Sierra Club to address history of racism, white supremacy, and restructure leadership, director says

The Sierra Club, one of the United States’ oldest environmental groups, said Wednesday it will confront a history of racism and white supremacist viewpoints within its organization following nationwide protests against racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

The organization is planning a series of blog posts examining questionable elements of its history, including the viewpoints of its founder, famed conservationist John Muir. In an open letter entitled “Pulling Down Our Monuments,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said it was time for the Sierra Club to reckon with the words of Muir and other early members.

“The Sierra Club is a 128-year-old organization with a complex history, some of which has caused significant and immeasurable harm,” Brune wrote in an open letter posted on the organization's website. “As defenders of Black life pull down Confederate monuments across the country, we must also take this moment to re-examine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.”

While Muir’s “writings taught generations of people to see the sacredness of nature,” he also “made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes,” according to Brune. Muir was a friend of Henry Fairfield Osborn, another conservationist who espoused white supremacist views and helped to found the American Eugenics Society.

Other early Sierra Club members, including Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan, also held white supremacist viewpoints. For example, Jordan supported forced sterilization laws and founded the Human Betterment Foundation, a group whose research later inspired eugenics legislation in Nazi Germany.

“The whiteness and privilege of our early membership fed into a very dangerous idea -- one that’s still circulating today. It’s the idea that exploring, enjoying and protecting the outdoors can be separated from human affairs,” Brune said.

Aside from the blog posts, the Sierra Club will restructure its leadership to be more inclusive, it said, and will commit $5 million toward supporting the Sierra Club's staffing overhaul and combating racial injustice.

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“To begin with, we are redesigning our leadership structure so that Black, Indigenous and other leaders of color at the Sierra Club make up the majority of the team making top-level organizational decisions,” Brune said. “We will initiate similar changes to elevate the voices and experiences of staff of color across the organization. We know that the systems of power that got us here will not enable the transformational change we need.”

The Sierra Club was founded in 1982. As of this year, it has more than three million members.