The country’s most prominent environmental organization has been pondering its past and future for three years. Like many other American institutions, the Sierra Club was rocked by the 2020 killing of George Floyd, who was plagued 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 get out of that assessment. Ben Jealous, a civil rights activist, author, investor and leader of non-profit organizations, has been appointed as the new CEO.
Mr. Jealous, 50, executive chairman 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 dues, hundreds of employees, more than a million members and supporters, and 64 chapters across the country, the Sierra Club is the giant sequoia of the conservation movement—impossible to ignore and at the heart of a sprawling ecosystem of activists , non-profit organizations and grassroots campaigns.
But the murder of Mr. Floyd and the ensuing protests across the country shook the institution’s foundations. Its executive director wrote that the Sierra Club played an “essential role in maintaining white supremacy.” The blog post was an attempt to acknowledge the group’s flaws, but it drew public rebuke from some board members and sparked a fierce internal battle.
That same summer, a Sierra Club employee claimed to have been raped by a former executive who was still a volunteer with the organization, prompting investigations into further allegations 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 assumed public leadership responsibilities, leaving the Sierra Club disoriented in the first year of the Biden presidency when climate change became a key policy issue.
“There was a reckoning moment that was important for the Sierra Club,” Mr. Jealous said. “Settlements are difficult, and I’ve never seen anyone get it right. There’s a lot of pent up emotion and it all comes out.”
Mr Jealous said he hopes to harness that energy, get the Sierra Club more involved in environmental issues that affect minority communities, and find ways to involve more blacks, Hispanics and Asians in the environmental movement.
His appointment comes after nearly a year of searching. After two years as president of People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy group, he joined the Sierra Club.
“He dwarfed and outshined all the other people we interviewed,” said Rita Harris, a Sierra Club board member involved in the search. “He definitely seems like the person we need right now.”
Mr. Jealous, a Rhodes Scholar who ran unsuccessfully for Maryland’s governor in 2018, said his qualifications for the job far exceeded those of a civil rights activist and that he had always been an environmentalist.
Raised in Northern California, Mr. Jealous said his “earliest memories are of sleeping in redwoods.” His parents took him hiking in Yosemite National Park twice a year, and the Sierra Club magazine was always around the house.
At the age of nine, Mr. Jealous said he became the youngest-ever lecturer at his local natural history museum. And as a teenager, he served as a tour guide at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
As a young professional, he continued to engage with environmental issues. At the Public Interest Research Group, an organization founded by Ralph Nader, he helped found the Neighborhood Green Corps, a program that provided young college graduates with exposure to grassroots activism. And at the NAACP, he launched a climate justice program, an effort focused on environmental issues affecting black communities.
“I’ve been the first Sierra Club executive in a while to grow up and sleep among a redwood forest in Northern California,” he said.
But as Mr. Jealous prepares to go on an audio tour in his first few months on the job, he’s likely to hear from employees who are still going through some difficult years for the organization.
In the summer of 2020, as Covid raged and protests erupted in the streets of American cities, a national discussion of systemic racism was in full swing. A parade of high-profile corporations, universities and nonprofits became embroiled in public strife as employees, consumers and critics amassed.
But even during this turbulent time, what was happening at the Sierra Club was outstanding.
Michael Brune, the group’s longtime CEO, wrote a blog post titled “Pulling Down Our Monuments.” In it he disowned 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 was also friends with some early club members who were white supremacists and promoted eugenics.
The Sierra Club, Mr. Brune wrote, had done “significant and immeasurable damage,” adding that “as defenders of black life tear down Confederate monuments across the country, we must also take this moment to renew our past and our essential role.” to investigate in maintaining white supremacy.”
The post sparked a backlash inside and outside the organization, with some board members publicly criticizing Mr Brune and other prominent environmentalists, and questioning his characterization of Mr Muir. Mr. Brune left the organization in August 2021.
Mr Jealous said he hoped to get out of the controversy, but saw Mr Muir first as a conservationist.
“When I look at John Muir, I see a man in the late 19th century who spoke a lot like men in the late 19th century,” he said. “The way I grew up was really appreciating him as someone who helped preserve the most beautiful places that were the landscape of my childhood.”
Mr. Jealous will also have to deal with an organization that, according to an internal report by Ramona Strategies, an advisory group, tolerated bullying behavior by senior executives and lacked a strong culture of accountability.
“We have to deal with all issues of justice within the Sierra Club,” said Mr. Jealous. “This absolutely includes issues of gender and racial justice and also wage justice. We have people who are chapter staff who make 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 commotion behind them, times have changed. The Sierra Club is no longer just focused on preserving the pristine nature. Instead, she champions voting rights and other progressive causes that are not overtly about fighting to protect the environment and fight climate change.
“While we were interested in preserving the Sierra Nevada a hundred years ago, we now know that to preserve that we also need livelihoods that can ensure they can be preserved for future generations, good wages, all in All of that,” said Ramón Cruz, the Sierra Club’s board chairman, who has effectively served as chairman since Mr. Brune’s resignation. “It’s impossible to separate these things.”
Mr. Jealous, who has broadened the range of issues the NAACP has addressed during his tenure — while also expanding his membership and fundraising in the process — is eager to attempt and accomplish the same feat at the Sierra Club.
“More than any other environmental group, the Sierra Club has rapidly become more inclusive,” he said. “We cannot save the planet and take on the ravages of poverty.”
What that 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 electricity grid. He added that the Sierra Club had a role to play in ensuring the $370 billion in climate protection funds included in the Inflation Reduction Act were not wasted.
“This is nothing but political pork unless movements are built in every single state in this country to ensure those dollars are spent effectively,” he said.
Yet efforts to expand wind and solar power across the country are met with growing local opposition, which at times pits indigenous groups against renewable energy project developers.
“These are real conversations that we will be prepared for,” said Mr. Jealous. “And the only organization that could really lead that effectively would be an organization that is passionate about protecting the planet as well as about social justice. Ultimately, the best solutions require us to figure out how to keep both in mind at the same time.”