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Although Hopkins, who is Black, believed Sierra Club was ready to write a new story, its prose was timid. “You couldn’t really say the word ‘racism’ without worrying about your job,” he says. “‘Multiculturalism’ was the flavor of the day.”
Today, Hopkins, who is now the group’s director of organizational transformation, talks about racism a lot. Internally, he’s contributing to the design of Sierra Club efforts on justice and inclusion as well as the examination of its mission and theory of change with regard to racial equity. A longtime environmental- and racial-justice activist, he also is working to establish partnerships with smaller, newer groups focused on protecting communities of color, often in cities far from the wilderness that Sierra Club co-founder John Muir set out to protect. It’s delicate work, he says, in which the Sierra Club, despite its size and clout, has to take a back seat and let others lead.
Within the organization and its chapters and in public forums (including a podcast with Jane Fonda), Hopkins champions the notion that the battles for racial justice and environmental justice are inseparable. That the neighborhoods fighting police brutality are often the same ones fighting the polluter next door. That the traditional environmental movement can’t achieve its goals unless it locks arms with the racial-justice movement.
“We will never survive the climate crisis without ending white supremacy,” Hopkins wrote in an essay last year provocatively titled “Racism Is Killing the Planet.” He argued that racism makes possible the creation of “sacrifice zones,” places where toxic waste and poisonous emissions are ignored because they harm only marginalized communities.
“You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones,” Hopkins wrote, “and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism.”
In the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, the Sierra Club has publicly sided with racial-justice activists. It has called for reparations for Black people and acknowledged its own roots in racism: Several early leaders were eugenicists, and Muir made derogatory comments about Native Americans and Black people. For most of its existence, executive director Michael Brune wrote, “Sierra Club was basically a mountaineering club for middle- and upper-class white people who worked to preserve the wilderness they hiked through” — a wilderness that didn’t need preservation until white settlers displaced the Indigenous peoples living there.
Hopkins says the organization’s shift has critics — including some among its staff and 3.8 million members — who argue the group can’t afford to divert energy and resources from fighting climate change to take on racial-justice issues. That argument echoes objections raised during the civil-rights movement, according to research by Yale scholar Dorceta Taylor. In the 1960s, a Sierra Club director responding to attempts to include people of color in membership said, “Now wait a minute. This is not an integration club; this is a conservation club.”
Given this division and history, activists are rightfully wary that the Sierra Club’s actions won’t match its words, Hopkins says. The organization is in some turmoil. An investigation was launched last year after a volunteer leader was publicly accused of raping a staff member; an executive summary of the resulting report, which was obtained by the Intercept news outlet, noted that interviews with staff suggested older white men’s “bad behavior” was often excused, particularly when young women or people from marginalized groups were involved. Staff also said that local chapters of the organization were pushing back against equity efforts.
Brune recently announced his resignation, saying change is not happening “at the pace and scale required.” But things are changing, Hopkins says, and environmental- and racial-justice groups are beginning to see the organization as a reliable ally.
“It’s painful. Change is not a walk in the park on a Sunday afternoon with ice-cream cones and flowers. But you can’t just say you want something and then not do anything.”