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Sierra Club culture tolerated ‘anger and aggression,’ report finds

Just weeks before Sierra Club’s executive director announced his resignation, a report from an outside consulting firm detailed widespread cultural problems at the 129-year-old environmental organization regarding workplace discrimination and harassment, such as organizational protection of abusive senior staff and volunteers.

The investigation leading to the June 2021 report was prompted by allegations in the summer of 2020 by a Sierra Club staff member that they were raped by a “celebrated former employee and then-current Volunteer Leader,” but was broadened out into what the 24-page executive summary of the report refers to as a “Restorative Accountability Process.”

The report, which has not been released to the public, came just ahead of outgoing Executive Director Mike Brune’s Aug. 13 resignation from the Sierra Club, one of the largest and most influential environmental organizations in the United States. Interviews with current and former staff said the organization had been battling internally over how to address concerns about race and equity in the workplace both at headquarters in Oakland, Calif., and at various state chapters across the country. Those arguments also played out in the boardroom, leading a pair of directors to publicly rebuke Brune over the legacy of Sierra Club founder John Muir.

The investigatory process, which had been underway since at least September 2020, found that the organization’s decentralization and use of “volunteers” to lead local chapters created major accountability problems, senior and favored leaders were often reassigned after complaints to keep them in the organization, and shoddy harassment and discrimination reporting procedures kept claims from being addressed.

“One of the most prevalent themes we heard was that there was generally a culture at the Sierra Club that tolerated, excused, or failed to correct those managers and leaders who regularly displayed anger and aggression — yelling, berating, shaming, and otherwise demonstrating unprofessional and abusive behavior in the workplace,” the executive summary said. “It became clear that many of these individuals were well-known for engaging in this behavior and that nothing was done to meaningfully curb the behavior.”

In recommending that the Sierra Club immediately build a team to respond to culture concerns, the consultants said “the current model is plainly insufficient, particularly for an organization that professes a commitment to equity and inclusion.”

The executive summary of the report developed by Washington, D.C.-based Ramona Strategies was shared with Sierra Club members and staff on the environmental group’s portal, called Campfire. Ramona Strategies could not be immediately reached for comment.

Sierra Club President Ramon Cruz said in emailed responses that the organization has “been in a years-long process of examining our systems and processes, and how they affect our community.”

Brune and staff leadership commissioned the report as part of that process, contracting with Ramona Strategies with the awareness of the board of directors following the sexual assault allegations last summer, according to Cruz, who said staff was not aware of the incident until the employee made their claims on social media and the group immediately removed the accused person from his post.

Brune had led the storied environmental group for 11 years, building out its mission to dive deeper into voting rights, racial justice and other aims in addition to its conservation and climate change core.

“I am proud of the work we’ve done to build and strengthen alliances with civil rights, labor, immigrants’ rights and other justice organizations while also working to dismantle systems that do harm to our staff and volunteers,” Brune said in a statement. “The progress that we’ve made has been both significant and insufficient — there’s so much more to do. I’m excited to pass the baton to new leadership to continue to move Sierra Club’s organizational transformation forward.”

Brune also helped reshape the group’s executive and senior ranks to promote more people of color and women, comprising 20.4 percent and 53.7 percent of senior staff, respectively, according to Green 2.0, which monitors environmental movement diversity and equity.

“Mike Brune is an outstanding leader and I am looking forward to his next move. We need him!,” Jill Soffer, a member of the Sierra Club Foundation board of directors, said in a text message.

But the executive summary detailed a messy, often unwieldy organization that experienced significant personnel problems as its ranks grew alongside its policy objectives.

“Many organizations find after periods of rapid growth that, in their rush to accommodate that growth, they have not attended to decisions about how to build management and leadership structures with sufficient care; the Sierra Club is not alone in this respect,” the executive summary said.

The Sierra Club currently employs 850 staff, with approximately 7,500 volunteer leaders throughout the organization, according to Cruz.

The process included interviews with nearly 60 people, emails, text messages and other documents, as well as Sierra Club materials, policies, PowerPoints, training materials, internal and external investigations and interactions with 75 senior leaders and managers in small anti-harassment and workplace training workshops.

The consultants found Sierra Club’s volunteer structure “unique for an organization of the Sierra Club’s size” given “the degree to which volunteers are embedded and empowered in day-to-day operations.” Volunteer leaders often helm state chapters, which possess significant autonomy from endorsing local political candidates to engaging in direct activism.

Two people who spoke with POLITICO on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution from the Sierra Club said people of color on staff were often caught in the middle between directives from national headquarters to pioneer local racial justice and equity projects and the older, whiter volunteer base that comprised local leadership who openly agitated against those efforts.

“[V]olunteers have been allowed to manifest open hostility towards staff as a part of power struggle,” the executive summary said. “Being a ‘volunteer-led’ organization cannot stand for volunteers having carte blanche to ignore legal requirements or organizational values around equity and inclusivity — or basic human decency.”

The Sierra Club made “artificial distinctions between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ reporting” that minimized or overlooked workplace concerns and incidents while failing to ensure measures were in place to prevent the subjects of complaints from engaging in retaliatory actions.

“While not always the case, it was often true that those preyed upon were ‘vulnerable’ individuals who had less societal privilege and positional power,” the summary said, later adding, “We heard multiple experiences where bad actors themselves or those who ‘supported’ or ‘sided with’ bad actors actively took steps to punish those who complained or otherwise assisted in bringing concerns about their conduct to the fore.”

The restorative accountability process aimed to strengthen and reorganize Sierra Club institutions and protocol for addressing workplace disputes, harassment and discrimination. Staff and volunteers were invited to participate.

A slideshow of a July 15 meeting obtained by POLITICO showed the Sierra Club and its board of directors were moving to operationalize some of the recommendations flowing from that process and the Ramona Strategies report, including the potential creation of a new “Resolutions Team” charged with managing, tracking and overseeing discrimination probes among staff and volunteers.

The presentation also noted some changes were already “in flight,” such as steering more resources to equity and human resources departments, in addition to bolstering a professionalized, formal investigations staff.

Recommendations also included enhancing accountability, transparency and internal tracking and monitoring systems while improving education on workplace harassment for managers and clearly defining lines of reporting and authority.

Cruz said the Sierra Club is implementing all recommendations made in the report, including creating a resolutions team “with the authority to act more quickly and decisively” and adding “Conflict Transformation staff” along with new investments in human resources, chapter support and equity coaches.

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