Despite sharing values that align with a broad spectrum of progressives, American environmental groups have struggled to become a more diverse community. And now, one of the country’s oldest and largest environmental organizations is looking to make inclusiveness more than just a buzzword. The Sierra Club recently named Nellis Kennedy-Howard its first Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. And the goal, she says, is to integrate diversity deeply into every aspect of the Sierra Club’s work and mission.

The Allegheny Front: The Sierra Club is a 124-year-old institution, and you are the first Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. So tell us about this new position and why it’s important.

Nellis Kennedy-Howard: The Sierra Club believes that all people deserve a healthy planet with clean air, clean water and a stable climate. And with that, all people also deserve equal protection under the law and the right to live their lives free of discrimination and hatred. And we believe that working toward a just, equitable and transparent society is not only morally necessary, but exactly what we need to confront the unprecedented environmental challenges that we face today. So this work should not an be addition. It should be part of the work we do already. We need to make sure that we are listening to voices of communities who feel they are being marginalized.

LISTEN: “Making the Environmental Movement More Inclusive”

AF: A couple of years ago, the Green 2.0 report, which was based on a survey of big environmental groups and foundations, revealed a serious lack of diversity in the environmental movement. Could you talk about that a little bit?

NKH: I’m glad you brought up the Green 2.0 report. It also revealed that there is often an unconscious bias or discrimination for people of color in the environmental movement. And also that members of environmental organizations are predominantly white, and it’s not uncommon for those organizations’ memberships to be predominantly male. And Sierra Club can certainly relate to some of these statistics and shared concerns. We’re a very large organization that spans across the continent and beyond with more than 2.4 million members and supporters. And people are bound to have varying experiences of unconscious bias or discrimination. It is our goal to ensure that wherever a person might encounter Sierra Club that that person—no matter who they are—feel welcome.

AF: In addition to being a citizen of the Navajo Nation, you are also a member of the LGBT community. How accepting are environmental groups of gay, lesbian and trans people?

NKH: I was very excited to see Sierra Club get involved in issues that aren’t typically considered environmental issues. So, for instance, last year, when same sex marriage was recognized across the board, our executive director actually submitted a press release celebrating the occasion. I’ve had my own unique experiences within the environmental community—Sierra Club included—that have not always been welcoming. That’s part of the reason why we’re seeking to become that multicultural organization; it’s because we’re not yet. I have had experiences with people in the environmental community where they have laughed at me. For instance, if I mention that I am married to my wife, they will go out of their way to say it louder in a meeting. Or they will actually laugh in your face. And it’s in those instances that a person such as myself or other leaders in the room can step up to that toxic, oppressive behavior and use it as a tool to say this is inappropriate. But we are seeking to rise above that, so that people no matter who they are, can share who they are; and not only that they feel that they can, but they are welcome to and that they are valued for that—because diversity really is what makes us great.

Nellis Kennedy-Howard is the Sierra Club’s first Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

AF: The press release about your new position says you envision the Sierra Club becoming an anti-racist, anti-oppressive organization. So what will be some of your first steps in order to create that change?

NKH: I should mention that for many within the organization, this is not new to us. We’re already partnering with environmental justice communities. We offering days of service to communities of people of color. We’re raising a voice of concern for social justice issues that aren’t typically considered environmental issues. Often, the communities that are most impacted by environmental oppression are the same communities without a voice in the process. And the Sierra Club, with all the access and privilege that come with our position as one of America’s most prominent environmental organizations, works to ensure that the voices of disenfranchised communities are elevated to the highest levels. We definitely do not have all the answers for communities experiencing environmental oppression. So instead of swooping in to solve problems, we try to listen and help these communities to tell their own stories. And that’s an approach I hope we can model for other organizations that want to be more meaningfully engaged in environmental justice work. You know, diversity is more than just staff demographics. It’s equally about organizational culture, how we operate, how we communicate, and how we organize and build relationships.

AF: So what do you hope the Sierra Club will look like in five or 10 years?

NKH: Well, one of our goals is to better reflect the communities that we serve, and the American demographics are very telling: They’re moving, they’re constantly changing. So I know that we’ll need to adapt every step of the way. And the push-pull tension that we feel as an organization is: Are we doing this work quickly enough? Are we making bold enough goals for ourselves?; versus others at the organization who are still struggling with what it means to become an inclusive organization and what it means to have principles of equity and justice rooted in all of our work. And I think that is one of the key challenges we face in order to move the work forward.