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After Sierra Club's racial reckoning, its new leader pushes forward


Yosemite is renowned for its towering sequoias and waterfalls and polished granite domes. It became a national park thanks to the lobbying of conservationist John Muir, whose legacy lives on in the organization he founded, the Sierra Club. That group has been wrestling with the racist and exclusionary attitudes embedded in some of its founding ideals. Ben Jealous was recently chosen to be the group's executive director. He starts the job in two weeks, and the former head of the NAACP is the first person of color to lead the Sierra Club. He's here to talk about the road ahead. Welcome.

BEN JEALOUS: Thank you. It's good to be here.

SHAPIRO: Before we get to your role as leader of this organization, take me back to your childhood. What was your relationship to the natural world like?

JEALOUS: Oh, you know, my parents had met in Baltimore. Their marriage was against the law.

SHAPIRO: Because it was an interracial marriage.

JEALOUS: Yes, because Mom's Black and Dad's white. And we ended up on the coast of Northern California. I was - literally spent my childhood, you know, playing hide and seek between redwood trees in Big Sur.

SHAPIRO: You've spent most of your career fighting for equality and justice for people. Do you see your role at the Sierra Club as a pivot from that work or a continuation of it?

JEALOUS: Oh, it's a continuation of it and a continuation of my life. My first order of business at the NAACP was launching our climate justice program. We had just had Hurricane Katrina, and there was a deep awareness that poor communities generally and Black communities historically, because of segregation, were in very vulnerable places, places like the Lower Ninth Ward. So, you know that part of it - I'd say the - climate change has pushed a lot of things together. There's a awareness that right now, the best thing that we can do for peace in our time, to assure the future of the human race is to fight to make this planet healthier. It's dying.

SHAPIRO: That's a big task. And so how do you view your job at this particular moment as the leader of the Sierra Club? What's the concise description?

JEALOUS: You know, the concise description is to keep doing what we've been doing. We, the last 10 years, have run the most effective, anti-climate change campaign in the United States. We shut down more than 250 coal-fired power plants. We also played a key role in passing the Inflation Reduction Act and the associated infrastructure bill, and those have concentrated capital for essentially creating a tipping point in our economy, taking our economy from an economy, frankly, that's been fueled by industries that treat both the wild and people as disposable and shifting towards an economy where we will soon be creating more jobs that help save the planet than ones that help destroy it.

SHAPIRO: There is this growing recognition that the American environmental movement was in many ways founded on exclusionary and racist ideas. Dorceta Taylor of Yale University has done some of this research. And here's something she told me in an interview last year.


DORCETA TAYLOR: We see a taking of Native American lands to turn into park spaces that are described as empty, untouched by human hands, pristine, to be protected. So this is where the language of preservation really crosses over into this narrative of exclusion.

SHAPIRO: And so how do you now build something inclusive on that foundation?

JEALOUS: Well, that's the challenge for our country. My dad's white. My mom's Black. My father's grandmother, you know, flirted with eugenics. It was a parlor game amongst wealthy whites in this country, you know, in the 1920s. The reality is that if you want to rebuild any American institution - whether it's the U.S. Congress, or it's the Sierra Club, or it's Harvard University - you're going to have to reckon with the history of those institutions. For the Sierra Club right now, the reality is that the urgency of the work on the ground has required people to really shift, I'd say, in many ways, from Hurricane Katrina forward, to figure out how to work across all lines of division.

SHAPIRO: I think leading an environmental organization in this moment can be so reactive when there is every day another hurricane, wildfire or flood. How do you avoid that gravitational pull and take the big picture?

JEALOUS: You've got to do both. We've got to work more on resilience. That's certainly one of the conversations. I mean, people are scared because the big storms keep coming. So you've just got to deal with the real, you know, while you're focused on achieving great aspirations. What keeps us focused is knowing that we have specific goals that we have to meet to keep the planet from getting above one degree warmer, two degrees warmer, three degrees warmer. That's kind of a scientific equation with this crazy X factor that is politics.

And so it keeps us very busy working to create consensus, not just in Washington but in every state capital and every major county, right down to small towns, about the steps that need to be taken. The good news is that where, as environmentalists - and I've been active in this movement since I was a kid - you typically show up with sticks, the Inflation Reduction Act gives us the chance to show up with carrots. You know, you typically talk about stopping industry, and that means jobs. And now we get to talk about starting new industries. There is a chance to really build an inclusive economy.

SHAPIRO: Ben Jealous is the incoming executive director of the Sierra Club. Thank you so much for talking with us.

JEALOUS: Thank you for talking to me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.