Rita Harris

Rita Harris
Olive Branch, MS
Nominating committee candidate
Member Since
Organizer/Trainer (Retired)
Sierra Club Leadership Positions
  • National Board of Directors (2020-)
  • Executive Director Search Committee (2022)
  • PWU - Labor Management Committee (2022-2023)
  • National Board Executive Committee (2021-2022)
  • Volunteer Co-Lead Organizing Leadership Team (2018-2022)
  • Environmental Justice Organizer (1999-2017)
  • Senior Organizing Representative (2016-2017)
  • Beyond Coal Organizer (2014-2017)
  • Diversity & Anti-Racism Trainer/Consultant (2003-)
  • Training Governance Committee (2006-2008)
  • Diversity Council Member (2006-2009)
  • Virginia Ferguson National Staff Award (2011) 
  • Chickasaw Group Award for Lifetime Service (2017)

“Humankind has not woven the web of life.  We are but one thread within it.  Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together.  All things connect.” --Chief Seattle

For the past 30 years I have worked with neighborhoods seeking a healthy community, clean air & water, and green spaces free of toxic hazards.  For the past three years I have served as a Board Director and have had the privilege of making decisions on critical issues facing our organization.  Having spent a year on the National Board’s ExCom I have come to understand just how important our program and advocacy work is to advancing the mission of Sierra Club.  I have appreciated participating in discussions that have included efforts to increase equity, inclusion and justice, efforts to increase the voice of volunteers, raised the awareness of the needs of our unionized staff, considered structural changes to help us meet the challenges of this decade, helped the Values Squad craft our Core Values, worked with the Board to consider tough issues regarding accountability and respect, and served on the search committee for our new Executive Director. 

The Sierra Club is the premiere environmental organization in this moment, and is positioned to be the most impactful because of our unique programs, campaigns, and the values centered approach to our work.  I want to be a part of guiding the work to transform our organization, and robustly tackle the climate crisis.  I am convinced that the most important environmental challenges we face today are all connected to climate change. Whether we are concerned about environmental justice, the availability of clean drinking water, severe weather, or the loss of habitat, forest protection, etc., they are all impacted by drastic changes in our climate. I want to work with Sierra Club leaders to prioritize solutions, and enlist those in our broader communities to join us.  We have a political administration that’s prioritizing the environmental issues we all care about and funding them as well.  We have a major opportunity to make great strides by taking advantage of internal and external forces that impact our critical issues. Let’s keep the momentum going!


Sierra Club President Ramón Cruz; Director, former President Allison Chin; former Director Oliver Bernstein; Sierra Club staff Bob Bingaman, Leslie Fields

Election Forum Responses

Candidates were asked ten questions to give voters more information about relevant issues. You can view the responses of all candidates to a question by clicking on the individual questions below.

Question 1

Question 1

How do you practice anti-racism?

I currently serve as co-chair of the Board Equity Committee and have worked to promote equity, inclusion and justice throughout Sierra Club for as long as I have been a member. I have facilitated discussions and workshops to promote a greater understanding of working as an anti-racist proponent and ally.  I strongly promote anti-racist learning resources such as movies, books, workshops and attendance at conferences to increase sensitivity and expand my own and others understanding of racism, discrimination, and anti-Semitism. 

I speak up about equity issues whenever the need arises, and also try to hold friends and family accountable while being sensitive to their feelings.  My motto is to ‘call people in, not out’.  I continue to learn and absorb new information by attending webinars and events to continue my personal education and equity journey.  Even during the covid quarantine, I participated in self development equity workshops offered via Zoom for Sierra Club staff and volunteers.

As an extension of my commitment to equity, I also support and advocate for the work, business ventures, leadership, and etc. of those identifying as BIPOC. During 2021, as I worked with the Organizing Department’s staff & volunteer BIPOC affinity group, I worked with the leadership to plan and promote a speaker series that brought high profile speakers from the broader community with years of expertise to speak monthly to the BIPOC affinity group.

Question 2

Question 2

How do you think we can better retain more staff and volunteers, and recruit and retain them into higher levels within the organization, who are from marginalized communities or who are otherwise underrepresented?

Individuals from marginalized or underrepresented communities should be recruited and made to feel welcome and respected.  Their skills, talents, life experiences, and perspectives should be welcomed.  We need to listen to and respect the guidance offered by those with firsthand knowledge of frontline communities.

Establishing a ‘leadership ladder’ that will allow newcomers to be moved into meaningful jobs/tasks that encourage them to utilize their strengths and abilities in work that is rewarding and enjoyable. In addition, allow for a leadership progression that continually elevates them and promotes growth within the organization.  Having an onboarding plan and strategy to incorporate them into the organization so that their participation is seen as meaningful and rewarding will greatly assist in their retention.

Encourage new voices and new ideas while being careful to not stifle creativity. Becoming a member and participating should feel beneficial and gratifying. Taking the time to find out what supports can be offered to promote participation can lead to ideas about what can be done differently.  For example, a mother of small children might be able to spend time at a tabling event or other activities if she had childcare.

Question 3

Question 3

What environmental issues are pressing in your community, and how do they intersect with economic, environmental, and racial justice? What tensions at work make the problem so difficult to solve?

I believe all communities have an array of environmental issues and they each hold a special significance to each of us in our localities.  In my home community environmental justice takes center stage because of how ‘environmental justice’ is characterized and defined. 

When environmental justice is defined broadly as falling into categories of ‘where we live, work, and play’, the intersections of economic justice and racial justice become clearer. When we are trying to figure the best way to proceed, considering the voices and impact on the  most vulnerable populations can help shed light on the matter.  Having those critical voices at the table is a best practice that cannot be overlooked. 

Since the Sierra Club core values were adopted in 2022, I believe using them as a guiding star can make navigating tensions easier. Centering all our work on our organizational values and using the Jemez Principles as guidance, will make it a bit easier to decide how we do our work, and how we interact with people in our communities.

Question 4

Question 4

What equity issues do you believe Sierra Club is overlooking and needs to engage on?

The Sierra Club is known for promoting a love for the outdoors and taking part in outdoor activities.  We have not focused much on how to offer some of our favorite activities to people who are differently abled or mobility challenged.

As a person with mobility issues, I support thinking intentionally about mobility awareness, disabilities and ableism.  Others might be challenged with seeing, hearing, mental, cognitive impairment, and/or physical disabilities.  These limitations do not diminish our love for the outdoors, or our desire to have outdoor experiences.  Offering specialty outings, summer camps, and companion or buddy experiences for differently abled individuals would open up the outdoor world for people dealing with mobility and various medical issues; they also want to enjoy the outdoors. In addition, partnering with other groups that can offer support and programming can enrich our efforts.  Advocating for hiking trails, picnic areas, camping venues, and other activities that can be enjoyed by those with various challenges would be a phenomenal game changer. 

Additionally, making sure everything we do has a thought component that considers how to make programing more accessible to all.  A best practice would be to include individuals with ’disabilities’ in discussions and development of creative ways to be more equitable and inclusive in our meetings and our outdoor activities.  We know experiencing the outdoors can be healing and fun.  

Question 5

Question 5

We have competing fundraising priorities between National and the Chapters. How do you recommend we address this tension?

In an ideal world the work of the Chapter and the work of the National organization should intersect and support each other.  A cookie cutter approach will not be effective when our Chapters have different interests and needs.  I support Chapters being allowed to raise funds for campaigns that are unique to their geographic area or their State.  Chapter voices should be elevated to clearly articulate the needs and desires of their Groups and local areas.

Staff and volunteers should implement a “One Club” balanced approach to collaborative planning and stress continued communication throughout the year. More intentional training on the basics of budgeting, allocations, and planning can help ease tensions between National and Chapters with allocations and staffing efforts that support both local and national goals. Funding allocations could possibly be adjusted based on an understanding of critical staffing needs and program enhancements on a case by case basis.  A committee could be established to thoroughly study new enhanced strategies for Chapter fundraising that are fair and equitable.  

Question 6

Question 6

The Sierra Club is a vast and complex organization by any standards, and it is unusual in that both staff and volunteers are central to the mission of the Club and its day-to-day operations. Tell a story about a time you navigated or attempted to reform a bureaucratic system, and what you learned from the experience.

As a member of the original Board sanctioned Diversity Council that was formed in the mid-2000’s, there was a desire to recruit more people from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, but there wasn’t much structurally happening to lay the foundation for a serious attempt to recruit, nurture and maintain a diverse membership.  I co-facilitated a series of anti-racism training workshops at strategic locations across the country; mainly focusing on building relationships in and around environmental justice program sites. 

One of the recommendations that I and others pushed for was a dedicated staff position and an ‘office’ to manage the promotion of diversity.  Many people had ideas about how diversity should be managed and dealt with, but we agreed that having a dedicated place for this work to be launched could allow for expanding the numerous ideas we had around building a more diverse Sierra Club.  Our success, in my opinion, was gained by building a supportive group of people that supported our ideas and helped influence others in all sectors of the organization, including the Board of Directors. 

Eventually, it was decided that a Diversity Equity & Inclusion Director would be hired; I was lucky enough to be chosen for a spot on the hiring team and the rest is history.  That staff position coupled with the first version of the Multi-Year Equity Plan laid the foundation for the myriad of “equity efforts'' we now see throughout the organization. 

Question 7

Question 7

Tell us about a time you managed or navigated a conflict within Sierra Club?

The question about navigating conflict within the Sierra Club is difficult for me to answer because of my personal approach to gaining solidarity or gaining consensus.  I try to think of ways to bring people together to discuss their different points of view and try to see where there might be points of agreement.  Connecting with individuals that support your ideas and then expanding that circle to include others that can influence others seem to work well in building a groundswell of support.

Communication with the opposing groups or individuals need to occur early rather than later and utilize a mediator if necessary.  A best practice that I really lean into is what I call ‘active listening’ and then support conversations that aim to build consensus.  In addition, building relationships is fundamental to achieving success.  It is important that those experiencing conflict feel their voices have been heard by someone who understands and is trying to help.

Question 8

Question 8

Please describe your successes and failures regarding your work within your community as an agent of social and political change -- specifically those supporting environmental justice goals.  What did you learn from them and how has your philosophy about how to create change evolved because of your experiences?

Coming from an environmental justice organizer background, I believe in ‘people power’ and the concept of ‘leading from behind’.  I have worked with powerful communities that some considered weak, politically unimportant, and ‘the path of least resistance’.  I led a successful and memorable campaign that was aimed at blocking a low-level radioactive incinerator from being sited. 

Our toolbox of tactics included the strategic use of TV and printed media, regular mass community meetings at a local church, which resulted in growing the opposition far beyond the immediate neighborhoods that were affected to the whole county.  Community leaders voices were amplified in the media and were supported and strengthened by enlisting the help of the elected State Representative in the area.  This community fight lasted roughly ten months and included many communications with the City & County Land Use Control Board, attendance at many City Council meetings, and organizing van transportation to and from City Hall. 

I saw the situation evolve from some believing ‘it’s a done deal’ to ‘we can win this”!   The opposition could not overcome the voices of the community.  We organized a petition drive, and had other groups join us to form a citywide coalition.  Once the final permit was denied, the community was of course empowered like never before, and formed a strong community group to tackle some other pressing issues.

I personally learned that no matter how strong the opposition seems, the power of organized people can be successful when confronting organized money.  The creative use of community voices can be a formidable force.

Question 9

Question 9

What is your experience with the political process, including campaigns, elections, and the legislative process? How do you think Sierra Club can build its political power?

I think the Sierra Club is effective in its political efforts and has gotten better over the years.  Because I believe in people power, I feel working on political issues that also intersect with environmental issues can enhance our efforts and make us even more successful. I have built relationships with elected officials on the local, state and national levels and have had successful interactions when I approached them to support legislative measures needed to win on various issues. I have also supported individual candidates that help champion our causes and speak on our behalf.

At the local Group and Chapter level, endorsements have been made that help build solidarity and support with various candidates; these relationships can have a positive impact on issues as they arise. Political relationships enhance our efforts and can influence voters in their decision making on issues and on their selection of candidates. Our relationships can be powerful in the overall political process.  I believe it is critical to have a strong political and legislative strategy to support the work we do as an organization.    

Question 10

Question 10

Tell us what you have learned about yourself – your strengths, weaknesses, and values – through your involvement in the Sierra Club?

One of my strengths is telling stories and explaining difficult subjects to the average-person-next-door, resulting in them wanting to fight to win their issue.  I have experienced this in promoting and advocating for dismantling racism trainings that I co-facilitated for many years inside Sierra Club.  Being empathetic and trying to understand the feelings of others even in the midst of me not always agreeing with them is important. 

Framing concerns or issues in a way that doesn’t attack others, but offer a different way to process information is extremely helpful in building coalitions and building relationships.  A weakness is that I don’t like to do public speaking.  I prefer to promote others that may have a stronger voice or more influence based on their vantage point.  My values are reflected in the Sierra Club’s Core Values that the Board officially adopted in 2022.  I feel completely aligned with each and can easily tell a story about each one and how it has guided me and my work over the years.  The values I most gravitate to are anti-racism and collaboration. 

The 20+ years I have been a member have been highlighted and undergirded by working to dismantle systems of inequality and to bring about a more collaborative approach to the environmental & conservation work of the organization both internally and externally.  I believe we need everyone, and to work collaboratively with everyone we need to be respectful, and maintain a level playing field for people from all communities and all backgrounds.