Sierra Club weighs booting Colo. leaders over ‘harmful’ culture

By Jennifer Yachnin | 01/07/2022 01:29 PM EST

Sierra Club President Ramón Cruz

Sierra Club President Ramón Cruz said the organization was reviewing whether to suspend the leadership of the Colorado chapter. Shannon Finney/Getty Images

The Sierra Club revealed this week that it is deciding whether to suspend the leadership of its Colorado chapter — which claims 20,000 members — after saying that yearslong efforts to remedy a toxic workplace have failed.

Sierra Club President Ramón Cruz confirmed yesterday that the environmental advocacy group is in the midst of a review process, set to close Jan. 30, that could remove the current state Executive Committee.

“The Sierra Club Board has a responsibility to act in the best interest of the organization and our millions of members and supporters. We do not take these steps lightly, and we are welcoming input before making any final decisions," Cruz said in a statement to E&E News.

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The Sierra Club announced its "intervention" in a Wednesday letter to members detailing its decision, stating that "efforts over a number of years — including training, coaching and individual accountability measures — have failed to help chapter leaders."

"The Board is considering suspension not due to one specific instance, but rather an ongoing recurring pattern and concerns about inappropriate behaviors, harmful and non-inclusive management culture, and ongoing harmful impacts that continue to be raised by internal stakeholders and documented by external professionals," states the letter, which was first published Wednesday by freelance reporter Jimmy Tobias on Twitter.

A Sierra Club spokesperson confirmed to E&E News that the letter is authentic, but declined to provide additional details about the incidents that prompted the intervention.

"This step is in response to a series of governance challenges and conflicts over the last two years, not any single incident," said Thomas Young, who serves as the Sierra Club’s associate regional communications director for the West. "Under the laws that govern the incorporation of the Sierra Club, the board of directors is the ultimate decisionmaking body for the organization."

Among the four elected members of the executive committee — Jamie Valdez, Jennifer Singer, Chris Applegate, and Kent Abernethy — only Abernethy, whose email signature identifies him as the current "interim chair" for the chapter, responded to an interview request. He referred questions back to Young.

But the criticisms outlined in the Wednesday missive echoed complaints that appeared in a June 2021 review that detailed widespread cultural problems in the national organization. That review was first reported by POLITICO.

“One of the most prevalent themes we heard was that there was generally a culture at the Sierra Club that tolerated, excused, or failed to correct those managers and leaders who regularly displayed anger and aggression — yelling, berating, shaming, and otherwise demonstrating unprofessional and abusive behavior in the workplace,” the report stated, according to POLITICO. “It became clear that many of these individuals were well-known for engaging in this behavior and that nothing was done to meaningfully curb the behavior."

That report surfaced within days of former Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune’s resigning from the group in August. In his resignation message, Brune apologized for failing to institute sufficient changes "for ensuring that our staff and volunteers feel safe, supported and valued, and I sincerely apologize for any instance in which this was not the case” (Greenwire, Aug. 16, 2021).

Despite its decision to potentially remove leadership at the organization, the Sierra Club praised the Colorado chapter for its various successes, including legal challenges to the expansion of a major freeway, advocacy for species and habitat protections in the state, and supporting pro-environment candidates.

“The Sierra Club’s Colorado staff and volunteers have a history of achieving significant environmental victories, and that work will continue unimpeded," Cruz said in a statement. "We are confident this process will lead to a stronger Colorado Chapter which furthers the successful endeavors of its members protecting their state’s natural beauty and clean air and water.”

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