Sierra Club President on John Muir and Racism in the Environmental Movement: We Want to Learn From History, Not Erase It

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Ramón Cruz, the first Latino president in the Sierra Club's century-long history. (Iwona Alfred via Sierra Club)

One of America's most revered environmental groups is undergoing a radical self-examination, both earning applause and triggering pushback from its members.

In a recent open letter, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune confronts head-on the racism embedded in the organization’s 128-year history.

The letter, explored in this post from KQED's Kevin Stark, marks a seismic shift for the organization. It lays bare derogatory comments that founder and naturalist John Muir made toward people of color and how some of the club’s founding members held white supremacist views.

Now, Ramón Cruz, the club's newly elected national president and the first Latino to hold that position, weighs in on the controversy in a conversation with KQED's Brian Watt.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your reaction to Michael Brune's letter?

Ramón Cruz: It's long past time for the Sierra Club to own its history. We have been grappling with this for years, so it's not something new to have open discussions among our staff, our volunteers and leaders about the true legacy of the people who founded this institution. We're actively reevaluating figures from our past whose ideology caused immeasurable harm to oppressed groups, including John Muir, among several others. We see this as a long, transformative journey. And this is just the first step to look inside, to look at where we have exercised privilege, where we have caused harm, in order to also look into the future, as an organization, that is consistent with our values.

Has there been pushback on this first step?

Well, certainly. It's part of this moment of reckoning the whole nation is going through with the movement for Black Lives. There are people who are well advanced into that journey of reexamination and introspection and recognizing where all our privileges play in. And certainly there are others for whom this is a difficult reality to accept. I mean, some of these figures, [like John Muir,] are sacred to many of us. So there is pushback. There are people who would prefer the Sierra Club to only deal with, say, saving nature, regardless of what it implies. But saving nature for whom to enjoy and to benefit? So, I think we have been on this journey for a number of years now, to center everything we do on equity and justice.

Sierra Club founder John Muir's name is on so many things, especially in California. Should that name be removed from parks and high schools?

Right now, we're not advocating for getting rid of one name or another. We are in this process of reexamining our history and exposing things. We don't want to throw away or cancel John Muir. His writings about the sacredness of nature are still very important documents to learn from. But that's no reason to pretend that he was a perfect hero without any flaws or refuse to acknowledge the harm to native and Indigenous peoples that the early conservationists were so directly connected with. So we're not advocating to erase him from history. We don't want to erase history. We want to learn from it.

We have been on this journey for many years. For example, in 2016, the Sierra Club asked the National Park Service to change the name of the Joseph LeConte lodge in Yosemite. This was a friend of John Muir who was one of the early founders of the club. He was also one of the founders of the University of California, Berkeley. And basically, he was a proponent of eugenics. We asked the park service to rename the lodge. We cannot necessarily trace his own ideology to John Muir. But we do recognize that some of Muir’s writings, especially in the earlier part of his life, create conflict right now. They diminish African Americans and Indigenous people. That doesn't mean he didn't have a process of evolution through his life. But still, we have to recognize all that in order to move forward.

Should there be some effort made to make a note of this at the monuments, parks, and schools that bear his name?

That's always a good exercise. I know that the people we may hold sacred right now, in the end they're humans, and we just have to present them as they were — and of course, learn from that and correct wherever there has been harm. With these series of blogs and articles that the Sierra Club is going to have in the upcoming months, it’s a way to meditate on that. I like it when you go to a museum and it's curated in a way that doesn't editorialize, but presents that person as a whole. And I think certainly we should do that with a figure as important and relevant as John Muir.

By the time you encountered the environmental movement, could you still feel vestiges of racism?

Oh, certainly. Most of my career has been with big environmental organizations that tend to be whiter. And of course liberal and progressive, but that doesn't mean that the world isn’t full of micro-aggressions and also racism and prejudice. I'm originally from Puerto Rico. Even though I speak several languages, English might not have been the one I express myself in best.

And so, it's important to have these moments of reckoning, because then people can really think, what's the importance of all this. You know, especially these past couple of months, we have been wrestling with that idea. And within our own membership, even, we have some people saying, ‘Let's not go that far, let's focus, stay in our lane.’ We are convinced that this is a problem that we have to tackle.

I think the fact that I have been able to develop a career in the last 20-25 years in this organization, I’m standing on the shoulders of so many people of color that struggled to get into these spaces. And the fact that I can be the first Latino president of an organization that is 128 eight years old is a reflection of that.

How is environmental justice tied to environmentalism?

One of my colleagues, Hop Hopkins, wrote a great article on how racism is killing the planet. I'm convinced we cannot deal with the climate crisis, with environmental degradation, unless we tear down racism and the concept of white supremacy or the concept of supremacy in general.

Because climate change and all the environmental degradation — the extraction of oil and fossil fuels — all come with the idea that you can have certain zones, certain areas, locations that can be sacrificed.  But you cannot sacrifice those zones without having people in them that you conceive as ‘disposable,’ right? And you cannot have ‘disposable people’ without the concept of supremacy or without the concept of racism. So I'm convinced that we have to deal with racism in order to be effective environmental advocates and also to preserve nature for everybody, not just for a few selected ones.

The modern environmental movement since 1970 and the first Earth Day 50 years ago has been quite wealthy, quite privileged and more white. And sometimes it didn't take into consideration the struggles of local communities, which are often environmental justice struggles.

For example, 20 years ago when many of the big environmental organizations were advocating for a national system of emissions trading to deal with climate change, many of the environmental justice organizations opposed it. This was because, ultimately, big environmental organizations were advocating to reduce the overall emissions of the country, but doing that by sacrificing some areas. What the environmental justice movement has done is basically say, ‘No, we have had enough. We are not disposable.’ We cannot have certain areas that enjoy privilege and enjoy clean water and clean air at the expense of others. So we need to ensure that everybody can get there.

The Sierra Club has been working on becoming better partners with environmental justice organizations. A few years ago, we adopted the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing as an approach for how to engage with other organizations. And these are basically a series of principles, or guidelines, on how to engage. So it's about being inclusive, it’s about having an emphasis on bottom-up organizing. Also letting people speak for themselves, and not having an organization like the Sierra Club with its size and its relative power in the environmental movement speak for others. You know, we have to be invited. We have to work together in solidarity and mutuality. We have to build just relationships and also to commit to self-transformation.

The Sierra Club is by no means a perfect organization. There is a lot of work to be done. It's an ongoing journey. I'm glad the Sierra Club is starting that journey; I’m part of that. We're definitely committed to get there.