Sierra Club commits to truth telling about its racist past, elevate voices of people of color within the organization

The Sierra Club, the nation’s oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization, announced today that it was in the process of truth telling about the organization’s racist past, making plans to take down or reinterpret monuments to early Club leaders, and making institutional changes that reflect its commitment to racial justice.

Michael Brune (Photo: Sierra Club)

Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director, published an article today on the organization’s website titled: “Pulling down our monuments.” It opens:

The Sierra Club is a 128-year-old organization with a complex history, some of which has caused significant and immeasurable harm. As defenders of Black life pull down Confederate monuments across the country, we must also take this moment to reexamine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.

It will be the first in a series of posts that discuss how the Sierra Club has had to evolve on everything from immigration and population control to environmental justice and Indigenous sovereignty.

We will also devote a post to a discussion of how the Sierra Club is working to center the voices of people we have historically ignored, so we can begin repairing some of the harms done.”

The article puts forward the Club’s early, racist history, including truth telling about Club founder John Muir, who “maintained friendships with people like Henry Fairfield Osborn, who worked for both the conservation of nature and the conservation of the white race.” Brune continued:

Muir was not immune to the racism peddled by many in the early conservation movement. He made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life. As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, 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.

Early Club leaders such as Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan “were vocal advocates for white supremacy and its pseudo-scientific arm, eugenics.”

John Muir, circa 1902. (Photo: Library of Congress)

The Sierra Club will spend the next year “studying our history and determining which of our monuments need to be renamed or pulled down entirely.”

The Sierra Club’s white supremacy continued well into the 20th Century.

In these early years, the Sierra Club was basically a mountaineering club for middle- and upper-class white people who worked to preserve the wilderness they hiked through — wilderness that had begun to need protection only a few decades earlier, when white settlers violently displaced the Indigenous peoples who had lived on and taken care of the land for thousands of years. The Sierra Club maintained that basic orientation until at least the 1960s because membership remained exclusive. Membership could only be granted through sponsorship from existing members, some of whom screened out any applicants of color.

Brune offered an apology:

For all the harms the Sierra Club has caused, and continues to cause, to Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color, I am deeply sorry. I know that apologies are empty unless accompanied by a commitment to change. I am making that commitment, publicly, right now. And I invite you to hold me and other Sierra Club leaders, staff, and volunteers accountable whenever we don’t live up to our commitment to becoming an actively anti-racist organization.

Brune outlines institutional changes in the works:

To begin with, we are redesigning our leadership structure so that Black, Indigenous, and other leaders of color at the Sierra Club make up the majority of the team making top-level organizational decisions. We will initiate similar changes to elevate the voices and experiences of staff of color across the organization. We know that the systems of power that got us here will not enable the transformational change we need.

Pending approval from our board, we will shift $5 million from our budget over the next year — and more in the years to come — to make long-overdue investments in our staff of color and our environmental and racial justice work. We will create a dialogue with, and resources for, our members about the intersection between racism and environmental justice issues, and invest in our HR and training capacities to ensure that staff, volunteers, and members are held accountable for any harm they inflict upon members of our Sierra Club community who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color. We will also spend the next year studying our history and determining which of our monuments need to be renamed or pulled down entirely.

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