For three years, the nation’s most prominent environmental organization has been ruminating about its past and future. Like many other American institutions, the Sierra Club was convulsed by the 2020 murder of George Floyd, beset by painful questions about its mission and history, including whether its founder, John Muir, was biased against people of color.
Now, the organization is trying to emerge from other side of that appraisal. It has named Ben Jealous, a civil rights activist, author, investor and nonprofit leader as its new executive director.
Mr. Jealous, 50, chief executive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 2008 to 2013, is the first person of color to lead the Sierra Club.
With more than $149 million in annual contributions, hundreds of employees, more than a million members and supporters, and 64 chapters around the country, the Sierra Club is the giant sequoia of the conservation movement — impossible to ignore, and at the center of an expansive ecosystem of activists, nonprofit organizations and grass roots campaigns.
But the murder of Mr. Floyd and subsequent protests around the nation shook the foundation of the institution. Its executive director wrote that the Sierra Club had played a “substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.” The blog post was an effort to acknowledge the group’s failings, but it drew a public rebuke from some board members and sparked a fierce internal fight.
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 accusations of abuse as the #MeToo movement continued.
And, in 2021, an internal report documented a toxic culture where bad behavior was tolerated and accountability was lacking. Weeks later, the executive director resigned and a board member took over public leadership duties, leaving the Sierra Club rudderless during the first year of the Biden presidency, as climate change became a central political issue.
“There’s been a moment of reckoning that was important for the Sierra Club,” Mr. Jealous said. “Reckonings are hard, and I’ve never seen anybody really do it right. There’s a lot of pent-up emotion, and it all comes out.”
Mr. Jealous said he hoped to harness that energy, getting the Sierra Club more engaged with environmental issues affecting minority communities, and finding ways to bring more Black people, Hispanics and Asians into the environmental movement.
His appointment comes after a nearly yearlong search. He joined the Sierra Club after two years as president of People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy group.
“He outshined and out-sparkled all of the other people we interviewed,” said Rita Harris, a Sierra Club board member who was involved in the search. “He definitely appears to be the person we need right now.”
Mr. Jealous, a Rhodes scholar who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Maryland in 2018, said his qualifications for the job go well beyond being a civil-rights leader and that he has always been an environmentalist.
Growing up in Northern California, Mr. Jealous said that his “earliest memories include sleeping inside of redwood trees.” His parents took him hiking in Yosemite National Park twice a year, and the Sierra Club magazine was always lying around the house.
At nine years old, Mr. Jealous said he became the youngest-ever docent at his local natural history museum. And as a teenager, he served 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 Neighborhood Green Corps, a program that gave recent college graduates exposure to grass roots activism. And at the N.A.A.C.P., he launched a climate justice program, an effort focused on environmental issues affecting Black communities.
“I’m the first Sierra Club executive director in a while to grow up in a redwood forest in Northern California, 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 is likely to hear from staffers still working through a difficult few years for the organization.
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 high profile corporations, universities and nonprofit organizations were caught up in public squabbles as staff, consumers and critics piled on.
Yet even during that period of unrest, what unfolded 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 disavowed Mr. Muir, who founded the club in 1892 and is credited with preserving Yosemite as a national park and starting the American environmental movement. But in some of his writings, Mr. Muir characterized Black Americans and Native Americans as dirty and lazy. He also was friendly with some early club members who were white supremacists and who promoted eugenics.
The Sierra Club, Mr. Brune wrote, had caused “significant and immeasurable harm,” adding that “as defenders of Black life pull down Confederate monuments across the country, we must also take this moment to re-examine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.”
The post sparked a backlash from inside and outside the organization, with some board members publicly criticizing Mr. Brune and other prominent environmentalists and disputing his characterization of Mr. Muir. Mr. Brune left the organization in August 2021.
Mr. Jealous said he hoped to move beyond the controversy, but saw Mr. Muir as a conservationist first.
“When I look at John Muir, I see a man in the late 19th century, who talked a lot like men in the late 19th century,” he said. “The way that I grew up was really valuing him as somebody who helped preserve the most beautiful places that were the landscape of my childhood.”
Mr. Jealous will also have to contend with an organization that, according to an internal report prepared by Ramona Strategies, a consulting group, tolerated bullying behavior by senior employees and lacked a strong culture of accountability.
“We have to deal with all of the equity issues inside the Sierra Club,” Mr. Jealous said. “Those include, absolutely, issues of gender, as well as racial equity and also pay equity. We have people who are ‘chapter staff’ who are making less than people who are ‘national staff’ for the same organization, doing the same job.”
But while Mr. Jealous and the organization hope to put the recent tumult behind them, the times have changed. No longer is the Sierra Club simply focused on conserving pristine nature. Instead, it is embracing voting rights and other progressive causes that aren’t overtly about the fight to protect the environment and combat climate change.
“While before, a hundred years ago we were interested in preserving the Sierra Nevadas, now we know that, in order to preserve that, we also need to have livelihoods that can ensure that can be preserved for future generations, good wages, all of that,” said Ramón Cruz, the Sierra Club board’s president, who had effectively been serving as its leader since Mr. Brune’s resignation. “It’s impossible to divorce these things from each other.”
Mr. Jealous, who expanded the range of issues the N.A.A.C.P. tackled while he was chief executive — and in doing so expanded its membership and fund-raising, as well — is eager to try and accomplish the same feat at the Sierra Club.
“The Sierra Club, more than any other environmentalist group, has become rapidly more inclusive,” he said. “We don’t we don’t get to save the planet and not take on the ravages of poverty.”
What this means in practice remains to be seen. Mr. Jealous said he hoped to get the organization more involved in local campaigns on everything from industrial pollution to the electrical grid. He added that the Sierra Club had a role to play making sure that the $370 billion in climate change funding included in the Inflation Reduction Act was not wasted.
“The only way that that is something other than political pork is if movements are built in every single state in this country to make sure that those dollars are spent impactfully,” he said.
And still, efforts to expand wind and solar energy are facing growing local resistance around the country, at times pitting Indigenous groups against the developers of renewable energy projects.
“Those are real conversations that we’re going to be prepared to have,” Mr. Jealous said. “And the only organization that can really lead that effectively would be an organization that both is on fire to protect the planet and is on fire for social justice. Ultimately, the best solutions are going to require us to figure out how to hold both of those in our minds at the same time.”
What was the goal of the Sierra Club? ›
To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources; To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.What did John Muir do in the Sierra Club? ›
The Sierra Club's own History and Future Task Force concluded in 2021, "John Muir, one of the Sierra Club's founders, sparked the movement to preserve millions of acres of land from logging and mining, and inspired generations of people to protect nature.Why did John Muir establish the Sierra Club? ›
The Sierra Club was founded in 1892 by a group of Californians who wished to sponsor wilderness outings in “the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast.” The naturalist John Muir was its first president (1892–1914) and very soon involved the club in political action to further nature conservation.Did John Muir found the Sierra Club? ›
National Sierra Club
The Sierra Club was founded by John Muir, in California in 1892.
- Organized Numerous Outings. Sierra Club members like the outdoors. ...
- Helped Develop Canoe/Kayak Trail. The Missouri River Institute has established a canoe/kayak water trail. ...
- Attempting to Establish Walking Trail. LRG members are still working to establish a trail along the Missouri River.
The Sierra Club opposes all sport hunting in national parks, which are set aside for the preservation of natural landscapes and wildlife. Monthly giving provides the resources to sustain long-term campaigns that permanently protect our most precious resources.What is the purpose of the Sierra Club quizlet? ›
The Sierra Club Foundation promotes efforts to educate and empower people to protect and improve the natural and human environment.Why did John Muir establish the Sierra Club quizlet? ›
progressive conservationist who started the Sierra Club. Environmental orginization created by John Muir to preserve the Sierra Nevada mountain range.What was John Muir known for? ›
Muir is credited with both the creation of the National Park System and the establishment of the Sierra Club. He educated Americans about the value of the country's wilderness, inspiring generations of wilderness advocates.Why did John Muir migrated America? ›
Restless to explore more of the country, he left school for what he would call "the University of the Wilderness”. He came to the San Francisco area in 1868 and there he discovered the Sierra Mountains. Muir fell in love with the immense beauty of the mountain landscape.
What laws did the Sierra Club pass? ›
The new legislation includes oil well setbacks, carbon neutrality by 2045, a clean energy ramp-up, carbon sequestration through tree planting, and carbon capture through regulation—all of which, together, is cementing California's position as a leader on climate action.What are the Sierra Club tactics? ›
For decades, the Sierra Club has represented the essence of moderate, establishment environmentalism. Traditionally, its tactics stopped at strictly legal methods of winning support for its causes, such as writing letters to elected representatives, petitioning, and holding permitted rallies.Who founded the Sierra Club quizlet? ›
The Sierra Club was founded by a Scottish-American by the name of John Muir on 1892.What was discovered in the Sierra mountains? ›
Gold! Gold from the American River!" On August 19, 1848, the New York Herald was the first major newspaper on the East Coast to report the discovery of gold.Who visited John Muir in Yosemite? ›
In 1903, Roosevelt visited Muir in Yosemite. Guided into the Yosemite wilderness by naturalist John Muir, the president went on a three-day wilderness trip that started at the Mariposa Grove, and included Sentinel Dome, Glacier Point, and Yosemite Valley among other points of interest in Yosemite National Park.What does the Sierra Club do to influence policy? ›
With millions of members and more than 64 chapters and 400 local groups nationwide, the Sierra Club has the resources to empower people and influence public policy through community activism, research, public education, advocacy, organizing, and litigation.What makes the Sierra Club unique? ›
The club is known for engaging in two main activities: promoting and guiding outdoor recreational activities, which is done throughout the United States but primarily in California (especially Southern California), and political activism to promote environmental causes.What are the values of the Sierra Club? ›
- We Are Inclusive. We believe that to be successful, the environmental movement must lift up the voices of those most impacted by environmental degradation. ...
- We Have Mutual Respect. ...
- We Build Relationships. ...
- We Have Integrity.
-The Sierra Club filed up a lawsuit against the EPA. They argued that they were lovers of the environment and that they want to protect the environment that would be harmed by the action of the Disney company and the authorisation of Morton.What type of lobbying does the Sierra Club do? ›
Sierra Club's Citizen Lobbyists play an important role in communicating the message of conservation and environmental protection to Michigan's legislators. Personal contact with your legislator could make the difference between a vote against the environment and a vote for the environment!
Why is the Sierra Club against nuclear power? ›
“The Sierra Club has opposed nuclear energy for decades, as it poses a catastrophic risk to our lands, ecosystems, and public health. Sierra Club activists were leaders in the initial effort to stop the construction of Diablo Canyon, and we continue to oppose its dangerous and environmentally harmful operation today.What is John Muir famous for quizlet? ›
Muir was responsible for the establishment of Sequoia National Park and Yosemite National Park in California. Muir was an advocate for a forest conservation policy and land preservation. He was also the founder of the Sierra Club, an influential organization devoted to protect the environment.What movement was John Muir a part of? ›
A leaf, a flower, a stone – the simple beauty of nature filled John Muir with joy. Muir shared his love of nature through writing and inspired people to protect our country's wild places, fueling the formation of the National Park Service and the modern conservation movement.Who is John Muir and what did he persuade Roosevelt to do? ›
Also in 1906, Muir was able to convince Roosevelt to establish the Petrified Forest National Monument to protect the fossilized trees of Arizona. In 1908, a donated grove of redwood trees near San Francisco became Muir Woods National Monument.Who is the founder of Sierra Club and stated that in every walk with the nature one receives far more than he seek? ›
The John Muir Exhibit features the life and contributions of John Muir: naturalist, writer, conservationist, and founder of the Sierra Club. None of Nature's landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild.What was John Muir also known as? ›
Known as 'the father of national parks' in America, John Muir was instrumental in saving Yosemite Valley, founded the Sierra Club and is now recognised as one of the most influential figures in the conservation movement. And he was born in Scotland, in a small town called Dunbar.Who was John Muir and what did he believe in? ›
We take our name from John Muir (1838-1914), the Scots-born founder of the modern conservation movement. Muir was passionate about wild places. He explored them, wrote about them and campaigned to protect them. Muir believed in protecting wild places – for their own sake, and for the wellbeing of people and wildlife.What is John Muir's greatest legacy? ›
Muir is renowned for being the leader of the Western preservationist movement that led to Yosemite in California becoming a national park, along with a monument in Arizona that became the Petrified Forest National Park.What was John Muir's most significant contribution to the environmental movement? ›
Our namesake had a far-reaching impact and was, among other things, an inventor, writer, explorer, biologist, and botanist. Founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir helped establish our national parks, popularize conservation, and romanticize the concept of unspoiled wilderness.What did John Muir fight stop? ›
At the end of his life, Muir and the Sierra Club fought a bitter and ultimately unsuccessful crusade against construction of the O'Shaughnessy Dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park.
Why did the first immigrants came to America? ›
Many immigrants came to America seeking greater economic opportunity, while some, such as the Pilgrims in the early 1600s, arrived in search of religious freedom.Do you have to pay to be in the Sierra Club? ›
With your donation of $15 or more today, you'll also become a member of the Sierra Club and play a vital role in preserving and defending our natural world.How powerful is the Sierra Club? ›
The Sierra Club is one of the nation's oldest and most powerful environmental activist organizations, with a war chest of over $79 million. Examples of the Sierra Club's radical positions include: Crusading to eliminate the sources of 95 percent of our current energy usage.Who is the best known founder of the Sierra Club? ›
1890s The Sierra Club is founded on May 28, 1892, with John Muir as its first president (read more about John Muir's complex legacy here).Who founded the Sierra Club in 1872 and is considered the father of the preservationist movement? ›
1894 Sierra Club founded with John Muir as President. John Muir is regarded as the father of the American Preservationist movement. 1913 Congress authorizes dam at Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park, the first dam built in national park.Who leads the Sierra Club? ›
Title: Executive director of the Sierra Club, America's largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.What are the Sierra mountains known for? ›
It is home to giant sequoia trees, which grow up to heights of 7,000 feet. Mount Whitney is the highest summit in the region, with an elevation of 4,421 metres (14,505 feet). The Sierra is home to three national parks (Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia).Why are mountains called Sierra? ›
Sierra is a Spanish word meaning mountain chain and saw, from Latin serra. The corresponding word in Portuguese, Catalan and Latin is serra. This name is used for various mountain ranges in Spanish-speaking and other countries (with the word serra used in Portuguese-speaking countries).Who discovered a pass through the Sierra Nevada mountains? ›
James Beckwourth was an African American pioneer, mountain man, fur trader and scout. He was the only African American to ever document his own life story. Beckwourth was instrumental in opening one of four mountain passes through the Sierra Nevada for emigrants as they headed west.Who first found Yosemite? ›
A year or two before 1851 James D. Savage, while in pursuit of Indians, reached a point within a few miles of the valley. But the real discovery of this masterpiece of nature's handiwork was made in 1851, as an incidental result of the effort to settle the Indian problems which had arisen in that region.
How did John Muir found the Sierra Club? ›
The Sierra Club was founded in 1892 by a group of Californians who wished to sponsor wilderness outings in “the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast.” The naturalist John Muir was its first president (1892–1914) and very soon involved the club in political action to further nature conservation.When was the Sierra Club founded and its purpose? ›
The first official chapter was started in 1911 in southern California, while in 1916 the Club supported the bill that created the National Park Service (ibid). The organization continued its conservation efforts by contributing money to preserve lands in Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks (ibid).What does the Sierra Club do for climate change? ›
The Sierra Club can play a major role in both carbon dioxide removal and climate adaptation, and our chapters, groups and major national campaigns are already engaged in this work, but need added resources and expertise to make our engagement more effective.What is the Sierra Club motto? ›
Below this is the Latin phrase Altiora Peto, meaning "I seek high places." Around and above the tree, motto, and letters are a circle with the words "Seal of the Sierra Club." Two five-pointed stars separate these words from "Incorporated 1892."How did the Sierra Club fight for the Grand Canyon? ›
In the 1960s, Sierra's fight to save the Grand Canyon from dams led to a compelling advertising campaign and a showdown with the Internal Revenue Service that galvanized the public to help protect the Grand Canyon.What tactics does the Sierra Club use? ›
For decades, the Sierra Club has represented the essence of moderate, establishment environmentalism. Traditionally, its tactics stopped at strictly legal methods of winning support for its causes, such as writing letters to elected representatives, petitioning, and holding permitted rallies.What is the purpose of the Sierra Club to fight for the preservation of wetlands and wilderness areas? ›
The Sierra Club advocates a consistent public policy to preserve and restore the hydrologic, biologic, and aesthetic values of wetlands as public assets. We place highest priority on the protection of existing natural wetlands.