Stereotypically, when people think of the Green Movement, they think of tree hugging hippies wearing Birkenstocks while they cruise down the street in a Tesla or Toyata Prius. But as demographics shift and communities of color become increasingly vocal about the host of environmental justice issues affecting majority-minority and low-income communities, the face of the movement is changing.
As evidence of that change, the Sierra Club, the nation’s oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization, has appointed, for the first time in its 123 year history, an African American Board Chairman — Aaron Mair. Having committed more than 30 years of his life to environmental activism, this latest post for Mair is a perfect fit for the man who believes, “Nature is the great equalizer. Nature knows no difference between black and white. The biggest challenge the environmental movement faces today is transcending class, gender and the racial divide so we can come together on climate, both domestically and internationally.”
Focused on activating the grassroots, Mair sees his charge at the helm of the Sierra Club as being about more than conservation or climate change. He’s trying to incite a new movement for environmental justice that is inclusive of all Americans. “I want the Sierra Club to reflect the deep diversity that America has become,” said Mair. “We want people of all colors. You can’t beat the Kochs by being just a Democrat or a Republican. We have to be a deeper shade of green.”
In a recent interview with POLITICO, Mair said “The question is tokenism versus real systematic change, and we at the Sierra Club have embarked on real systemic change.” A veteran of civil rights and urban environmental advocacy, prior to this latest appointment, Mair served as the former chair of the 41,000-member New York State Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, received the EPA’s Citizen Environmentalist Activist Award, and led an historic effort to shutdown the Albany-New York State Waste to Energy Recovery System (A.N.S.W.E.R.S.) because of its negative impact on the health of his family and inner-city African American residents.
His philosophy is simple: “One of the most powerful things that the Sierra Club and the green movement can do is recognize the totality of human existence,” he said, “no matter where people exist. If a waste incinerator or sewage treatment plant isn’t good in a wealthy area, then we must agree that it’s not good in any area.”
A Sierra Club member since 1999, Mair is focused on achieving greater diversity, equity and inclusion within the Sierra Club and the environmental movement at large. Mair hopes to make the Sierra Club’s membership more diverse by showing people that the group cares deeply about the plight of minority communities. “The issue now is unlearning some of the baggage that is part of the old America and learning the values of the younger, millennial generation. They don’t have the same baggage about race,” he said. “The hope is that we start seeing the next generation of youth come together, including those forces that came together around the Obama election. That is the sweet spot for the Sierra Club.”
Green 2.0, an organization that works to advance diversity in the mainstream environmental movement, was among the first groups to publicly congratulate the Sierra Club on its selection of Mair as its new President. “I congratulate Mr. Mair and the Sierra Club on this historic election as the organization’s first African American president. I am certain that with Mair in this role, the ‘green ceiling’ will continue to crack,” said Green 2.0 Founder Robert Raben.
In 2014 Green 2.0 commissioned a report entitled, “Diversity in Environmental Institutions” in which it found that “although people of color now account for almost 40% of the U.S. population, they have not broken the 16% “green ceiling” in mainstream environmental organizations, the foundations that fund them, and governmental agencies. When looking deeper into the executive leadership of mainstream environmental NGOs, the report found that people of color only represent 5% of total board members, and only 12% of leadership positions.”
The Sierra Club’s installation of Mair as its new Board Chair won’t solve the Green Movement’s diversity problem over night, but its certainly a step in the right direction.