By Jay Powell
The latest news coming out of the national Sierra Club office- at a time when there are major climate change initiatives underway and the City is about to elect a new Mayor- is just not funny. San Diego and Imperial County members are receiving letters from the chairman of the national Sierra Club, David Scott, informing them that they are considering a formal suspension of the Chapter Executive Committee due to “internal conflicts and divisions.”
In an update report, UT San Diego environmental reporter Deborah Sullivan Brennan outlines some of the recent history of changes in chapter leadership, notes cases of suspension of other chapters within the last several years, and refers to a lawsuit filed against the national organization by a former chapter chairman who was removed by the national organization in September 2012 over what are still undisclosed reasons. (“Sierra Club Chapter Struggling with High Leadership Turnover”) That former leader has filed a law suit is claiming defamation and seeking due process to include a disclosure of whatever claims were made that led to his removal.
The letter to members cites complaints and that “factionalized strife and contention has driven away key activists and reached a critical point.” While the extensive local outings and conservation protection programs have and will continue, one of the current Chapter Executive Committee members, Bill Powers has noted that the national intervention in chapter affairs and business in September 2012 has “created a negative dynamic.”
I worked as the local Sierra Club Chapter’s Conservation Coordinator in the early 1980’s when the San Diego Chapter grew along with rest of the Sierra Club in responding to not only James Watt opening wide areas of federal lands to mining and logging but fighting rampant urban sprawl development and offshore oil drilling locally. We created a broad coalition of groups and individuals to petition and pass the Managed Growth Initiative–known as Prop A–in 1985 and later helped preserve the Famosa Slough and other areas threatened by inappropriate development. The national and local membership grew exponentially during the Reagan administration.
One of the chapter leaders I had the privilege and honor of working with and for during that time was Emily Durbin. She had suspended her mid-life pursuit of a post graduate degree in hydrology to promote protection of the San Diego open spaces threatened by numerous dams. Largely and primarily through her work there are not huge dams on the Santa Margarita River near Camp Pendleton, nor in the Pamo Valley near Ramona. She passed on in 1990.
She exemplified the Sierra Club model of well informed, dedicated and effective volunteer leaders and activists. We had many other fine conservation leaders serving at that time: Verna Quinn, Joan Jackson, Bob Hartman, Jeanne Davies, and Ed Kimura to name just a few, and several more who may have passed on and whose names are hiding somewhere deep inside my hard head.
In passing decades and today there have been and continue to be local, well informed and dedicated leaders and activists. So why this problem and this national intervention?
The hearsay circuit is running rampant with rumors. They range from political infighting to conflicts of interest with persons that have other organization’s agendas as their priorities, to petty personality differences, to sensitive personnel matters. I recall that we had disputes on issues and nearly did not finish the job of qualifying our initiative petition due to differences of opinion and allocation of resources. But somehow, the local chapter worked through disputes or differences and the process outlined for decisions including political endorsements and investments in programs was allowed to work. And the Chapter was stronger for it.
Perhaps the recent actions by the national organization say more about them than the local chapter. Why, if there is some threshold of complaints and perceived strife, doesn’t the national organization offer some constructive assistance before resorting to the radical step of suspending a democratically elected local governance board? From all the accounts I have heard, no such offers of assistance have been made. There are qualified professional mediators, some of the best in the nation right here in San Diego. Why is this apparently not a part of the national process?
It would seem that the physician’s axiom of “first do no harm” is not in the national playbook. Instead there appears to be a heavy handed, insular crisis management mode of dealing with local chapters. Where there are substantive policy differences, as cited in the cases of other chapter’s leaders disagreeing with national policy, there needs to be more dialogue to identify the nature of the differences. Where there are differences in approaches on how to carry out the Sierra Club mission and goals at the local level, there needs to be more transparency and respect for the bylaws and procedures to reach decisions.
Democracy can be difficult, contentious, and take more time. But consider the alternative. In his recent book “David and Goliath”, Malcolm Gladwell points out that “the excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission.” Many local activists within San Diego are going to see a chapter suspension as excessive. Some may defy, some may submit. I suspect many will just vote with their feet (figuratively and literally) and seek other avenues to achieve the laudable and necessary goals expressed in the Sierra Club mission statement to explore, enjoy and protect the wild places of the earth.
In their consideration over the next few weeks of whether to go forward with the suspension process and appoint a new governance cabal from afar, the national Board of Directors may well want to look closer at their relationship to chapters. How do they provide better guidelines and support to chapters to head off strife and contention? How do they build a more solid chapter base that can better protect the environment and address climate change challenges, promote new local clean energy initiatives and strengthen the entire organizations reputation as a true grassroots-based national force for the common good?
Instead of watching the local and national membership numbers continue to stagnate and erode while you reach for the suspension “Round Up” every time a weed pops up, why not invest in actions to properly feed and water the grassroots? This is how you build membership numbers and effectiveness. We owe it to people like Emily Durbin, our founder John Muir, ourselves and future generations.
I know some people who would love to work with you on that.
Jay Powell, a sometime contributor to SDFP is retired from 20 years leading City Heights Community Development Corporation and prior staffing positions with the Sierra Club, the Environmental Health Coalition and the Bay Area Greenbelt Alliance. He currently serves on the steering committee of the San Diego Sierra Club’s Local Clean Energy program and is a Life Member of the Sierra Club.