Big green groups, such as the Sierra Club, have long pledged to conserve and protect the Earth’s natural resources. But, like many organizations in our society during the past six months, environmental groups are also facing a moment of racial reckoning. Last year, the Sierra Club denounced its founder, John Muir, in a public letter. Muir, once called “the father of national parks,” also described Native Americans as “dirty” and referred to African Americans using a racist pejorative. But the Sierra Club’s statement is just the beginning of its goal to recognize the environmental movement’s ties to white supremacy and take action to right past wrongs. In 2019, the Sierra Club slammed the Trump administration’s efforts to shrink the Bears Ears National Monument, considered sacred to many Native American tribes.
About US spoke with Pedro Cruz, acting director of healthy communities at the Sierra Club, about how big green organizations can be more inclusive and address environmental racism.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What are some ways that environmental racism manifests in everyday life for people of color?
Wow, so many ways. No one acknowledges that those communities are impacted the most. Usually, it is easier to locate the source of pollution or the source of environmental problems in communities of color because they are perceived as the community that has less political power. That happens at all levels. It happens at the level of the government and it happens at the level of private corporations when they develop a plant and have to decide where they want to locate it.
Do you have any specific examples of places where this is happening?
Cancer Alley (a.k.a. Death Alley) in Louisiana, where a series of petrochemical plants and other sources of pollution were built down the Mississippi River crossing Black communities from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. 48217 [Wayne County, Mich.] is considered the most polluted Zip code in the nation and is at the heart of a historically Black community, and the Houston suburb of Manchester [near a refinery] impacts a mostly Latino community.
And what are some steps that environmental organizations need to take to be more to be more inclusive?
Big green organizations — which includes the Sierra Club that I work for, League of Conservation Voters, NRDC, Environmental Defense Fund — are mostly led by White, middle-class, college-educated people. I would say that this is the moment of reckoning for all of those organizations. These organizations are questioning how they are interacting with communities of color and whether they’re respecting an equal partnership with the environmental justice community and the larger question of race in the United States. But I think there’s a lot that needs to be done.
When you talk about externally, how do they work in partnership with environmental justice leaders in these communities?
The big problem that we have is that most of the EJ leaders and most of the EJ organizations don’t trust us for historical reasons. When we go to those communities, we go in with an agenda. We go in thinking that we know the solutions for those communities. We go with a proposal for those solutions, and that does not necessarily reflect what the community is thinking. So, we should do a lot of work analyzing and revising how we can have better partnerships with leadership in the EJ communities and communities of color.
Also, the other aspect is funding. They call us “big green” for a reason. Sometimes, we don’t do a good job of spreading the love, of spreading the money with EJ communities. I think our role in that space is to educate funders [in] how they can work better with EJ groups. Because right now that’s one of the main reasons why there’s so much tension between EJ and big greens. Because most of the resources are going to big greens and not to EJs who are directly impacted by environmental racism.
Are big green and environmental justice groups working together?
Oh, yeah, they’ve been in conversation almost for a decade now. There’s a big national organization [The Equitable and Just National Climate Platform] which is basically most of the EJ leaders in the country and most of the big green leaders sitting at the table and having a conversation and reaching agreements on areas that they have in common and where they can work together. That’s a step in the right direction, because at least we are sitting at the table, we are talking to each other, and we’re building on a relationship that didn’t exist before. Or that existed before but in a very tense way.
Earlier this year, the Sierra Club issued a letter about the founder John Muir and his racist views. Do you think that was a good first step?
It was really controversial, to my surprise, because when I hear about it as a person of color, I was really proud. Like, wow, finally! We are recognizing our mistakes and we’re doing the right thing to address it. When I talked to my colleagues, regardless of whether they are White or people of color, they were in agreement. But there was a backlash from some of our volunteers. What they said was that we threw our founder, John Muir, under the bus. So internally, it’s a process that is painful for all the parties involved, because, again, when I hear volunteers say that, it’s hard for me, as person of color, not to take it personally. But it is a good sign. The conversation didn’t stop with denouncing John Muir, but also we had internal conversations about what has historically been the policy of the Sierra Club when we interact with Native American communities.
Can you expand more about the Sierra Club’s relationship with Native American communities?
Well, for example, our founder had eugenic views of the world where he put White people at the top of the hierarchy. That’s problematic because the land that he was working to save and to protect were lands that belonged to Native Americans. Outside of John Muir, there were other people that had similar views in our history as an organization. That doesn’t apply only to Sierra Club; it applies to other big greens. There has been an intentional effort on the leadership of the organization to acknowledge the past and the harm Sierra Club advocacy has done to Native American communities.
What has this last year taught us about how the U.S. government needs to respond to climate change and climate disasters?
Right now, the biggest challenge that we face as a human race is the problem of climate change. One of the reasons why I work for the Sierra Club is because I want to address the problem. Sometimes we forget that communities of color have been historically impacted by environmental problems. Officially, if you ask us, we say that, yeah, we want to create this multiracial movement that is going to address climate change and is going to address all the inequalities in our society. That’s our official position. But it’s easier to say it than to do it. Because internally, every day we are confronted sometimes with conflicting views regarding that. We need to address historical inequalities and how communities of color historically are impacted by both climate change and environmental racism.
President Biden nominated Deb Haaland and Michael Regan to head the Department of Interior and the EPA, respectively. What do you think those selections mean for environmental justice?
I think that it’s a huge, historical push at the executive level to make sure that there is an EJ agenda led by EJ activists who have been in this world for a long time. I think that’s a very positive because the movement has been marginalized in those circles of power. So, I think that’s a step in the right direction.