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.

Aaron Mair
Aaron Mair

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 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 aback. You know when you’re not wanted. They did not have to say, “Why is the black guy here?”

‘Pointing out that you know some black people in a deprived environment is not environmental justice.’

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 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.

‘If we want to save the planet and deal with climate change, we have to engage all of America.’

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 and organizing skill.

‘This is going to be a very transformative moment, because the Sierra Club is walking the talk.’

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.

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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 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.