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The Planet
Meet the New Sierra Club President

Renstrom Urges Members to Enlist Friends and Neighbors

by John Byrne Barry

Attention chapter and group leaders: Don't underestimate the importance of new member meetings. That's how Lisa Renstrom first got involved in her local group in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Ten years ago, having just moved back to the United States from Mexico with her husband and young child, she attended the Central Piedmont Group’s new member meeting. She fit right in, she says, and after a few meetings, "before I knew it, I was group political chair, even though though most of my experience was with Mexican politics.”

Fast forward to May 2005: After four years as group chair, and four years on the Sierra Club Board of Directors, she's now the Club's 51st president.

The Sierra Club may be 750,000 strong, but as president, Renstrom wants to focus the organization on enlisting our friends and neighbors, even those who may, at first glance, disagree with us. The key, she says, is to "listen to what turns them on, find the seed of sameness, and build on that. It might be children’s health, fiscal responsibility, or caring for God’s creation."

Renstrom has the credentials to lead such an outreach effort, with a background in business and community organizations. She's a political independent who grew up in a Republican family in Omaha, Nebraska. She has a finance degree from the University of Nebraska. In Charlotte, she worked with the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, major banks, even local utility Duke Energy, as part of a coalition that helped pass a strong emissions law in North Carolina.

In her twenties, she joined her father's hotel business and played a pivotal role in reviving several bankrupt companies in Mexico, earning her "MBA by fire." She spent six months in a Mexican jail while trying to settle a property dispute in Acapulco, while her daughter was only a year old. "I was idealistic. I was in the right. I thought, I'm not caving. But six months later, I settled, and got back to running a business and raising my daughter."

Her biggest challenge at the moment is making the upcoming Sierra Summit 2005 a smashing success. (For more on the Summit, including how to register and interviews with featured speakers Bill Maher, Arianna Huffington, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., go to www.sierrasummit2005.org/interviews.)

Renstrom, who serves as co-chair of the Summit Steering Committee, played a similar role in North Carolina a decade ago, co-chairing an environmental summit in the 14-county area around Charlotte focusing on the burgeoning issue of sprawl. "We had grown about 20 percent in the past decade, and we decided, 'We don't want to be the next Atlanta."

We brought together 500 people, who met in advance of the Summit to evaluate three scenarios for the future. We asked them what they wanted to see happen, what they wanted to leave behind -- it was the first-ever event in this region where business, government, and civic leaders got together on the same page about environmental issues, and though we didn't make a 180 degree turn, we raised awareness regionwide and served as a catalyst for change."

Sierra Summit offers a similar opportunity for direction-setting and Renstrom says she want to "bring the insight and experience of groups, chapters, and national committees into the process, and then provide the leadership to work toward that vision together."

As for the oft-repeated assertion that leading the Sierra Club is like herding cats, Renstrom will have none of that. "I don't think it's that hard. We're not cats. We are people who are acutely aware of the urgency and we want to solve problems. It is our job to get the country moving towards solutions and answers. We already do it around a forest here, a lake there, but let's pull together to get something big done, like curbing global warming. That's what I believe the Summit can be, a time where we stab the knife into the table and say this is what we're going to."



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