The Sierra Club is facing internal turmoil over racial equity

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Earlier this month I noted that the Sierra Club was one of several progressive groups that had been laying people off. This led me to wonder if they were experiencing internal strife over woke issues:


I can’t help but wonder if this decline isn’t somehow connected to the internal fighting at many of these same groups which Ryan Grim reported on last year. In fact, the groups experiencing layoffs lately are some of the same ones Grim wrote were having woke eruptions last year.

Today we learn from the Washington Post that the answer is definitely yes. Identity politics have stirred up lots of turmoil at the Sierra Club. It began with the hiring of Ben Jealous, the first black person to lead the organization. He arrived promising a new day of racial equity at Sierra.

“We have to deal with all of the equity issues inside the Sierra Club,” he said in January. “Those include, absolutely, issues of gender, as well as racial equity and also pay equity.”

But today, the 131-year-old group is in turmoil over its approach to diversity, equity and environmental justice, according to interviews with 12 current and former staffers, most of whom spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity for fear of facing retaliation or otherwise harming their job prospects.

But by April, Jealous laid off more than 30 people including a bunch of minority staff members and all of the equity team:

The leadership laid off the entire staff of the equity team, which was tasked with improving the workplace culture around diversity and inclusion, and several members of the environmental justice division, which had fought to block polluting projects in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. Jealous also shortened the name of the People, Culture and Equity Department — which includes the equity team and the human resources team — to the People Department and hired a vocal critic of its past work from outside the organization to lead it.


Later the story points out that the vocal critic was Aida Davis who is of Ethiopian descent.

In an interview, Davis said the Sierra Club’s past equity work had “harmed” employees of color, although she declined to provide a specific example, citing confidentiality concerns. “We have so many data points on how the most oppressed and marginalized folks were not just underserved but harmed in the previous attempts at this work,” she said. “There are a lot of pieces of evidence that are public that demonstrate that Sierra Club was moving in a performative, superficial, and harmful way.”

Davis added that as a Black woman, she had personally experienced disrespectful behavior from staffers. “I have never felt more undermined, gaslit and disrespected, and my dignity diminished, than I have in this role,” she said.

I’d like to hear more about disrespectful behavior from staffers but the Post apparently didn’t ask. Either that or the author of this piece decided it wasn’t relevant.

For his part, Ben Jealous says he wasn’t aware when he took the job that the Sierra Club was facing a $40 million deficit. He says that is what made the firing of a few dozen employees a necessity. But Jealous’ critics argue he hired a bunch of executive staffers whose combined salaries are roughly the same as what was saved by firing the junior staffers.

What’s the truth? Who knows? One thing I’m certain of is that if Jealous looked over the Sierra Club’s budget and decided the equity team was accomplishing next to nothing for the organization relative to the salaries they were pulling down, he couldn’t possibly have said so out loud. He would be pilloried as a right-winger if he dared to do so. His only option would be to fire them and claim it was a budgetary necessity which left him no real choice. In short, I don’t think we’ll ever know why these folks got fired because the whole topic is radioactive.


This is one more case where identity politics has consumed an organization, one that is supposedly devoted to environmentalism. How is the organization supposed to survive if a subset of employees are focused on other issues and doing their best to undermine their boss? Obviously, that isn’t going to work but the woke employees really don’t care. This kind of insurrection is what they do.

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