Aaron Mair came to environmental activism via the social justice pathway. Back in the 1980s, he became embroiled in a fight to shut down a solid waste incinerator in Albany, NY. The incinerator would send out plumes of polluting smoke right over his home, which was in an inner city neighborhood, sickening Mair’s young daughters and other kids in the neighborhood. “I was seeking justice for the community,” Mair, who’s an epidemiological-spatial analyst with the New York State Department of Health, told me when I spoke with him recently. His efforts ultimately led to the facility’s closure and a $1.6 million settlement award to the community.
Much of Mair’s three decades of environmental activism included volunteering in leadership roles with local chapters of the Sierra Club. He was a key figure in the Clean Up the Hudson campaign, which resulted in a settlement between the EPA and General Electric to dredge toxic PCB sediments from the Upper Hudson River.
Mair’s initial association with the nation’s oldest and largest environmental group, however, wasn’t quite positive. The Club had refused to support his efforts to fight the Albany incinerator. “The truth is that many nature and environmental organizations feel that serving and working with communities of color on environmental justice matters is outside their mission,” he told me. “I made it a point to come back to change the organization, even though we were rejected.”
In May 2015, Mair was elected Sierra Club’s first African-American president.
—Maureen Nandini Mitra
What first drew you to the environmental activism?
I formally entered the environmental movement as an activist in the late 1980s due to a battle against the municipal waste incinerator that was operated by the city of Albany [New York]. It was a five-county, regional garbage burn plant, which had a prevailing plume that went over the community called Arbor Hill where I was raising my daughters. So we faced chronic exposure and as a result had a lot of upper respiratory irritation and illness. My daughters and lots of kids in the neighborhood were getting sick. That’s what triggered me into becoming an environmental activist. I was seeking justice for the community in shutting down the incinerator.
And you were successful, right?
Yeah, we worked by mobilizing and organizing to do that. I was, in part, helped by my collaboration with many leaders in the environmental justice movement. On the other side they had all the government experts, the local city attorney, the county attorney, and even the New York state attorney general. So to battle the deep pockets of the State of New York one had to try to assemble a strong armada of help. And that’s one of the things I tried to do. And one of the entities that I turned to, initially, was the Sierra Club.
So you have a long association with the Club.
Well it’s an interesting association because initially the Club did not support our action. On average, the Club is definitely a source that communities can turn to, but most communities don’t realize there is a stewardship aspect on their end, which is, you have to bring something to the Club to further its mission as well. So if you’re a poor community coming in, the initial meetings and reception can be chilling. That’s true for anybody. But if you’re a community of color, that’s downright daunting. The truth is that many nature and environmental organizations feel that serving and working with communities of color on environmental justice matters is outside their mission. A study that came out at that time showed that race matters when it came to exposure to environmental threats, but even if you want to get help from within the environmental movement itself, race then, and still now, does matter.
One of the things I've made a point to do was to come back to change the organization.
You have said that you are dedicated to making the Sierra Club more inclusive. Do you mean that in terms of membership or staff, or both?
It’s at all levels. People of color have historically been left outside of the conservation movement. We have to have this conversation now about what will conservation look like in the future in a nation that’s had a history of segregated access to its natural resources, and who are going to be those stewards who will protect these resources.
If you segregate a population, if you isolate them from these [natural] wonders, then there’s no history or legacy by which next generations within communities of color will see these things as valuable. If we do not develop a pipeline of inclusion that creates the next Black series of conservation officers, or park managers, park rangers, or forest conservation specialists, preservation specialists – if the assumption is that only White people can do it, then America’s conservation movement is really facing a serious and deep crisis. Racism is one of the most serious threats to the protection and preservation of wild places, of our air, land, water, and sea.
How are you going to go about making the movement more inclusive?
It’s not as much a “you” question as it is a “we” question. My question is “How do I build a ‘we’?” How do I build that space where all people, regardless of their gender, background, orientation, or racial or economic status, have a place at the table?
One of the things I seek to do is work on the Sierra Club’s national Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion plan. Our strategic plan is focusing on climate change and building a green, clean economy. Within that framework, we have to talk about this as a multiethnic, multigenerational, and multiracial movement. Right now we need to work out where the people are at and reach out and bring them in, and draw them into this movement. I think the big thing is just tearing down the great myth that those who can save the environment are those who are privileged, wealthy, and White. And that it indeed takes all of us.
As the president of the Sierra Club, [I will work on] providing this movement space and leadership in which we can focus not on the differences in people, but the differences in policy that threaten people.
In some ways, it seems that the systemic shift you’re talking about is already happening organically…
There’s a shift, yes. But that shift’s coming in the wake of really intentional work that began in the international environmental justice movement. In fact, the Bali Principles [of Climate Justice], which were promulgated in 2002, came from the environmental justice movement. First Nations, communities of color, met in Bali in preparation for the Earth Summit in South Africa that year. These communities have been coming together… and battling on environmental justice issues.
They began to react against climate issues because they recognized that part of the solutions [to climate change] among White environmentalists and conservationists was to commodify air. What happened is that minority communities and First Nation communities realized that the dirtiest polluting plants were in their backyard and that cap and trade basically allowed these dirty plants to continue operating in their backyards. So the move against the commodification of air has also [led to] the climate justice argument that we are now starting to see. These communities have always been on the frontlines in shaping that conversation.
So you are saying that this didn’t happen in a vacuum.
Exactly. The current evolution we see now in the movement is part of the dialectic of the environmental justice movement, the environmental movement, and the antagonisms between them. And the antagonisms that exist hinge on exclusion. We need to get beyond these contradictions and start focusing on the real enemies, which are big coal, big oil, and big gas, and big nuclear, which are basically creating the climate change [that] we are fighting. Either we’re all at the table to stop climate change, or we’re all going to die together. No one race has it all; no one race can do it all. But together, as a movement, Black, White, blue, green, gay, straight, we can absolutely turn this thing around.
Why do you think that this stereotypical view persists that only White people are interested in the environment?
The burden [to set the record straight] is not on people of color. The modern environmental movement was shaped by the civil rights movement. The tactics, the tools, the skills, the strategy, all came from the student-resistance and the civil rights movements. Right now, we have what we call the Democracy Initiative whereby we are linking labor, civil rights, and the environmental movements in an intentional way. These movements by themselves are all righteous, but we all have to come out of our silos and work together.
And this is where we need national leadership. This is where we need a “Green Marshal Plan.” We need a mirror plan, we need a “David Brower Plan” – one that looks forward and puts us on a green path of human species preservation and all species preservation, rather than one that is exploitative and resource destructive. That’s why I think these movements need to come together as part of a solution, but more importantly where we can borrow from each other and strategically knit together a new way of thinking.
I think that diversity of movement, diversity of action makes for strong, real, tangible solutions. It’s not pie in the sky, these are things we can do right now. The Sierra Club working with the NAACP, working with labor for clean jobs, and voting rights, so we can get leaders who are not working to undermine our civil society – I think is one of the more cutting-edge things that we are doing right now.
That’s a really big goal.
This is a goal that is doable. Just think about what we can do offshore. Right now we are drilling off the Atlantic shelf, drilling for oil. But we could absolutely replace every single one of those oil rigs with wind turbine rigs. You would still need metal fabricators, you would still need technicians, maintenance workers, scientists to develop that wind power, but it’s totally doable. Right now! In fact, I would submit to retool every one of those oil platforms with wind platforms – we don’t even have enough union labor to do it all. We would have to go out for legal immigration for folks from Mexico to come and help do this!
Clearly the solutions are out there; it’s about how to get the political will to implement them, right?
I would call for them to tear down that metal wall that separates us from Mexico and recycle that into steel that can actually build wind turbines and clean energy.
The issue is what kind of politicians do we elect? What sort of values do you vote for? If you’re an environmentalist, conservationist, civil rights activist, pro-labor, you're going to vote for things that build a positive civil society. But if you're a resource-exploiter, labor-exploiter, people-hater, you’re basically going to be building those negative institutions of hate that are going to be institutionalizing people, beating people up, building fences locking people out, while at the same time burning lots of dirty stuff that you can get your hands on for the profit of the few at the expense of many!
Both futures are possible. The point is: How do we educate the people to build a movement to do what is going to preserve our species? And equally importantly, provide for the future? So we can liquidate now, or we can come together now. That choice is up to us. We are at a tipping point for our species. We either do the right thing now, or we’re done. We’re done.
What would you like to see the Club accomplish under your presidency?
To the extent that my presidency is an installment on us changing the culture of the broader, national environmental movement, that is my primary goal. It’s not just a Sierra Club thing. If every single environmental movement does not have a diverse board, and multiethnic board, an inclusive board, then people should not be investing in it. Otherwise, you're investing in the past, and the past, as we know, is not a path that we want to continue on.
Earlier in 2015, you challenged President Obama to meet you at Yosemite to witness the impact of climate change. Have you received any response from the White House?
My offer still stands. John Muir brought President Teddy Roosevelt to Yosemite to witness what was beautiful about this nation, and what we stand to lose. That conversation still needs to be had. Because this very President, on one end, gave us the Clean Power Plan and also pointed out that we cannot continue to depend upon fossil fuels, and then he went on to authorize drilling in the Arctic. There’s a difference between tokenism and earning your place.
Maureen Nandini Mitra is the editor of Earth Island Journal. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.