Members of the new Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council were pleasantly surprised on May 16 when the Sierra Club’s national board of directors elected Aaron Mair of Schenectady as its first African American president.
Since it was founded, Aaron has helped to spread the word about the ADAC to people who care about the Adirondack Park. He and we want to see the park become a more welcoming place to people of all races and cultures. He has also been a tireless advocate for environmental justice, social equity and political empowerment for under-represented minority voters in Upstate New York.
He uses his influence as the host of a public affairs radio show to bring attention to issues affecting the Adirondack Park. His weekly program on Albany Broadcasting Stations (WROW, B95.5, WFLY 92.3, etc.) has been a platform to introduce the ADAC to a Capital District audience, in addition to discussions about the Adirondack Park’s environment and its future.
I first met Aaron in the early 1990s, when he was working with Arbor Hill Neighborhood Association, just before he joined the Sierra Club. He was working to close a trash-burning power plant in downtown Albany. For years, people living in the economically challenged neighborhood surrounding the plant had complained of otherwise-unexplainable illnesses, terrible odors and constant garbage truck traffic. The neighborhood was 80 percent black. The city council and mayor were not, nor were they sympathetic to Aaron’s concerns.
Aaron became a leader among a network of local and regional advocates, who fought to close the plant by organizing parents and families into a political force. They finally succeeded by educating the news media, showing that the plant’s smokestacks were the source of the thick layer of black soot that frequently covered downtown Albany. One especially nasty incident drew the attention of then-Governor Mario Cuomo, who lived in the Governor’s Mansion on Eagle Street, across town.
Not long after, the plant was under orders to close. Aaron’s leadership ultimately led to a $1.6 million settlement award to that community for the damages done.
After that, Aaron worked to ensure that Albany County’s minority community would be in a better position to defend itself in the future. He pressed three legal challenges to the county’s flawed election district maps, succeeding this year in creating two new minority-dominated voting districts that had previously been broken up into surrounding white districts.
Mair was also a key figure in the Sierra Club’s participation in the Clean Up the Hudson campaign, which helped to establish a $500-million settlement between the EPA and General Electric to dredge toxic PCB sediments from the Upper Hudson River, just south of the Adirondack Park border.
The Sierra Club notes that Mair has held more than three dozen leadership positions within the Sierra Club’s Hudson Mohawk Group and Atlantic Chapter (NY office), including chapter chair (2002-2003), chapter executive committee (2002-2004) and environmental justice chair (2009-present). He was elected to the national Sierra Club’s Board of Directors in 2014.
Sierra Club’s announcement of Aaron’s election noted: “Throughout his tenure with the Club, Mair has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to grassroots action, environmental justice, and transforming the culture of the Sierra Club to make it — in his words – ‘a more welcoming environment to all people, regardless of their race or socio-economic status.’”
His mission for the Adirondack Park, and the world, is the same. He recently said in an interview with Sierra Club’s Planet online magazine:
“[My goal is] building a strong, diverse, and inclusive environmental movement. We were able to bring a major corporate polluter, General Electric, to account with the Hudson River campaign. To achieve real progress on climate change, we need to bring together all groups. No green group by itself, no EJ group by itself, no political faction by itself, can bring about lasting changes or solutions to our climate challenges. It is only by creating a large, diverse, equitable, and inclusive environmental movement that we can bring about lasting change to save not only the planet but our species.
“Nature is the great equalizer. Nature knows no difference between black and white, or the size of one’s wallet. The disparate responses to climate change occur at the human and political level. These are things the Sierra Club can help influence and change: the resource allocation, the response, the equal treatment of all humanity and nature. This can only come from a point of respecting diversity, when people see other people as fellow human beings and not as competitors sharing the planet.
“More than 100 years ago, a president of the United States and the president of Sierra Club came together to save and preserve the last unprotected and unspoiled green spaces of the United States. That image (of two white males) came to define the environmental movement.
“I now challenge our current president (who is a national leader on the environment) to meet me on the very spot in Yosemite where Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir stood, to witness the impacts of climate change on the receding glaciers and parched earth and come together not just to save a few green patches within the United States, but to save the planet.”
I am still planning to tease Aaron by continuing to suggest that the Sierra Club board only elected him because they misread his last name and thought he was related to John Muir. But I’m only going to do this because everyone knows that is not true. He earned this reward, one tough battle after another. So if you see him out on the trails this summer, please offer your congratulations to a man working every day on behalf of the Adirondacks, diversity and justice.