Writer Justine Lee Photographer Andria Lo
IN ITS 117-YEAR HISTORY, the Sierra Club has never had an elected president who was a person of color — that is, until Allison Chin came around. Chin, a Chinese American, took the helm of the nation’s largest and arguably most influential environmental organization in 2008. Her vision is to promote a core ethic of diversity while continuing to appeal to the individual’s sense of global responsibility.
Chin began her journey with the Sierra Club as a volunteer who took inner-city kids on hikes to teach them to appreciate nature. Although her role now involves making executive decisions for the Sierra Club, she continues to feel the most fulfillment from interacting with others.
While there are challenges ahead for the Sierra Club — namely, tightening operations, making sure not to overwhelm its audience with too much information and facing inevitable criticism — Chin remains ever-hopeful.
What is the most exciting project you have been a part of in your past year as president?
Oh, that one’s a fun one, because it was electing the 44th president of the United States. The Sierra Club endorsed then-Sen. Obama and launched a huge election campaign in partnership with other organizations. I had a great time traveling around to the Sierra Club’s priority states to work with volunteers and staff on city and local races for congressional seats. It was just fabulous because everywhere people were exhausted, but they were running on will and determination to get another vote, to knock on another door. It was just really impressive.
What does a Sierra Club volunteer look like? Has that changed over the years?
We’ve got a huge range of people who are active in the organization. When I was working on the election, I met 12-year-olds who were out leaving materials on doors and getting involved, and then we’ve got our venerable leaders, on whose shoulders many of us stand, who have been … serving the organization for decades. We have people who rely on paper and then we have those who are tweeting and everything in between. We’re just trying to bridge it all.
With a more environmentally conscious society, how does Sierra Club fit in?
It’s not business as usual. We have tapped into our core assets, which is the fact that we’re a grass-roots organization. It’s always been about the people. It’s been [about] connecting people with the outdoors and the wonders of nature. I do think, as we’re seeing in many aspects of society … and even this past election, it’s about building the capacity at the individual level so that it’s personal and people actually take responsibility for decisions they’re making in their own lives.
How does being Asian American play a role, if at all, in what you do?
I think the main role it plays is it provides visibility for the world — that everybody cares, [that] people of color care. The concerns and goals that I have as an environmentalist are shared by colleagues who are young and old, men and women, [and] people of all colors, lifestyles and thought. We all do look at the world [through] different lenses and we do have different experiences. I think it’s an opportunity for me to leverage being a person of diversity and to challenge more people to join and take those roles.
What is your current favorite green business?
My favorite green businesses [are] those that help people make … eco-friendly living and business choices. There are a lot of examples: Sierra Club Green Home, for one, and Live Green is another. For the average citizen, you get hundreds of choices; how do you decide what to buy or support? People are looking for organizations, sponsors and businesses to be that sounding board and trusted resource. One of the things I’m very supportive of is local farming. Here in Virginia, they have sections [in grocery stores] where they let you know what is grown locally. I also love growing my own vegetables. That’s something I’ve been doing for many, many years, and we’ve just planted our garden. I’m really excited about that.
Justine Lee is a writer living in San Francisco. She last wrote about Steve Ma, founder of Live Green, which connects consumers to eco-friendly businesses in the Washington, DC area.