Introducing the New Sierra Club Executive Director, Ben Jealous

Ben is an organizer’s organizer who grew up surrounded by changemakers

By Ramón Cruz

January 30, 2023

Ramon Cruz and Ben Jealous. Photo courtesy of Camila Duarte Rojas.

Ramon Cruz and Ben Jealous. Photo courtesy of Camila Duarte Rojas.

We may still be in the midst of winter, but as the days get longer I can sense the coming of spring, and I feel in my bones that this is also a time of renewal for the movements dedicated to ecological sustainability and environmental justice. The Inflation Reduction Act, while not perfect, includes $370 billion to move away from dirty fuels and toward clean energies—making it the largest investment in climate action in US history. Frontline communities are increasingly playing a leadership role in the evolution toward a green and fair economy. There’s hope in the air. 

The Sierra Club is also at a pivot point as we welcome our new executive director, Ben Jealous. You’ll be hearing about, and from, Ben in the coming months, but I wanted to take this opportunity to introduce him. 

Above all, Ben is an organizer’s organizer. He grew up surrounded by civil rights leaders, including his parents, who were committed racial justice activists. From 2008 to 2013, Ben served as the youngest-ever president of the NAACP, where he launched the organization’s climate justice program. Most recently, he headed the People for the American Way. Ben knows from experience that progressive change begins at the grassroots.

Ben is also a lover of the outdoors who understands the power of wild nature. He spent his school years in Pacific Grove, California, where, at age nine, he became the youngest-ever docent at the natural history museum and later worked as a tour guide at the nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium. His family often took trips to the Sierra Nevada, and those mountain adventures helped spark his commitment to the environment. He cofounded the first high school chapter of the Student Environmental Action Coalition, during which time he organized his first protest—against timber clearcutting. 

As you can probably tell, Ben is a movement person. He understands complex organizations with chapters, grassroots groups, and volunteers. And he knows that in order to lead, you first have to listen. That’s why Ben is spending his first month on the job traveling the country to meet with our members, volunteer leaders, national organizers, and chapter staff. 

I’m confident that under Ben’s leadership, the Sierra Club will continue to build upon our 130-year track record of accomplishments. Already, we have a clear plan for the Sierra Club’s 2030 goals:

• Protect 30 percent of US lands and waters.

• Expand access to the outdoors for all people.

 Transition the energy system from fossil fuels to renewable technologies.

Address inequities in the way governments respond to climate disruptions. 

Build power by attracting younger and more diverse people to the Sierra Club.

These are big ambitions that will also require a broad range of organizations working at all levels. The Sierra Club plays a unique role in the environmental movement ecosystem by being what I call the three d’s: a doer, a door opener, and a donor. 

There is no doubt that we here at the Sierra Club are doers. Our history is full of success stories. We have preserved millions of acres of wilderness, helped protect wildlife, shut down hundreds of coal plants, and watchdogged the oil and gas industry. Since 1892, we have helped countless people enjoy the outdoors.   

The Sierra Club is also a door opener. We often leverage our name recognition and resources to partner with smaller groups accessing the halls of power. For example, we’ve worked with the Indigenous Gwich’in nation to meet with members of Congress and try to stop oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Last fall, we collaborated with environmental justice organizers who came to Washington, DC, to beat back Senator Joe Manchin’s plan for greenlighting the fracked-gas Mountain Valley Pipeline.

The philanthropic work of the Sierra Club Foundation also positions us as a donor. For example, we have directed resources to the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform and provided funds to fantastic groups like GreenLatinos.

Now bolstered by Ben Jealous’s vision and passion, the Sierra Club will continue to be a doer, a door opener, and a donor for years to come.