Aaron Mair’s Hope for Climate Justice

This segment of It’s Hot Out There features Aaron Mair, the President of the Sierra Club. Aaron visited the School of Natural Resources and Environment  on MLK Day as a part of the university-wide celebration of the late, great Martin Luther King, Jr. Our exclusive interview with him complements our show on “Diversity in Environmental Organizations” as his election on May 16, 2015 to the post of President of the Sierra Club marks a first for an African American in the history of that organization.

Trained in spatial analysis at institutions as diverse as Rhode Island’s Naval Education and Training Center, Binghamton University, and the American University in Cairo, Mr. Mair brings a crystal clear focus on community to his work, but also a cosmopolitan sense of how each community connects to wider worlds.

He surprised us on MLK day by talking as much about class as about race, as much about politics as about public health, and as much about the past as about the future. A voice for engaged, informed, generous citizenship on environmental issues, he galvanized small groups in intimate dialogue all day long, and delivered a formal lecture to a packed auditorium (like–people lined up in rows sitting on the floor packed) in the Dana Building.

We thank him; we salute him; we wish him all the best in his continued work in the intersecting civic, health, and environmental sectors where his avocation as a volunteer for the Sierra Club for many years meets his vocation as a Public Health analyst and advocate. As he says at the close of this short video, you can do your official job in this world, or you can engage wholly in your profession. We at IHIH profess to having more passion about our jobs in the wake of his visit. MLK would be proud, and he and Mr. Mair both would want us to make some of the highlights from the relentless day long question and answer exchange available to those of you, dear viewers and listeners, who were not in the catered lunches and conference rooms with us.

Samantha Shattuck, an SNRE grad working with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative asks: In school we are told to pick our dream jobs and focus on our professional goals…did you? Is that how you got to be President of the Sierra Club?

Mair: (laughs) Now remember, this is not my profession; it is my avocation. I volunteer. My job is as a spatial analyst for the State of New York. But I am also an advocate for social justice–my parents passed that on. That is common in African American culture—you can’t just stop at being upwardly mobile on your own. You bring your brothers and sisters with you. Maybe not your literal brothers and sisters, because in our history those on your plantation become your community when your blood family has been torn apart. But that is ok. Either way, what we are NOT doing is being environmentalists in a way that is about “rugged individualism.” No, this is about making things better for our communities–for all communities.

Maren Spolum, Program Coordinator, Minority Environmental Leadership Development Initiative, SNRE: Sir, you have had a fairly famous exchange with Republican Presidential contender Ted Cruz. Could you reflect on some of the things you have learned being a public intellectual, and how that works in a public sphere in America where people don’t recognize data and facts…where that basic blindness to evidence allows legislators and leaders to actually do things that harm the public, as we are seeing here in Michigan with situations like the Flint Water Crisis?

Mair: (Not laughing). There are some basic issues about our political system involved in answering your question. First: what is a hearing? People tend to think about hearings as debates. They aren’t. They are hearings. You are given your questions ahead of time, and finite time to answer the question. Most of the time the person you look at is not there; instead you are looking at a box with a clock. Your latitude is your expertise. So what was the purpose of that hearing: whether or not government regulation disproportionately affects or harms minority populations. Are free market laissez faire economics better than regulation for the poor?

I was coming from a position that thinks the President’s plans for regulation just entail enforcing the laws already on the book in ways that protect minorities and other communities. So no, I don’t share the objection that the Senator had. But others do.

And what did Mr. Cruz seize on? He seized on a footnote in my testimony that was submitted as a document, over 50 pages of sworn testimony. I am under oath, and Mr. Cruz is a master of the tricks of debate. He knows (and we minorities need to learn) there are two parts of law: natural law (things we can talk about—resources, relationships etc.) and positive law, which is what you can debate. If you can win on hypotheticals, then those speaking from where they sit of what they know and feel are at a disadvantage. Indigenous groups call it the white forked tongue.

For him to seize on a footnote about the pause cycle in climate change, was designed to lead me out of my field of expertise. What you saw in my response was someone staying on message. Because he wanted to argue an arcane fact in a field that is not about my expertise, but I wasn’t going to give him that. As he sees that he won’t lead me there, he glimpses another opportunity to pound the table and play to the cameras in ways that had nothing to do with the matter at hand. So he hones in on this tiny issue…hoping I might contradict my own evidence. He wanted me to commit perjury! But I would not. You can see on camera that I am upset, but I refused to let him destroy my credibility.

That brings me to a point for those of you out there today learning to be scientists, and leaders on these issues. Never shift away from your expertise, or lose confidence in your data because someone is bullying you or jamming you or baiting you. If you are defending your thesis, or your work, and you know these are your results, STAND on them. Stand for them. Let your detractors empirically prove you wrong. Because science is not gospel…it is only settled until someone has proven it works differently, or provided evidence for new ways of thinking.  Never say “I don’t know” when you DO know. You can say what we know now…even if you acknowledge interesting next steps for science, maintain your composure and your self confidence.

Cruz’s theatrics that day were a show to sell to the studio. What concerns me is those Americans who take that argument on TV and think that he “won a debate.” But it was not a debate. It was a hearing. We don’t even know the difference anymore. People don’t realize how our constitution works, how our democracy runs, and how important these institutions ARE.

What has happened since then? The science has gotten even stronger. Mr. Cruz and his companions are in the company of Kim Jong Il in South Korea…because that 97% on Pause Theory has grown to 98% now, and in the wake of COP 21 more and more of the entire rest of the world stands the evidence…with me and you on this issue!

SNRE graduate Todd Ziegler, working with Michiganders for Environmental Justice, and the UM School of Public Health: Organizationally, how does the Sierra Club interface with more grassroots organizations?

Mair: Excellent Question. When it comes to EJ issues, the fundamental rule is: the community has to invite us in. We encourage local organizations to fundraise for local causes and we want to be sure we are a partner or ally where we can be. You have to bear in mind the local politics, and I do have a group of folks in Atlanta who feel it is better to organize through Sierra Club than local organizations…if that is their sense of the local politics, then we just have to ensure we engage in a way that is constructive. We can’t always “hang in there” like local organizations do, realistically. We realize full well that our environmental justice work is subject to funding; one of our major donors for environmental justice lost everything in the 2008 financial crisis…we have had to be inventive about continuing to fund that arm of our organization’s work, and that shifts the mandate a bit but that is how things go, especially in very large NGOs. We have still avoided the burden of that volatility falling too hard on our minority staff. We have kept our focus on EJ issues to a far far greater extent than other organizations of our kind. As President, that has been my work to a large degree.

Marcia Lee, SNRE graduate now working for the Capuchin Fransiscan Detroit Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation. Can you address how it feels to be from a minority group, working in a historically white organization? Are those legacies constraints to what that organization can attain?

Aaron Mair: A lot of folks talk to me about how white [the Sierra Club members] are. But those complaining the loudest don’t carry a card themselves! You want to make a change? Show up. Stand up and be a member! You get out of it as much as you aggressively put into it. We have to move beyond dwelling on histories of oppression and build a new future. Just because there was historic oppression, doesn’t mean you need to give me historic nonsense that keeps us from making changes going forward. Your authenticity as an organization is only as powerful as your members collectively are. But, sure, as a first African American President, I am a lot more sensitive to how pain is distributed throughout the organization…better able to find a balanced solution despite external funding volatility, to make internal changes that addresses those historic inequities. Like I said, I am proud that right now, no other organization even comes close to what we are doing at Sierra Club on these issues.

Following Mair’s advice, we will push on to bring you informed discussions about the most important environmental issues, so that we can collaborate to build a better future. This pursuit will continue this week with our continued discussion about challenges in wildlife conservation. Be sure to tune in on Friday to hear more!

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