I don’t know anyone who didn’t find last week both hard and heartbreaking. Two more incomprehensible fatal police shootings of African Americans followed by a horrific and deadly attack on police officers at a peaceful protest in Dallas. Seven senseless deaths fed the fear that our nation is sliding toward a chasm of hatred and violence. Although violent crime has actually been declining in most of America for decades, it did not feel that way last week.
I’ve written before about why the Sierra Club supports Black Lives Matter. We believe that all people deserve a healthy planet with clean air and water, a stable climate, and safe communities. That means all people deserve equal protection under the law. We all have the right to a life free of discrimination, hatred, and violence. People of color deserve that. Police officers deserve that. LGBTQ people deserve that. Muslims, too. This is the America portrayed in my children’s textbooks. But if our country isn’t keeping this promise to our nation’s most vulnerable citizens, don’t we all lose? As we saw again so painfully last week, the plain, inescapable fact is that African Americans are not receiving equal protection.
Racism in our society — and the fear, ignorance, and misunderstanding that accompanies it — is a direct threat to our environmental progress. The Sierra Club’s mission is to “enlist humanity” to protect the planet. To combat climate change, we need to build an economy powered by 100 percent clean energy for everyone. But how can we come together to do this when racism threatens to tear us apart? How can we rise to the challenge of creating clean energy prosperity — where communities of color, which have suffered the heaviest burden of carbon pollution, really benefit — when we’re sinking to our deepest fears about each other?
The Sierra Club is just one out of more than a million U.S. nonprofit organizations. But after spending the past six years working and collaborating with thousands of staff, volunteers, and supporters, I’ve learned that the Sierra Club is much more than that. It’s a community. A community of people who want to see a better world today, tomorrow, and a hundred years from now. The Sierra Club is filled with smart, passionate people who know how to listen to each other, learn from each other, and work together for positive change. A community like that cannot — must not — turn its back on its brothers and sisters who cannot walk the streets of their own country, their own neighborhoods, without the ever-present fear that they could be singled out just because of their skin color. By the same token, we can’t turn our hearts from the good cops doing a dangerous job who feel misunderstood and at risk themselves as they seek closer relations with the communities they serve.
But in the face of such grief, what can we do? We can engage, all of us. Combating racism isn’t an armchair exercise; just like creating a new protected area or replacing coal with clean energy, it demands passion and engagement. Sierra Club members, volunteers, and supporters know how to organize as well as anyone. That same ability to reach across differences to create a coalition to stop fracking? Let’s apply those skills to dismantling racism on the way to 100 percent clean energy for all. Our solidarity with principled allies? Let’s extend that to Black Lives Matter and take the pledge to “not allow ourselves to be divided.” We can’t pretend that race doesn’t matter on environmental issues, because the communities that care most about our issues — and are disproportionately affected by environmental woes — are communities of color.
Talk to your friends and family openly about race. Talk with fellow environmentalists about why it matters to us and how we can do more to address it. Read books and articles about racism. Seek out workshops and trainings about white privilege and racial justice. Work with others in your community who are addressing racism. Join with others who are marching for justice.
One more thought: Last week’s violence was a consequence of America’s worst idea — rejecting the humanity of other human beings. But at the heart of the Sierra Club’s mission is what’s been called one of America’s “best ideas” — that parks, nature, and wild places can help us find and celebrate our common humanity. I believe that we as a community have something else to humbly offer — a rededication to sharing that idea with our friends and neighbors and colleagues. Now, at a moment when every one of us could use some help from the healing power of nature, let us resolve to never forget that it is for everyone to enjoy, that it can help anyone, and that it should be accessible to all.