An interview with the first black president of the Sierra Club
High Country News
Aaron Mair, the first African American president in the Sierra Club’s 123-year history, was elected in May. Mair, most recently a research analyst with the New York State Department of Health, has been an advocate for the preservation of natural spaces and for equal access to public land for decades. One of his primary goals as president is 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, he is well-versed in the complex relationships between people and the environments in which they live. He is known as an advocate for thriving natural landscapes not only in remote national parks and wilderness, but also in the metropolitan areas where most of the world’s population now lives.
High Country News: How did your experiences growing up inform your interest in protecting the natural world?
Aaron Mair: 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. 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 where 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. Blacks went from having land to being landless and then to being defined by the ghettos that we were placed in when we got to urban settings.
But, where we grew up in Northern Westchester, 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 increases.
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 self.
HCN: Was there a particular moment in your career when you became an environmental activist?
AM: When I was doing graduate work at the University of New York at Binghamton, we had to do a project in my master’s thesis class. Ours was basically trying to connect a community to a park. That was my first time understanding 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 we live, and we 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 (New York City), alienated from this green space that they were putting where 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. 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.
HCN: The Sierra Club has a longstanding tradition of preserving wilderness areas for recreation and the protection of endangered species. What can the Sierra Club and you as its president do to make these environmental issues more relevant to the poor, the socially disenfranchised, the perpetually urbanized and people of color?
Mair: 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.
Today, the environmental justice movement is 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 from 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.
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 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.
HCN: What kind of policies can the Sierra Club create or support to more directly address the issues of environmental justice?
Mair: There is some serious intentional and deep work that we have got to do. From the mid ‘80s to now, I’ve seen 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 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 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.
HCN: Through your tenure as president of the Sierra Club, how will you define your own success?
Mair: 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 that’s what I bring to this post. I bring a deeper shade of green.
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