Meet Ben Jealous
Benjamin Todd "Ben" Jealous was named the seventh executive director of the Sierra Club in November 2022.
Ben has served in roles from organizer to investigative journalist to president of two of the nation’s most influential groups pursuing equity and justice and protecting democracy and the environment.
Ben grew up spending school years in Pacific Grove, California, a community he describes as full of oceanographers and nature photographers. Throughout his childhood, he spent summers with his grandparents in West Baltimore surrounded by elders who were leading civil rights activists locally and nationally. From his childhood, he connected the fights for civil rights and the environment shaped by his parents’ activism. He is the son of a white New England outdoorsman and a black mother who had to leave Maryland when she married as interracial marriage was illegal in her native state. By 1988, Ben was splitting his free time between leading Youth for Jackson in his county and giving tours at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
His family’s trips to the Sierras forged his lifelong environmentalism and commitment to courage. His advocacy for the environment began when he co-founded the first high school chapter of the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) and helped organize his first protest – against timber clearcutting. He helped launch SEAC’s People of Color Caucus, an early national environmental justice network, and served as SEAC’s spokesperson in a national campaign against NAFTA.
From 2008 to 2013, Ben led the NAACP as the youngest-ever president and CEO of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization with more than 2,400 chapters. He launched the NAACP’s Climate Justice Program, which in 2012 issued Coal Blooded: Putting Profits before People, a report assessing the impact of the nation’s 378 coal-fired power plants on people of color and low-income communities. It was an extension of work Ben began in the 1990s as a reporter and managing editor at the black-owned community newspaper the Jackson Advocate exposing alarming “cancer clusters” in Mississippi’s rural communities caused by industrial pollution. He also helped convince the Sierra Club and Greenpeace to join the voting rights struggle, pointing out that the forces suppressing voting were funded by the fossil fuel and paper industries that are destroying the planet.
Under his leadership, the NAACP saw its first sustained membership growth in decades, its annual budget doubled, its base of online activists quadrupled, and its donor rolls increased eightfold.
A hallmark of Ben’s work has been deploying technology to make organizing efforts more effective and to engage more grassroots activists. He deepened his understanding of technology in a half-decade as a partner at Kapor Capital, one of the nation’s premier ESG venture capital firms.
Ben joined the Sierra Club from People for the American Way (PFAW), where he was president from 2020 through the 2022 midterm elections. At PFAW, he co-led an advocacy and civil disobedience campaign by civil rights activists, women’s rights advocates and religious leaders to convince the Biden administration to take a more assertive role in overcoming a Senate filibuster of voting rights legislation (and was arrested numerous times in the process).
Ben graduated from Columbia University and earned a master’s degree from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He was the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor of Maryland. He was named to the “40 Under 40” lists of both Forbes and Time magazines. In 2013, the Baltimore Sun named him “Marylander of the Year” for his work on marriage equality, abolishing the death penalty and passing the DREAM Act. In 2009, he was given the John Jay Award by Columbia’s alumni association (despite being suspended in college for leading protests against financial aid cuts and the conversion of the ballroom where Malcolm X was assassinated into a research lab).
Ben has served on the boards of directors of the Environmental Defense Fund, the Trust for Public Lands, and the Wilderness Society
He has taught at Princeton University and currently teaches at University of Pennsylvania. Ben is a New York Times best-selling author. His next book Never Forget Our People Were Always Free: A Parable of American Healing will be released in January 2023.
Ben lives in a designated bird sanctuary on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland with his children, Morgan and Jack, and their dog, Charlie. He descends from two black Reconstruction statesmen and at least seven Revolutionary War soldiers including the youngest to fight at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.