991 and vowed to fill the gaps big green groups missed.
For more than 30 years, environmental justice groups have deployed paltry budgets to fight big battles over power plants, refineries, landfills and other projects that foul the air and land around black and Latino communities. Ludovic Blain, who attended the second environmental summit a decade after the first, said activists often worked without pay.
“If you’re very used to not getting funded, people are used to doing it free,” Blain said. “The environmental movement has a lot of philanthropic money, there’s enough money to go around.”
According to its tax filing, the Sierra Club had assets of more than $106 million in 2018 and the Union of Concerned Scientists had nearly $40 million. One group, the Nature Conservancy, had assets and grants that totaled nearly $1 billion that year. Another, the Natural Resources Defense Council, had more than $350 million.
That compares to about $2 million for the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans and $2.5 million for the West Harlem Environmental Action Inc. in New York. Los Jardines Institute, another environmental justice group, had about $300,000 in revenue in 2018.
“If you had told me two decades ago that millions of dollars would be going to Latino environmental justice work, I would never have guessed it would have been through Natural Resources Defense Council,” said Blain.
The nation’s biggest philanthropies have traditionally given to established environmental groups. The Hewlett Foundation, for example, has given about half a million dollars a year to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s lands program for a quarter century, but last year it informed the organization that it would be giving that money to more local groups such as Outdoor Afro, Green Latinos, or Hispanic Access.
Others have also found new outlets. Even before the recent protests, Friends of the Earth executive director Erich Pica steered about $100,000 to a grassroots organizing group called Black Male Voters Project.
Still, many in the environmental justice movement still shrug at the recent shift in support. “We’re just getting chump change when it comes to big green” environmental groups, Angela Adrar, director of the Climate Justice Alliance, said. “It’s been quite incremental to be honest.”
Ruth Tyson entered the world of white environmentalists three years ago. A friend sent her an ad for a Union of Concerned Scientists job that offered $47,000 — “like more money than anyone in my family had made,” said Tyson, whose parents emigrated from Jamaica when her mother was seven months pregnant with her.
Tyson was awed by her new workplace, but there were almost no black managers, co-workers or mentors. When things went wrong, she felt she had nowhere to turn.
At a meeting to uplift the voices of marginalized communities, Tyson quickly noticed that “the majority of people participating were white,” her letter said. She felt that she was expected to be the voice of the black community. “I was put on every racial equity task force that popped up,” she wrote.
Managers seemed dismissive. “I saw how white men scrolled through their phones or laptops as I talked, and got up and left whenever they wanted to be done meeting with me,” the letter said. “I understood that these behaviors were not personality traits, but the manifestations of the white dominant culture throughout the organization.”
Asked if he disagreed with anything Tyson wrote, Kimmell said, “We are actually grateful for the letter because it shed so much light on so many things. I was sad because our workplace wasn’t welcoming and nurturing for her.”
Whitney Tome, the outgoing executive director of Green 2.0, also thought the letter rang true. It “enumerated the problems” people of color face in all the groups and “was heartbreaking,” she said.
Andrés Jimenez, the incoming executive director, said it was indicative of the minority talent drain. “Retention is a problem and upward mobility is not strong” at big green groups, he said. “A person of color comes in as a legislative assistant or staff assistant and there is no way up for them.”
Tyson’s letter also made its way to Brune. “I found her letter to be heartbreaking and familiar.” And that has to change, he said.
“What’s clear is that there’s no going back to the Sierra Club we have been. What’s needed is fundamental transformation, not reform.”