Ramón Cruz’s roots reside in activism, but that initial work sprouted a wide-ranging career in environmental protection.
Just after undergrad, Cruz, SIS/BA ’98, was arrested for protesting Navy bombing exercises on Vieques Island in his native Puerto Rico. As a young professional working for the Environmental Defense Fund, he was assigned to work on solid waste management in New York. And in 2013, he approached environmental issues from the government side, serving for two years as deputy director and vice president of Puerto Rico’s Environmental Quality Board.
Those experiences and perspectives prepared Cruz for his latest challenge: president of the Sierra Club, a role he assumed in May 2020. Over the last year, the 128-year-old, grassroots environmental organization’s first Latino president has been tasked with virtually preserving the spirit and mission of a Sierra Club that often does its best work in the great outdoors.
“Our activism is about screaming when we need to and applauding when we need to congratulate decisions but being very active and be a watchdog,” Cruz says. “For that, we need to mobilize to places, we need to measure things, and we need to protest, and we haven’t been able to do it the same way under COVID.”
Cruz joined the 30 Minutes On podcast in late December to walk us through the Sierra Club’s 2020, his career in environmental policy, and the parallels between environmental and racial injustice.
Listen to the podcast and read the full transcript below:
Andrew Erickson: Hello and welcome to 30 Minutes On, a podcast from American magazine. I’m American magazine staff writer Andrew Erickson.
Today, in our spring 2021 episode, we’re spending 30 minutes on environmentalism.
In May 2020, Ramón Cruz, an environmental policy expert of two decades and a 1998 graduate of the School of International Service, stepped into a new environment of his own when he was named president of the Sierra Club.
He earned his new title during a tumultuous time. The Sierra Club, founded in 1892 and boasting nearly 4 million members and supporters, is an organization that prides itself on showing up for environmental preservation “where and when it counts,” but that mission presents a challenge amid COVID-19, when being able to show up in person is a rarity.
Spring and summer 2020 also highlighted the connective tissue between the fights for racial and environmental justice. Confronting pollution and climate change also means confronting systemic racism, Cruz says.
“If you have a notion of a location that can be sacrificed, then the people from those locations then become disposable,” he says. “You cannot have a notion of disposable people unless you have an ideology based on supremacy and racism.”
In late December, Cruz joined the podcast to discuss what sparked his pursuit of a career in environmental defense; how he has approached that work over the last two decades as an activist, government official, and nonprofit executive; and what it has been like to lead the Sierra Club through the challenges of a global pandemic.
Here’s our interview. We hope you enjoy.
Andrew Erickson: Thank you so much for taking the time to join us. We really appreciate it. I just wanted to start off by reflecting on the last seven months. I know you were elected president of the Sierra Club in May. What have these last seven months been like during a crazy 2020, and how have you tried to chart that path forward?
Ramón Cruz: Well, first of all thanks for the invitation to interview me. Of course, it’s an honor, having been at AU. When you’re a student, you look up to many people who have developed great careers. Then, to have a career, I guess . . .
AE: You’re among them now.
RC: Exactly. But yes, so thanks a lot for that invitation. Let’s see, how has it been? It has been a ride, certainly. I had been, of course, involved in the Sierra Club for many years before. And I had been on the board as well, in different leadership positions. However, yeah, I mean the time after COVID I think for many of us has been way busier than before, actually. Not only the nature of the meetings and availability, et cetera, but just also the tension on decisions around COVID and, you know, lockdowns or office closures and benefits, negotiations with the union, et cetera. But, yeah, I would say, when I was first selected, since I was the first Latino president of the Sierra Club in 128 years, that in itself created a big buzz. Usually, the president of the Sierra Club changes every two to three years. And so most of the time, like, nobody notices other than the Sierra Club, and that’s quite a bit. We have almost four million members and supporters around the US and of course other people living abroad as well. But we focus, we’re a US-based organization working on US issues. But, yeah, so that created a big buzz and I guess in the first 10 days or two weeks or so it was endless interviews, especially Latin America and the Spanish-speaking world, it became an issue.
About two weeks later, that changed abruptly with the murder of George Floyd. That was I guess when a lot of the real work began. Not all the time enjoyable because it’s dealing with a lot of pain, accumulated over centuries, of systemic racism. And there has been different escape valves or pressure releases in the past, but this summer was one of those peaks in that long and slow process. But way overdue. So of course, internally, the Sierra Club went through a lot and then externally as well. There are a lot of different levels, from dealing with our own issues of systemic racism, which with structural issues, also being a volunteer-based and volunteer-led organization but having over 900 staff around the US, there’s a lot of things like two different unions. There were many things that were starting also to change. How do we promote people? How do we ensure that BIPOC—Black, Indigenous, and people of color—voices, are in a prominent position in the organization? We even changed our management structure to reflect that and also then looking into the budget. Looking into the budget during a very uncertain time of post-COVID. So, you know, this year, we’re able to do a lot because there’s a lot of different costs and expenditures and everything that were saved, but then in subsequent years, it’s going to be a very rough environment to fundraise, et cetera. So, dealing with that in itself is very unusual year. And then came the blogs about reexamining our history.
The board of the Sierra Club oversees directly not only the executive director but then also the chapters. There are 64 chapters with a lot of issues not even dealing with racism or COVID. They’re at the center of what we’re doing now, but, you know, the usual things that would go with managing a nonprofit. This is like a federation of nonprofit organizations, if you will. There’s all the issues from misogyny and harassment to management issues that come up. It has been nonstop and it has been, I would say, one month under this is a regular year in the years before.
AE: You talked about that fight for racial justice that happens this summer, sparked by the killing of George Floyd. How closely intertwined are your organization’s fight for environmental justice and the work that goes on there and that fight for racial justice. How closely are those two things intertwined and how much did you learn and did your organization learn about the link between those two things this summer?
RC: Well, the short answer is they’re very intertwined, very much linked, one in the same. The longer version is of course I have to be conscious of what the Sierra Club is. The history, the extent. In a very large organization, in many aspects in the environmental movement, it will be national green group. And that is not a synonym of local environmental justice. So in the past, the relationship has been complicated. We predate the modern environmental movement, of course. We’re more on that first wave of conservation and preservation over 100 years ago. But I would say the modern environmental movement came as a result of all the protests and all of the pollution, et cetera, in the 60s, and then basically becoming, in the 70s with the first earth day, more of the advocacy and within the legal framework at the federal and state levels that makes everything much more a part of daily life. It’s also very much complex in terms of the aspirations. I would say that a lot of the big environmental organizations at which I have been able to develop my career—Environmental Defense Fund, National Resources Defense Council, World Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club—took a different road during that time. But a lot of the people that were part of that history tend to be progressive, liberal, white, and wealthy. And so not necessarily all of the struggles, even though you have Love Canal and all of these issues from the past that gained national relevance, a lot of the places where these injustices and environmental racism were happening didn’t get to the headlines nationwide. Therefore, there was a lot of neglect from all these groups. You had many of these environmental justice organizations, as we would call it now, then advocating for more not only, ‘Listen to us and care about what we’re doing,’ but also, ‘If you’re going to be defending us, quote-unquote, then you need to look like us, too.’
It took a while for these organizations to then be much more conscious about their own internal staff, their own issues that they cared about. In the 90s, the environmental justice movement started becoming more cohesive. There was an executive order with President Clinton [on environmental justice]. There were the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing that the Sierra Club eventually, in the 2000s, we developed some principles for environmental justice, then a program for environmental justice. Then, in 2014, the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing, that it’s basically an approach to organizing that is, ‘We’re not the experts and when we go to a place it’s because we’re asked to join, and we go with respect, with mutuality, with collaboration, and as equals.’ Of course, [that includes] acknowledging our networks, our power, our resources in comparison to local organizations. That has been that evolution and progression at the Sierra Club for a number of years now. Of course, then with this summer of reckoning, we’re much more conscious and much more proactive. One of my colleagues, Hop Hopkins, wrote a great piece called “Racism Is Killing the Planet.” A lot of our members are baby boomers that are white, that are wealthier, that may not experience environmental pollution firsthand, and we have heard a lot from them saying, ‘Stay in your lane.’ Stay in, ‘Let’s protect nature. Don’t get into all these social issues that are not what we were created for.’ We’re convinced that we cannot deal with the climate crisis, or with environmental pollution, unless we also deal with systemic racism.
Ultimately, any place that is polluted, or when you take climate change and all the emissions worldwide, this is all based on fossil fuel extraction. The areas where you extract fossil fuels become areas that are polluted, that are sacrificed. And so if you have a notion of a location that can be sacrificed, then the people from those locations then become disposable. You cannot have a notion of disposable people unless you have an ideology based on supremacy and racism.
AE: Changing gears a little bit, I wanted to get back into what first got you interested in this environmental movement and starting to focus on nature. I read that your mother started an ecology club when she was in school that encouraged recycling. How much of an impact did she [have] on your interests in nature and the environmental and what were some of your influences growing up?
RC: Well, subconsciously, definitely. My mom was a nun before having us. I never recall the rituals being so important—not even the Bible and things like that—but the spirit of service was definitely there from the beginning. I actually don’t [attribute] to her me becoming an environmentalist. Looking back, subconsciously, that definitely was there. Back in the 80s, she had this group that they collected all these materials and then basically took it there when there was no recycling collection or anything in Puerto Rico. That definitely stayed there. But when I went to college, I applied to AU and other schools. I didn’t think I was going to become an environmentalist. I think it was first becoming more of a social and political activist and then deciding that it was going to be the call for my generation.
I actually date it to a film festival that I volunteered at while at AU. I was at some point the president of the Latino Club at AU, and we collaborated with this other organization. The film festival was outside, but the conduit was through AU. I volunteered there, and I don’t know exactly why or what movie, I don’t even know her name, but there was a woman who had been a guerrilla in Uruguay. I remember in the reception after the film festival, we were basically talking the whole night. I had so much admiration for all of these leaders from the 60s—Che Guevara and different icons—and she was expressing how disappointed she was at all the social struggles and what they went through and how many of them got corrupted. She said something that stuck with me. It was that, ‘A lot of what kills movements is the protagonism of the leaders.’ People tend to rely on leaders and wait for them too much, especially when they almost become like sacred figures. She liked the environmental movement because it was a leaderless kind of movement. There’s no icon. I think Greta Thunberg or maybe John Muir are as close of icons that we have had, and of course, as you may have seen that we have written, we are questioning [John Muir’s complicated past]. Again, people are people. They are not saints. They are not perfect heroes. Not even the saints were perfect heroes necessarily. So, then, I think at that moment is when I thought I would then dedicate my career to environmental policy and advocacy. I got a fellowship and started doing internships and stuff and then, I guess, became an environmentalist.
AE: Right after college, what did your environmental activism look like? I’ve seen that story out there about you being arrested for protested on Vieques Island, the Navy bombing [range]. What did that look like initially after you graduated? How did that take shape? And how did that sort of set the stage for the rest of your career?
RC: My career was [already] more or less on that route. Looking back, after AU, I applied for a fellowship that now doesn’t exist, that it was really more of an affirmative action [program] for people of color to get into public policy. And so I had decided I was going to go to into environmental policy. I decided then to—I remember the dean of the School of International Service put me in touch with an organization in Brazil and I went there, actually, after college and did a year in Brazil. That definitely solidified my career towards that. I think the political aspect of it was I took one year out of school. I took a pause and went to Denmark. I think being in Denmark, being able to experience a society where social benefits and the role of government is so important, [was key]. For me to be around that was very important for me.
Then, in terms of activism, definitely the Vieques struggle and the injustices suffered by that part of Puerto Rico, part of the archipelago of Puerto Rico, was very decisive. It was kind of an impossible battle that then became possible. It’s like that phrase from Mandela: ‘Everything seems impossible until it’s done.’ There was this civil disobedience campaign, and I was part of that. I was part of that first group that got arrested. There was a lot of uncertainty over what would happen with us. Basically, we would go into the property of the Navy that was used to practice bombing. You act sort of like a human shield so that they cannot bomb. Eventually, [President George W. Bush] was the one who stopped the bombing in 2003. But the campaign started heavily in 2000. That’s when I was arrested.
AE: Was it after grad school that you went to work at the Environmental Defense Fund? And what were some of your initial goals as you got started with that? What were some of the initial environmental issues that you worked on?
RC: I wanted to be an environmentalist. After going to grad school, I was definitely well-versed in the protest movement and the activism and I wanted to then go and decided to go to New York City, through a professor at Princeton, to join the Environmental Defense Fund. But the first issue that they assigned to me, or that they hired me for, was to work on solid waste issues in New York City. There I was, long hair, activist, wanted to be ‘save the forest, save the environment,’ and was stuck with piles of trash. I wasn’t necessarily this sexy environmentalist that I thought I would be, but that’s when I really became much more involved in environmental justice issues. But yeah, I was able to work on bringing back the recycling program. [Mike] Bloomberg had stopped it as a new mayor and we were able to convince him to do the opposite and then it was a long partnership. In terms of environmental stuff, he was a good mayor for the city. I worked on the solid waste management plan and then was able to work on issues that maybe a person of my age wouldn’t have had the exposure or the leadership, partly because it was about trash and there were not that many people working on trash. I became sort of like the trash person, or one of them. Then I worked very closely with environmental justice leaders that have been to this day I am very close to and I consider them my mentors. One of them, unfortunately, we lost not even two months ago, Cecil Corbin-Mark from the WE ACT for Environmental Justice in Harlem. So, yeah, it was an honor to do that work together with them.
AE: I’m curious about that transition you made in 2013 from the nonprofit world into the environmental quality board in Puerto Rico. What was that like becoming part of the government solution? What was that adjustment like? What were some challenges that inherently came with that for you?
RC: Well, I guess going to policy school, you have sort of like that chip of service that of course these days service, it has many different variations from different levels of government to corporations, nonprofits, et cetera, but I guess the ultimate one is really government service. So I have always wanted and continue to want to work in government. My career has been in nonprofit, but I was able to go to Puerto Rico. There was a historical moment with an administration with at the beginning of the administration, there was a chief of staff that she was quite independent from the political party and allowed for independent-minded people like me to join the government. I would love to always be in government, but [it would be hard because] I would find it so difficult to be part of very strong militancy political parties. Especially locally where things become so corrupted around egomania. When I went [to Puerto Rico] it was rough. I remember when I was in grad school, John Powell came. He was I guess an [early] civil rights movement [activist] and he was directing the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota. Anyway, he’s this figure that I admired and a group of students went to have dinner with him after his lecture, and one of the things he said was, ‘I like when students go to policy school because they become more conservative.’ It was disappointing to hear that from this big leftist icon, but what he really meant was that to push and move things forward, you have to go more toward the center. Yeah, of course, there are moments where the extremes can inspire others. I guess, more on the left in the 60s and 70s or what we have seen recently with what I would call the far right with Trump. Of course, I’m not a big fan of his at all. But we’re in those moments. To have a stable society, it’s better when there’s a slow evolution and progression toward the center and towards the betterment of everybody. That’s part of what I think is the progressive agenda. I think government and government institutions have a lot to do with that. When you go to government, it’s important, especially for people like me that were or are idealists and would like to profound changes in society but also know that governments need to govern for everybody and for different people. That’s where progress really gets cemented into society. I think we’re better than we were 100 years ago, but we’re definitely at a lower moment in that evolution, that moves forward but slowly. Right now, we’re in a low and it’s up to us and of course people to be more selfless and care about the collective rather than just the individual.
AE: I know we talked about it a little bit at the top, but what is it like to have this job and have this position as COVID continues to spread across the country. How does it shape your organization’s message and priorities? I know you mentioned the fundraising component and what that will look like in the future, but what does that look like in general, and also how does it kind of underscore the need, not just in fighting a pandemic, but in fighting on environmental issues, of the need to focus on science and to believe science?
RC: I think I would focus I guess on two negatives and one positive. One is the Sierra Club was really created to enjoy nature. That was the origins of it. It was of course the whole push for advocacy for the conservation of land and landscapes, but it ultimately it was a club of people. Wealthy people that would enjoy the Sierra Nevada and would create these outings. The outings are one of the things that are very symbolic of the Sierra Club. Having had to stop the outings program for all this time officially—of course people can go and enjoy nature and they have been doing it and the ones that have the means to be able to enjoy it or to get to places like that, they are doing it—but ultimately, some of our revenue comes from that. The spirit of the club comes from that, and that was definitely very much something that is difficult, that we’re struggling with, and that COVID has definitely posed a risk and threat, not only economic. I’m losing my train of thought on the second one, but one positive part was being able to recognize some of the things that we don’t need to do. How much traveling was really necessary? How much more can we then, for the people that can work better that way, telecommute or telework? It doesn’t work for everybody, but it means that our carbon footprint might be less.
It’s finding ways to be resilient and to cope with crises like this one show us what is best. Then, the other negative part, that was that second point that I was going to bring was that our movement relies a lot on people meeting people. It’s not easy to organize when you cannot see people, when people cannot gather, when people cannot be at a rally. Of course, you can reach many others that wouldn’t have otherwise mobilized through Zoom, but then you need to have the bandwidth, technology, and equipment to do that. Not everybody in the country has access to that. So, I put it more on the negative part because we need to mobilize people, we need to gather people. Our activism is about screaming when we need to and applauding when we need to congratulate decisions but being very active and being a watchdog. For that, we need to mobilize to places, we need to measure things, and we need to protest, and we haven’t been able to do it the same way under COVID.
AE: One other thing I had for you was, and the majority of people in the United States would say this is a serious issue that’s happening right now. All of the science points to that, and it is continuing to get worse [and will continue to] unless we do something about it. But, for a lot of people, I think there can be this hopelessness of, ‘This is inevitable. What can I do as an individual to stop this or to stem the tide?’ What would be your advice to those people who certainly believe the science and believe that climate change is a real issue facing the planet but don’t necessarily know what they as an individual can do about it?
RC: We have seen, and especially before and after the election. Look, the election of Trump [in 2016 is evidence] that especially at the ballot [box], things matter so much. Not only for president, but getting involved in local politics and down the ballot races are as important and are crucial. When people become full of apathy, then there we lose really lose much more than what one person can do recycling, changing bulbs, being an informed consumer and all of that. Of course those things are very important, but the people that we elect, if you have people that are neglecting science and the experts and rely on, like, feelings of hate and divisive rhetoric and all that, we’re failing as a society. The power of the vote is so crucial. For those people, I would say the most important part is becoming involved and organizing on whatever topic they are, but that topic needs to be based on science and truth, not only just faith or things that one cannot explain through science. Those things can help with the spirit, but ultimately for the next generation, that doesn’t mean much.
AE: I think those were all the major questions I had. Is there anything else you wanted to add, either about your background or the work that you’re doing at the Sierra Club?
RC: No, if you think we have enough for the audience you have, then it’s enough for me. Great to be here.
AE: Thanks so much for joining us and for taking the time. We really appreciate it.
RC: Thanks to you.
AE: That was the Spring 2021 episode of the 30 Minutes On podcast from American magazine. Thank you so much to our guest, Ramón Cruz, for virtually joining us and chatting about his first year as president of the Sierra Club.
Keep an eye out for our Spring 2021 magazine, which hits mailboxes soon and features Cruz’s list of his 10 favorite wild places in the world.
You can find our previous podcasts, including the Winter 2020 episode with public health graduate student and former contact tracer Kara Suvada, CAS/BS ’17, and subscribe in the Apple Podcasts App or in the Google Play store. A full transcript of the show is available on our website at american.edu/magazine.
Thanks for listening, stay safe, and remember to take a few minutes to go outside.
We’ll see you next time.