Ramón Cruz Elected First Latino President of the Sierra Club

Ramón Cruz has been elected as the Sierra Club’s new president, becoming the first Latino to hold that position in the organization’s 128-year history. The Sierra Club’s National Board of Directors is democratically elected by the organization’s membership and serves its 3.8 million members and supporters. 

“I’m honored to be elected president of the Sierra Club and excited to be the first Puerto Rican to hold that position,” said Cruz. “I recognize that my term comes during the enormously difficult and unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and the dark days of the Trump administration. The challenges we face are daunting, and we must meet them by advocating first and foremost for policies that protect the most vulnerable among us.”

Cruz holds degrees from American University in Washington, D.C., and Princeton University in New Jersey. He has over 20 years of experience in advocacy at the intersection of sustainability, environmental and energy policy, urban planning, and climate change. He has worked as deputy director of the state environmental regulatory agency in Puerto Rico, and held senior positions at the Environmental Defense Fund, the Partnership for New York City, and the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy.    

“Ramón Cruz is a leader who has dedicated his life to protecting and preserving our environment, and the Sierra Club is thrilled to have him as our president,” said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune.

Among Cruz’s top priorities as Sierra Club president are:

  • Advancing the Sierra Club’s movement toward equity and justice by ensuring that the organization is an inclusive space for all people, and by partnering with local groups nationwide in accordance with the Jemez Principles

  • Doubling down on the Sierra Club’s work to defeat the anti-environmental agenda of the Trump administration and the fleet of industry lobbyists and associates he has put in charge of the most important governmental agencies.

Learn more about Cruz’s background, motivations, and vision for the Sierra Club in this Q&A. 

1) What first sparked your interest in environmental issues?

My mother was a big influence on me. She formed an ecology club in school that collected materials to recycle, when almost no one in Puerto Rico was recycling. I was part of that club. My extended family would also gather at every special occasion in a beautiful spot in the mountains behind the El Yunque National Forest, and early on I realized the value of beautiful, pristine places.

I arrived to the environmental movement through social activism while in college. I admired many of the social movements of the 20th century, especially in Latin America, and valued the interconnection between them—antiwar, human rights, women’s rights, the environment. While leading the Latino Club at American University, we brought activists from Latin America to speak on campus, which helped radicalize me a little bit. I remember a former guerrilla fighter turned environmental activist from Uruguay who had a big impact on me as she told me her journey and how fighting for a just, equitable society is the same fight as preserving nature for everyone, especially those who are not born yet. 

Years later, my arrest as part of the movement to get the US Navy to stop practicing bombing in the island of Vieques further defined my career and commitment to environmental advocacy and policy.

2) How did you first hear about the Sierra Club?

I didn’t hear about the club until college in Washington, D.C., since there wasn’t yet a Sierra Club chapter in Puerto Rico when I was growing up. While working at the San Juan Bay Estuary Program, I became friends with many of the colleagues that form my generation of environmental activists in Puerto Rico and who were key in starting the Puerto Rico Chapter. I remember meeting Camilla Feibelman during the 2002 People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit and talking about it without even imagining that years later she would become the Puerto Rico chapter director or that one day I would be its national president. After earning a graduate degree in public policy and urban and regional planning from Princeton University, I moved to New York City and got a job with the Environmental Defense Fund, where I collaborated with the Sierra Club and a coalition of local groups to protect Puerto Rico’s Northeast Ecological Corridor. 

3) Why is it important that the Sierra Club finally has a Latino president?

Latinos are a growing demographic that represent the future of the country. As we can see with AOC, I believe the future is female and it speaks Spanish. As we listen to Trump’s racist and divisive rhetoric against Latinos, it is symbolic that two of the biggest progressive organizations in the country—the ACLU and us—have a Latino and Puerto Rican at their helms. If we hope to defeat Trump in November, Latino voters are going to be key. 

In addition, I come from a place with a long history of colonization linked to environmental degradation, from military Agent Orange trials and the Vieques island bombing to the recent inexcusably inadequate response to Hurricane Maria. It's appalling that US citizens—and Puerto Ricans are US citizens—are treated as second-class. Five of my uncles fought in the Korean War and one of them died. The contempt with which the Trump administration treated Puerto Rico after a disaster of that magnitude, where some people had no electricity for over a year, is perplexing; especially where there are so many lessons to be learned about how to deal with disasters that are soon to be a common scenario under a changing climate.

4) What is your vision for the Sierra Club?

My vision is twofold and consistent with the biggest investments that the Sierra Club has pledged in over a decade: First, getting Trump out of office and mobilizing as many people as possible to become active in that effort. Second, ensuring that the principles and practices of equity and justice permeate and are embodied in everything we do. We need to walk the talk. We should be one of the leaders in this area.

5) Why are equity, inclusion, and justice (EIJ) so vital to our success as an organization?

In short, because it’s the right and fair thing to do. For far too long, organizations like the Sierra Club were complacent in a system where inequities prevailed. We understand that we won’t reach our environmental goals unless all of us, both within the organization and in our movement, keep putting EIJ front and center. 

6) Are there other details about yourself that you'd like to share like what do you do in your leisure time? 

I enjoy most outdoor activities. I like sailing around New York Harbor, gardening in the spring and summer, cooking food from other countries that I have lived in, riding my bicycle nearly everywhere I go, and hiking, rock-climbing, or scuba diving in different countries I've had the privilege to visit—around 75—mostly during trips while working around the international environmental policy processes of the United Nations. I’m also an urbanite and love city parks, restaurants of different ethnicities, and museums. 

Other newly elected officers for 2020-2021 are Ross Macfarlane of Washington State (vice president); Natalie Lucas of Ohio (secretary); Mike O’Brien of Washington State (treasurer); and Debbie Heaton of Delaware (5th officer). Newly elected directors are Rita Harris of Mississippi, Marion Klaus of Utah, and Patrick Murphy of Texas. 

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