Learning When to Lead and When to Listen

You can’t do work on the environment, from climate change to conservation, without realizing how deeply connected these issues are with social justice. 

Throughout my life, I’ve seen that it’s tough -- not impossible, but tough -- to organize working poor and working-class ratepayers to show up to a utility commission hearing when they have to work multiple jobs just to house and feed their families. Especially when those utility hearings are often scheduled during the workday and never provide child care. I’ve seen that environmental injustice is yet another burden on Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities, layered on top of police violence, school segregation, and housing discrimination. I’ve seen how fossil fuel industry executives pollute our democracy, creating a culture of corruption that made it possible for recent White House officials to directly profit from putting children in cages.

Nothing in our world stands by itself. It’s all connected. For the last decade or so, the Sierra Club has been exploring what that means for us as an organization. Now that we recognize that our work to advance climate and environmental justice is just one of many expressions of the broader movement for human liberation, how should that change our behavior? Should we be focusing on different things? 

Should we be focusing on ... everything?

It can be tough to prioritize with the whole of human suffering and injustice laid out before you. And even as we change and evolve, the Sierra Club remains at its heart an environmental organization. Our mission is to protect the natural and human environment, as part of a broad movement of progressives working to build a better world for all. We have a specific role to play in that progressive movement, and our friends and partners look to us to lead on issues like stopping fossil fuel burning, transitioning to clean energy, expanding access to the outdoors, and protecting lands and wildlife. 

Here’s how I’ve come to think of it. There are some issues where it’s appropriate for the Sierra Club to be in the lead. Those are the obvious environmental issues like the ones I just named -- the ones we have funding to work on, a history of engagement, and specialized expertise to offer. Our chapters are engaged on these issues; our volunteers are passionate and informed about them. On our core issues, where we’re in the lead, we still try to lift up our partners, the people and communities who are most impacted by whatever pipeline or toxic refinery we’re pushing back on. But we also don’t shy away from a leading role when it’s strategic. Leading here looks like being quoted in interviews, like raising and spending money on the work, like leading coalitions and helping to make decisions about strategy, goals and tactics.

But these aren’t the only issues we work on in 2019. At this point in the Sierra Club’s journey, we’re also stretching and find it appropriate to co-lead on issues where partners or communities have invited us in, and there’s a deep connection to our leadership work. The rising tide of Indigenous and Native activism around land and water protection is one obvious example. Folks at the Sierra Club support that work behind the scenes as much as possible. But we’re also aware that our organizational footprint is larger than most, so we try not to step unnecessarily into the spotlight. 

Through our partnership with tribes and Indigenous-led groups on environmental issues like Enbridge Line 3 and the Dakota Access Pipeline, we began to learn more about the connection between fossil fuel infrastructure, violence against Native women, and Indigenous sovereignty. We started to see that the same extractive violence toward the earth and climate that we were resisting, was also expressed as violence targeting Native women’s bodies. When our partners Honor the Earth asked us to take a public position on this issue because of our long history of partnership, we already understood the connections and were ready to act. 

Now we’re submitting briefs about the issue in pipeline cases and advocating for federal legislation. And because we’re co-leads on this issue, simply guests who have been invited to the table, we’re always following -- in alignment with the Jemez Principles -- our partners’ lead every step of the way. We’re not raising money for this work. In fact we only talk about this joint work with our partners present, and we extend an invitation to our partners to meet with our funders so they can raise money for their own leadership work. 

Then there are issues where the connections are there, but a little less obvious. I could get long in the tooth talking about the relationship between environmental injustice and police violence against Black communities. For now, I’ll just say that on issues like police violence, the Sierra Club takes a supportive stance rather than trying to exert any leadership at all. There are plenty of other organizations out there leading on police violence -- all we need to do is show that we’re behind them.

When we’re in support, we don’t develop our own messaging. We just lift up what our partners have to say. We might do a press statement to show we’re in solidarity, but we don’t do interviews; we always take a backseat. We don’t seek funding for this type of work, or hire staff. Instead we offer resources directly to our partners through the Showing up for Movement Fund, other fundraising mechanisms, and by providing legal, communication, or digital resources. 

This might seem like a fine distinction. However, being thoughtful about our role matters because it helps guide members and staff to stay in our lane. It keeps us from overstepping our bounds, speaking out of turn, causing harm by saying the wrong thing or sucking up all the oxygen in the room. And it helps us use our resources in the most impactful way possible to be more surgical and strategic. By co-leading or supporting, we can support our partners with the appropriate  investment of resources from the Sierra Club and making the largest impact for our partners. 

That’s the power and privilege that come along with being the largest, oldest grassroots environmental organization in the United States, with 3.5 million members and a brand that opens doors. We’re still figuring out how to wield that power and privilege with an intersectional lens centering equity and justice. This means subverting dominant culture by taking the time to build sincere and respectful relationships, and developing an intrinsic understanding of how our work is enhanced by partnerships. Being intentional about our role will help get us there, and grow our power in the process.

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