Sierra Club Executive Director Resigns Amid Upheaval Around Race, Gender, and Abuses

The century-old environmental giant is trying to deal with its failures and the changing times, according to an internal report.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MAY 18:  Michael Brune speaks onstage during the Sierra Club's 125th Anniversary Trail Blazer's Ball at Innovation Hangar on May 18, 2017 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for Sierra Club)
Michael Brune speaks onstage during the Sierra Club’s 125th anniversary Trail Blazer’s Ball at Innovation Hangar on May 18, 2017 in San Francisco, Calif. Photo: Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for Sierra Club

During a summer of extreme heat, wildfires, and floods, the largest environmental organization in the U.S. announced last Friday that its executive director will step down, effective at the end of the year. The resignation of Michael Brune, the head of the Sierra Club, comes amid the fallout of an internal report, the executive summary recommendations of which were obtained by The Intercept, that describes an organizational crisis likely to upend the Club’s volunteer-led structure.

The internal reckoning around race, gender, and sexual as well as other abuse allegations coincided with a more public confrontation with the legacy of the Sierra Club’s once-revered founder John Muir, who expressed racist sentiments and traveled in circles that included eugenicists. Following the racial justice uprisings during the summer of 2020, the Sierra Club disavowed Muir. At the same time, discontent was brewing inside the organization over less symbolic issues, leading to the internal report.

The report, prepared for the Sierra Club by the consulting firm Ramona Strategies, describes a series of recommendations developed as part of a “restorative accountability process,” based on dozens of interviews and hundreds of pages of documentation. The sharply worded executive summary describes how the organization of nearly 900 staff members fostered a culture lacking accountability for abuse and misconduct, especially when it came from the Club’s 4,000 volunteers, some of whom act as managers for the organization’s employees. The report, which was commissioned after a volunteer leader was publicly accused of rape, underlined that employees and volunteers from historically marginalized groups were most vulnerable to abusive behavior.

“We began that restorative accountability process to understand and examine where we failed our people so we can do better as an organization, as an employer, as an advocacy group and progressive partner,” said Ramón Cruz, the Sierra Club board president, in an interview. “We have made a commitment to follow through on these changes.”

The report’s authors noted that they are unaware of any other organization that has delegated management authority to volunteers in the way the Sierra Club has. They advised that the structure be revised.

“Being a ‘volunteer-led’ organization cannot stand for volunteers having carte blanche to ignore legal requirements or organizational values around equity and inclusivity — or basic human decency,” the report stated. “All employees should be managed by and subject to the oversight of individuals also under the organization’s clear control and direction as employees. There is no other way we can see.”

Internal Reckoning

Interviews with more than a dozen former and current Sierra Club staff members, as well as several volunteers, echoed the problems the report describes. Most of those interviewed were people of color, and nearly all had a story about racism or sexism from a volunteer or manager. Those who voiced concerns said they saw little action, and some saw the subjects of their complaints receive praise or even promotions. Some of the complainants said they experienced retaliation — allegations echoed in the report findings. Several ultimately quit.

In the Sierra Club’s statement announcing his resignation, Brune made references to the themes of the internal report and the concerns raised by staff members. “The traditional systems of power that have made the Sierra Club one of the most powerful environmental groups in the country are barriers to the transformational change we need in our society,” Brune said in the statement. “Within the Sierra Club, many members of our community, especially Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color staff and volunteers, have called for significant changes in the organization, often at great personal risk.”

Brune added an apology: “Along with our Board of Directors, I bear the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that our staff and volunteers feel safe, supported and valued, and I sincerely apologize for any instance in which this was not the case.” (Cruz, the Sierra board president, said the accountability report had not played a role in Brune’s resignation, adding that Brune had helped shepherd all the changes underway.)

“We recognize the impacts of our organization’s history and harm, and we are deeply dedicated to fundamental transformation.”

“We recognize the impacts of our organization’s history and harm, and we are deeply dedicated to fundamental transformation,” Cruz said in a separate statement. “We are making substantial changes to our policies and committing substantial resources to much needed capacity, and we know that the trajectory for transformation will be a long one.”

The Sierra Club is far from the only environmental organization undergoing an internal reckoning over race, gender, and abusive cultures. However, as one of the oldest and largest green groups in the U.S., with assets of over $100 million, the Club’s success or failure in addressing structural racism and sexism carries significant weight. Its work confronting environmental injustice, which tends to fall along racial lines, could help define how American society responds to the growing climate crisis.

“There’s a lot of people doing good work in that organization and effective work, all around the country, so that makes me unable to throw away the Sierra Club,” said Olka Forster, a former employee who is Black and quit the Sierra Club last year in part because of frustrations related to what she said was institutional racism. “The work that the Sierra Club does — I have to have hope that it works because it means our survival.”

Sexual Misconduct and Abuse

The most serious consequences of the Sierra Club’s lack of strong accountability systems were cases of assault, according to the report summary and recommendations. “In more than one situation, we heard accounts that verified bad behavior — at least at lower levels — was widely known about individuals who perpetrated much more serious harm than was widely discussed,” the authors wrote. “In two of these situations, the more serious harm included multiple instances of assault.”

The process that gave rise to the internal report began after a former Sierra Club employee, in July 2020, posted an account on social media of being raped by a volunteer leader, shared just as the Sierra Club was grappling with the racial justice movement sweeping the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer. The organization removed the individual from his Sierra Club position and launched an investigation into his tenure, ultimately determining that he would never be allowed to work or volunteer with the group again, said Cruz.

The account of rape was not the only incidence of reported sexual misconduct to roil the Sierra Club. An earlier incident in Iowa had led to fallout. After Heather Pearson was hired to work for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Iowa in 2018, she reported to a manager that a well-known local environmental organizer, Ed Fallon, who at times worked with the Club, used his position to make an inappropriate sexual advance toward her before she joined the Club. Fallon has repeatedly denied Pearson’s account, calling it a “slander” in online posts and sending a cease-and-desist letter to Pearson. He repeated his denial in response to an Intercept inquiry.

Ultimately, the Sierra Club severed ties with Fallon and posted a public statement. Fallon’s attorney sent another cease-and-desist letter, this time to to the Sierra Club, demanding that it remove references to Fallon. The Sierra Club declined to do so.

Several members of the Iowa chapter’s volunteer executive committee pushed back on the Sierra Club’s decision to cut ties. At least two committee members resigned in protest because they thought Fallon’s denials had been insufficiently considered and that the Sierra Club had failed to communicate with the committee effectively.

The toll the process took on Pearson’s mental health led her to leave her position at the Sierra Club in the spring of 2020. She told The Intercept, “It’s incredibly important for organizations to do everything in their power to make spaces safe for the volunteers and the employees.”

Cruz said that the organization’s response to Pearson’s complaint would have been improved by reforms now being enacted. As for the volunteer committee members that left in the wake of the dustup, Cruz said generally that dissent against some moves was inevitable. “We know we will lose some people who feel threatened by reforms within the organization,” he said. “We are not making these changes in order to drive people away, but we fully recognize it may happen as a consequence of Sierra Club standing firm in our values and committing to build a safer, more fulfilling organization for our staff and volunteers.”

New Tensions in an Old System

The Sierra Club’s volunteer leadership system, with its roots in Muir’s era, helped to create rifts that divided the organization internally along racial, gender, and generational lines.

In the organization’s structure, each state has one or more chapters, whose staff is overseen by a powerful, agenda-setting all-volunteer executive committee elected by dues-paying members. Because the committee roles are unpaid and a person must be a dues-paying member to fill them, the executive committees are most welcoming to people with money and time to spare, including, according to staff and volunteers interviewed, a disproportionate number of white retirees. At times, the older, white volunteers’ environmental commitments differ from a movement that is shifting toward a focus on environmental justice.

Disagreements over issues like mission orientation and diversity in the Sierra Clubs arose in various chapters in recent years. In one instance, a Colorado chapter was riven by disagreements over the disparity of power along gender lines, and recriminations followed. Following a lengthy investigation, several volunteers were suspended. The moves did not come quickly enough to prevent those who had raised the issues from resigning in frustration. Cruz touted the Club’s accountability moves but acknowledged that the process had taken too long. He said policies were being put in place to speed up such inquiries.

Other tensions have emerged inside the organization over racial and ethnic dynamics. The Sierra Club has disproportionately lost staffers of color. A retention study put out by the group in 2017, following pressure from staff, showed that on average 19 percent of people of color employed by the Sierra Club each year between 2011 and 2015 left the organization that same year, compared to a turnover rate of 15 percent for white staff. The difference was even starker for Black employees, who had an average turnover rate of 23 percent. The number of Indigenous people employed by the organization was so small that the turnover rate meant little at all. The Sierra Club has not shared updated data with employees.

“Every single thing, in my view, that Sierra Club has done in service of their Black and brown employees was hard fought by the union.”

In interviews with The Intercept, former employees of color said that Sierra Club policies failed to sufficiently address tensions. Instead, staffers turned to the Club’s employee union. “Every single thing, in my view, that Sierra Club has done in service of their Black and brown employees was hard fought by the union,” said Forster. The union, which had officially been called the John Muir Local 100, jettisoned the founder’s name three years before the wider Sierra Club.

Larry Williams, who is Black and the former union president, said the union intervened when bias complaints were ineffectively handled. The executive summary of the Ramona Strategies report noted the pattern: “Feedback indicated that even well-known misdeeds of certain individuals have both historically and currently been overlooked, minimized, or tolerated because of their contributions to the organization or the movement.” The report authors also noted that in some cases “bad actors actively took steps to punish those who complained or otherwise assisted in bringing concerns about their conduct to the fore.”

Williams, who left the Sierra Club three months ago feeling that he had no room for advancement, told The Intercept that he faced such consequences. “I and others have been demonized and suffered a lot of blowback for speaking up about things,” he said. “Because of that, my career was railroaded at the Sierra Club.”

Cruz acknowledged a lack of trust between management and the union and said policies were being put in place to improve the situation. He said retaliation would not be tolerated. “We have a strong policy that does not allow retaliation for participation in the union,” Cruz said. “If people feel they are being retaliated against for participating in the union, we need to know about it immediately in order to address it.”

Cruz said that among other changes, the Sierra Club is already making moves to significantly increase its human resources staff and develop a new conflict resolution team. Volunteer leaders will no longer manage any staff, he said, pledging that the organization will communicate better with staff. “Sierra Club leadership has been and will continue to be committed to doing the hard work to acknowledge and address systemic injustice inside and outside of our organization,” he said. “That transformation is also reflected in our work internally to build a more inclusive workplace and organization.”

Brune, the outgoing executive director, said he was proud of the work he had done at the Sierra Club, but acknowledged that more was needed to improve the company’s culture — something he said the incoming leadership would address. “The Sierra Club is a nearly 130-year old, white legacy organization that is in the middle of a transformation to become more equitable and just,” he said in a statement to The Intercept. “The progress that we’ve made has been both significant and insufficient — there’s so much more to do.”

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