03 Jun 2015: Interview

A New Face at the Helm of
The Oldest U.S. Green Group

The Sierra Club has chosen Aaron Mair as its president, the first African-American to lead the largest U.S. environmental organization. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about the lack of diversity in the environmental movement and what can be done to change that.

by diane toomey

The Sierra Club made history last month when it elected the first African-American board president in the organization’s 123-year history. Aaron Mair’s rise through the group’s volunteer ranks came after he led a 10-year battle to close a solid-waste incinerator that was polluting his predominately black neighborhood in Albany, New York. Despite what he describes as a “horrible,” racially tinged initial encounter
Aaron Mair
Aaron Mair
with the organization’s state leadership, Mair went on to become the national Sierra Club’s environmental justice chair and, now, its board president.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Mair — who works for the New York State Department of Health — discusses why it’s time to end a “Victorian-era model of environmentalism” that is “only worthy of the white and the privileged,” laments the lack of diversity in environmental groups, and talks about why he believes increasing minority participation in greem organizations is more critical than ever.

“If we want to save the planet, if we want to deal with climate change, we have to engage all of America,” says Mair.

Yale Environment 360: Your first encounter with the Sierra Club wasn’t very promising.

Aaron Mair: It was horrible.

e360: During the fight over the incinerator in your Albany neighborhood you approached the New York State chapter of the Sierra Club for help. Tell me what happened.

Mair: There were local Sierra Club activists who were witnesses to what was happening regarding the horrors of this incinerator. They asked me to do a presentation before the Atlantic chapter, which is the Sierra Club’s state chapter, to get campaign support. The Sierra Club is the nation’s oldest, recognized brand for this activity. We felt very positive that we had a compelling case and that it would be a logical fit with the club’s mission.

So a local Sierra Club activist, Roger Gray, and I traveled down to New York City together to make the case on behalf of the community. Unfortunately, we received such a poor reception that Roger was taken
Pointing out that you know some black people in a deprived environment is not environmental justice.’
aback. You know when you're not wanted. They did not have to say, “Why is the black guy here?”

But we weren’t joined in the fight by a lot of environmental organizations. Sure, Greenpeace came in and hung people from incinerator smokestacks. But a lot of these things did more to elevate their brand, rather than bringing people in to deal with the needs of the community on the ground. And so there were what I call “environmental drive-bys.” A lot of mainstream green groups, predominantly white local green groups, feel that they’re doing environmental justice by just saying, “Here’s a black community suffering with environmental issues.” Pointing out that you know some black people in a struggling or a deprived environment is not environmental justice. So relative to environmental organizations, we were left out in the cold.      

e360: But despite the disappointing reaction that you got, you opted to join the Sierra Club. Walk me through your thinking on that decision.

Mair: There were those who were white who, like Roger, were emblematic of what I call “the old abolitionists” – people who felt that we had a right to be there. He rose up and said we should be looking at the environment, not these people’s color or status. And that was sufficient enough for me to step forward.

Just like Frederick Douglass, I had enough white brothers and sisters to come up and do the right thing and do the green thing and the inclusive thing. And because Roger took that step, I turned to him and I said, “Listen, brother, I’m going to come back and help you change this so that we can build a stronger movement.” Because at the end of the day, the people do need the technology of organizing and mobilizing that the Sierra Club had. Roger stayed with us and helped us in the field. As a result, he changed my heart from one of anger to saying, “How do we work together?” I felt, just as I needed to change the conditions and the laws that allowed that incinerator to be in place, I also had to reach back and help the Sierra Club.

e360: You've said that one of your goals as board president is to increase diversity in the Sierra Club, right down to the grass-roots level. What percentage of Sierra Club’s membership is minority? And what are some initial steps you’d like to see toward increasing that percentage?

Mair: It is clearly down in the low digits. The national board of directors is more diverse than any of the club’s chapters’ boards or any of the group boards throughout the nation. I would say about almost 40 percent of the national board are people of color.

e360: At the grassroots level, how do you recruit more minority membership?

Mair: Remember, before I got to the board I rose up through the ranks as a grassroots activist, so I was one of the environmental justice campaign leaders within the club for over a decade. I served as a chapter chair on one
If we want to save the planet and deal with climate change, we have to engage all of America.’
of the most difficult and reactionary chapters, which is the New York State Atlantic Chapter, with over 41,000 members. So I’m at ground zero of a chapter and a state that brought me to the club, but also needs to change. By passing through this organization from the grass roots to the top, I’ve developed an intimate understanding of just how people organize and what community is to the Sierra Club at the grass roots.

The question is how do I start to now inject new DNA of at least being receptive and respectful of others. Because members should never look at another individual because of their color, or the fact that they’re coming from a poor area, and give them the sense — even though it's an unsaid sense — that they don’t belong.

I come from a family of sharecroppers, and sharecroppers at the height of the Depression, their strength was in sharing. Regardless of what your resources are, you can still be welcoming to your neighbor, regardless of their background or color.

e360: For the Sierra Club, then, it sounds like part of the effort to increase minority membership isn't a matter of focusing on different issues, it's a matter of the message that the organization is sending.

Mair: It's not just messaging. It's that human interaction, at the grassroots level, that binds us and helps us form a community. My race, my poverty status, or where I live is secondary. If we want to save the planet, if we want to deal with climate change, we have to engage all of America — not middle-class America, not elite America, not science America, or Tea Party America. It has to include all America.

e360: A couple of years ago, I interviewed Jacqueline Patterson, of the NAACP. She said that when she tries to explain the relevancy of climate change to some communities, she gets reactions along the lines of, “Well, we’re dealing with double-digit unemployment and people being racially profiled and high murder rates, so why should melting ice caps and polar bear extinction become a priority for us?” Is that something you encounter as well? And if so, how do you respond?

Mair: You have to come up with the pedagogy that actually breaks down how climate change is meaningful to them. And that’s where you talk about what is a green or a clean economy. And so telling people, “Listen, what if you can change the environment and reduce your child’s risk of asthma attacks and at the same time we reduce your energy bill by putting solar panels on your roof and put in a smart grid and dig out this rotting plumbing infrastructure? …. Environmental activists have to speak in the full picture. And to that end, we can hook up with the NAACP and Urban League and urban movements and the churches and bring that technical
This is going to be a very transformative moment, because the Sierra Club is walking the talk.’
and organizing skill.

e360: How would you define success for your tenure one year from now?

Mair: Success a year from now would be to develop a timeline in which we are able to make real the strategic plan that we have just developed to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion. And so we’re pushing what’s happening at the national board [in terms of diversity] down to the next tier. This is going to be a very transformative moment for the organization. Because the Sierra Club is walking the talk. And all other green organizations, if they are not doing this, then they should not be out there.

e360: Many national environmental groups have disclosed their diversity data to GuideStar, the clearinghouse for information on nonprofits. The Sierra Club is one of them. But some groups, including Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund, so far have not. What do you make of that?

Mair: They remind me of where Sierra Club was at when I, as a poor activist coming from a poor community, made a plea on behalf of that community for assistance. They’re where the Sierra Club was over 25 years


Coal Pollution and the Fight
For Environmental Justice

Jacqueline Patterson
As its director of "climate justice," Jacqueline Patterson is leading the NAACP’s campaign to shut down coal-burning power plants in minority communities. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, she talks about the skepticism she faces from her own constituents.
ago. So they’re 25 years behind the game if they’re still not diverse and if they’re still not taking action. What the metrics allow people to do is to come clean. If we demand coal companies and polluters come clean and present the data on what they’re dumping into the environment, then environmental groups must also come clean with the data on how reflective they are of the world.

I think that the more open you are and the sooner that you do this, you help the global struggle against climate change. I would say to the funders, “Do you want to continue investing in those who believe in the Victorian-era model of environmentalism, whereby the environment is only worthy of the white and the privileged?” And if you're taking that stance, then you're really not an environmentalist.      

POSTED ON 03 Jun 2015 IN Energy Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Sustainability North America 


This is great news.
I've long proudly worked for liberal movements -
especially more democratic elections and for
environmental awareness - always wishing we'd
achieve more minority membership. Recently,
however, I realized we in "progressive-America" are
so stressed at home, our focus has narrowed to
almost exclude the scourge of world poverty.
So, I've spent the year learning in MOOC's of the UN,
about its plans for a newly sustainable world-
economy, one which eliminates the worst
poverty/disease while eliminating fossil fuel use.
Mr. Mair's stewardship at Sierra Club will help lead to
the change in thinking the United States needs now -
that we are one people, that, "We all inhabit this
small planet..." as President Kennedy said in his
Peace Speech.
Posted by Dorothy Knable on 14 Jun 2015

Congratulations and I wish you the best! I was with you until your final vitriolic statement about “Victorian-era environmentalism.” Must you adopt the language of the detractors of the environmental movement? Not only is the characterization inaccurate, it has the capacity to sour people who might otherwise continue to support the Sierra Club. Instead of contributing to the straw man argument, one hopes leadership energy will be directed toward mobilizing inactive people, or helping enlighten those who pour their lives into professional sports, celebrity worship, or pining for the next generation of video games. The hurdles to enacting serious change are already significant enough without resorting to tired rhetoric.
Posted by Kyle G on 16 Jun 2015

Regarding his first experience with Sierra, in Sierra Club's The Planet (May 18, 2015), Mair states, "I believe the real issue was one of resources: the Club simply wasn't sure it could take on another campaign." Pity he didn't mention that here. Having a person of color at the helm is real progress for his organization, but not if he spends his time disparaging former colleagues and playing the race card.
Posted by Makayla Coleman on 16 Jun 2015

To the editor of Yale Environment 360:

In your interview with Aaron Mair, the new president of the Sierra Club, he said this about his initial experience with the Atlantic (New York State) Chapter: “It was horrible.”

He recounted a visit to a Chapter Executive Committee meeting to ask for help in opposing an incinerator in Arbor Hill, NY:

“So a local Sierra Club activist, Roger Gray, and I traveled down to New York City together to make the case on behalf of the community. Unfortunately, we received such a poor reception that Roger was taken aback. You know when you're not wanted. They did not have to say, ‘Why is the black guy here?’”

Efforts of Atlantic Chapter leaders to investigate this incident have yielded no supporting evidence. Our longtime Chapter Secretary, Jim Lane, stating that he did not remember any such meeting, asked some 65 subscribers to the two main Chapter listservs if they could recall such an incident. No one reported any such recollection. He also copied Aaron Mair on his inquiry but received nothing from him. Another longtime Chapter ExCom member, Don Young, also not recalling such a meeting himself, plowed through minutes of many Chapter ExCom meetings without finding any corroboration of Aaron Mair’s account.

We have known Chapter leaders for many years, and we know that they do not harbor racial prejudices, and would not brush off a proposal based on the ethnicity of the proponent.

“Why Is the black guy here?”, a thought attributed to our leaders, is a fabrication and deeply offensive.

Aaron Mair goes on to say,

“I served as a chapter chair on one of the most difficult and reactionary chapters, which is the New York State Atlantic Chapter, with over 41,000 members. So I’m at ground zero of a chapter and a state that brought me to the club, but also needs to change."

He was elected for one year (2002) by the leaders whom he had chastised. On to the present day, we are “most difficult and reactionary.” In a bizarro analogy, he describes himself as at “ground zero,” apparently under siege by local Sierrans.

His assertion that the Chapter “needs to change” may reference the current effort by the Board of Directors, which he leads, to force us to change our bylaws, which the Chapter Executive Committee in April voted overwhelmingly to oppose.

Thank you,

--Don Young, Atlantic Chapter Chair, 1991-1994 Chair, AC ExCom Efficiency Committee

--Jim Lane, Atlantic Chapter Secretary Chair, AC Bylaws & Standing Rules Committee

--Moisha Blechman, Chair, Atlantic Chapter Climate Change Committee Chair, AC Publications Committee

--Diane Buxbaum, Cochair, Atlantic Chapter Population, Environment & Consumption Committee

--Andrew Lawrence, Co-chair, Atlantic Chapter Sterling Forest/Highlands Committee

--Jurgen Wekerle, Co-chair, Atlantic Chapter Sterling Forest/Highlands Committee

--Don Hughes, Atlantic Chapter delegate (2007 – present)
Posted by Young, Lane, et al. on 10 Aug 2015


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Diane Toomey, who conducted this interview for Yale Environment 360, is an award-winning public radio journalist who has worked at Marketplace, the World Vision Report, and Living on Earth, where she was the science editor. Her reporting has won numerous awards, including the American Institute of Biological Sciences' Media Award. She currently is an associate researcher at the PBS science show NOVA.



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