Raised during the height of the civil rights and environmental justice movements, Aaron Mair, the recently elected president of the Sierra Club, is a force of social change to be reckoned with. His pedigree as an advocate for the preservation of natural spaces and for equal access to public land spans decades. And as the first African-American president in the club’s history, Mair aims to address critical socio-economic issues often neglected by the conservation community.
An expert in spatial epidemiology with a degree in Southwest Asian and North African Studies from New York’s Binghamton State University, Mair is well-versed in the complex relationships between people and the environments in which they live. As a graduate student, he demonstrated the direct connection between the voting rights of disenfranchised minorities and the outcomes of efforts to improve the environmental quality of their urban neighborhoods. In those communities where black citizens exercised their rights of civil involvement at the ballot box nearby green spaces were more likely to flourish. So Mair recognizes the importance of having thriving landscapes not only in remote national parks and wilderness, but also creating a healthy ecological infrastructure in the metropolitan areas where most of the world’s population now lives. By expanding the notion of economic development to include green jobs in industries that practice sustainable production, he aims to promote a society in which a solid core of environmental security supports well-being for all.
At a time when the Sierra Club struggles to remain relevant to the cultural interests of a population that is growing younger, more urban and more diverse with each passing year, Mair intends to champion change, shifting the club’s mission toward policies that include the needs and values of all people, particularly under-represented minorities.
This interview was adapted for the online version of the conservation magazine High Country News
How did your experiences growing up inform your interest in protecting the natural world?
I’m the son of Ellis Island immigrants from Jamaica, where my family owned land. They were always free people of color, urban dwellers of an agrarian background and so having a garden was part of their life. Going back and forth from Jamaica (with my family), it was going from the concrete jungle of Harlem to the island because there it was green.
Most people don’t realize that there were great migrations and structural, political, and social economic issues that were forces on blacks of the land throughout the South. So we went from having land to being landless and then to become defined by the ghettos that we were placed in when we got to urban settings.
But where we grew up, that environment, that green space made the difference in your life choices and your life outcomes. So if you have that enrichment or that investment and that base, your possibilities and your potential increase in a very significant way.
That diverse community made me stronger. I could network and share and see what other people’s dads, black, white, Hispanic, were doing, or how hardworking they were, and was mentored by that sharing and exchange of values. If you look at nature, when you go into any green space it’s not monoculture. It’s a diversity of plants and organisms, holistically diverse and connected. So I grew up in one of those suburban middle class blue-collar communities where that type of diversity was organic and informed. Again it still reflects the divisions and fissures that is America, but it is the core underpinning of my American Me.
Was there a particular moment in your career when you became an environmental activist?
When I was doing graduate work at the University of New York at Binghamton we had to do a project in my masters thesis class. Ours was basically trying to connect a community to a park. This was right along the Susquehanna River. That was my first time coming to a real understanding of class analysis, access to open space, looking at a community use pattern and actually realizing the impact of urban planning and urban design.
In our society we look at our government and the places where we live and we just think that nothing is connected. Either you’ve got a park or a road or this or that. But what I realized was that these things are connected, they are designed and they absolutely shape whole communities. And so one of the things you notice is how the black population was settled in certain portions of the city, alienated from this green space that they were putting where mainly middle class whites would have access. So even though theoretically everybody would have access by law, the actual design and plan made the properties that were near this green space more valuable. There is the prejudice plus the use of power to isolate and separate people of color. You start to see the institutional forms of how racism is reinforced and maintained by planning departments, municipal departments, zoning departments and you realize that this is the power of the vote. This is how political pressure can be brought to bear on the outcome of an environmental system. And that’s when I had the epiphany, in about 1984, that ah-ha moment that just hits you like a ton of bricks.
The Sierra Club has a longstanding tradition of preserving wilderness areas for recreation and the protection of endangered species. But through the years, concern over those issues has been relegated to the priorities of wealthy, well-educated, mostly white people. What can the Sierra Club and you as its president do to make these issues more relevant to the poor, the socially disenfranchised, the perpetually urbanized and people of color?
What John Muir had recognized was that as our nation was consuming itself, all those natural wonders, all those wild places — we were losing them. That movement then was if we’re going to rape everything, then we should save these postage stamps of what it used to be. But this preservation occurred among elites who had elitist values, and one could make the case that not all Americans had access to these places and these spaces. These natural wonders were often preserved for the use and exploitation and sport of the top 10 percent of families.
So where we are today is that with the environmental justice movement it’s recognizing and taking ownership of the values that people of color hold with respect to their use of the environment. They can play a significant role in protecting it, but things cannot be only in the perspective or point of view of whites. It must include all points of view so that when laws and regulations are fashioned they’re not advantaging one group over another. The environmental justice movement has affirmed the rights of people of color with regard to their access to clean land, clean air and clean water, and that minority communities cannot, should not be the dumping ground. The environmental justice movement is like the civil rights movement. It’s the equal treatment of people of color under the law. It’s broadening the environmental movement by making it inclusive and diverse and respectful of all people and every species on the planet. And that planet not the domain of one race or one group or one socio-economic class or caste.
Being the first (black) president I’m at a position where we’re reshaping club policy. So we’re going after a massive strategic plan about how this organization is operating and making sure that it’s a diverse, equitable and inclusive and a welcoming environment. The Sierra Club in the past has been a club. You either get in or you get out, and the little localities are very tight and close-knit and still many are not inviting and welcoming places. Now we’re going to the stage of how people of color can step in and become a part of this organization and really shape the culture internally and facilitate that change.
If the Sierra Club truly aims to address the needs of a broader constituency of potential supporters, what kind of policies can your organization create or support to more directly address the issues of environmental justice?
There is some serious intentional and deep work that we have got to do. From the mid ‘80s, the 90s to now I’ve seen real significant change, but it’s still not fast enough or deep enough. We cannot wait for these goals by 2020 and 2050. If they can right now invest a few billion dollars in weapon system programs or a couple of billion dollars in off-shore drilling, they can easily provide those same incentives for the retrofitting and the greening of jobs in urban areas. You would wind up having full employment of the marginalized and underemployed, earning at least living wage jobs and putting America on the positive side of the feedback loop of taxpayers and homeowners.
President Obama should be as intentional about green jobs as he has been with the “all of the above” carbon strategy by which he has allowed more drilling for oil and natural gas. He should have also been putting in the same amount, buck for buck, in fact even more, into the green economy and we would not be seeing the same levels of disparity in a number of our urban centers. But this is where the Sierra Club and powerful old organizations like it, networking with labor and the NAACP, can work together through climate justice initiatives.
The Sierra Club right now is at the ground floor of networking and tying these things together. It’s now working and advocating in places it never traditionally did. You just did not have the Sierra Club doing civil right marches because people thought a civil rights march was something different from protecting the environment. But the right to vote shapes land use policy that protects the environment. In fact to this day a lot of the pushback within the Sierra Club is people saying we’re straying away from our mission. My argument is educating them to understand that, no, protecting civil rights and labor rights are critical to our mission. It’s by having a voice from the left, the blue-collar labor and civil rights community, being at the helm of an environmental organization where you are able to see how that all comes together. If you want to know what environmental success looks like, it’s multi-ethnic.
Through your tenure as president of the Sierra Club, how will you define your own success?
What would be success for me is if I could get ahold of the president’s ear to shift him from the all of the above strategy that is still fueling our series of climate catastrophes. If I could shift his investment in the re-gridding of America, the retooling of America that provides clean and green jobs for all Americas. My measure of success is when the voting rights of all citizens are protected so that we have a say in the planning and zoning and land use that allows for sustainable communities. Will I be able to do that within the arc of a year? The answer is no. But what I can do is model the values and belief in the real experience that I have grown up with and lived with and walked and talked and struggled with I can bring that to this post. And that’s what I bring. I bring a deeper shade of green.
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