As Confederate statues fall across the country, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in an early morning post on the group’s website, “it’s time to take down some of our own monuments, starting with some truth-telling about the Sierra Club’s early history.” Muir, who fought to preserve Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Forest, once referred to African Americans as lazy “Sambos,” a racist pejorative that many black people consider to be even more offensive than the n-word.
While recounting a legendary walk from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico, Muir described Native Americans he encountered as “dirty.”
Muir’s friendships in the early 1900s were equally troubling, the Sierra Club said. Henry Fairfield Osborn, a close associate, led the New York Zoological Society and the board of trustees of the American Museum of Natural History and, following Muir’s death, helped establish the American Eugenics Society, which labeled nonwhite people, including Jews at the time, as inferior.
The Sierra Club isn’t the only organization that is shaking its foundations. Leaders of predominantly white, liberal and progressive groups throughout the field of conservation say they are taking a hard look within their organizations and don’t like what they see.
African American and other minority employees are pointing out the lack of diversity in green groups and the racial bias that persists in top and mid-level management.
The most startling example is a manifesto by Ruth Tyson, an employee at the Union of Concerned Scientists who quit recently after she “woke up feeling resentment and agony” because her job there was unbearable. Tyson flipped open a laptop to write a short email explaining why she was quitting with only a three-day notice but didn’t stop until she had written 17 pages of searing criticism.
She sent it to 200 people.
Her open letter ripped the organization’s casual indifference to black workers. Their ideas were routinely dismissed and the community outreach jobs they were hired to perform were a low priority. Tyson said the Union of Concerned Scientists, along with other groups, has fallen woefully short in its efforts to make its workplace more diverse and help communities disproportionately impacted by pollution.
Tyson was one of four black women on a 14-member team when she started work three years ago, watching as they quit or were forced out. Now there are none.
“They simply baited us in with the language of equity without making significant infrastructural, cultural, and procedural changes to prioritize and accommodate the [people of color or] the actual work of racial equity,” she wrote. “As if anti-racist work were something you could just sprinkle on top.”
Remarkably, her bosses agreed.
“I’ve read the letter many times,” said Ken Kimmell, the organization’s president. “I thought it was fair, yeah. I think this is part of a larger issue in all of society and there is real meaning to the culture of white supremacy.
“There are ways that a white-dominated workplace doesn’t make it welcoming to persons of color,” Kimmell said. “I have subsequently learned that many of the things she raised in her letter were not unique to her and things other people of color have experienced.”
Now, like other green groups, the Union of Concerned Scientists is vowing to look at the way it’s structured; diversify its board, workers and managers; and police casual racial bias.
At the 53-year-old Environmental Defense Fund, Fred Krupp, its president, also promised change. “The pandemic has exposed for the American public inequities that have existed, including access to health care, neighborhoods that are much more polluted than others,” Krupp said.
“I don’t feel EDF is being pressured. I’m feeling pressure from the facts, the inequities that have been laid bare by covid and the events following George Floyd’s murder and that EDF hasn’t done nearly enough on environmental justice issues and issues involving racism,” Krupp said.