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Energy & Environment

Ben Jealous to take over national Sierra Club

Benjamin T.Jealous speaking at a forum on mass incarceration. File photo by Glynis Kazanjian.

Ben Jealous, the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor in Maryland and the current president of the civil rights organization People For the American Way, will become the executive director of the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest environmental group.

The Sierra Club’s Board of Directors said Monday that it unanimously selected Jealous for the job, and that he will begin on Jan. 23, 2023. Jealous will be the seventh executive director since the position was created in 1952 and the first person of color to serve in the role.

“Ben has demonstrated a personal commitment to our core values throughout his career as a community organizer, environmental activist and civil rights leader,” said Ramón Cruz, president of the Sierra Club board. “He’s been a staunch advocate for the health of our planet since he was a child growing up in California and has worked tirelessly at the intersection of the environment, equity, and social justice — marking the path to a world that honors the harmony between our collective humanity and our planet.”

Other than his short detour into electoral politics in 2018, Jealous, 49, has a lifetime of advocacy under his belt.

He has been president of People for the American Way since 2020 and was the youngest person to serve as president and CEO of the NAACP from 2008 to 2013. The NAACP launched a climate justice program under Jealous’ leadership and in 2012 issued a report assessing the impact of the nation’s 378 coal-fired power plants on communities of color and low-income communities.

Jealous said he was inspired to become an environmentalist in part by his family’s trips to the Sierra Mountains when he was a child and by the copies of Sierra magazine that his parents kept in the house.

“In this existential moment in history, when planetary preservation is a human rights issue, we all need to consider pivots in our lives,” Jealous said. “Too many leaders still think that we can only create a growing economy if we sacrifice people, the wild, and even the planet itself. This flawed ‘either/or’ mindset — with its roots deep in our nation’s history of colonialism — has led our planet to the brink,” Jealous said. “We now know better. We can both create more good jobs for communities that have suffered for too long and build a healthier, more sustainable future for everyone.”

Sierra Club leaders said that as the 130-year-old organization’s new executive director, Jealous will be charged with implementing the club’s 2030 strategic framework, which calls for:

  • Protecting 30% of U.S. lands and waters
  • Cutting the nature equity gap in half
  • Restoring access to clean air and water, supporting family-sustaining jobs, and addressing inequities in the U.S. response to climate disruptions
  • Transforming the U.S. energy system

“Ben’s leadership in organizations like ours — organizations with long histories of impact and foundations in their grassroots — is vital experience to lead the Sierra Club,” said Loren Blackford, who has been serving as the club’s interim executive director.

The previous executive director, Michael Brune, resigned in August 2021 after 11 years on the job, amid controversies over race and gender, as well as allegations of sexual abuse within the organization. The internal controversies coincided with public conversations and soul-searching over the legacy of the Sierra Club’s founder John Muir, who expressed racist sentiments.

Prior to joining People For the American Way and running for governor, Jealous was a partner at a venture capital firm leading an investment portfolio of green start-ups. At various times in his career, he has served on the boards of the Trust for Public Land, the Wilderness Society, and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Jealous’ run for governor in 2018 came after he played an integral role in the 2016 presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Making his first bid for office, Jealous put together a coalition of progressives, unions and environmentalists — including the Sierra Club —  to beat better-known politicians in the Democratic primary. But he emerged from the primary broke, and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and other Republican groups spent heavily to label Jealous a socialist and portray him as being out of step with Maryland voters. Hogan won the general election, 55.4% to 43.5%.

Jealous briefly pondered running for mayor of Baltimore in 2020, and was an enthusiastic backer of Gov.-elect Wes Moore in this year’s Democratic primary.

At People For the American Way, the civil rights organization founded by TV producer Norman Lear, Jealous will be replaced by Svante Myrick, who in 2012 became the first Black mayor of Ithaca, N.Y.,  when he was 24 years old. Myrick directed People For the American Way Foundation’s youth leadership programs and became the organization’s full-time executive director in January.

In a statement, Lear thanked Jealous for his time leading the organization, saying, “Ben Jealous has become dear to me as a friend and colleague and I am happy that his talents will be put to use protecting our precious planet.”