The Shot Heard Round the West

What resulted from activists' 1990 challenge to the big greens

  • Richard Moore speaks to the crowd gathered for the first People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., in 1991.

    Courtesy SNEEJ
  • Michael Fischer used the SWOP letter as a tool to prod the Sierra Club into taking environmental justice issues seriously.

    Courtesy Michael Fischer
  • Leslie Fields, Sierra Club's director for the Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships program, at a booth at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's annual conference in Washington, D.C.

    Courtesy Sierra Club
 

Page 2

ONE RECIPIENT'S REACTION
Michael Fischer of the Sierra Club takes the lead
Sierra Club Director Michael Fischer was sitting in his office on the third story of a brick building in San Francisco's Tenderloin district the day the SWOP letter arrived.

"My initial reaction was irritation and resentment. ... I'd never heard of Richard Moore -- he'd never talked to me. Did I feel the charges against me were justified? Hell, no. But applicable to the Sierra Club, yes," says Fischer, who currently directs the San Francisco-based Consultative Group on Biological Diversity, which facilitates grants for environmental groups.

Fischer had been executive director of the Sierra Club for three years. He was committed to civil rights -- he'd fasted with Cesar Chavez to protest the treatment of farmworkers, wearing Chavez's mother's wooden cross around his neck. He believed the environmental movement was flawed because it consisted almost exclusively of white middle-class Americans like himself, and he was trying to convince his reluctant board of directors to create grants for communities of color fighting toxic waste dumps and uranium mining. One Sierra Club board member -- so upset at Fischer's efforts that he was "trembling" -- had complained, "We're a conservation group, and you're trying to turn us into a social welfare organization!"

Once he moved past his initial reaction, Fischer realized that the SWOP letter had given him "a tool to fan the flame."

He attended the first People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 in Washington, D.C. -- a landmark gathering where activists created the 17 principles of environmental justice that underlie the movement. Fischer found himself one of the few "people of pallor" in a room full of 650 environmentalists. He'd never encountered that situation before, and he was excited and a bit stunned to see the level of commitment to the things he really cared about.

Along with John Adams, a white lawyer who was director of the Natural Resources Defense Council at the time, Fischer was asked to come on stage. The two were subjected to three hours of criticism from a panel of attendees --  "incoming rounds of racist, insensitive, thoughtless obstacles to progress," as Fischer describes it.

Then they were given three minutes to respond.

Fischer simply said that he was "proud, and committed, to make environmental justice an integral part of my organization."

At the Sierra Club's centennial in 1992 -- flanked by Native American activist Winona LaDuke and civil rights leader Chavis -- Fischer called for a "friendly takeover" of the Sierra Club by people of color. The alternative, he said, was for the Club to "remain a middle-class group of backpackers, overwhelmingly white in membership, program and agenda -- and thus condemned to losing influence in an increasingly multicultural country. … The struggle for environmental justice in this country and around the globe must be the primary goal of the Sierra Club during its second century."

But not everyone agrees that environmental justice should be part of the group's mission, let alone the central goal. "The amount of resources we put into preserving wilderness areas is minuscule compared to the enormous amounts of resources we put into human problems," says Kevin DeLuca, associate professor of communication at the University of Utah. "So if a group like the Sierra Club is spending it on urban reclamation -- we don't have it to spend on wild lands in Utah." The planet's situation is so dire right now, says DeLuca, that "ecosystems come first, humans have to come second."

Fischer left the Sierra Club in 1992. In the years since, the organization has diversified somewhat, but its membership and leadership are still mostly white. Outgoing Executive Director Carl Pope acknowledges that the environmental movement still has "a long way to go." Still, in 1992, as a direct result of the SWOP letter, the Sierra Club created the beginnings of an environmental justice initiative. The group's Environmental Justice & Community Partnerships program now has 12 organizers -- mostly people of color -- in communities across the nation, including one in Flagstaff, Ariz. Says Fischer: "The Sierra Club at this date has a staff of EJ activists. That reality wouldn't have happened without my leadership and the kick in the butt the letter delivered."

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