Yesterday, the Sierra Club published a post on their Insider blog - “Yep, We’re Too White”. It’s a very short post highlighting that last week, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson called for more “diversity” in environmental movements, and you, Sierra Club President Allison Chin, responded that the Club is increasing it’s diversity, and that your election as the first Asian-American president is proof positive of the changes.
My friend Bryant Terry, who, like me, is one of many leaders of color re-imagining sustainability and the relationship of ALL people to the planet, brought to my attention the comments section following the post. It’s pretty devastating stuff…lots of folks who think people of color aren’t (and won’t) do their part for the sustainability of the planet, who have no real understanding of how interconnected all people are, who can’t understand how decades long economic crisis in our communities makes it difficult to prioritize natural habitats over the home habitat, who seem perfectly comfortable with a majority-white environmental movement in a minority-white world, or who just seem really miffed about being called white.
I don’t have much to say to all of those folks, cause I will admit, the Sierra Club is not where I do my work.
But, perhaps, I can speak to you Allison, as a woman of color leader in a traditionally white environmental organization, in an overwhelmingly white environmental movement. From my own experience I offer this: Please ignore the hateful comments, and the divestment of hateful people from your organization.
Years ago, I wrote a piece about the changes needed in the environmental movement. I was just beginning to learn about the environmental justice analysis at that point, and was mostly upset that large scale traditional environmental organizations didn’t even seem to be trying. I was absolutely speaking about organizations like the Sierra Club.
The leadership, the members, the outreach - no one was connecting my life, and the real issues of my community, to the survival of the planet. It was planet first, people later.
Now I see further proof of why the change is so hard. The majority of the critiques that you are already getting for any attempt to evolve the Sierra Club focus on two things:
1) that people of color don’t really care about nature and why should white people bend over to include them in saving the environment, or sharing a healthier planet? and/or
2) that it is racist to even notice a lack of diversity.
This kind of thinking is as scary as it is sad. To start with the second point - it is important for Sierra Club members to understand why a group like theirs would consider being diverse. It would be easier to talk about that if folks in the traditional environmental movement learned how to hear that they as a body are too white, and not to take that as a personal critique of them as people, or even of whiteness, but as a political critique around who holds power and has privilege and makes decisions in this country.
The major missing piece in the environmental puzzle, still, is the understanding that we are one species on one planet. No matter how much we argue over superiority, inferiority, accountability, priorities - at a certain point we ALL have to face the reality that our existence is interdependent at the root, and we cannot resolve the issue of our collective survival in silos - be they separated by race, class, or any other lines. This means we have to be in the conversation, together, pushing and dragging and loving each other along.
Sister, do not be deterred. I was blessed when I came to head The Ruckus Society, because the majority of members and donors already recognized that the environmental movement needed more than mere inclusion and a variety of races at the table - it needed leadership and investment from directly impacted communities. It needed white leaders to take a step back while leaders of color took several steps forward - and with all that stepping we still only had a small chance at some equality, because the long-term legacy of systemic, structural racism and class-ism are so deeply rooted within all of us.
I was blessed because a majority of folks at Ruckus already realized that leadership from directly impacted communities isn’t a matter of identity politics, or social justice thinking intruding upon environmentalism…it is a necessary step in destroying the wall between these movements which isn’t allowing us to see the real solutions. We lost some donors for sure, but the majority of them understood that inequality is not an outcome of climate crisis, it is the cause.
We understand that you can’t just protect one little piece of land and think the birds and trees there will be safe, while everything else around it is destroyed in order to serve the needs of people who are constantly being told they need more of everything. We have been selling the entire world an American dream that is about material, instead of community. Now, we need to shift our priorities, and learn to live in community with each other. We need to all be on that message - not looking for easy, entrepreneurial solutions, but all of us taking the message to our communities that we have to evolve, we have to accept each other and protect each other, take leadership from each other and learn to live in new ways. That solution has to be leadership from every kind of people, in every kind of organization.
Even - especially - those organizations like Sierra Club which are already passionate about the planet. It is time to be passionate enough to see the human ecosystem, and invest in the health of the whole. I know all of your members won’t see that right away, and some of them never will. But the steps you are taking are right, and your leadership in this direction, at this moment is desperately needed. Don’t back down, don’t apologize, don’t acquiesce. Hold the mirror up to the Sierra Club, and transform it.
As James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Thank you for facing the change needed in your organization, and in the environmental movement.
Adrienne Maree Brown
The Ruckus Society