The executive director of the Sierra Club apologized on Wednesday for the “substantial role” the group played in perpetuating white supremacy, and also condemned its founder John Muir for friendships and views he had.
Michael Brune, who has been executive director of the Sierra Club for more than a decade, issued a lengthy statement titled “Pulling Down Our Monuments,” in which he confessed the collective guilt of the conservationist organization that was founded in 1892. He also laid out designs for how the organization plans to evolve in an effort to atone.
At @SierraClub, we understand that the struggles to protect people and our environment cannot be separated, and it is our responsibility to use our power to help abolish racism, which is destroying lives and the planet. Read more about our transformation: https://t.co/DW9SsspLup
— Michael Brune (@bruneski) July 22, 2020
“The Sierra Club is a 128-year-old organization with a complex history, some of which has caused significant and immeasurable harm,” Brune began. “As defenders of Black life pull down Confederate monuments across the country, we must also take this moment to reexamine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.”
“It’s time to take down some of our own monuments, starting with some truth-telling about the Sierra Club’s early history,” Brune continued before taking aim at Muir, who died in 1914. Muir was an influential advocate for preserving the American wilderness, and played a pivotal role in the establishment of the National Park Service.
“The most monumental figure in the Sierra Club’s past is John Muir,” said Brune. “Beloved by many of our members, his writings taught generations of people to see the sacredness of nature.” Nevertheless, Brune explained, Muir and the Sierra Club had connections to problematic figures such as Henry Fairfield Osborn, Joseph LeConte, and David Starr Jordan. All were prominent scientists in their day who adhered to Darwinian evolution and used the theory to advocate for eugenics, some of which influenced Nazi legislation.
“And Muir was not immune to the racism peddled by many in the early conservation movement,” Brune went on, adding:
[Muir] made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life. As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color who come into contact with the Sierra Club.
Because of “the whiteness and privilege of our early membership,” Brune said, the Sierra Club has inherited “willful ignorance … that allows some people to shut their eyes to the reality that the wild places we love are also the ancestral homelands of Native peoples, forced off their lands in the decades or centuries before they became national parks.” Only privileged communities that experience “freedom from discrimination and police violence” can afford to focus on wilderness prevention alone, he argued.
“For all the harms the Sierra Club has caused, and continues to cause, to Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color, I am deeply sorry,” Brune concluded, and presented the Club’s plan to rectify its past. In addition to allocating $5 million “to make long-overdue investments in our staff of color and our environmental and racial justice work,” the Club will also implement more HR training, as well as ensure that people of color make up “the majority of the team making top-level organization decisions.” The Club will also continue to make blog posts on the topic.