Interview with Leslie Fields of the Sierra Club

This interview with Leslie Fields, National Director of Policy Advocacy and Legal for the Sierra Club, first appeared in our tenth print annual, available here. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


To start us off, can you share your perspective on environmental justice and how that has informed your work as a lawyer and an advocate?

Leslie Fields

Environmental justice is the vanguard of the environmental movement. It’s everywhere—where we work, live, play, worship, go to school. It affects all aspects of life due to our history in this country, and the world, of colonialization, genocide, and enslavement of Native Americans and African Americans. Then, you had vicious Jim Crow segregation, which led to redlining, issues of desegregation, and all of the work communities have had to do to get their civil and human rights. And now, we’re seeing displacement from gentrification. So it’s a very long history and it’s connected globally.

For me, it’s been a blessing and a calling. It’s taken me all over the world. I get to spend time with people who are fighting for their communities, fighting for their cultural and natural environments. If you preserve the natural environment, then you preserve the cultural environment. The tragedy of seeing people being displaced because of climate change is that the people least responsible for it are the ones most affected. It exacerbates climate change and it exacerbates all existing inequalities.

If you were in a poor community that was segregated by race, then you could only live on the floodplain, what they used to call “the bottoms” in many communities. You’re now getting flooded all the time and you just can’t recover. Your property—what you want to leave to your children—has been damaged. You can’t get insurance, or you’re being told you have to elevate your house in order to get FEMA assistance. You can’t find the title because it is probably heirs’ property and you received it from your grandmama and the Bible it was in got washed away in the flood and you don’t have money to do a title search. All these things. That’s how people are losing their community.

On top of that, you might have a number of nasty facilities that have been sited in your community, allowing corporations to destroy the buffers, the bayous, the mangroves, the swamps. There have always been storms, but those were the areas that soaked up the storm surge. Now, they’ve been destroyed and now you have these storm surges that are there more frequent and more severe destroying the built environment and causing displacement.

In the Houston Ship Channel area—what we call Cancer Alley—there’s uranium mining on tribal land that has contaminated groundwater. I was in Alaska this summer, and they’re telling people that they won’t be able to visit the graves of their grandparents. They’re living with that legacy and their ancestors are buried on the land. It’s culturally very important.

You’ve got everybody seeing these connections and understanding that every culture has fished and lived off the land. There’s this idea that you have to join an environmental group and have a membership card and go hiking and appreciate nature. You know, you don’t have to be formally in a group to do that. I live in D.C., on the Anacostia River, and I’m out there on my bike and hiking our great trails. In these communities, even though there are fish advisories, you see people out there fishing. It’s for recreation, but it’s still a source of protein. Human civilization was founded along rivers and shores because it’s a source of fish protein.

So many great networks and community people have organized and really pushed environmental justice and I’m very privileged to be able to work with as many as possible. Many organizations have made a mission of this, like the NAACP. Even though it’s still the oldest and largest civil rights organization, they have a very active climate and environmental justice initiative now, headed by our good friend Jacqui Patterson.

It’s a great movement. It’s large and messy, and that’s okay. People have really organized themselves very well. You have folks doing all kinds of work, whether it’s around toxics or land loss or pollution. Solutions coming from the communities should be lifted up as the ones that are going to last. The Sierra Club has had an environmental justice program since the ’90s to meet them where they are, “work at the speed of trust,” as Reverend Durley says, and come up with the best solutions. We have to keep doing a better job, especially in mainstream organizations.


Legislation, regulation, and government programs often fail to solve those kinds of problems. What do you think the role of the Sierra Club is when the government is failing to serve people who need their help the most?

Leslie Fields

We have a lot of roles. We’ve had to evolve and we’re still evolving. We’re putting a lot of time and energy into it. We have an equity department now. We’re infusing the Jemez principles into everything we do and in people’s work plans. We’re taking it very, very seriously and putting a lot of energy and investment into it. We have an organizing department. We’re the only mainstream environmental group that has unions. We try to practice what we preach because we care very much about our employees and we’re able to support unions.

As we go from this extractive economy to a clean energy economy, we have to ensure there’s a just transition and that communities that have been living in the extractive economy and have worked very hard and helped build this country aren’t left behind. Our role is to be an advocate.

We have laws, but the problem is they’re are not enforced where they should be enforced. The Sierra Club has a very robust federal policy team and legal department, and we have to work with the states and the EPA and the DOJ to make sure that the enforcement is done under the law. Our legal department also helps with citizen suits under the statutes.

But this can be joyous work as well and we can have a lot of fun with it. In our work in Puerto Rico, for example, everything is done around a festival. There’s Three Kings Day at the beginning of the year, the Festival of San Sebastian, we have a turtle festival—Festival del Tinglar—in Luquillo. We dress up like starfish and turtles, and the kids dress up and parade around and we have a lot of fun. It helps bring in that aspect of “this is your natural heritage” and the community can have fun and pass this on to the next generation. It’s important that we support the next generation. You saw that with the climate strikes, which really made me so happy. We have two interns here from Howard University and they did a climate strike on their campus and it was fantastic. Everybody just did it their way and then they went and advocated to the office of sustainability at Howard and told them that they need to do more.

It’s really great fun to do, but it’s also very serious. We resist but we try to be as proactive as possible, try to be as joyous as possible. We bring in culture whenever possible, and that resonates very well because this is what people are trying to preserve for the next generations.


It can be difficult for people to see things at the local or community level. They see the big things that are happening, and they read the news, but they might not consider the connection to culture, community, and heritage. How do we get people into a position where they can see how their community is being affected and come together to make a change?

Leslie Fields

We’ve got to have the data. Why does my community have X amount of refineries and chemical facilities, and why is my community a cancer cluster? Why do three highways intersect in my community?

Louisiana is one of my favorite places because the culture down there is so significant and distinct. You have that culture and it’s just fantastic, not to mention the food and the music. It’s all infused and you can’t separate any of it. And then, you have the natural environment. And it’s all at risk. There are lots of people and networks working on this: Another Gulf is Possible, Gulf South Rising. Our good friend Colette Pichon Battle is running the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, and they’re putting together what a Green New Deal looks like for the Gulf.

What is it for them that is going to work? It’s not a cookie-cutter thing and it’s not top-down. It’s a platform for all the things that need to get done so you can put together something proactive and then push that through. You have to create the political will and it has to be infused with our democracy like Reverend [William] Barber says. There are no “red states,” but there are states that have been deprived of opportunity. The communities that are having these problems are the same communities that are seeing vicious voter suppression. These same communities have less investment because they’ve been segregated. It hasn’t stopped.

After a hurricane, you have to evacuate to another community, then there’s an election, and you’re trying to figure out how to get back and where to vote. And maybe you don’t have your voting card because you had to run out because the flood waters were coming. All of these things make it very difficult. After Katrina, Rita, etc., it was a huge problem. Civil rights groups have had to sue, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. And that’s on top of the other things they’re still fighting for—criminal justice and good schools and good housing.

The role of the Sierra Club is very important, and we have to be in solidarity with communities on these other issues. We’ve been in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and on the border wall. We’ve been in solidarity on lots of these sorts of things. We have some people who will question that and think that we’re just a conservation group. We don’t take the lead if it’s not our main issue, but we try to be in solidarity. We have a labor and economic justice program, so we’re in solidarity with the UAW. We’ve been in solidarity with the Tesla workers at the Fremont plant in California who are trying to organize. We have been in solitary with the Nissan workers. We went to Mississippi two years ago when the Nissan workers protested in Canton, Mississippi. We were down there with the NAACP, and Bernie Sanders came down, and Aaron Mair who was our then-president, and Congressman Bennie Thompson. It was 4,000 people; the largest march since the civil rights days. UAW brought in folks from France and Brazil to tell folks in Mississippi, “Hey, we have unionization in our countries for Nissan workers and this is what you get” so they could see. For all these things, we have to be in solidarity, and we have to make sure that they get the resources they need.


For people who don’t see the day-to-day effects of injustice or who might view the climate crisis as something that’s distant from themselves, they might not understand the ways that it overlaps with racism and classism and sexism. What are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities for addressing the overlapping issues of environmental, racial, economic, and gender inequity?

Leslie Fields

Well, as Martin Luther King said, “we all came in separate ships and now we’re in the same boat.” If you grew up and you were fortunate and didn’t have to worry about your education and you didn’t have to worry about where you lived and you had representation, then good for you. But now everybody’s being affected by climate disruption. We are all being affected. You’re going to be affected by sea-level rise and erratic weather. And this problem is global. But some people are being affected worse than most.

I think that there are lots of opportunities. There are opportunities in the clean energy sector to addresses this, and this creates opportunities for different kinds of people to work better together. I’m very hopeful because of the way the young people have taken it upon themselves and are, rightly so, getting on us for not moving fast enough on this.

There are people in denial about it, but it’s at their own peril. It’s affecting everybody now. You’re going to pay more to heat your home, or the roads are falling apart, or you have to pay more in taxes because you have to build a higher levee, or you have to move. This is the normal now.

With this administration, we are in a situation where, like a lot of countries, we’ve got someone who really only cares about his family’s wealth, building wealth, keeping the wealth, and keeping power. That’s all it’s about. There are lots of other countries where this has happened, and we have to break through that, and it’s very dire. When you see places like Bangladesh and you see places like Alaska and what’s happening in the Arctic Circle, and then you come home and it’s 84 degrees in October in D.C. where I am. We still have mosquitos now through November. These are disease vectors. We have Dengue fever, malaria, and West Nile virus in North America. We didn’t have that when I was growing up. We had a frost by now and the mosquitos were gone. It doesn’t cool off at night anymore. You talk to your grandparents, and they had sleeping porches, where they slept outside at night for air conditioning. You can’t do that anymore. So all these other disease vectors, all these problems, have hit North America and it’s happening.

I just think that we have to come at it in whatever way we can. There’s a role for everybody. You bring the scientists in, you bring the lawyers in, you bring the young people in, you bring the elders in. If you’re a teacher, if you’re a kid, everybody can do something. Everybody has a role to play. That’s the best part of this.


For people like myself who are Sierra Club members, and others in the general public, what are the ways that we can get involved with the efforts of the Sierra Club and your partners?

Leslie Fields

Just get on the internet, go to, punch in where you live, and check out what the local chapter is doing. Join your local chapter and help out. You can look for environmental justice and climate justice groups and get involved with them or send them money. Support your local candidates who are working to ensure that we’re mitigating and adapting to climate change. Get out there and vote. Get out there and support those candidates. You guys [in Massachusetts] have got Elizabeth Warren, your senator. Support those people and get rid of the people who are in the way. Get them out of there. There’s no time. This is it.

Get active however you’re comfortable getting active: money, time, art, writing. Put the message out there in all these different venues, so that it’s not just in national publications, but it’s also in a publication such as yours. It’s really important that people hear it in different places and spaces. That you hear it in the union halls and you hear it in a literary magazine. I used to tell people all the time to put our stuff in Parade magazine because it comes out in everybody’s newspaper. My grandmother, when she was living, read that thing religiously. We’ve got to make it accessible. It’s not a dumbing down, it’s just making it accessible. We’re trying to be better about that. And that also means we have to be culturally appropriate. We have to translate it into different languages, and we have to meet people where they are.

So just get out there. Look at the Sierra Club in Boston, in Massachusetts. They’re doing wonderful things. They’re doing great work on clean transportation and a lot of other issues. Emily Norton, the previous director, did great work with that whole team up there. That’s how you get going. You could also get involved through outings and get involved in service projects in the community. You’ve got all those wonderful places to go, like the Harbor Islands, which are under threat.

Or, even just promoting something like zero waste. I’m very happy that the plastics issue has gotten to where it is. That also exacerbates climate change and we really have to stop throwing everything away. There’s a carry capacity and we’re just turning the world into one big trash dump.

There are lots and lots and lots of ways. Make it fun and make it accessible. That’s what we try to do. We’re serious, though, because it’s a terrible legacy that we’re leaving to future generations, expecting them to fix this. We really need to push the politicians and elect the people who are going to do this work. There really isn’t any time to waste.



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