Anti-racist work requires me to revisit history and stories. As heartbreaking and appalling as this study can be, its truthful revelations are fertile ground for my understanding, growth, and change. I’m feeling a lot of heartbreak and hope these days, and the latest came last week when I read The Washington Post article,
“Liberal, progressive — and racist? The Sierra Club faces its white-supremacist history.”
Washington Post journalists Darryl Fears and Steven Mufson reported the 128-year-old Sierra Club, the largest grassroots environmental organization in the United States, pledged to “…take this moment to reexamine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.” While the Post article’s opening focuses on the Sierra Club, it also identifies other green organizations taking a hard look in the mirror at their policies, leadership, funding, and activities. They cite The Union of Concerned Scientists, The Environmental Defense Fund, and Green Latinos as also working to right the inequities in their organizations. That’s hopeful news.
I followed the article’s link to an official post by Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, who pointed to hard truths about the organization. He wrote:
“The most monumental figure in the Sierra Club’s past is John Muir. Beloved by many of our members, his writings taught generations of people to see the sacredness of nature. But Muir maintained friendships with people like Henry Fairfield Osborn, who worked for both the conservation of nature and the conservation of the white race.
And 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.”
Brune goes on to acknowledge, “…the whiteness and privilege of our early membership… is what allows some people to shut their eyes to the reality that the wild places we love are also the ancestral homelands of Native peoples, forced off their lands in the decades or centuries before they became national parks.” Appalling.
Brune’s post outlines Sierra Club plans to “…enable the transformational change we need.”
- redesign its leadership structure so that Black, Indigenous, and other leaders of color will make top-level organizational decisions
- elevate the voices and experiences of staff of color
- shift millions of dollars from its budget to invest in staff of color and environmental and racial justice work
- dialogue with Sierra Club members about the intersection between racism and environmental justice
- hold staff, volunteers, and members accountable for harm they inflict upon members of Sierra Club community who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color.
- study its history to determine which of its monuments need to be renamed or pulled down entirely.
Heartbreaking as the truth about John Muir is, I’m grateful the Sierra Club has claimed it (as well as other racist actions), made it public, and is taking action. Hard truths need to be revealed before they can be healed.
What hard truths are you learning about? How are they helping you grow?
*Afterthoughts are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, previous posts, maybe even bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets.