By Lori Saldaña
The current debate swirling within- and now outside- the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club reflects in large part a debate over the concept that “form follows function.”
In a nutshell: The San Diego Chapter’s Executive Committee, elected by local Sierra Club members, has struggled for 4 years to manage and grow a Chapter without adequate conservation and volunteer development staff. The national board and their employees in San Francisco have refused to listen to the local leader’s reasonable concerns to hire employees to support the Club’s core mission: to “Enjoy, Explore and Protect” the natural environment.
With the letter announcing the proposed suspension the National Board is finally taking action: not to provide additional employees, but to silence the volunteers who have requested their assistance; not to address their concerns, but to retain the only local employee- a Fundraiser- at the expense of long-time Chapter volunteer leaders.
The San Diego Chapter’s educational, social and outings programs continue to be strong and well attended. However, with the 2010 elimination of the Volunteer/Office Coordinator and Conservation Director positions, its ability to perform its core mission of environmental protection and grass roots conservation work through advocacy and organizing were left in disarray.
Adding to the problem, no one at the national level of the organization has been willing to visit San Diego to meet directly with local members and elected volunteer leaders, and discuss ways to improve the situation.
I first began hearing that long-time staff were being laid off from the San Diego Chapter, ostensibly due to budget cuts, in the fall of 2010, as I prepared to leave the Assembly.
Most Sierra Club chapters have a small staff of Conservation or Chapter Coordinator and possibly a Volunteer Coordinator, if they are lucky to have staff at all. In San Diego these core positions were eliminated. Instead, a staff attorney and full-time fundraiser replaced them.
Many believed having an attorney and fundraiser as Chapter primary staff was putting the cart before the horse; volunteer activists did most of the work of the Club, and needed support to be trained, informed, effective and well organized. Also, there are many attorneys willing to do pro bono work for the Sierra Club; a staff attorney was seen as a luxury, not an essential position.
When the Volunteer Coordinator left, many volunteer leaders followed, and no one was there to recruit or train replacements. Many then joined other organizations to work on climate change, wildlife research and habitat protection.
Today, despite healthy finances, there is still no paid Conservation staff. Independent contractors have been used to fill the void, but they work without benefits or job security- hardly a model of good governance.
Over the last few years, many Chapter leaders began to ask: if the Sierra Club is founded on being a grassroots, volunteer-based conservation organization, how could it function effectively without staff to support the volunteers and develop local conservation policy?
The short answer is: it could not. Volunteers resigned their committee assignments, and the attorney left within a year, leaving the public interest law program in disarray. Fortunately, with the help of San Diego Executive Committee boardmembers, it is now functioning well.
However, that left only one person working full time at the chapter office: a fundraiser.
In my experience, people give money to organizations and causes to support their successful work, and the local chapter was simply not able to do the direct conservation and advocacy work it had done in the past. Instead, it partnered with other organizations, rather than act independently as the local voice of the national organization.
Many of us believed that, in order for the San Diego Sierra Club chapter to function effectively, we needed to recruit and hire professional staff trained in volunteer coordination and conservation. With their work and success, the contributions would follow.
Unfortunately, the national Sierra Club Human Resources staff refused to allow the replacement of this critical staff. When I agreed to return as chapter chair in December 2012, I was unaware of the national board’s control over hiring, and their interference with local bylaws and other decisions.
Employees in San Francisco repeatedly refused local requests to hire people with conservation and volunteer management experience. They also refused to visit San Diego personally to hear from board members and volunteers directly.
My efforts to evaluate the remaining staff person were met with resistance. I had been trained in personnel management by the Sierra Club Human Resources staff during my previous tenure as Chair, and employee reviews and supervision had been my responsibility. So when I finally was shown his evaluation, after it had been completed by another volunteer, I noted that he had failed to meet some critical goals, such as increasing Chapter membership.
Nonetheless, his supervisor recommended that he be paid a performance bonus. I refused the request, but other Executive Committee members voted to support it.
I also learned of other irregularities, that may come out in a lawsuit later this year.
I brought all this information to the attention of human resources staff in San Francisco and was told it did not affect his job review, and no additional staff would be hired, nor this person’s assignments changed. Only then, last spring, did I fully realize I was responsible for managing an organization that lacked the employees needed to carry out its core mission, and I did not have the authority to make staff changes I believed necessary to improve the situation.
I shared this perspective with local board members, and they also called on national employees to give us a timeline and specific actions to take in order to return to normal hiring procedures; the employees in San Francisco refused. Instead, they began informing National Board members that there was “dissension” in San Diego.
Throughout this time, I was also chairing meetings and participating in training to help build consensus among volunteers on the Executive Committee. We went through organizational training with national staff, and began operating more effectively as a board. But the lack of a Conservation Director/Volunteer coordinator, and no clear timeline of when one could be hired, continued to limit the chapter’s ability to recruit and train new volunteers.
I recruited potential interns to work on climate change and other activities, and was told volunteer board members were expected to also be their supervisor. In my experience, this is a job for trained professional staff, not volunteers. But we were repeatedly told we could not bring in the staff needed to provide this supervision, build local capacity and increase the effectiveness of the organization.
The interns were never hired.
After several months of frustration, I resigned in October. In my letter to the Board I cited my inability to provide the leadership I believe the Chapter needs and deserves to be effective, since so many local actions and decisions were being overturned by staff and national board members in San Francisco.
The local chapter’s finances are strong. In fact, the timing of the letter regarding suspending the chapter was intentionally planned for January, after end-of-the-year charitable giving timelines. This is because the National board wanted to maximize contributions before letting local members know of their action.
Ironically, there are some on the San Diego board who have proposed giving money to other nonprofits working on local conservation issues, instead of reinvesting it in the local chapter, and strengthening its own internal capacity to do conservation work. I disagree with this approach, and believe the Sierra Club should be using contributions to rebuild the Chapter’s capacity for effective advocacy, not to support other organizations.
Meanwhile, the fundraiser is still the only person working in the office.
The Sierra Club is not a philanthropic organization, yet 100% of the San Diego staff is devoted to raising money. It is considered an activist organization, but has no staffing in place to recruit and train activists, review conservation policy and organize and train volunteers. In my opinion, it is not able to carry out its core mission: protecting the special nature of San Diego.
I spoke briefly with National Sierra Club Board President Dave Scott last week, and I repeated my invitation to the National Board to send representatives to San Diego to hear directly from the local members, before voting on the proposed suspension. He refused to respond to my invitation.
If the suspension is approved in February, without first holding hearings in San Diego, it will be a travesty.
I hope the lack of a Conservation Director and Volunteer Coordinator is finally addressed. Form should follow function, and ideally, contributions will also follow, to support the effective work of the Chapter’s staff and volunteers.
UPDATE: The local Sierra Club executive committee chair is called the Chapter Chair, not President (only the national board refers to this chair position as President.) Ms. Saldaña held that position from 1995-97, and then again in 2012.
San Diego is the 5th oldest Sierra Club Chapter in the country, established in 1942. It is also one of the largest, with over 10,000 members, and encompasses two large counties: San Diego and Imperial. It’s office is located in Kearny Mesa, and currently supports 1 paid employee position.
The Chapter has a long history of effective volunteer-based action: starting in the 1940s with protecting the Torrey Pines trees and parts of Balboa Park from development, and over the past 70+ years, working with elected officials to conserve resources and protect critical habitat. They also have introduced tens of thousands of people to San Diego’s outdoors through educational programs and guided wilderness trips.
Not only would it be a travesty for the local chapter, something like this could create a domino effect and ultimately (over time) could lead to the whole organization’s demise. That would REALLY be a travesty.
Lori is spot on. Thanks for articulating what many Sierra Club members are thinking.
Active Sierra Club Vol says
These largely administrative matters should have been handled in a more professional manner by National Sierra Club, by say, coming down and talking with us vols in a democratic manner. Rather, they took the most authoritarian route possible. We hear they are already appointing this one and that one without elections. For 4 years! It’s like the Romans marching in and taking over a far flung outpost. At the worst possible time…in an election. This election, in particular.
David Grubb says
As the longest-serving member and current chair of the Executive Committee of the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club, I feel obliged to respond to several recent articles in the Free Press.
I fully support the actions of the Sierra Club in this matter, and have written to the national board of directors urging them to proceed with the suspension of the Chapter. I support a suspension in spite of the fact that it would remove me from the position as chair that I have just been elected to.
In my opinion, the current problems in our Chapter are the result of having a number of people in leadership positions who do not accept the authority of the Sierra Club. They like using the club name and resources, but do not like the rules and oversight that come with membership in the club. This problem has been interfering with the mission for a number of years, as people wasted time and energy fighting the decisions made by Sierra Club leadership.
I am not going to get into the details of internal Club procedures and policies, that discussion does not belong in the public press. Just read between the lines of the complaints, and you can hear the refrain “I did not get my way, so I am going to throw a tantrum”.
I and others have tried over the past year to resolve these issues without resort to a suspension, but the malcontent faction is too entrenched. Only a thorough housecleaning will restore the Chapter to health. That is what the suspension process is designed to do.
Dave Grubb, Chair, San Diego Chapter, Sierra Club
bob dorn says
Your reply to Lori Saldana’s account of her experience proves her points. The Sierra Club is divorced from its active membership, where threats to the natural are perceived down here, on the ground, and day to day. The most important position in your own view of “the club,” as you refer to it, is fundraiser, an entirely administrative position. Your complaint that “the malcontent faction is too entrenched” strikes me as proof that the centralized authority of your “club” must be lacking a great deal of identification with its roots.
It’s a shame you can’t see all this, and have inadvertently demonstrated it in writing.
John Burridge, Former Chairman, Rhode Island Chapter, Sierra Club says
At a distance of 3000 miles and admittedly little knowledge of the specific details and personalities, I would have to agree with Dave’s lucid and logical statement having gone through similar problems on a lesser scale (e.g., a so-called conservation committee chairwoman using her position to support her “ecotourism” business).
Active Sierra Club Vol says
Gasp! Is it possible then, Dave Grubb, while we volunteers were working hard for the Sierra Club mission, you were hatching a plan with National to effectively fire the board and be appointed to take over, thus eliminating any opposition to your plans? Do your plans include funding other orgs whose board you sit on, as you mentioned in your ballot statement, like LCV? I didn’t understand that mention during the election, but now thanks to Lori, the picture is becoming clearer and more disturbing. It’s also very disturbing to hear you use words like “malcontent” to describe fellow Sierrians. As Lori Saldana said, and after reading your astonishing comments, “If the suspension is approved in February, without first holding hearings in San Diego, it will be a travesty.” National, if you are listening, please come to San Diego, and let’s dialog. Volunteers I have met are not like the Chairman has described us.
Lori Saldaña says
First, I know many chapter members are understandably reluctant about coming forward and stating their concerns publicly for fear of reprisal or personal attack. They believe in the Sierra Club mission and want to continue to be involved, and are worried if they speak up now, they will not be allowed to continue in their volunteer positions if and when the suspension takes place.
Also, the main point of my commentary was: The structure of the local Sierra Club chapter is broken. Long time chapter members who have worked as volunteers on conservation issues for years know what a difference an experienced conservation director and volunteer coordinator can make in attracting and training more people to build chapter capacity. In past years that has been an important goal of the Sierra Club: to attract, train and develop new people to carry out its work.
Trying to run a volunteer-based organization without adequate staff is frustrating. It limits opportunities, and puts undue stress on the elected boardmembers who are working full time in addition to serving as volunteers. They have given up their evenings and weekends to fulfill their responsibilities. I was impressed by the dedication of the board members I worked with in 2012. It will be difficult to replace them if the suspension goes through.
But based on Dave Grubb’s remarks, it sounds like the National Sierra Club board has already determined they will have to kill the San Diego chapter and remove these volunteers in order to save it.
However, his concern over losing his position should be tempered by the fact he will likely be appointed by the national Board to oversee the chapter through it suspension.
He has also been the volunteer responsible for supervising the employee, despite concerns stated earlier, and that position will probably be maintained.
In my opinion, if this happens, it will be detrimental to the chapter.
Geoffrey Smith says
Point of clarification: The chapter staff position of Conservation Program Coordinator was eliminated in 2003 — not 2010 as stated. I had the honor of serving in that capacity from 2000 – 2003, at which time the position was eliminated by action of the Chapter Executive Committee. For the preceding 37 years, that position was responsible for growing and supporting the effective volunteer-based grass-roots conservation work of the chapter. Since 2003 there has been no over-all conservation staff coordination function. The roots of the current conversation extend back well-beyond 2003.
Lori Saldaña says
thank you for update and correction Geoff. (I was not active in the chapter during those years ) You were also a very effective chapter chair, and inspired me to become more active as well.
Many of us in San Diego owe you a debt of gratitude for your conservation work for the chapter for many, many years, both as staff and volunteer. Your father, Devore, was also a stellar volunteer for us.
We miss your presence in San Diego.
Jay Powell says
Mr. Grubb has worked hard on coastal issues for the Chapter and state Sierra Club and is highly regarded for those contributions. It is therefore all the more disturbing that he would in his new position as Chapter Chairperson cast aspersions as to the motivations and character of those who disagree with the national organization’s rush to suspension of the Chapter, much less that he has encouraged this action.
The “we had to destroy the village to save it” approach did not work in Vietnam (see note*) and it really has no place in an organization that touts itself as “America’s oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.” I have suggested that this imbroglio says more about the national Sierra Club than it does the Chapter (“Why does Sierra Club have its knickers all in a knot?”, San Diego Free Press, January 30, 2014 “Activism”). For a lighter take on this situation, see my comment to same article ala’ “Emily Litella” parody. The dirty laundry doesn’t get clean by throwing more of it into the street.
* Note: Wikipedia tells us the actual quote attributed to an unnamed US officer by AP correspondent Peter Arnett in his February 7, 1968 report on the destruction of Ben Tre city in South Vietnam by US forces was “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.“ He was talking about the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong.
Thank goodness, we are not talking about killing people, but the recourse to the “thorough housecleaning” advocated by Mr. Grubb will not strengthen the Sierra Club, if it first does not address the points made by former Chairperson and Assemblywoman Lori Saldana in an inclusive, open, local forum.
(BTW, great to hear from you Geoff and thanks for all your work and contributions to San Diego Sierra Club and our environment!)
Carolyn Chase says
Other points of clarification:
The current staff position which I supervised as Chapter Chair in 2011 is not 100% “fundraiser.” It’s a do-everything kind of position – keeping the office open, enrolling volunteers, responding to public inquiries – ad everything that anyone else isn’t doing – including also trying to support some of the volunteer activist activities. Also a Sierra Club week is defined to only 32.5 hours – though I can promise you, the staffer is volunteering a lot more time than that. The ExComs had correctly tried to focus on seeking to increase fundraising, membership and volunteers.
Second, while the recent year’s finances have improved – it is not enough to sustain a second position. Heck – we could use five staff people This gets to the heart of the cut by National for Chapter support. The volunteer position had to be eliminated when National cut Chapter support by $45,000 (approx 60% cut from prior support) and there was insufficient outreach to fill that hole. Revenues were still declining until recently.
Third, the legal position was not a staff attorney! It was an attorney to supervise law students (volunteer interns who get experience working for an attorney) who were deployed for many projects regionally doing comments, attending hearings and preparing materials for the record. It was a wonderfully leveraged position funded by a seed grant – a grant that ran out – and has led to many recent Chapter victories. The Chapter was able to comment on more issues and projects meaningfully than they had for years. It was a test of a model that has great potential, should it be properly funded.
On the issues going forward – first, I haven’t been to a meeting since my term on the ExCom ended. So I can’t pretend to understand the personal conflicts that have happened first hand. I stopped volunteering … one might call it due to the inevitable “cumulative impacts” of volunteering on and off for an underfunded, understaffed political group over many years.
On this, Lori and I agree. I hope the question turns to: What does a healthy Chapter look like? What is sustainable for the Chapter? Does the National still want Chapters?
A democracy with less than 2% of local members voting in election for the Executive Committee is not healthy. A democracy without competitive elections is not healthy. A democracy that steps on its own volunteers is not healthy.
I sincerely hope that Dave’s characterization of a “thorough housecleaning” comes to pass – I for one would recommend that this include all past Chapter Chairs be barred from the Steering Committee – and that a wave of new volunteers are inspired to take up the torch lit by John Muir so long ago – and taken up by stalwart San Diegans since 1942.
Active Sierra Club Vol says
Many of the villagers being purged are progressives. The rest are just collateral damage. Way to insert yourself, San Francisco. San Diego is a city in transition and a delicate ecosystem. You are culturally incompetent in this action, and setting back the green and coalition movement here. The differences aren’t “personal” they are principled. And as it is becoming clear, political. National overlays this action on top of our election? Come on. There are silent hands at work here, in the background.
Carolyn Chase says
After chatting with a few others and letting a few more things sink in – I’d like to add the following comments in response to Dave Grubb’s contention that: “In my opinion, the current problems in our Chapter are the result of having a number of people in leadership positions who do not accept the authority of the Sierra Club. They like using the club name and resources, but do not like the rules and oversight that come with membership in the club. This problem has been interfering with the mission for a number of years, as people wasted time and energy fighting the decisions made by Sierra Club leadership.”
Ahem. In theory, in a democratic organization with voting membership, the power – and legitimacy of the elected Boards flows up from the grass roots, not down from on high. It was not wasted fighting the corruption of natural gas money taken by the National group as they sought to undermine principled local positions opposing fossil-fuel infrastructure. It was not wasted time fighting the corruption of legal forces who exploit the Club for their own fees while expecting volunteers to donate upfront cash. You can disagree when members wish to fight against decisions made without sufficient local knowledge. But in sum, the democratic process of voting both annually and at monthly Board meetings are there to resolve these conflicts. But a review of recent Minutes shows a Board that is divided. If individuals are unwilling to accept when they lose fair-and-square in the voting process, civility breaks down and the group can no longer function. The make-up of the group has to change – especially in a volunteer group – because that’s when volunteers head for the exits and new ones are loathe to join. This is what the Chapter has come to. A series of purges and a climate of ‘no good deed goes unpunished’ is not for the faint of heart.
I appreciate those who wish to struggle on. They can absolutely continue their other Chapter volunteer activities. But the Chapter needs more people to help! And let’s be specific – the Chapter need more new people to help. The existing set of volunteers – and there are hundreds in the various volunteer committees that operate almost completely independently – too indepdently in some ways – from the ExCom – have never been able and do still not have the desire to build the Chapter beyond it’s completely insufficient one FTE. For the brief time it had two staffers, it was never sustainable.
Many have helped over the years, but most leave the ExCom not feeling they made a difference – but feeling who the hell would want to do that? Who wants to make the kind of sweat and cash investment when it’s obvious that the personal and political conflicts make every other environmental group easier to work with?
This is why you see successful spin-offs from the Chapter: SD Canyonlands, Move SD – each began with seed funding from the San Diego Chapter. The political conflicts on the ExCom make it very difficult to organize from inside the Chapter. The unpredictable heavy hand of the National also makes it hard to help.
I think this is a good time to understand from a National Sierra Club perspective – what is the real value for a Chapter to them and how can they better sustain that? And for San Diegans who care: what is the real value for them – and our environment – and how can they help?
Finally, a correction:
Lori Saldana was not a member of any Board of “San Diego Earth Day.” She was a member of the Steering Committee for the “San Diego Earth Day 1990 Coalition” – an ad hoc volunteer group that supported events all over the region in honor of the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. She did a great job on the media but this Committee dissolved in a heap of conflict in 1990. When a few of us were asked to pick up the pieces, she declined to help. San Diego Earth Day was formed and later incorporated as the 503(c)3 California non-profit Corporation that continues to organize the EarthFair in Balboa Park today. Saldana was never involved in these efforts. I was one of the three founding Board members and remain the CEO of San Diego Earth Day dba San Diego EarthWorks.
EarthFair 25 will take place on April 27. You are invited to volunteer at EarthDayWeb.org and attend and visit the Sierra Club booth!
Active Sierra Club Vol says
I am much more appreciative of Carolyn’s new comments, as I read them, to reflect a commitment to democracy and other good things. She stated that concern in the U-T, and it was the right tone. She also asked…why is National doing this? We still do not have a good answer.
Indeed, democracy in an org is messy-people disagree. So? That is not a good reason to take over a chapter. Even disagreers managed to elect a board, make a political endorsement for David Alvarez, and others. That is functioning, in my view.
The current Chair made comments here and elsewhere that seems to be dedicated to order, order and order! Innovation comes from Mavericks and thoughtful rule breakers, within reason and the law. It will not come from the kind of bullying statements and characterizations we see from the Chair in this thread and hear about around the chapter. That is not the kind of leadership we need. In fact leadership comes from the grassroots.
Any adult with any sense of self respect will be considering whether to continue in this organization, when our autonomy and democratically elected leaders- how ever few the votes, including Mr. Grubb- are fired. We need personal safety in our Sierra Club, support for openness, forums and mediation, not a takeover. How about a monthly meeting open to all Sierra Club members? How about a report at said meeting from the Board, Committees, and an occasional vote from members on chapter decisions? That would be novel!
On another track, If Carolyn et al had anything to do with stopping National from accepting natural gas money, thank you. National reports they have under the new Executive Director stopped supporting natural gas.
A word about Lori Saldana. It is time to quit nit picking her timeline of events, and appreciate everything she has done, including the thankless task of creating a space on San Diego Free Press for a discussion of these matters. Until she did that, volunteers, current & former Chairs had no place to air their views. Not to mention Lori’s life time of contributions to Sierra Club, conservation and clean energy policy in the Assembly. Thank you, Lori. It is time for this Chapter to open up- online and in practice. We can not do if managed, judged and directed from afar, by people with zero accountability to the local, dues paying members.
Thanks to all, in fact for your illumination of the matter before us, and to San Diego Free Press. Where would be without you? Silenced, is where.
Finally, As I became aware of this suspension debacle, I became aware that National staff is probably only talking to one or two board members and staff on a regular basis. If so, that is not acceptable. Again, I really hope they break their tradition of managing from a distance and send some elected volunteers here- and maybe include our own regional board member? to mediate, hear different perspectives and avert this take over.
Patrick Lee Hord says
This whole thing is a toxic exposure to how badly the Sierra Club is run both in San Diego and Nationally.
The situation with the local Sierra Club is obviously petty, political, pedantic, and is fertile ground for the self-serving. I have never seen a group of people more unfriendly and unsuited to lead than those who have run this local group into the ground for the last few years.
What person would donate money, work or volunteer for them under the conditions now present with this organization ?
Sadly and tragically, in my estimation, the local SC has little to do with the business of saving the environment and the national organization is so co-opted into “belt-way” methodology and thinking that it has lost its impetus of grass roots and what the real work is about.
San Diego’s wild places, plants and animals need protection – not shenanigans from a big name like a Hollywood set with nothing behind it.
I think there is an important lesson here. Don’t give your hard earned money to these non-profit money making enterprises until they clearly deliver the goods. At this point in time, we desperately need a new environmentalism which places the natural life forces of the planet above anything.
Patrick Lee Hord ll
Carolyn Chase says
Hi Patrick – While overall I agree with your sentiments, I want to point out that the work of Chapter activists continues including some strategic litigation along with other demonstrations and volunteers lead hikes every weekend; its finances are still in decent shape overall due to conservative management of past ExComs making hard choices about cuts as many groups and businesses have had to do. There is no debt and the overall membership base is stable.
But the ExCom – and this has been the case for the more than 20 years I’ve watched or tried to help – has become a place for conflicts and not what it should be – the place for people to recruit new resources – volunteers and donors. Yes, conflicts need to be addressed – especially so in a political group. But I’ve come to feel there should be some kind of Conflict Resolution group distinct from the ExCom – because these conflicts over the years have always distracted from the needs of all the other work of any Board of Directors.
Yes we have needed a new environmentalism for a long time. The legacy of the Pope era at the Club imo was exactly as your point out – staff dominated thinking they could wheel and deal with insiders without having a truly sufficient base to deliver the grass roots goods when needed. But the good news is that younger generations are seeking to engage. I do not agree that they do not care or do not want to volunteer. They want to serve. I see it every year for Earth Day – and we can also see an overall greening of the marketplace in the last 20 years. New green groups continue to bloom. But individuals can only do so much and without a strong political movement, we continue to lose important battles.
Can a new political movement be built? You tell me. As long as $ = speech we’re pretty likely doomed it seems. Sadly few billionaires appear to be on our side politically in San Diego.
Van Collinsworth says
I and other members of Preserve Wild Santee have also been longtime members of the Sierra Club. While performing as the director of Preserve Wild Santee and while a being member of the Sierra Club, Preserve Wild Santee’s conservation efforts have been formally recognized by the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club. The SD Chapter of the Sierra Club has always been supportive of Preserve Wild Santee’s conservation efforts region wide. The Chapter continues to be engaged in the most difficult and important environmental issues. It maintains formal democratized structure, so there is always potential for some differences. However, key players are usually too passionate about working on important issues to let alternative points of view deter them from taking essential actions. Whatever National decides to do won’t deter me and I hope it won’t have any negative impacts on the important work that needs to continue at the local level.
However, it is difficult to ignore this heavy-handed approach from National. National needs to find the balance that maintains core Sierra Club conservation values, yet allows the grassroots to be active and learn from their own mistakes/experiences. If the Sierra Club members active in Preserve Wild Santee had to have most of what we did pre-approved from above, we would have accomplished little or nothing. Activist need to be able act. So we do – with our own organization that can work in synergy. This approach has worked for other Sierra Club members/leaders also.
Because the centralized domination from above can be damaging to their own goals, I’ll provide one example of a recent frustration that has been. I wanted a tough question on “Fracking” asked in the Sierra Club Mayoral Forum that would pin down the candidates to take specific action. It wasn’t asked because “National” had already reviewed and approved the questions. From my perspective that prevented the masterful event organized and carried out by the local chapter from achieving its full potential – which should be to identify and elect a candidate with a committed mandate. To make things worse, the Sierra Club’s action to endorse a candidate in the Mayor’s race has been overshadowed by the letter sent threatening suspension of the San Diego Chapter. The timing just prior to the special election could not have been worse if they wanted the Club’s endorsement in the Mayor’s race to mean anything. This is poor judgement and leadership from above. Again – National needs to find the balance that maintains core Sierra Club conservation values, yet allows the grassroots to be active and learn from their own mistakes/experiences. I think our people are bright and competent enough to know what questions should be asked in local elections and the people up above should get out of the way or we will do our best to find ways to get what needs to be done accomplished through other means. So to all of you, I say let’s keep focused on the public interest conservation issues that require our attention – we need you at every level both in and outside of the Sierra Club!
Lori Saldaña says
Good to see a broader discussion of issues has developed here. This could be useful as the Sierra Club works on what their future looks like in San Diego and beyond.
As others have pointed out: running an organization requires money as well as members. And recruiting new/younger members into any environmental organization is essential.
But there are definitely generational differences in how Millennials choose to participate and where they spend their money. They are more entrepreneurial than older volunteers, and more interested in starting their own project vs. joining another for the long haul. Organizing is also done effectively online, so face to face meetings and wilderness outings that were used to recruit Sierra Club members in the past are less viable options today.
The local chapter’s Wilderness Basic course is popular, but most of the participants want to “Enjoy and Explore,” not necessarily “Protect” the natural world, as John Muuir envisioned.
Looking back, the local Sierra Club membership reached a peak during the late 80s in San Diego, with over 18000 members, and is now closer to 10000. Part of this is Boomers aging out of their more active volunteer years into different retirement activities. Part was a downturn in the economy in the early 90s that forced many people out of San Diego and/or they downsized their contributions and activities.
Part of the decline is the changing landscape of activism: it has become more confrontational and less procedural for some younger volunteers who don’t trust regulators/elected officials to enforce or enact the kinds of policies and laws that were passed a generation ago: creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency, passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Wilderness Acts etc.
Even Sierra Club Exec Dir Michael Brune engaged in civil disobedience over the Keystone pipeline, and was arrested in front of the White House last year. This was historic, a first for a Sierra Club official. Yet people hardly noticed its significance.
And just look at yesterday’s approval of a dirty Pio Pico energy plant near the border. Where was Gov. Brown? Wasn’t he a visionary on clean energy in his prior life?
I can’t say I blame young activists for wanting a new model of protecting the environment. The current one is not working very well.
The question is: How will the national Sierra Club manage these changes to recruit and maintain new members ? San Diego could become a test case.
Active Sierra Club Vol says
We might discuss the particulars, but yes, there is no question that Sierra Club needs to modernize, particularly in a world of growing competition for green dollars and volunteer time.
For example, the chapter itself is being kept from adequate staffing and therefore operating effectively online in San Diego, which is a metric of transparency and a general gist towards democratic (with a small d) values. All ages are on their platform of choice… on FB, Twitter, Snap Chat, Google+, LinkedIn and more…interacting, debating, sharing and organizing.
That said, SC SD members are in numbers that are still a force to be reckoned with in elections in San Diego. It is in no green person’s interest-unless they have a conflict of interest- to destroy that clout here in San Diego. San Diego needs it’s local autonomy in order to evolve and take risks.
At the same time, being ruled from San Francisco is not acceptable. If that happens, SC SD is no longer as advertised in the call for dues that went out in 2013.
BTW, Members, if you got that letter, the call with National is today, Feb. 6 at 5PM.
Carolyn Chase says
Please advise just how is the Chapter being “kept from adequate staffing”?
Are you someone who is familiar with the budget, income and expenses? There is only so much $ to go around and the Club is a high-overhead group.
If all those who have complained over the years would have helped raise more resources – and that doesn’t mean you have to cold call strangers- but seriously, I do know who has volunteered over the years at events or chipped in when they could afford it to help support the management infrastructure of the Chapter in addition to using the Conservation, Political or Outdoor opportunities and the Club name.
This is not just about National making long-distance decisions without due process. That’s a major problem that is not going to be resolved during this crisis. This is about how do we pursue conflict resolution in ways that effectively – as one member put it on the National Conference Call – heal peoples’ hearts. It seems to me no suspension is going to accomplish that. It can only be accomplished if people are willing.
I also have to wonder if hanging on to issues for years isn’t also part of the problem. It has always appeared to me that each and every person involved has been of good will toward the environment – and as another caller put in – there are significant principled differences about past actions – both recent and some mentioned more than a decade ago by a entirely different sets of individuals on ExComs! Yet we don’t move beyond them. We don’t forgive and forget. Our humanity overcomes our mission. While I see the suspension as something that solves a practical matter, if the Board of Directors wants the Chapter to heal, they should get a mediator in there.
Life member says
Now that the Chapter has been officially suspended, this article is more telling than ever. I find it of little surprise that Ms. Chase and Mr. Grubb came forward to say what they did, with comments that take some liberties regarding what actually did happen. I have been on the Executive Committee and a fundraiser in the past for this Chapter, and recently contacted several committee volunteers and long term activists, wanting to know just what was going on with the Chapter over the past few years and what I might be able to do to help, if anything. I asked people why they didn’t speak up, knowing what they did, and more than a few expressed concerns about the backlash they believe they would receive from individuals, including Chase and Grubb, if they did make their knowledge and opinions public, even among a friendly forum restricted to Chapter members. I can sympathize.
I can say without question that Chase and Grubb played a pivotal leading the effort to get rid of the devoted Office and Volunteer Coordinator, a person who had dedicated over ten years of her life to the Club. As Chase mentions above, they told National they had to let her go due to budget reductions from National, however the budget at the time reveals this to be incorrect, and that in reality that the Club would not move into the red if the Coordinator stayed on for at least another year. This was also in the minutes of one of the executive meetings, minutes that were available previously but now cannot be located online.
It is worth mentioning that Ms. Chase ‘left’ the Executive Committee because not once but twice during her two tenures as Chair there was an organized effort by active members to ensure she was not re-elected to any position within the Executive committee.
Additionally I also learned that Mr. Grubb requested National allow him to be (sole) boss of the remaining staff member when Lori was poised to take over as the newly elected Chair, a job that normally would have belonged to the Chair, and a very unusual tact to take; yet National agreed. I do not know if or how this is prohibited by the bylaws, but it would seem the type of thing that should be.
Prior to official suspension, I did sit in on the conference call that many thought would be a much-needed Q and A session between Chapter volunteers and National staff, including President Dave Scott. We were immediately informed no questions would be answered, in fact there was no discussion at all, just allowance of comments by Chapter members. I also spoke to several volunteers who said they tried to get answers from National via email or telephone, but were either not responded to, or told the primary, unofficial liaison with National was Mr. Grubb. I don’t know if anyone else had any success getting answers regarding why National chose suspension over helping the Chapter when requests were repeatedly made for facilitation. It would seem to me the low morale, bad press, and inevitable loss of membership as a result of suspension would be more important than whatever their real motivations are, but apparently that is an erroneous assumption.