Discover more from The Future, Now and Then
A eulogy for the Sierra Student Coalition
The Sierra Club has decided to dissolve its student-run arm, the Sierra Student Coalition (SSC). I think its a disastrous, short-sighted decision, made by an organization that has lost its bearings. But I’m not a member of the Sierra Club’s Board of Directors anymore, and haven’t been for over a decade. Decisions like this are mine to mourn, not mine to make.
I had a hand in building the SSC — I wasn’t one of the founders, but I built the trainings department, served four terms on its Executive Committee, took a year off from college to serve as the SSC National Director, and then spent an additional six years mentoring SSC leaders as the organization’s board liaison. So I know a bit about its moving parts, how it was intended to operate, and why it was vital to the Sierra Club’s mission.
The SSC also had a hand in building me. Outside of my parents, I can think of nothing that had a larger effect on my young life. I can see the faded imprint of who the organization made me in every aspect of my career and life today. My teaching pedagogy and research philosophy were borne from all those weeklong summer trainings I directed back in the day. All my strategic instincts hearken back to those old organizing days. So does my sense of humor and my approach to pragmatism. The Sierra Club put students like me in charge of an arm of the organization, gave us a small budget and let us figure things out. I’ll forever be grateful that they did.
What I’d like to do here is share some observations about the Sierra Club’s role in the climate/environmental movement, the SSC’s role in the Sierra Club, and where it all appears to have gone wrong.
What the Sierra Club is FOR
I joined the Sierra Club in December 1994. It was a birthday gift from my grandmother. She also paid for my membership in Greenpeace. I remember distinctly that, over the course of the next year, Greenpeace sent me five mailings. Each detailed the fantastic work they were doing, and asked me to please send more money so they could keep doing it. The Sierra Club sent me newsletters from my local Group and state Chapter, along with a national activist newsletter called The Planet and Sierra magazine. Every newsletter gave information about the campaigns that Sierra Club was working on, and included opportunities for action and upcoming meeting dates.
I didn’t have money to give to Greenpeace. I was 16 years old, had found some inspiration while walking in the woods, and wanted to join a movement to fight back against the Gingrich-era rollback of environmental laws. The Sierra Club had volunteer roles that needed to be filled. I borrowed my dad’s car on a Monday night and showed up to the local group meeting.
That’s what I have always believed the Sierra Club is for. Other environmental organizations have lobbyists and lawyers. (And of course Sierra has those too.) PIRG has an army of canvassers who harass you into donating and call that organizing. Sierra (historically) has people. It has ballast. The organization is not nimble. It is slow and deliberative, which also means it can be frustrating and bureaucratic. But when it does move, it brings people with it.
No other environmental organization has that deep well of committed volunteer leaders. It is hard to sustain that sort of volunteer capacity. But it is even harder to create from scratch.
One issue with the Sierra Club volunteer structure is that it demands a large supply of committed volunteers who aren’t just trying to build their own personal fiefdoms. Volunteer recruitment, training, and retention are not at all simple under the best of circumstances. Where are all these people going to come from? Who is going to show up? What will keep them together? How do you manage the personality conflicts that will surely arise?
When I attended my first local Sierra Club meeting, back in 1995, it was already a (to be polite) graying organization. Most of the active members were in their 50s or older. They were mostly retirees and empty nesters. Many had been involved for decades, having first gotten involved during the height of the 1970s environmental movement or in the backlash to Reagan in the 1980s. This was a little jarring for me. I was in High School. I was still accustomed to asking permission to use the bathroom. The local volunteer leadership mostly didn’t know what to do with me, and vice versa. (Greg Smith and Larry Bohlen and Baird Straughan being the notable exceptions. Thanks, fellas. I will always owe you.)
But then there was the SSC. The SSC was the Sierra Club, by and for my generation.
The SSC was founded by Adam Werbach and his crew in 1991. It began as a training program for high school kids — the high school environmental leadership training program. HSELTP was a terrible acronym, so they called it “sprog” (short for summer program) instead. Adam and most of his cofounders were enrolled at Brown University, so they set up a national office in Providence, RI, just off-campus and above an Au Bon Pain. I think it was almost a year before the Club’s national board of directors found out and asked what the hell they were doing and who the hell had given them permission to do it. (Adam later went on to serve as the Sierra Club’s youngest-ever President. He wrote a book at the time, titled Act Now, Apologize Later.)
Adam didn’t do it by himself, though. The old story I was told, and I then spent years retelling was that, to create the SSC, you needed Adam-the-visionary telling the board “you’re saying we can’t go out and collect 10,000 comments from students opposing NAFTA? Well we’ve already done it.” And you also needed Mark Fraioli and Todd Hettenbach and Stephanie Jowers, sitting in the back of the room, muttering “oh shit” to each other and finding a way to reach those numbers.
That story always stuck with me. I came to realize that I was more of a Fraioli than a Werbach… that you needed multiple skill sets, working to reinforce each other. It helped me figure out who I was, what I could be good at, how I fit into the world.
I attended the Virginia sprog in ‘96. It was a beautiful mess, but my lord was it an absolute mess. The following year, I was a trainer at both sprog sites, and saw what was wrong. All of the trainers were former participants. They called themselves “counselors” and the participants “campers.” The whole thing had a distinct summer-camp vibe. The counselors would show up two days early and brainstorm an agenda based on “who has something they’d like to teach?” I wanted to teach campaign planning. Another counselor wanted to teach yoga and vegetarian cooking. Great, put ‘em both on the list! There were no clear learning objectives or major topics, no sense of what skills people needed to learn or what we were setting them up to do next. And there was no way of capturing what seemed to work and what seemed to fizzle across sites.
I took over as trainings director in ‘98. First I established an official goal for the trainings. Then I worked with a team to develop core topics. We decided sprog should be less “summer camp” and more “organizers’ boot camp.” So we devoted a day to campaign planning, a day to organizational development, and a day to communication skills. Each day was broken into segments, and we started tinkering with workshops and activities that would work for each segment. We also devoted a day to the major issues the organization would be campaigning on in the upcoming year, and a final day for an experiential learning simulated exercises that put all the skills they had learned into practice. Attendees weren’t required to work on these campaigns back home — we encouraged them to look locally as well — but this gave us some organizational connective tissue for extending our work beyond a single week. For the next few years, we tinkered with and refined this core training model. We also added a train-the-trainers weekend, and added college trainings and an advanced training. We started holding weekend regional trainings during the schoolyear as well. Along the way we developed a crew that knew what we were doing and enjoyed the hell out of doing it. It was great — the most teaching I will ever do.
One structural problem for the SSC was the turnover. I once estimated that a “generation” of SSCers was about three years. I was a third-Gen SSCer, recruited and trained by the people Adam and company had recruited and trained. Technically, between high school and college, you could be in the SSC for 8 years. But that rarely happened in practice. (Turns out that not a lot of people spend their college years continuing to do the same thing they did in high school.) And even if it did, you would have the strong sense by year 5 or so that you were one of the “olds.” The rest of the national leadership would be full of people you trained at sprog.
The downside of all that turnover is you need to have ways of training a ton of leaders to replace the folks who were graduating. And you need events, campaigns, and shared experiences that foster enough organizational identity to keep it all going.
The upside of the constant turnover is that you are generating tons of committed activists who have experience making big decisions that matter. A Sierra Club leader might occupy a major leadership role for 20+ years. That means no one else gets the leadership development experience of figuring out how to do all that work.
So the structural theory of the SSC is as that it could be an engine — a constantly churning leadership generator that would revitalize an aging Sierra Club. This was also the SSC’s comparative advantage over other national student organizations. We could send people back from sprog to start a chapter or affiliate their campus environmental organization. Then they could then collaborate with the Sierra Club’s local group or state chapter on pressing campaign topics.
In practice, this was always an imperfect fit. We consistently ran into two problems. First: Linking student-led SSC chapters to Sierra Club groups and chapters only works if you have (1) a healthy club chapter/group and (2) a timely issue to work on. Some campaigns can take 10 years, with years 2-9 being slow relationship building and public education. That’s fine for a Sierra Club group of empty-nesters and retirees who are embedded in their local community. They ain’t going anywhere. But it’s a death knell for the quick turnover of student activism. (And also… uh, yeah, not all Sierra Club groups and chapters were healthy back then.)
The second problem was longitudinal — what we might call the “uncanny age-gap valley.” Volunteer-led civic organizations are going to tend to have unimodal or (at best) bimodal age distributions. You have relatively more time available for activism as a student, an empty nester, or a retiree than you will when you are starting a career, settling down, and raising a family. (Individual mileage will vary, of course. But as a rule of thumb, you should expect higher volunteer rates from teenagers and 50-somethings than from 20-, 30-, and 40-somethings.) SSC leaders didn’t graduate college and immediately take on volunteer leadership roles in Sierra Club groups and chapters. They graduated college and either (a) took a job in environmental organizing (often with the Sierra Club!) or (b) faced down their student debt payments and got busy finding some other way to pay them off.
This certainly happened for me. By the time I was 24 years old, I had joined the Sierra Club’s national board. But I was also in grad school and trying to figure the rest of my life out. The Philadelphia group of the Sierra Club wasn’t going to be where I spent the remaining hours of my week. And years later, when my second board term ended, I was 31 years old and starting a new job in a new city. My fourth city in four years. I could’ve joined the local Sierra Club group, but I was much more focused on starting my career and trying to meet my now-wife. And today, at age 44? I have two small kids who take up most of my time and attention. If I’m going to join a civic association, it’s probably going to be the local PTO.
This is all predictable; it’s systemic. SSC alumni don’t immediately revitalize the Sierra Club volunteer ranks, because people in their mid 20s-40s have more competing demands than people in school or people who are late-career or retired. I’m much more likely to hold a leadership role in the Sierra Club when I’m 60 than I am today. It’s a worthwhile investment, but the organizational payoff is much slower than expected.
Still, I think the structure is ultimately quite sound. Let students run the student arm of the organization. Let it be an engine — a leadership generator that builds organizational identity and organizing skills. Tie them in with local Sierra groups and chapters to help win important campaign victories now. Hire some of them as Sierra Club staff, and hope others will stay on as volunteers. Expect volunteer attrition in the near term, though, because of competing life demands.
So why is the Club shutting it all down?
I think the simplest answer is that the pandemic kind of broke the SSC.
In 2020 and 2021, the summer trainings were all virtual. Virtual trainings are better than nothing, but much worse than in-person — particularly for building organizational identity and solidarity. Then in 2022 they put the trainings on hiatus to “reenvision” them. That’s three years. A whole generational cohort. They turned the engine off, out of necessity. Then they didn’t turn it back on, by choice. Then it ran out of juice.
In the intervening years, it stopped being student-run and started being a staff-run “youth” program. The website says the SSC is for 14-35 year olds which, yeah, is just a HUGE red flag. Hell, I took a step back from mentoring SSCers when I turned 30, because I was 30 and it was just obvious that it was time to step back and let someone else step in. If your leadership is full of 35-year-olds, it is not going to feel like home to the teenagers and early 20-somethings.
(Relatedly: There is a type of ~30-year-old dude who hangs out in activist circles and just happens to really click with conventionally attractive 20-year-old female activists. He’s a sexual predator, but he’s fluent in the language of liberation, and of course he doesn’t think of himself that way. You want your movement organization not to be a space that invites that type of guy, because then you’re gonna spend all your time fixing the problems he creates instead of actually doing the work that brought you together.)
The staff-run program can look robust, but it masks the leadership deficits on the volunteer side. You aren’t an engine anymore. You’re just a grant-funded program. And, when the money gets tight, the program is gonna get cut.
The money is tight now. The program is getting cut. Again, this is predictable. The Sierra Student Coalition has had as few as zero and as many as six people on staff. So long as the engine was running, it could be small and scrappy or big and elaborate.
What I had assumed would happen in the midst of the Sierra Club’s budget shortfall was that the SSC would drop from five staff to one. We had been scrappy before, and they would have to get scrappy again. They’d have to get scrappy again. Put it back in the hands of volunteers and let them figure out how to fix things.
Instead, the Club leadership has made the abrupt decision to shut down its student-run arm. (Even worse, it seems like the Board didn’t even realize they were shutting the SSC down, which… maaaaaaaaan, what they hell are y’all doing these days?!?)
The party line is “youth organizing will be infused throughout the organization, not just in SSC.” But that’s chickenshit face-saving. And one way I know it’s chickenshit face-saving is that no one has been willing to utter those words to my or any other SSC alum’s face. It’s all been secondhand memos and “here’s what my boss’s boss seems to be saying, but I don’t know I’ll circle back.”
The SSC was intended to seed the future of the Sierra Club, and to be an engine for training the next generation of climate/environmental activists.
The current Sierra Club leadership has decided they’re better off without a future.
The SSC was never perfect, but it was always good. The Sierra Club was better with it than without it. Those of us who contributed to the SSC were made better by it as well.
Institutions don’t last forever. They require constant tending, upkeep, and maintenance. I’m sorry to see this one end, and thankful for what it gave me.
The Club is worse without it. I suspect they don’t have a real plan here. (What they have is a budget crisis. But I learned from my mentors that a crisis is not the same thing as a plan.) They ought to make a plan. I would help, if they asked. The Club doesn’t seem to ask much anymore.
That, too, is a change that I am sad to see.