Sierra Club’s president: Why we must confront our past

The Sierra Club recently began a process of publicly re-examining aspects of our difficult past, including a reckoning with the history and words of our founder John Muir. Many of the responses we’ve received to those national headlines have been positive, embracing our move to ground the environmental movement in equity and justice. Others have been more skeptical, urging us to “stay in our lane” and “stick to protecting the environment.” A few responses have been less charitable, ranging from calling our efforts “reverse discrimination” to language taken from a hate group playbook.

I want to address the “stay in your lane” group, a sentiment that is shared by a fair number of the Sierra Club’s nearly 4 million proud members and supporters. I want to tell them that I am listening to them, and also that I cannot help but be in my lane. I want to share the road of environmental advocacy with them. I want them to understand why it is important that the Sierra Club’s lane in the environmental movement be broad enough to encompass people like me.

My story begins with a colonized place, where people are often discriminated against and robbed of agency. I am Puerto Rican, I am Latino.

Latino is a word that, often enough, is not hyphenated and followed by “American.” But I am American. Puerto Ricans are Americans, even if not by choice. I have four uncles who fought for the United States in the Korean War against their will. One of them died in battle.

Many families like mine were able to thrive in this country thanks to access to opportunity, education and privilege. If not for what some dare to call “reverse discrimination,” I would not have attended an Ivy League school, and I would not be president of the Sierra Club today. I am proudly, and unapologetically, the result of affirmative action programs. These programs do not exist today, and as a result many students do not receive access to the education they deserve.

Before 1967, my parents would not have been able to get married in several states as one is Black and the other white. Those restrictions may seem absurd now, but many were complacent about it back then. Perhaps they thought they were “staying in their lane.” At that time the Sierra Club’s “lane” excluded Black people like my father and grandfather from membership.

Things are different today, thanks in large part to people of color and white allies who fought to open the doors of organizations like the Sierra Club. But that did not mean an end to discrimination. For many years I was the darkest person in the room, the one with the “cute” Spanish accent who “speaks funny.” Even though I can communicate in four languages, English is not my native tongue. Being conscious of these facts has always made me feel like someone walking on eggshells, especially when entering the halls of places like Princeton or the Sierra Club. While most women and people of color would understand what I mean, I wonder how many white men can grasp the full depth of these feelings?

Why do we urgently need a critical re-evaluation of our organization’s history? Because that is a crucial first step to making people like me feel welcomed. It’s a beginning to ensuring that people like me join the Sierra Club, rather than walk away from it.

I admire many things that John Muir wrote. But there are no perfect heroes, just as there are no perfect humans. Seeing a person in all their complexity is not sacrilege, it is our responsibility.

I have no interest in erasing history, but in learning from it. John Muir was not a eugenicist like David Starr Jordan, nor an owner of human beings like Joseph LeConte, two other early leaders of the Sierra Club. But that is not a reason to beatify Muir. We can learn from his words and vision as well as his flaws.

I cannot change lanes, because for me, there is no other lane. The only lane I can be in is one that recognizes and celebrates all of my identities. I hope that Sierra Club supporters concerned about whether we focus on a narrow definition of the environment can find a way to broaden their idea of Sierra Club’s lane and to help me build an organization — indeed, an environmental movement — that is inclusive, comes to terms with its past, celebrates diversity, fights racism, and centers equity and justice in everything we do.

Ramon Cruz is president of the Sierra Club.