Did Sierra Club fail to aid Colo. chapter it might now suspend?

By Jennifer Yachnin | 01/28/2022 01:17 PM EST

A sign for the Sierra Club’s 125th Anniversary Trail Blazers Ball

Signs on the dinner tables at Sierra Club's 125th Anniversary Trail Blazers Ball in 2017 in San Francisco. The signs note that the group was founded in 1892 by John Muir, a leading conservationist whose legacy has been reconsidered in recent years. Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images

While three former leaders of the Sierra Club’s Colorado chapter paint starkly different images of the strife within their environmental organization in recent years, they surprisingly agree on one assertion: The national organization’s involvement didn’t help resolve the problems.

The Sierra Club is in the middle of a review to determine whether it will suspend the state leadership of the 20,000-member Colorado chapter, saying it has failed to remedy a pattern of “inappropriate behaviors,” along with a “harmful and non-inclusive management culture.”

The national board held a meeting Tuesday night as it continues to gather input from Colorado members, with a Sunday deadline for comments.

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The Sierra Club has repeatedly declined to provide specific examples of incidents that prompted the review, announced earlier this month, instead pointing to unspecified problems over the past two years (Greenwire, Jan. 7).

“This process is in response to a pattern of unresolved governance challenges and issues, not one specific instance,” said Thomas Young, who serves as the Sierra Club’s associate regional communications director for the West, in response to questions from E&E News.

He added: “The board is taking this step after a number of efforts to help chapter leaders address these conflicts and challenges, including mediation, training, coaching and individual accountability measures.”

Former members of the state executive committee told E&E News the issues dated to 2019, beginning when newly elected leaders raised concerns over one member using racist language, the overwhelmingly white leadership team and gender discrimination within the Colorado group.

Disputes over those complaints — including conflict over their legitimacy — would eventually trigger a mass resignation, a flurry of internal complaints and, eventually, the national organization suspending multiple committee members. In the middle of this, some people on the Colorado team on opposite sides of the dispute — including two who were suspended — faulted the national group for failing to properly intervene.

“It was very difficult to get anything kicked up to national. There was no process for it,” recalled Fran Silva Blayney, who was executive committee chair of the Colorado group before resigning in mid-2020, citing the marginalization of women and efforts to persecute those who spoke up.

“It was kind of the first time that they had been forced to deal with this, and it was only because I kept pushing it,” added Silva Blayney, who is Asian American.

Former executive committee Chair Will Walters — who battled with Silva Blayney and others who alleged mistreatment — likewise places blame on the national organization.

“The Sierra Club is very conscious of appearances,” Walters told E&E News. He was suspended from holding leadership roles with the state chapter in December 2019.

He later added in an email that the group bills itself “as a social justice organization while denying principles of due process to its own members.”

Walters contends he and the Colorado chapter have been “ensnared in the faux national accountability process.”

The past couple of years have put a spotlight on the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, with leaders reckoning with the environmental movement’s noninclusive and sometimes racist history (Greenwire, June 5, 2020).

Part of this for the Sierra Club involved dealing with the legacy of founder John Muir, the renowned conservationist who espoused racist views about Native Americans and Black people (Greenwire, July 22, 2020).

But the focus wasn’t just on the past. An internal review of the Sierra Club in June 2021 detailed widespread cultural problems in the national organization, including “a culture … [of] yelling, berating, shaming, and otherwise demonstrating unprofessional and abusive behavior in the workplace.” That document was first reported by POLITICO.

The report surfaced just days after former Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune unexpectedly resigned (Greenwire, Aug. 16, 2021).

Growing tensions

Former Colorado Chapter Vice Chair Megan Rast joined the organization after the 2016 election, driven to be more active in the wake of Donald Trump’s surprise presidential win.

“I was super-volunteer. I was really engaged, got a lot of good stuff done that first year,” recalled Rast, who describes herself as a “sustainability leader.”

In the years that followed, Rast became more engaged, receiving an appointment to a vacancy on the 15-member state executive committee in 2018 and then winning an election later that year. In early 2019, she was featured in the Sierra Club’s magazine under the headline “Team Player” for her fundraising work.

Around the same time, Silva Blayney, who had spent nearly a decade as a Sierra Club volunteer, working on creek cleanups and other activities, also took on an appointment and then won election to the executive committee.

In late 2019, the Sierra Club would also tout Silva Blayney in its magazine.But Silva Blayney said she had begun to see “problematic behaviors” among fellow Colorado members.

“The Sierra Club wasn’t as progressive in their thinking about social issues as they were putting forward,” Silva Blayney said, contrasting volunteer training on equity, inclusiveness and diversity put on by the national organization with her experiences at the local and chapter level.

“It was really surprising to me to find myself in situations where people were saying things and doing things that were not following the multiyear equity plan, and were not inclusive views,” she said. “I had this false notion that if you were a liberal, progressive environmentalist that it extended to your social views as well. That’s been a rude awakening for me personally.”

By mid-2020, it would all fall apart — as Rast, Silva Blayney and three other executive committee members resigned in protest, citing “hostile and toxic volunteer leaders” in an open letter.

In an interview, Rast recalled witnessing another executive committee member make racist remarks — referring to people as “half breeds” and “hybrids” — in early 2019.

Rast raised the issue with the committee member in a series of emails provided to E&E News, and said the incident prompted her to try to draw attention to diversity and equity in general.

“At the time, I was like, ‘Let me lean in. Let’s do an equity moment at every meeting,'” Rast recalled. Documents she shared also cite work to establish land acknowledgments, “anti-oppression” trainings and diversity development strategies.

But as the year went on, Rast said, she experienced “systemic misogyny,” from an organization composed primarily of older, white men.

“My experience and the negative experiences I have being a young female leader in the Club are ones that you will never experience,” Rast wrote in a December 2019 email to Walters, which she provided to E&E News.

In a separate interview, Walters disputed Rast’s allegations about the chapter, chalking up the disputes to “personality conflicts … particularly one very abrasive person.”

All three former leaders — Silva Blayney, Rast and Walters — said the national organization tried to install a dispute resolution process that did little to help tensions within the Colorado group.

“National stepped in with a heavy hand and didn’t really know what was going on,” Walters recalled.

Silva Blayney recalled the experience as ineffective, with mediators who appeared unversed in conflict resolution.

“Things couldn’t be resolved in a four-hour session,” she said. “They didn’t seem to be very aware of issues of gender bias and how white supremacy influences organizational behavior.”

Ultimately, Rast, Silva Blayney and three other executive committee members resigned in June 2020.

“We were no further ahead in holding anyone accountable. Basically, they just wore me down,” Silva Blayney acknowledged.

She added: “The culture was so resistant to even the hint that there was a problem, that things needed to change.”

The open letter written by the five executive committee members who left complained about the national response. “Sierra Club did not support us; providing neither a timely nor effective response to the escalating situation,” stated the letter, signed by Rast and Silva Blayney, along with Kathy Slaughter, Matt Kirby and Eric Rechel.

“Today is a recognition that the problems in the Colorado Sierra Club are deeply entrenched and systemic, and it has become impossible for us to navigate this double bind.”

But while Rast stepped away from the Colorado chapter, the national organization was reviewing complaints made against her.

In December 2020, the Sierra Club issued her a letter barring her from serving as an executive committee officer for three years, and in lesser roles for two years.

Among the charges leveled against her — reviewed under the organization’s “Affirmative Standards of Conduct” — the Sierra Club found she had “deepen[ed] rather than resolve[d] conflict and animosity within the chapter” and had refused to examine “your own behavior.”

The criticisms included faulting Rast for creating a “disposable culture, acting with immediacy and finality to disrupt white supremacy and patriarchy where people perceived to cause harm or break the rules are treated as disposable.”

Young, the Sierra Club spokesperson, did not respond to questions about details of the incidents that led to the decision, or how “disrupt[ing] white supremacy” would violate the organization’s standards of conduct.

Young also did not respond to specific criticisms posed by Rast, Walters or Silva Blayney, including how the national organization had responded to the 2020 open letter, or its response to individual complaints.

More discipline

Rast, however, wasn’t the only Colorado official to be punished by the national organization.

Walters had himself been suspended from leadership roles a year earlier, in December 2019, and, like Rast, criticized for deepening “conflict and animosity” and an unwillingness to “take personal responsibility.”

The national group cited Walters for “cultivat[ing] an atmosphere of insularity and cliquishness, and a leadership culture deeply resistant to changes necessary to retain leaders who represent a significant broadening of identities and perspectives.”

In an appeal to the Sierra Club, Walters wrote in early January 2021, “I will not lay down and allow my character to be tarnished by lies, nor by an institution stumbling recklessly to reckon with its past.”

In his appeal, Walters contended that anonymous complaints against him amounted to retribution for highlighting what he called misconduct by Rast and Silva Blayney, although he did not identify either by name but rather cited their leadership posts.

In a recent interview, Walters asserted that Rast in particular would “bully” older men in the group.

“It’s hard to talk about this in a way that doesn’t sound bad. I consider myself a feminist,” said Walters, who asserts that his early relationship with Rast was that of a mentor before it devolved into acrimony.

Rast disputed Walters’ account of their early relationship and said that even when her efforts caused tension, she remained professional.

“He viewed it as mentorship, I viewed it as power and control,” Rast said. She added of Walters’ assessment of her personality: “If I had never tried to change the Sierra Club, I would have never been called abrasive.”

Silva Blayney, who was not disciplined by the national organization but no longer participates in the Sierra Club, likewise said Walters’ criticisms are a result of her attempts to address discrimination.

“I think I became known as a difficult person because I would bring these to the attention of the group leader of the chapter,” Silva Blayney said.

But Walters also provided a June 2020 response letter penned by eight female members of the Colorado chapter, in which they disputed the allegations of “toxic misogyny, gender oppression, or exclusion.”

“In interacting with a diverse group of men in the Chapter, none of us has had a concern about being treated with anything other than respect for our skills, knowledge, and commitment, or has had any sense that we were not taken seriously because of our gender,” states the open letter signed by former Vice Chair Peggy Malchow Sass, former Chair Myrna Poticha and former Vice Chair Becky English, among others. “We have never thought to call our equal treatment into question.”

The letter also criticized both Rast and Silva Blayney as “hostile, confrontational, and dismissive.”

“We as women were treated with the same abrasive approach, despite our gender. Some of us felt discounted due to our no longer being young women,” the letter states.

But Silva Blayney disputed that missive, arguing: “One of the hallmarks of a patriarchal system that continues to thrive is you have a subcategory of women who continue to support the system because they benefit from it,” she said.

Uncertain future

Young, the Sierra Club spokesperson, could not detail how long the national organization will take to make a decision about the Colorado chapter’s status.

“The Board welcomes input from all stakeholders through a number of avenues before making any decision,” he said.

Rast said she’d hope for — but not expect — an apology from the Sierra Club.

“What happened to me was retaliatory and wrong,” Rast said.

Silva Blayney said she supports a suspension of the Colorado chapter’s leadership, as well as reforms to limit tenure in leadership posts and to rethink how the state chapter and local groups are organized.

“While I value institutional knowledge and past knowledge and the expertise that people bring to a situation, what the Sierra Club has been missing is new thought and new ways of doing things,” she said.

Matt Kirby, who resigned with Rast and Silva Blayney, noted that the Colorado group was already troubled when he joined the executive committee in late 2019.

He said he signed on to the resignation letter to support Rast and Silva Blayney, and still supports both women.

“I continue to believe that the Sierra Club is one of the most effective grassroots organizations, and in Colorado we have too many challenges and opportunities to go without an effective chapter. I hope that these recent actions will finally help the Sierra Club live up to its potential,” he said.

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