On March 12, 2020, an email arrived asking me to review three final scripts for the science series NOVA, the most-watched prime time science series on television with nearly five-million weekly viewers. Nearly a year later in February 2021, I’m delighted to see those NOVA episodes premier on PBS as the three-part series “Beyond the Elements.” The first episode focused on molecular Reactions, the next on virtually Indestructible molecules, and the third episode explored molecules of Life. Watching these episodes and reading my name in the credits as a “Science Advisor” for NOVA was thrilling.
But let’s be honest: after this past year, I’m delighted to have thus-far survived the pandemic and everything else that 2020 threw at us! From shelter-in-place to shuttered businesses, from Zoom meetings to elbow-bump greetings, from wild fires to fascism, and from righteous calls for racial justice to right-wing mobs denigrating our democracy, it’s been one hell of a year. Watching these NOVA episodes on PBS offered me a reminder of all that we’ve experienced since March 2020 when I received that email to review NOVA’s final scripts. Reflecting on this past year, I now see how working on those NOVA episodes helped me to muddle through that difficult time last spring. It re-inspired my fascination with science as well as my passion for oral histories with wondrous people, several of whom do the fascinating work of science. Reviewing those scripts also helped me imagine a future beyond the then all-consuming pandemic.
What are your memories of March 2020? Mine are saturated in fear. I recall dizzying levels of anxiety. Focused concentration felt nearly impossible. So much seemed unknown in March 2020, but we knew enough to be scared. We knew a novel virus that emerged in China was spreading rapidly around the world, and especially, by then, throughout the Bay Area here. We knew of no medical treatment to stop its spread or its effects. And we knew many people would not survive this new disease. For me, fear of what we did know as well as what we did not know felt crippling. Yet in my inbox appeared that email reminding me quite kindly of my earlier agreement to continue reviewing and advising on these three NOVA scripts. They asked: would I be able to return my reviews in the next two weeks? I thought: would my family and I even be alive in two weeks? At least, that’s where my mind was at in March 2020. Even so, I agreed to return my edits as quickly as I could—perhaps as a kind of pandemic denial, a naive attempt to reclaim normalcy.
As it happened, reviewing those scripts was both interesting and inspiring. Interesting, of course, because NOVA’s episodes of “Beyond the Elements” are captivating. The shows build from NOVA’s earlier special episodes on hunting atomic elements with these new episodes exploring the key molecules and chemical reactions that have shaped and continue to shape our lives and the universe as we know it. David Pogue hosts these episodes in his adventurous and cheeky way with excellent demonstrations and explanations by leading scientists, all accompanied by beautiful graphics and special effects. These stories about nature’s most fascinating molecular interactions are delightful, as are the scientists themselves who tell those stories.
To my surprise, reviewing those scripts last spring also gave me hope and helped lift me out of my initial, deep COVID despair. After prior years of commenting on and reviewing iterations of scripts for “Beyond the Elements,” that last round of edits in March 2020 arose at a difficult time. But that work helped ground me with a higher purpose and a commitment to others. It enabled my imagining of a future when this NOVA series would finally broadcast to millions of viewers. It helped move me beyond my immediate fears during that harrowing March of 2020. And it helped me, as an oral historian, to re-engage in our sacred project of building knowledge and sharing it through engaging narratives.
Upon submitting my review of the NOVA episodes, I found renewed purpose for sharing our own delightful stories about science as told by our fascinating oral history narrators. My colleagues in the Oral History Center all re-committed to our ongoing projects that spring and summer. Pandemic notwithstanding—very much in spite of it—we adjusted to our newly required remote-working situations, and we adapted our work flows, our fundraising, and our interviewing to not just survive this pandemic, but to find and create meaning during it. And through our collaborations, we even finalized a few of our own oral histories that, like NOVA’s “Beyond the Elements,” explore the interactions of molecules.
By August of 2020, we published my fifteen-hours-long interview with Alexis T. Bell, the Dow Professor of Sustainable Chemistry in UC Berkeley’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, who is a world-renowned leader in catalysis and chemical-reaction engineering. In September 2020, Paul Burnett published his detailed oral history with John Prausnitz, a professor since 1955 in Berkeley’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, who helped pioneer the field of molecular thermodynamics. And in October of 2020, we published my oral history with Michael R. Schilling, a chemist in Los Angeles at the Getty Conservation Institute who specializes in new and complex methods for analyzing the molecules in materials used by artists and art conservators.
For me, that work last spring on NOVA’s “Beyond the Elements” helped me discover a way to move beyond the pandemic. It helped refocus my privilege and pleasure in recording, preserving, and sharing the life stories of our oral history narrators. And while I wish our struggles with this ongoing pandemic were over, I’m very pleased to see all that we’ve accomplished this past year in the Oral History Center. Back in March 2020, when reviewing those final scripts for NOVA, I imagined the episodes would eventually premier at a time when the world had returned to “normal,” whatever that meant. As it happened, the episodes’ premiers in February 2021 occurred amidst our continued pandemic, which has lasted so long it seems to have become our new normal. Even if our slow and sad dance with COVID-19 continues, I’m very pleased to have seen “Beyond the Elements” broadcast on PBS and to be listed as a “Science Advisor.” And I’m equally grateful for the lessons those episodes taught me, both about the science of molecular interactions but especially on the importance of meaningful endeavors during difficult times.
— Roger Eardley-Pryor, PhD
Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library
Aaron Mair is a pioneer in environmental justice and became the first African American president of the Sierra Club from 2015-2017. Mair, whose ancestors suffered enslavement, has dedicated much of his life to overturning the ongoing injustices experienced by Black Americans, including environmental racism. The Power of Place, Mutuality, and Interconnection all arose as important themes throughout Mair’s fifteen-hour oral history, which we conducted over five interview sessions in November 2018, first in Pickens County, South Carolina, and then in Albany, New York, where Mair lives. That week that Aaron Mair and I shared together became one of the most enlightening and powerful experiences in my life as an oral historian.
On the day we first met in South Carolina, just before his first interview session, Mair walked me through an unkept graveyard where his mother’s enslaved ancestors are buried. A few days later, on our final day of interviewing, we walked through snow across the Helderberg Escarpment that rises above the Hudson Valley in New York, near where Mair has lived most of his life. As he informed me, the Helderberg Escarpment is the site where, over 150 years earlier, a Southern slave-owner named Joseph LeConte studied geology with Louis Agassiz and nurtured notions of scientific racism. After the Confederacy collapsed, Joseph LeConte moved west to become a geology professor at UC Berkeley and co-founded the Sierra Club alongside John Muir in 1892. Nearly 125 years later, in 2015, Aaron Mair became the Sierra Club’s 57th president and its first African American president.
Aaron Mair was born in November 1960. He completed PhD coursework in Political Science at the State University of New York at Binghamton University, and upon becoming a father, he departed as ABD to work for the New York State Department of Health in Albany, where he still works as an epidemiological-spatial analyst. By the late 1980s, Mair’s training in geographic information systems, his graduate readings in World Systems Theory, and his family’s experiences in civil rights and labor organizing all came together in Mair’s campaign to shut down the toxic ANSWERS (Albany New York Solid Waste to Energy Recovery System) incinerator in Arbor Hill, the majority Black neighborhood where Mair and his family lived. The ANSWERS incinerator, which burned trash to produce electricity for the Empire State Plaza where Mair worked, also produced toxic ash that blew directly onto Mair’s family and community. In 1998, after a decade-long battle to close the incinerator, Mair won a landmark $1.4 million settlement with New York state (his employer) for environmental racism. He then used those funds to further his intersectional environmentalism by founding two non-profit organizations: Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Corporation, and the W. Haywood Burns Environmental Education Center. Through these organizations, Mair advocated further for environmental justice, including in the Clean Up the Hudson campaign that forced General Electric to dredge toxic PCBs from the Upper Hudson River.
In 1999, Mair joined the Sierra Club in a conscious effort to reform it from the inside. Years earlier, while still battling the toxic ANSWERS incinerator, Mair sought to partner with the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter in New York City. Instead, the all-white room of Sierra Club members rejected Mair’s overture and said, “Did you check with the NAACP?” However, Albany’s local Sierra Club group did scrounge up early support for Mair’s campaign. With gratitude, Mair vowed that once he successfully closed the ANSWERS plant, he would join the Sierra Club to ensure it would collaborate with communities of color. Upon joining the Sierra Club, Mair held leadership positions at every level, including as group chair, then chapter chair and environmental justice chair in the Atlantic Chapter in New York; as national chair of the Sierra Club’s Diversity Council and of its National Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships; as an elected member to the national Sierra Club board of directors; and as president of the Sierra Club from 2015-2017. Mair became instrumental in creating the Sierra Club’s new Department of Equity, Inclusion, and Justice. Today, he continues to serve as a nationally elected member to the Sierra Club’s board of directors.
For his Sierra Club Oral History Project interview, Mair insisted we conduct his first interview sessions at the Hagood Mill Historic Site in Pickens County, South Carolina, in part to connect his family’s heritage of enslavement, emancipation, and environmental stewardship there to the life of Confederate slave-owner, Sierra Club co-founder, and UC Berkeley professor Joseph LeConte. (In November 2020, UC Berkeley officially removed the name LeConte Hall from its Physics Department building on campus.) According to a historic marker at the Hagood Mill Historic Site, the mill was reconstructed in 1845 by James Hagood, a prominent “planter and merchant” in South Carolina, who served in the state’s House of Representatives. Nothing at the Hagood Mill Historic Site mentioned how Hagood’s money and influence derived from his family’s chattel enslavement of humans, including Aaron Mair’s ancestors. The Mill’s construction occurred shortly after the birth in 1844 of Zion McKenzie, Mair’s great-great maternal grandfather whom the Hagood family enslaved. During his time as Sierra Club president, Mair made that discovery of who, exactly, had enslaved his family after years of deep genealogical research. Documents and photographs from Mair’s genealogical research and his years of activism can be found in the appendix to his oral history.
Before Mair and I began recording his first interview session, he showed me another unaccounted legacy of his family’s history at the Hagood Mill Historic Site. Together, Mair and I visited the “slave section” of the Hagood cemetery in an unkept pocket of land directly next to the well maintained Hagood family cemetery. In contrast to the Hagood family’s ornate headstones and sarcophagi, replete with crosses for Confederate veterans and bounded by a wrought-iron fence, the graves of Mair’s enslaved ancestors were barely noticeable among the fallen leaves. They were marked only by unhewn river rocks set slightly askew as nameless headstones. In that moment, Mair spoke solemnly about the generations of lives lost to slavery, about its ongoing aftereffects, and about the power of public memorials, especially the impact of what is not memorialized.
Mair then pointed to a nearby collection of large stones stacked against a tree to form a roughshod alter. He named the alter as the site of the first Golden Grove Church, the later iterations of which Mair and his family still attend today. Mair spoke then about the importance of faith for his family, and he offered up a prayer before we returned to the Hagood Mill to begin his oral history. Much of Mair’s first interview that day recounted the evolution of his enslaved ancestors’ emancipation from human dominion to their sustainable stewardship of the land where, today, the homes of his South Carolina relatives and the Golden Grove Baptist Church still stand. Those stories about Mair’s ancestors helped to contextualize his own conceptions of environmental responsibility, which later inspired his pioneering work in environmental justice and his leadership within the Sierra Club.
Mair and I completed his final oral history sessions in Albany, New York, in the historic and majority Black neighborhood of Arbor Hill where Mair lived and raised his daughters for many years. During his interviews in Albany, Mair shared stories of his intellectual awakenings in college, the beginnings of his civic and environmental activism in Albany, his pioneering work in the environmental justice movement, and his more-than-twenty-years of effort to help the Sierra Club build bridges across the civil rights, labor rights, and environmental rights movements. Just down the street from one of our interview locations, Mair pointed out the ominous smokestacks rising up from what once was the ANSWERS solid waste incinerator. Mair’s decade-long battle to stop that incinerator from spewing toxic ash onto his family and community changed his life. In the process, Mair became active on so many issues in Albany that it proved impossible for us to record all those stories. However, the patterns I saw in his activism included reclaiming open space for public use, demanding equal treatment by law, ensuring his community’s political voice was heard, fighting toxic pollution, and seeking just recompense from those who’ve done wrong. In many ways, Aaron Mair’s life history, and that of his family, reflect the Sierra Club’s own increased awareness and historical evolution to better incorporate equity, inclusion, and justice in its environmental efforts.
On our final day together, during his lunch break, Mair met me in the Helderberg Mountains just outside of Albany. A light snow blanketed the ground as we walked across the escarpment and looked over the Hudson Valley. The rock and fossil records at the Helderberg Escarpment are so extensive and well-exposed that the site became pivotal to the study of North American geology in the early nineteenth century. Charles Lyell, the foremost geologist of that era, read from his home in England the newest research then done on those rocks just outside of Albany. When Charles Darwin read Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33), it helped Darwin conceive of evolution as a slow process in which small changes gradually accumulate over time. While at the Helderberg Escarpment, Mair reiterated how, in the mid-nineteenth century, Joseph LeConte—a co-founder of Sierra Club in 1892 and a former slave-owner from South Carolina—conducted geological research at that very site with Harvard geologist and white supremacist Louis Agassiz. More than once that week, Aaron suggested how his recent presidency of the Sierra Club, when contextualized by his own life and heritage—including his family’s history of enslavement and emancipation—signified a kind of evolution for the Club, perhaps for the broader environmental movement. Hopefully, both. Mair and I concluded his oral history that evening with an epic interview session that lasted seven hours. We emerged to find Albany blanketed in four inches of fresh snow.
By the time I landed back in San Francisco the following day, the then-deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s history, the Camp Fire, had already decimated the town of Paradise and, over the next week, continued scorching some 240 square miles of land, taking with it many people’s lives and livelihoods. Ash from that horrific fire rained down on my wife, myself, and our one-year-old daughter in Sonoma County, even though we lived more than 150 miles from the inferno. Smoke from the blaze made the Bay Area’s air quality the worst of any place on the planet and rose to levels federally designated as dangerous. The hazardous air and unavoidable soot falling on my family made me think of Mair’s efforts to stop the ANSWERS incinerator from raining toxic ash on his children. And it reminded me how current Sierra Club campaigns against climate change are, in some ways, efforts toward climate justice for us all, but especially for our children and Earth’s future generations.
Aaron Mair’s oral history is part of the Sierra Club Oral History Project, a longstanding partnership between the Sierra Club and the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library that began soon after the first Earth Day in 1970. For fifty years now, the Oral History Center has partnered with the Sierra Club to produce, preserve, and post for free online an unprecedented testimony of engagement in and on behalf of the environment, as told by well over one hundred volunteer leaders and staff members active in the Club for more than a century. However, few of those interviews in the Sierra Club Oral History Project share stories of the Club’s evolution toward environmental justice. The publication of Mair’s interview begins to fill that lacuna, and I hope we can record more powerful stories from Sierra Club members and staff leaders who, similarly, helped move the Club on issues of environmental justice. In his interview, Mair revealed how his life experiences and ancestry intersected with the Sierra Club’s evolving efforts on diversity, inclusion, and justice. Many more stories from that journey need to be shared. I’m deeply grateful Aaron Mair shared his story with me.
— Roger Eardley-Pryor, PhD
You can read Aaron Mair’s oral history here:
Aaron Mair, “Aaron Mair: Sierra Club President 2015-2017, on Heritage, Stewardship, and Environmental Justice” conducted by Roger Eardley-Pryor in 2018, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2020.
For related work in the Oral History Center’s renewed Sierra Club Oral History Project:
See our oral history of Michele Perrault, who became the first female president of the Sierra Club in its modern era, twice elected as national president from 1984 to 1986 and from 1993 to 1994.
See this post on Intersectional Progress through Women in the Sierra Club, which highlights research by Ella Griffith (UC Berkeley Class of 2020) on “Sierra Club Women” — an annotated bibliography of women’s oral histories conducted between 1973 and 2018 for the Sierra Club Oral History Project.
Michael R. Schilling is a chemist and the head of Materials Characterization in the Science Department at the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), which works internationally to advance conservation practices in the visual arts—broadly interpreted to include objects, collections, architecture, and sites. Since joining the GCI in 1983, Schilling worked on two of the GCI’s flagship world-heritage-site conservation projects: the 3,200-year-old wall paintings in the Tomb of Queen Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens, near Luxor, Egypt; as well as Buddhist paintings in Cave 85 of the Mogao Grottoes located along the ancient Silk Road caravan routes in northwestern China. More recently, Schilling has specialized in developing and teaching new and complex instrumental methods for analyzing the chemistry of materials used by artists and art conservators—from the chemicals in Willem de Kooning’s paints, to the different kinds of plastics in Walt Disney’s animation cels, to the various species of tree saps used in Asian lacquers that were then applied to wood on 18th-century French furniture.
Throughout his oral history, Schilling shared lively stories from his career as a chemist in all three of the GCI’s historic locations while also discussing his family background, his education, the influence of key mentors, as well as the importance of his Christian faith to his marriage and fatherhood of two children. Schilling addressed how he reconciles his Christian faith with his career as a research scientist and rejects the notion of an inherent conflict between science and religion. Schilling’s oral history, which recorded nine hours of dialog across four interview sessions all conducted in April 2019, produced a 234-page transcript that includes an appendix with family photographs and images from Schilling’s work in the GCI.
Michael R. Schilling was born on December 4, 1957 in Los Angeles, California, where he has lived his entire life. Schilling was the first in his family to complete college and earned both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Chemistry at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Schilling married Cherrie Carr in 1982, and they welcomed to the world their children Nicolas and Kate in 1985 and 1988, respectively. In 1983, Schilling began work in the GCI as an Assistant Scientist. He remains the only Getty staff member who worked in all three GCI locations: at the Getty Villa laboratory near Malibu; at the Marina del Rey facility near Venice Beach; and now at the beautiful Getty Center in the Brentwood hills, which includes the GCI’s Materials Characterization laboratory that Schilling now oversees.
In addition to detailing the history of art and its curation for the Getty Trust Oral History Project, Schilling’s interview contributes to the Oral History Center’s vast collection on science and technology. In particular, Schilling described—in accessible layman’s terms—his creative use of pyrolysis–gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (or Py-GC/MS), which rapidly heats a sample to produce small molecules that are then separated and identified by their weight. Schilling outlined a few high-profile examples from his Py-GC/MS process development, including the chemical analysis and therefore improved preservation of aged and peeling Walt Disney animation cels; the analysis of modern paints, particularly those mixed by Dutch-American artist Willem de Kooning for his abstract expressionist works; and especially Schilling’s contributions to new and minimally invasive methods for identifying and analyzing the surprising diversity of tree saps used in Asian lacquers for wood that French furniture-makers adored in the 1700s. The latter project for analyzing Asian lacquers has garnered Schilling and his colleagues international renown from curators and conservation scientists in leading art institutions around the world, from Paris to Beijing.
As a conservation scientist, Schilling discussed the intricate analysis tools he assembled to help interpret Py-GC/MS data for his tripart collaborations with art conservators and with art historians/curators. During his oral history interview, Schilling likened their tripart work in cultural heritage to a three-legged stool:
“Curators and art historians are one leg of the stool. They understand the artist, the environment that he or she was in, attitudes and motives and meanings, the life story of the artist, and traumas that artists go through that affect the art that they make. … What they contribute, then, provides incredible depth and breadth to a study of a particular artist. … [The] Conservator, then, is—they’re artists in their own right, they’re studio artists. They work to preserve, clean, protect works of art. That’s their job. … [They] try out potential cleaning methods, treatment methods, dirt removal—things like that. Then again, they need to know—to do the best job—they need to know the chemistry of what it is that they’re treating. That’s when they come to conservation scientists like me.
Art history, conservation, conservation science—we all work together to understand cultural heritage better. We’re each bringing our own unique backgrounds and perspectives and points of view to bear when we’re sitting in front of a work of art, saying ‘Let’s understand it better.’ … So, understanding the art and how it was created, why it was created, where it was created, for what reason is important. Understanding how it’s changed, what its chemistry is, what’s happening right at the surface where a lot of the conservation treatments happen—that’s necessary in order to come up with and devise a safe and ethical treatment that can be applied to protect it, and restore some of its original appearance, make it more durable, last longer for future generations. You need all of that knowledge to really tell the entire story of an object or an artifact.”
We are very pleased to now publish Michael R. Schilling’s oral history. Many thanks to the J. Paul Getty Trust, which partnered with the Oral History Center in 2015 to establish the ongoing Getty Trust Oral History Project. This joint venture is part of the Getty’s broader mission to expand knowledge and appreciation for art. One of several foci of the Getty Trust Oral History Project features interviews with longtime Getty staff members, art conservators, as well as trustees who made significant contributions to the field and had an impact on the direction of the Getty Trust, often at pivotal moments. Michael Schilling exemplifies a longtime Getty staff member who continues to make significant contributions to his field of conservation science.
You can read Michael Schilling’s interview here:
Michael R. Schilling, “Michael R. Schilling: Chemical Analysis of Art at the Getty Conservation Institute” conducted by Roger Eardley-Pryor in 2019, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, under the auspices of the J. Paul Getty Trust, 2020.
— Roger Eardley-Pryor, Ph.D.
Alexis T. Bell — new oral history release
Alexis T. Bell is the Dow Professor of Sustainable Chemistry in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry. At Berkeley, Bell became an internationally recognized leader in heterogeneous catalysis and chemical-reaction engineering who helped pioneer the development and application of spectroscopic methods to elucidate catalytic processes, as well as the application of experimental methods in combination with theoretical methods. Bell’s extensive oral history—recorded over fifteen hours in seven different interview sessions—produced a 423-page transcript with appendices that feature family photographs and historic documents from Bell’s career.
Along with thorough coverage of his scientific research, Bell shared fascinating stories about his family’s Russian ancestry, including both his parent’s separately fleeing the Soviet Revolution to ultimately meet and settle in New York City, as well as discussions on writing shared with Bell’s uncle, the Russian-born French novelist Henri Troyat. Bell’s early interview sessions also recount his education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the early-to-mid-1960s, along with the historic evolution of chemical engineering as an academic discipline. In rich detail over several interview sessions, Bell discussed his collaborations and scientific research in four thematic areas: reaction engineering of plasma processes; heterogeneous catalysis research on new materials and energy resources; multi-technique catalysis studies in structure-property relations; and applications of theory to catalysis. Bell then shared his extensive administrative career at UC Berkeley, which included twice chairing his own department, serving as dean of the College of Chemistry, as well as chairing various committees in UC Berkeley’s Academic Senate. In his final interview session, Alex—as he is known to friends and colleagues—discussed his personal life as a father and a husband.
Alexis T. Bell was born on October 16, 1942 in New York City as the only child to immigrant parents who taught Bell to speak and read Russian fluently—a skill that, as noted below, later helped launch his now-storied career in catalysis. Bell grew up in midtown Manhattan and attended McBurney School, where Bell further fostered a burgeoning interest in science. He then studied chemical engineering at MIT, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1964 and his PhD in 1967. Just prior to completing his dissertation, on a chance visit to UC Berkeley during a cross-country road trip, Bell introduced himself to faculty in what was then simply called the Department of Chemical Engineering. Soon thereafter, in 1967, he accepted their offer to join the faculty where he has remained his entire career. In 1975, Bell became—and remains—a Principal Investigator in the Chemical Sciences Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He has since been elected as a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences in the United States. And his collaborations in catalysis with Russian (then Soviet) scientists starting in 1974 and with Chinese scientists beginning in 1982 eventually earned his selection by the Chinese Academy of Science as an Einstein Professor and his award as an Honorary Professor of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
An important through-line in Bell’s oral history is how it provides human context to the significant scientific contributions he has made, particularly Bell’s steady progress to produce an exquisitely detailed understanding of how complex chemical reactions occurring on the surface of heterogeneous catalysts proceed and are related to the composition and structure of that catalyst. Throughout his oral history, Bell discussed not only his technological innovations and experimental observations, but also his social networks of collaboration and the ways in which funding shaped both the content and processes of his knowledge production. For instance, Bell’s application in the early 1990s of experimental methods in combination with theoretical methods is now used by virtually all practitioners of catalysis science today; and here, Bell discusses with whom and how that work evolved. Additionally, Bell explains how various funding streams—like public research monies from the U.S. Department of Energy versus corporate research funding from BP (British Petroleum)—differently catalyzed the kinds of questions he could ask and the ways he could pursue scientific answers. As Bell explained, “I’ve learned—and I’m sure many other people who have done science and engineering have learned—that scientific activities don’t tell you what questions to ask. They give you answers, or partial answers, but the questions to ask are part of the human process.” Similarly, Bell’s discussion of his career in University administration while maintaining an active research program outlines how internal and external dynamics, as well as human and non-human forces, all shape the academic work and social evolution of UC Berkeley itself.
At Berkeley, Bell has now dedicated over half a century to developing the discipline of chemical engineering, especially the field of catalysis, often in pursuit of increased sustainability. When asked about remaining at UC Berkeley throughout his career, Bell replied: “There has never been a place that was so attractive to me that I wanted to leave Berkeley. I’ve told many people that, you know, Berkeley is not perfect, by far. … But what remains constant are the people—the quality of the people. And that’s what brought me out here to begin with; that’s what’s kept me here; and that’s what will keep me here. I really feel very privileged to be a part of the faculty here. I tell everybody that being a full professor at Berkeley is the best you can do in the academic world. And the kinds of students we attract, the kinds of visitors we have, the fact that you’re, so to speak, at the belly button of the world—everybody wants to come to Berkeley and visit and see you and talk to you. You’re constantly engaged intellectually.”
In his oral history, Bell also shared the interesting story of how and why he first began catalysis research in the early 1970s—a story that further reveals the “human process” and the social contexts of his science. Today, Bell is a world-renowned expert in heterogeneous catalysis. But when he first joined Berkeley’s faculty in 1967, his initial research focused on plasma chemistry, not catalysis. As a new faculty specialist in plasma chemistry, Bell received mentorship from elder chemical engineering faculty like Charles Tobias and Gene Petersen. In the early 1970s, Petersen approached Bell with an opportunity to use some additional research funding left over from an early Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant. The only catch with the funding was the research must be done on catalysis. Not wanting to turn down money for research, Bell recalled asking, “‘What do I know about catalysis?’ Well, virtually nothing. Never worked in the area. But I had, as a graduate student, done these translations of papers from Russian to English for Bill Koch.”
Earlier, in the mid-1960s, Bell and William Koch (the brother of those other well-known Koch brothers) were both graduate students in chemical engineering at MIT. William Koch asked Bell to translate from Russian a few Ukrainian Chemistry Journal articles on catalysis. Bell did so as a favor, and Koch went to work on re-creating those Ukrainian experiments. But as Bell recalled, Koch “could never get the reactors to stop from blowing up, because he would use explosive mixtures.” Nearly a decade later, Bell dug up copies of his translations and decided to build upon them for his first foray into catalysis research. With the remaining EPA funding from Gene Petersen’s grant, Bell purchased a new infrared spectrometer and promptly began creative in-situ catalytic research with a graduate student named Ed Force. According the Bell, Force “had been an undergraduate here at Berkeley, left to work for Chevron several years, and then came back, which is unusual for one of our undergraduates to come back. He was, in fact, older than I was.” Together, Bell and his elder grad-student Force completed new research on ethylene epoxidation, which they then published in 1975 in the prominent Journal of Catalysis.
In the mid-1970s, Bell and Force’s catalysis research garnered attention from established leaders in the field. Gábor Somorjai, a specialist in surface science and catalysis in Berkeley’s Department of Chemistry, read Bell’s publications and soon initiated a cross-departmental collaboration with Bell that lasted many fruitful years. Bell’s initial catalysis publications also caught the eye of Wolfgang Sachtler, an internationally prominent chemical engineer who then headed catalysis research for Shell Oil Corporation in Amsterdam. Bell remembered how, in his own incipient catalysis research, “We were able to show that you could get selectivities above the theoretical one predicted by Wolfgang Sachtler.” So, when Sachtler came to Berkeley to visit Gábor Somorjai, Sachtler insisted on meeting Bell. Their meeting highlighted some of Bell’s core attributes: he remains a consummate professional, calmly confident and in full command of his intellectual abilities and achievements, even under pressure.
As Bell remembered it, “Wolfgang came to my office and started immediately challenging me on my interpretation of the data, and that you could get to these high selectivities.” For over an hour before lunch and throughout an awkward meal with other Berkeley colleagues, Sachtler interrogated Bell. “It was unnerving to be challenged,” Bell explained, “but I felt that I understood what we had done well enough that I wasn’t going to just cave in to authority. Why should I do that? So, I stood my ground, in a professional way, which didn’t please him.” Soon thereafter, Bell received and accepted an invitation to visit Sachtler’s lab in Amsterdam where, again, he received further cross-examination by Sachtler and, this time, several Shell Oil researchers. “I got a grilling in their home office, and again stood my ground,” Bell recalled. History proved Bell correct: subsequent research at Union Carbide showed the selectivity could increase from 67 percent—then considered the theoretical limit—to beyond 90 percent. So, what lesson did Bell take from his initial foray into catalysis research and these interrogations from Sachtler? Bell shared, “I took from it that if I’m going to stick my neck out, I’m going to get it whacked. But I have a thick neck.”
From his own telling, Bell’s now-celebrated career in catalysis began with an amalgam of interpersonal connections, generosity from fellow faculty, achievement with an excellent student, and influential publications that signaled new opportunities for the field. Stories like this throughout Bell’s oral history offer insight not only into the material and observable realms of science, but the social and “human process” of science as well.
It is with great pleasure that we now publish Alexis T. Bell’s extensive oral history. Many thanks to the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering—particularly current department chair Jeffery A. Reimer and former department chair and prior Provost and Senior Vice-President of the UC system Jud King—for their vision and generosity in securing funding for this important interview with their colleague. And special thanks to Alex Bell for his dedication to this project and for sharing wonderful memories of his life and his career at UC Berkeley.
You can read Alex’s interview here:
Alexis T. Bell, “Alexis T. Bell: A Career in Catalysis and University Administration at UC Berkeley,” conducted by Roger Eardley-Pryor in 2018 and 2019, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2020.
— Roger Eardley-Pryor, Ph.D.
By Ella Griffith, UC Berkeley Class of 2020
In the Spring of 2019, I began work in the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (URAP) under Dr. Roger Eardley-Pryor at the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library. Initially, I was interested in narratives around environmental justice and how this theme was, or was not, explored in the Oral History Center’s large archive of interviews with Sierra Club members, several of which were recorded over a half-century ago. The Sierra Club, one of the largest and oldest environmental advocacy organizations in the United States, has historically struggled with issues of environmental justice and inclusivity, and it recently publicized its reckoning with those legacies. My own reading through interviews in the Sierra Club Oral History Project made it clear that often, the female members within the Club have been the drivers of change on these issues. At the end of my first semester of work, the nuanced roles and perspectives of women in the Sierra Club emerged as the captivating focus in my URAP research.
Over the past year, as I continued to read through these interviews of women in the Sierra Club, I pulled out selected quotations and analyzed their content. The capstone of my work is “Sierra Club Women: An Annotated Bibliography of Women’s Oral Histories in the Sierra Club Oral History Project.” This annotated bibliography of Sierra Club interviews with women includes archival photographs and a 2D map that I created by tracing the backcountry hiking routes that several Sierra Club women took on some of the Club’s early High Trips. The thirty interviews I annotated reflect and unpack a variety of common themes that these women grappled with related to their work within, and adjacent to, the Sierra Club and the greater environmental movement. The core themes I identified in these women’s interviews include “Outdoor empowerment”; “Pioneering activism”; “Intersectionality”; “Women as nurturers and cult of domesticity”; “Leadership labor and gender”; “Proximity to male club members”; “Legislative process”; “Early Sierra Club High Trips”; and “Environmental elitism.”
As a woman and environmentalist, reading stories about triumphs and obstacles for these female environmentalists of the past was both exciting and emotional. I gained a better perspective on how far the intersectional environmental movement has come and what aspects of environmental inclusivity I took for granted, thanks to the work of generations before me. At the same time, I felt these themes reflected much of my own life in the present.
One of the themes I found in these Sierra Club interviews is “Women as Nurturers and the Cult of Domesticity.” Sometimes, historical gender conventions limited the scope of the Sierra Club’s female member’s work or shaped their motivation behind it. Women have often been pigeon-holed as the caretakers of the Earth and its creatures. As a recent UC Berkeley graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Conservation and Resource Studies, I have experienced people condescendingly categorize environmental studies as “an emotional science,” and peers explain to me that I am perfect for this work because I am “nurturing” and “motherly.”
Another theme I identified is “Labor, Leadership and Gender.” Several interviews dedicated an entire section to the role of women in leadership and bureaucratic positions within the Club, particularly how these women worked with and mentored one another. During my time at Cal, I was inspired by and worked to emulate the other powerful women and non-bianry leaders in our campus eco-community. Together, we uplifted, held accountable, and learned from each other by sharing resources, organizing and showing up for each other’s events, and working on centering environmental justice in all of our work. It is no coincidence that 5 of the 6 students selected to receive the Chancellor’s Award on Sustainability were femme identifying, myself included.
By far, however, the most relevant and consistent theme that I saw reflected in my own life is “Environmental Elitism.” Oftentimes, the women interviewed came from very similar affluent backgrounds. They were encouraged to explore the outdoors as kids, and they had the time and resources to do so. Those that did hold leadership positions were volunteers; they did not have to worry about missing supplemental income to support themselves or their families. And every single one of the women interviewed in the Sierra Club Oral History Project were white.
Before coming to Cal, I was passionate and driven to make a difference. I considered myself a capable, well-informed leader. Yet, I had never heard the terms environmental justice, greenwashing, or environmental racism. During my freshman year in the spring of 2017, the Students of Color Environmental Collective wrote and released a letter to the Cal Environmental community, calling out the racism and complacency of Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources and white environmentalists in their work. Without the proper education on these issues, I was bewildered and overwhelmed by this message. Over time, thanks to intentional learning through these and many more incredible resources**, I came to recognize my own privilege within this movement. My family owns land. My waste is transported far away from my home. I see people that look like me in high-powered environment-related jobs. I feel safe in the outdoors near my home. Now, with this ever-evolving understanding, I am listening to and reflecting on ways to better uplift BIPOC, especially women.
When I started this research, I knew there were narratives and analysis missing from the mainstream history of environmentalism. The annotated bibliography of women in the Sierra Club that I created highlights some of those missing voices. I am glad this resource now exists, and I hope people use it in the future. But there are still many voices missing from our regular education and from our understanding of history. Black and brown scholars, activists, and environmentalists have long been excluded from the narrative of environmental history and denied credit for their contributions. I challenge readers to focus on narratives they have not yet explored within the Oral History Center’s archival collection. Have you had the chance to read through the African American Faculty and Senior Staff project? If so, revisit the important OHC director’s column from February 2020 outlining other important Black oral histories in their collection. In particular, Carl Anthony and Henry Clark and Ahmadia Thomas are among the few oral histories that explicitly focus on toxins and environmental justice. Additionally, have most of the oral histories you have read been narrated by men? My annotated bibliography on Sierra Club Women is just one slim piece of a broader collection of female interviews. For instance, Oral Histories of Berkeley Women highlights some of the oldest oral histories in the collection conducted with women who have been a part of UC Berkeley’s institution since they were granted admittance 150 years ago.
Through my URAP experience, I have learned that oral histories provide us a unique and raw insight into the perspective of the past. Our task, as historians, is to illuminate and analyze all of these voices, especially those that have been left out for so long. But do not forget about uplifting the voices of the present. Who are we not listening to this very moment? Who is making history as we speak? And what will you do to ensure they are not left out in the future?
** A vast collection of papers, books, videos, and toolkits exists on the subjects of environmental racism and justice. Here are some of the resources that helped me learn about environmental justice: Dr. Carolyn Finney, now a professor of Geography at the University of Kentucky, and a former professor at UC Berkeley who was denied tenure, wrote the book Black Spaces, White Faces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, which examines why Black people are so underrepresented in nature, outdoor recreation, and environmentalism. Another one of my Cal courses introduced me to the report “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, 1987-2007,” about grassroots struggles to dismantle environmental racism in the United States. This report from 2007 revisits the foundational “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States” study produced by the United Church of Christ’s Commission on Racial Justice in 1987, and it further examines how hazardous waste facilities exist disproportionately in close proximity to BIPOC communities, while also highlighting the lack of progress in addressing this issue since the first report, now over three decades old. Finally, the EPA created EJSCREEN: Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool, which combines environmental and demographic data to visualize the intersection of environmental and public health.
—Ella Griffith, UC Berkeley Class of 2020
Ella Griffith graduated in May 2020 from UC Berkeley with a Bachelor of Science in Conservation and Resource Studies. From the Spring 2019 semester through Spring 2020, Ella conducted research in the Oral History Center and earned academic credits as part of UC Berkeley’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP). URAP provides opportunities for undergraduates to work closely with Berkeley scholars on the cutting edge research projects for which Berkeley is world-renowned.
Our narrators at the Oral History Center are often experts in their chosen fields of engagement—perhaps as a preeminent scientist, a pioneering lawyer, an acclaimed author, or an outstanding executive. These accomplished narrators cultivated their particular expertise throughout their lives, often in dedication to creating new knowledge or perhaps by revealing new ways of orchestrating and operating in the world. In American culture, we’re often encouraged to imagine these experts as singular actors, lone wolves who separated themselves from the pack to achieve their individual successes. Occasionally, that’s true. For some narrators, we could be forgiven for considering their advanced scientific knowledge or their expertise in jurisprudence as singular, sovereign, sui generis, and almost abstract. And perhaps the standard oral history interview format — with its focus on an individual recounting their particular experience — lends itself to seeing these experts as independent actors, perhaps even separate from society. However, in my experience this past year, my oral history interviews with experts have emphasized how human connections and deeply personal interactions provided the firm bedrock for these experts’ intellectual advancements and accomplishments.
Throughout 2019 and into the start of 2020, I had the honor of completing in-depth oral history interviews with several highly accomplished experts. These experts included the following people in order of when we completed their final interview session: Michael R. Peevey, an entrepreneur and former president of the California Public Utilities Commission; Alexis T. Bell, an internationally renowned scientist in UC Berkeley’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; Michael R. Schilling, an analytical chemist and head of Materials Characterization at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles; Robert Praetzel, a lawyer and conservationist whose legal battles helped preserve the Marin Headlands that are now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; Nancy Donnelly Praetzel, a graduate of UC Berkeley in 1953 who worked in the early years of the commercial airline industry; Samuel Barondes, a medically trained scientist who helped pioneer the field of biological psychiatry; H. Anthony Ruckel, a pioneer of environmental law who later served as president of the Sierra Club; Lawrence D. Downing, a lawyer and environmentalist who also became president of the Sierra Club; and John Briscoe, an internationally recognized trial lawyer with numerous cases before the US Supreme Court, as well as a published poet, historian, and restauranteur. Throughout 2019 and into 2020, my time with these experts occurred across forty-five separate interview sessions that recorded over 110 hours of oral history.
When I met these experts to conduct their oral histories, I frequently had two sets of realizations.First, absolutely, this individual is an expert and many of their accomplishments are exceptional. Yet, I also realized that their expertise was rarely something they framed as an individual accomplishment. The classic lone-wolf narrative of success simply did not align with the stories they shared about themselves. When these experts and I spoke by phone, when we planned together how to record their life narrative, when we sat face-to-face during recorded interview sessions, and when I listened closely to their stories, instead of hearing tales of purely individual achievement, I heard them share various ways their expertise was cultivated socially with the profound support or influence of others—dear friends, mentors, teachers, rivals, loved ones. Yes, these experts are all individuals with unique stories and perspectives to share; and at the same time, the cultivation of their expertise and their experiences as experts are extremely social, interpersonal, and sometimes intimate.
In commemoration of conducting their oral history interviews this past year, here are a few ways in which these narrators described the development of their expertise and successes as socially constructed endeavors:
Samuel Barondes formed life-long friendships with outstanding researchers and future Nobel-laureates at the National Institutes of Health. In his oral history, Barondes explained how his personal relationships helped launch his research career, where he applied the techniques of molecular biology to help establish the new field of biological psychiatry, which conceptualized mental illnesses as physical brain disorders requiring a multilevel approach ranging from genetic to psychosocial mechanisms.
Alexis T. Bell became an internationally recognized expert on heterogeneous catalysis, yet his initial research focused on plasma chemistry, not catalysis. Bell explained how, in the early 1970s, support from Gene Petersen, an older faculty member in chemical engineering, as well as collaborations with a graduate student named Ed Force, both played key roles in helping launch Bell’s now-storied career in catalysis research.
John Briscoe has argued legal cases before the California Supreme Court, the United States Supreme Court, and the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Briscoe credits numerous mentors that became dear friends who helped advance his career, including legal legends like Philip C. Jessup, Stefan A. Reisenfeld, and perhaps most importantly Louis F. Claiborne. Briscoe and Clairborne met as rivals arguing on opposing sides in the US Supreme Court before developing a deep friendship in which they later became law partners as well as godparents to each other’s children.
Lawrence D. Downing’s leadership in the Sierra Club included working with his best friend and fellow Club officer Denny Shaffer to help establish leadership opportunities for other volunteers, as with their advocacy of the Club’s Grassroots Effectiveness Program in the 1980s. Downing also formed international friendships with founders of the John Muir Trust in Scotland, and together they protected Scottish wildlands while promoting the preservationist legacy of Sierra Club founder John Muir, who was born in Scotland.
Michael R. Peevey forged strong social connections and collaborations throughout his career in labor economics, in government relations, in growing California’s energy industry, and while regulating it. As president of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), Peevey teamed with Republican and Democratic governors as well as members of the “Energy Principles Group”—made up of the CPUC, the California Energy Commision, the California Independent System Operator, and the California Air Resources Board chaired by Peevey’s friend Mary Nichols—to help make California a world leader in confronting climate change.
Nancy Donnelly Praetzel has deep family roots in the Bay Area that extend at least to 1893 when her grandfather, Ernest Clayton, arrived from England. In the late 1930s through early 1950s, Nancy Praetzel and her sister Genie hiked through Marin County with their grandfather, who would then paint pictures of flowers that the girls collected. In 2013, a family collaboration between Nancy, Genie, and Nancy’s daughter Annie rediscovered and promoted Ernest Clayton’s wildflower paintings so that others could enjoy these family heirlooms depicting California’s fragile beauty.
Robert Praetzel’s legal career ran the gambit from estate planning to defending protestors against logging old growth redwoods to winning the case that finally stopped the Marincello development project in Marin County. Praetzel credits his early legal training to exceptional professors in the “Sixty Five Club” at UC Hastings College of Law but most especially to Wallace “Wally” Myers, an experienced lawyer in Marin County who guided Praetzel how to build a successful and eclectic career.
Tony Ruckel won his first major environmental case in 1969, establishing an important legal precedent that ultimately enabled the designation and preservation of vast wilderness tracts across the United States. Ruckel recalled, “There wasn’t any guidance. There weren’t any directions. We couldn’t go to a casebook, or open a volume and say, ‘Hey, this is authority for what we’re trying to do.’” As a result, Ruckel and other Sierra Club pioneers of environmental law relied on each other to develop and expand their expertise.
Michael Schilling applies his chemical-analysis expertise to extensive collaborations with art curators and art conservators around the world. Understanding the surface chemistry of art materials, as well as how and why the artist created their art, are essential for devising safe and ethical treatments to conserve or restore art. “You need all of that knowledge,” Schilling explained, “to really tell the entire story of an object or an artifact,” and combining that knowledge requires teamwork.
All the expert oral history narrators I recorded this past year repeatedly emphasized the importance of their interpersonal relationships and collaborations in their own accomplishments. Their own stories about creating new knowledge and achieving great successes reiterate how knowledge, as well as material things, are the product of historical events, social forces, and ideologies. These narrator’s stories encourage us to understand the construction and application of expertise as a deeply social endeavor. Thank you to all the narrators listed above—as well as those from years past and those we’ll interview in the future—for sharing their expertise and for collaborating with all of us at the Oral History Center.
— Roger Eardley-Pryor, PhD
Earth Day turns 50 this month. A half-century ago, on April 22, 1970, environmental awareness and concern exploded in a nationwide outpouring of celebrations and protests during the world’s first Earth Day. That first Earth Day drew an estimated twenty million participants across the United States—roughly a tenth of the national population—with involvement from over ten thousand schools and two thousand colleges and universities. Earth Day on April 22, 1970, became the then-largest single-day public protest in U.S. history. The actual numbers of participants were even higher, as several universities, notably the University of Michigan, held massive Earth Day teach-ins during the weeks before April 22 to avoid overlapping with their final exams. From New York City to San Francisco, from Birmingham to Ann Arbor—millions of Americans gathered on campuses, met in classrooms, visited parks and public lands together, participated in local clean-ups, and marched in the streets for greater environmental awareness and to demand greater environmental protections. Even Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, who in the fall of 1969 promoted the idea for nation-wide Earth Day teach-ins, was surprised, calling the occasion a “truly astonishing grass-roots explosion.” And over the ensuing fifty-years since 1970, Earth Day events have spread globally to over 193 countries, making it the world’s largest secular holiday celebrated by more than a billion people each year.
But this April, despite years of planning for Earth Day’s fiftieth anniversary, the novel coronavirus—itself a world-wide environmental event—has disrupted Earth Day 2020 plans across the planet. While we cannot celebrate Earth Day’s golden anniversary as previously planned, we can commemorate it with recollections and lessons learned by those who attended and organized the first Earth Day events in 1970. The Oral History Center’s archives list over seventy interviews that mention Earth Day, according to the “Advanced Search” fields of our collection’s search engine. I’ve selected here a few memories of the first Earth Day from our Sierra Club Oral History Project, a longstanding collaboration between the Oral History Center and the Sierra Club, which itself originated shortly after the first Earth Day. These Earth Day memories shared by Sierra Club members begin with experiences in the streets of New York City, they include memories at the forefront of environmental law, and they conclude with events at the University of Michigan during the first-ever Earth Day teach-in.
We begin with Michele Perrault, a future two-time president of the Sierra Club, who in 1970 lived and worked in New York City as an elementary science educator. New York City was the site the nation’s largest celebration of Earth Day, which garnered nationwide media attention given that NBC, CBS, ABC, The New York Times, Time, and Newsweek were all headquartered in Manhattan. Perrault, then twenty-eight years old, taught in the demonstration school at the Bank Street College of Education, founded in 1916 by Lucy Sprague Mitchell, a child education reformer and, earlier, Berkeley’s first Dean of Women. For her part, Perrault shared during her oral history how she organized “a Bank Street program out in the street for Earth Day in New York City.” Perrault recalled, “we had our own booth, and I had the kids there … Mostly we sang songs and danced around and had some visuals and books that people could read or get, and we had some pamphlets from the [Bank Street] college that talked about it.” In the process, Perrault and her students joined hundreds of thousands other Earth Day participants in the streets of Manhattan. John Lindsay, the Republican mayor of New York, had closed traffic on Fifth Avenue for Earth Day and made Central Park available for gigantic crowds to march and celebrate together. In Union Square, crowds of 20,000 people gathered at any given time, with the New York Times estimating over 100,000 people visiting Union Square throughout the day.
Earlier that month, at a meeting of student teachers involved in planning Earth Day teach-ins in New York, Perrault met René Dubos, famed microbiologist and Pulitzer-Prize-winning author credited with coining the phrase “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Perrault, in her role as education chair of the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter, was then producing a monthly newsletter for environmental educators called Right Now, in which she recalled what Dubos emphasized for Earth Day. Dubos had “stressed the importance and need for people to take time to reevaluate what is needed for quality of life, to sift and sort alternatives perhaps not in existence now, to look in a new way at what the future could be like, and then devise plans for making it so.” Perrault added that “We, as teachers, need to ask new questions about our own values, about our own social and economic systems and their relationship to the environment, so as to enrich the present and potential environment for children.” (Two copies of Right Now are included in the appendix to Perrault’s oral history.) Less than a year after Earth Day, Perrault then organized at Bank Street College an education conference on “Environment and Children” and invited Dubos as the keynote speaker. Perrault recalled Dubos calling for stimulating environments for children that offered “the ability to choose, to have variety, to not just be in one place where everything was static around them and where they weren’t in control. [He] had a big paper on this whole issue of free will and being able to make choices, and how the environment would influence them.” Years later, after moving to California, Perrault took her own children on annual backpacking trips deep into the High Sierra where they could run wild and free, stimulated by natural wilderness.
Perrault was recruited to the Sierra Club shortly before Earth Day by David Sive, a pioneer of environmental law in New York, whose children Perrault taught in her science classroom. Another Sierra Club member and trailblazer of environmental law, James Moorman, shared his own memories of the first Earth Day in his oral history. By 1970, Moorman had joined the recently created Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, DC, an influential public-interest law firm. As a young trial lawyer in the late 1960s, Moorman brought two cases that became landmarks in environmental law, including a petition to the Department of Agriculture to de-register the pesticide DDT, as well as a suit challenging construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. For the pipeline case, Moorman pioneered use of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), enacted in January 1970, to demand from the Department of Interior a detailed environmental impact statement for the construction project. Moorman recalled how “the preliminary injunction hearing for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was originally set for Earth Day. The hearing got postponed. It didn’t occur for another two weeks. But when the judge first set the hearing, I said, ‘Holy cow! He set the hearing for this on Earth Day and he doesn’t know it, and the oil companies don’t know it. I’m going to get to make my argument on Earth Day. That’s fantastic!’ But then there was a postponement, and the argument didn’t occur until two weeks later. But it was wonderful anyway.” Moorman won his case, but Congress directly intervened to approve the pipeline by law. Nonetheless, Moorman’s injunction forced the oil companies to spend three more years and a small fortune on engineering, analysis, and documentation. The final environmental impact statement for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline stretched to nine volumes. Moorman’s intervention helped produce a safer pipeline that is still considered a wonder of engineering.
In the year following the first Earth Day, Moorman accepted a new job as the founding Executive Director of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (SCLDF), now called Earthjustice, one of the nation’s earliest and most influential public-interest environmental law organizations. Moorman directed SCLDF through 1974 and he worked as a staff attorney with the organization through 1977, after which he became Assistant Attorney General for Land and Natural Resources during President Carter’s administration. In his 1984 oral history, Moorman reflected on the importance of Earth Day for environmental law: “The fact is Earth Day came rather early in all this [environmental law] movement. We’ve been living on the energy created by Earth Day ever since.” Mike McCloskey agreed.
In 1970, Mike McCloskey, also a lawyer, was still new in his role as Executive Director of the Sierra Club, a position he held through 1985. In his first of two oral histories, this one from 1981, McCloskey recalled the Earth-Day-era as “a very exciting time in terms of developing new theories [of environmental law], and our spirits were charged up. The courts were anxious to make law in the field of the environment. There were judges who were reading, and they were stimulated by the prospect. They were eager to get environmental cases.” McCloskey continued, “what became clear over the next few years [after Earth Day] were that dozens of, if not hundreds, of laws were passed and agencies brought into existence.” Indeed, in the months and years following the first Earth Day, President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Congress passed a suite of landmark environmental statutes—including an amended Clean Air Act; the Clean Water Act; the Safe Drinking Water Act; the Endangered Species Act; the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA); the Toxic Substances and Control Act (TSCA) and many others—all of which have, thus far, avoided extinction.
McCloskey described Earth Day 1970 as an explosion of environmental consciousness that had grown steadily throughout the late 1960s. In 1968, fellow conservationists thought the best of things has already happened with the creation of Redwood National Park in California, North Cascades National Park in Washington state, and passage of both the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the National Trails System Act, all in that year. McCloskey recalled, “We at the moment thought this was some high point in conservation history and wondered whether much would happen thereafter.” When President Nixon came into office in January 1969, McCloskey and other Sierra Club leaders “felt very defensive and threatened, not realizing that we were on a threshold of an explosion into a period of our greatest growth and influence.” Instead of a plateau or even a decline in environmental efforts, McCloskey and fellow Sierra Club leaders saw the American environmental movement experience a “tremendous take-off in terms of the overall quantity of activity, enthusiasm, and support with Earth Day coming. … it was just an eruption of activity on every front.” But much to his surprise, with Earth Day in 1970, McCloskey also saw how many traditional leaders of the conservation movement were quickly “regarded as old hat and out of step with the times.” In their place, he witnessed how “people emerged at the student level, literally from nowhere, who were inventing new standards for what was right and what should be done and whole new theories overnight. For instance, I remember hostesses who were suddenly saying, ‘I can’t serve paper napkins anymore. I’ve got to have cloth napkins.’ Someone had written that paper napkins were terribly wrong, and colored toilet paper was regarded as a sin. But all sorts of people from different backgrounds coalesced in the environmental movement. People who were interested in public health suddenly emerged and very strongly.” One such person was Doris Cellarius.
In 1970, Doris Cellarius lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with her children and husband, Richard (Dick) Cellarius, a professor of botany then teaching at the University of Michigan. According to Doris, she and Dick were both members of the Sierra Club in 1970, but mostly for hiking and social engagement, less for activism. The extraordinary events surrounding Earth Day in Ann Arbor changed everything. Doris explained, “Earth Day came as a great shock to me because it had never occurred to me that the environment didn’t clean itself. I thought that water that flows along in a creek was purified by sunlight, and I guess I didn’t know a lot about where pollution came from. When I learned at the time of Earth Day how much pollution there was and how bad pesticides were, I instantly became very active in the pollution area of the environment.” In the wake of Earth Day, Doris Cellarius drew upon her master’s degree in biology from Columbia University to become a grassroots activist and environmental organizer, particularly against the use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals. Within the Sierra Club, she became head of several local and national committees focused on empowering people in campaigns for hazardous waste clean-up and solid waste management. In her oral history, Doris Cellarius reflected on the impetus behind her decades of environmental activism: “I learned at Earth Day there was pollution, so I think, having learned there was pollution, I decided that people should find out ways to stop creating that pollution.”
Fifty years ago, the dynamic events surrounding the first Earth Day reflected how environmental issues could rapidly mobilize new publics for radical reform and institutional action. Indeed, the small organization created to nationally coordinate the first Earth Day took the name Environmental Action. Denis Hayes, the then-twenty-five-year-old national coordinator for Environmental Action, announced on Earth Day, “We are building a movement … a movement that values people more than technology, people more than political boundaries and political ideologies, people more than profit.” This exuberance for a new kind of environmental movement, according to historian John McNeill, arose “in a context of countercultural critique of any and all established orthodoxies.” But, at its root, Earth Day—and the concomitant flowering of concern for Spaceship Earth and all travelers on it—constituted “a complaint against economic orthodoxy.” According to McNeil, “It was a critique of the faith of economists and engineers, and their programs to improve life on earth.” For new adherents to this ecological insight, the popularity of Earth Day’s events contributed collectively to “a general sense that things were out of whack and business as usual was responsible.” That all sounds terribly familiar today.
This year, on the golden anniversary of Earth Day, life all across the planet is out of whack and business as usual has come to a sudden stop. From climate change to the novel coronavirus to the deteriorating condition of American politics, a slew of increasingly complex and interconnected problems affect us all. But perhaps, this moment—like the one in 1970—offers a unique opportunity to think how we might begin things anew. Perhaps, as René Dubos advised on the first Earth Day in April 1970, we in 2020 can “take time to reevaluate what is needed for quality of life, to sift and sort alternatives … to look in a new way at what the future could be like, and then devise plans for making it so.” May it be so. May you help make it so.
Michele Perrault twice served as national president of the Sierra Club, from 1984-1986 and from 1993-1994. She became the first female president of the Sierra Club in the modern era, since it became a nation-wide and then international organization with a multi-million-dollar operating budget. Environmental education, protecting nature, and extensive networking emerged as key themes in Perrault’s life as an environmental activist and leader. Perrault’s oral history is the first interview in the renewed Sierra Club Oral History Project—a long-standing collaboration between the Sierra Club and the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley that has, over the prior half century, preserved the Sierra Club’s past through oral history interviews.
Perrault was born in the Bronx, New York on May 8, 1941. She attended the High School of Music & Art in New York City, depicted later in the television series Fame. After a stint as one of the first women to attend the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Perrault received her B.A. from Hunter College. Perrault’s Sierra Club activism began in the late 1960s when she was recruited to the Club’s Atlantic chapter by pioneering environmental lawyer, David Sive, whose children Perrault taught in her science classroom. Perrault quickly became chair of the chapter’s education committee and initiated a newsletter to communicate environmental information and share opportunities for activism, a practice she would replicate years later as International Vice President of the Sierra Club. Copies of Right Now, Perrault’s environmental education newsletter for the Club’s Atlantic Chapter, as well as a copy of her later International Activist, the online newsletter of the national Sierra Club’s International Committee, appear in an appendix to her oral history.
Perrault volunteered with the Sierra Club for many decades at every level, including as chair of various local, regional, and national committees. With her acute intelligence, deep curiosity, and exuberant energy, she honed expertise in a wide variety of issues: from off-shore drilling to solid waste treatment; from corporate fundraising to political lobbying; from the endangered tigers of India to the protection of wild places in Antarctica. In the 1970s, Perrault lead campaigns in Massachusetts against off-shore drilling and its on-shore effects, at one point garnering publicity for hanging dead fish from the window of the campaign’s headquarters. Perrault met fellow Sierra Club leader Phillip Berry at a national Sierra Club council meeting and, in 1978, moved to California where they were married. Beginning in 1981, Perrault won multiple elections to the Club’s national board of directors on which she served through 2001, including her two terms as Sierra Club president. Perrault also served as a board member of Earth Team, Green Seal, and Greenbelt Alliance. Her lifetime of environmental activism includes three U.S. Citizen Advisory Commissions under three different U.S. presidents, as well as appointment by the U.S. Department of State as a delegate to several Arctic Treaty Consultative Meetings in locations around the world.
Perrault’s oral history is the newest addition to the Sierra Club Oral History Project, an enduring partnership between the Sierra Club and the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library. Initiated in 1970, amid an upsurge of environmental activism that produced the first Earth Day and codified a suite of new legal statutes, the Sierra Club Oral History Project now includes accounts from over one hundred volunteer leaders and staff members active in the Club for more than a century. Varying from only one hour to over thirty hours in length, these interviews highlight the breadth, depth, and significance of eclectic environmental efforts in both the national Sierra Club and the Club’s grassroots at regional and chapter levels—from education to litigation to legislative lobbying; from wilderness preservation to energy policy to environmental justice; from outdoor adventures to climate change activism to controlling chemicals; from California to the Carolinas to Alaska and beyond to international realms.
Together with the sizable archive of Sierra Club papers and photographs also in The Bancroft Library, the Sierra Club Oral History Project offers an extraordinary lens on the evolution of environmental issues and activism over the past century, as well as the motivations, conflicts, and triumphs of individuals who helped direct that evolution. The full-text transcripts of all interviews in the Sierra Club Oral History Project, including this interview with Michele Perrault, can be found online via the Oral History Center website.
The Oral History Center extends great thanks to all narrators who, since the early 1970s, shared their precious memories in the Sierra Club Oral History Project. We also thank the Sierra Club board of directors for recognizing early on the long-term importance of preserving the Club’s history and its evolution; to the past members of the Sierra Club’s History Committee, especially its founding chair Marshall Kuhn; to special donors who provided funding for individual Sierra Club oral history interviews; and to the trustees of the Sierra Club Foundation for providing the necessary funding to initiate, expand, and more recently renew this oral history project. Much appreciation goes to staff members of the Sierra Club and the Sierra Club Foundation who helped make these oral histories possible, most recently and notably to Therese Dunn, librarian of the William E. Colby Memorial Library at the Sierra Club’s headquarters in Oakland. Special thanks, too, to all prior oral history interviewers, most importantly to Ann Lage for her more than three decades of exceptional work on this project.
I am grateful and excited to conduct new oral histories with leaders of the Sierra Club, one of the most significant environmental organizations in history. And I deeply appreciate the narrators, like Michele Perrault, who welcome me into their homes, who set aside significant time to conduct these oral histories, and who, in the process, share their meaningful memories of protecting the planet for all of us to explore and enjoy.
Roger Eardley-Pryor, Ph.D.
Historian and Interviewer, Sierra Club Oral History Project
Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library
A key theme throughout Michael R. Peevey’s life, which he narrates in this extensive oral history, has been establishing a balance between economic dynamism and environmental harmony.
In the 2000s, as President of the California Public Utilities Commission and lead regulator of California’s vast energy industry, Peevey combated climate change with policies that incentivized the state’s transition to renewable energy. In the late 1990s, his own incredibly successful start-up company, New Energy Ventures, offered such efficiencies in electricity use and cost that it secured contracts from major companies and organizations, including all US military installations across California. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, while president of the Southern California Edison utility company, Peevey spearheaded efforts for electric vehicles. And in the 1970s, Peevey balanced economy and environment by co-founding and directing a new political advocacy organization called the California Council on Environment and Economic Balance (CCEEB), made up of labor organizations, powerful corporations, and environmentalists.
Michael R. Peevey was born in New York City in 1938 and moved to San Francisco in 1944. After earning his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Labor Economics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1959 and 1961, respectively, Peevey helped pioneer President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier at the US Department of Labor. Peevey returned to California in 1963 to become research director of the California Labor Federation.
In 1973, shortly after creation of the California Coastal Commission, Peevey co-founded and became executive director of the California Council on Environment and Economic Balance (CCEEB), which was chaired by former California Governor Pat Brown. Peevey later helped establish similar institutions to balance environmental improvement with economic opportunity, including the California Foundation for Environment and Economy (CFEE), CALSTART, the Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council, and the California Clean Energy Fund.
Peevey became deeply involved in California’s energy sectors. In 1984, Peevey joined the Southern California Edison utility company, where he quickly rose to become president of both Edison International and Southern California Edison before departing in 1993. In 1995, amid deregulation of California’s energy economy, Peevey co-founded New Energy Ventures (now NewEnergy, Inc.), which rapidly rose from zero to $600 million in annual sales. Peevey and his co-founders sold New Energy to AES in 1999.
In 2001, amid skyrocketing electricity costs and rolling brown-outs, Governor Grey Davis requested Peevey come to Sacramento to help mitigate the California energy crisis. In 2002, after Peevey helped control the crisis, Governor Davis appointed him as president of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Both ensuing California Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown reappointed Peevey as CPUC president before Peevey’s retirement in late 2014. In 2017, Peevey co-authored the book California Goes Green: A Roadmap to Climate Leadership, which further details ways that California has pioneered paths toward environmental sustainability while maintaining its astounding economic dynamism.
In this oral history, Peevey discusses all the above events, as well as the following topics: his family background and upbringing; education at UC Berkeley; work in labor organizations; running for elected office; political advocacy on environmental issues; reflections on political and executive leadership; his career at Southern California Edison; market deregulation and entrepreneurship; the California energy crisis in the early 2000s; leadership of the California Public Utilities Commission; and policies he championed to incentivize California’s green-energy economy.
“Female Consciousness and Environmental Care”
(Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program, Spring 2019)
By Ella Griffith
Ella Griffith is a rising senior at UC Berkeley majoring in Environmental Science, Policy, & Management (ESPM) within the College of Natural Resources. In the Spring 2019 semester, Ella worked with historian Roger Eardley-Pryor of the Oral History Center and earned academic credits as part of UC Berkeley’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP). URAP provides opportunities for undergraduates to work closely with Berkeley scholars on the cutting edge research projects for which Berkeley is world-renowned. Ella’s research projects included analysis of the Oral History Center’s exceptional archive of interviews with Sierra Club members, which resulted in this month’s “From the Archives” article.
The work of the Sierra Club has, over time, evolved beyond outdoor exploration and advocacy for natural spaces to make marginalized identities central in its efforts. For my Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (URAP) project in Spring 2019, I began looking for historical narratives about environmental justice in the Oral History Center’s interviews with Sierra Club members. As one of the oldest and largest conservation organizations in the United States, the Club has been scrutinized historically for its elite membership and prior lack of intersectional awareness around environmental issues. I determined, however, that the Club’s evolution toward holistic inclusivity—environmental and social—can be credited largely to the fierce, wonderful women who played, and continue to play, a role in shaping the Club’s future. As such, the nuanced roles and perspectives of women in the Sierra Club emerged as the captivating focus in my URAP research.
As a young woman and fellow environmental activist, I cherished reading other women’s personal and environmental perspectives, especially on the challenges they faced and the empowerment they experienced through their work within the Sierra Club. The themes and issues that the women spoke on remain relevant to today’s gendered issues. Their narratives built upon one another, and in the end, I could not escape feeling that what remains, in the present, is me. Women today expand on the layers of work that earlier women set down before us. Women activists—environmental and otherwise—stand now where we are because earlier women were not satisfied with where they were. But the process of change remains slow. Through these oral history interviews, we can learn more about the work that has been done, to help us understand what is left to do. As a result, the Sierra Club’s developing scope of work on equity, and the narrative of its adaptation, is important in understanding inclusivity in the greater environmental field.
In the Sierra Club’s oral history collection, I found generations of women’s stories. These archived interviews with women reflect a development of female consciousness threaded through the common denominator of love and care for the environment. As I read more interviews, vibrant patterns emerged. Women in the Sierra Club spoke similarly on the themes of fierce activism rooted in family values, of nature as an equalizer, and about the role of women in leadership positions within the Club. Other recurring motifs were less empowering, such as inequality in resources, the cult of domesticity demarcating women’s roles in the Club, and perhaps a more abstract trend of women’s apparent value as interviewees because of their proximity to prominent men in the Club. But on the whole, women explain in these oral histories how fundamental they have been to the Sierra Club’s successes, from its earliest days through the present. Below, I briefly explain some of these themes and offer quotes from various interviews that directly relate to it.
Nature as an Equalizer: At its most optimistic roots, the Sierra Club’s founders appreciated the outdoors and the mutual enjoyment of exploring natural landscapes. Several older female interviewees described early twentieth-century “High Trips” in the Sierra Nevada backcountry as joyous outings where neither man nor woman was restricted to any particular role. Rather, all “outings” attendees contributed as part of an innocuous group that moved through the wild landscape. Women spoke of their physical endurance and the power their own bodies gave them—they led backcountry trips and wore pants before women were “supposed” to be leaders or wear pants! From the Sierra Club’s earliest years, hiking and an intimate connection to the outdoors has remained a means for empowering women.
- Born in 1897, Cicely M. Christy attended her first of many backcountry “High Trip” in the summer of 1938, at age 41. She recalled, “The winter of 1937–38 was one of the very heaviest snowfalls the Sierra has had. They had to change the itinerary of the high trip several times because we couldn’t get over passes. A great deal of our first week’s camping was done at 9000 feet, which is despised at any other time! But it was also one of the first times, the only time perhaps, that I really took a pair of boots to bed with me the first night out, to prevent them from being frozen solid in the morning.”
- Recalling tales from her “High Trips” in the 1920s, Nina Eloesser explained, “There was quite a sizable ‘mountain,’ they called it. We wouldn’t think much of it, but it was about six or seven thousand feet up, and it was called Craig Dhu, which meant the ‘black mountain.’ I used to walk by myself, because mother couldn’t. I walked all over that country.” pg 2
- On climbing Mt. Rainier in the late 1920s, Nora Evans noted, “There were seven men, and I was the only woman. I made it to the top successfully.” pg 6
- When asked in the 1970s about women attending early “High Trips,” Ruth E. Praeger replied, “Oh yes. There were always more women than men … but camp was very different then from what it is now. The sexes didn’t mix as they do now.” pg 8
Pioneering Activism: Many Sierra Club women pioneered the Club’s expanding involvement in various issues, from toxins in the environment, to the intersection of women’s health with environmental issues, to a greater engagement with environmental justice. The social contexts of gender roles often showed when some women spoke on their activist work. Many women expressed concern specifically for their children and generally on public health issues, which reflects a conventional focus of women’s activism. Still, these women nuanced their understanding of how complex environmental issues related to one another and stood at the forefront of pushing the Sierra Club’s involvement on these issues.
- Marjory Farquhar joined her first “High Trip” in 1929 and was elected to the Sierra Club Board of Directors in the 1950s. In 1977, when asked about racial discrimination in her northern Sierra Club chapter versus the southern chapter, she replied, “We were far more loose up here. I don’t really remember anything; I just remember myself once thinking, ‘Oh, there are no Japanese or Chinese here—I wonder if I know anyone who would like to join?’” pg 42
- Asked in 1979 for her thoughts on what the Club’s role should be “with regard to broader environmental issues of urban problems, the energy problem, overpopulation,” Cicely M. Christy answered, “All I can do is quote John Muir that if you take up one thing you find it hitched to the whole universe. I think that the Club can leave urban things to other groups, who are more likely to be interested in the urban things than they are in the outdoor natural things. I think that the Sierra Club’s main objective in life, and the thing that they can do best for this country, is the preserving of open spaces and the good air that will keep the open spaces. If you get air pollution you will find that your pine trees in the Sierra are suffering—well, there is not much good in preserving the pine trees in the Sierra if you can’t reduce pollution on the coast. You have to pay attention to everything.” pg 31
- According to Abigail Avery, the purpose of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Impact of Warfare Committee in the 1980s was “to point out wherever it’s appropriate, the connection between what is happening in this whole military buildup and the effect it’s having on the natural environment. Our traditional concern with the Club has been the natural environment. What effect is all this having on these other issues?” pg 23
- When asked in the early 2000s how the Club develops coalitions with diverse groups outside its traditional middle-class, college-educated membership, Doris Cellarius replied, “Sierra Club, I think, has always had really good sense about this. Any Club member I’ve worked with in the United States who’s working with people at toxic waste sites goes there to be helpful. We don’t go there to make them be members. We’ve never—this is just something Sierra Club does to be helpful. We want a clean environment, and we love to work with you. That’s continued to be the tradition of our environmental justice work.” pg 43
Women as Nurturers and the Cult of Domesticity: Women activists in the Sierra Club engaged on a variety of environmental issues, but sometimes historical gender conventions limited the scope of their work or shaped the motivation behind it, particularly with issues linked traditionally to women such as children’s health and “nurturing” others. This view of gender roles and subscription to them can be traced back to the “Cult of Domesticity” or the “Cult of True Womanhood”: a framework of gender stereotypes demarcating women as the gatekeepers of the home, the moral compass of society, and generally as nurturers of the public. In several Sierra Club interviews, women described their environmental activism with both overt and subtle explanations either of ways they felt restricted or ways they chose to engage in the Club based on these gendered stereotypes.
- Reflecting on her environmental experiences after her marriage, Marjory Farquhar said, “I will admit that my active rock climbing days disappeared, really perhaps for two reasons: one because I went into the baby-production business, and the other because of the war.” pg. 22
- When asked about the start of her activism in the 1940s, Polly Dyer replied, “I got involved in conservation by meeting [my husband] John Dyer on top of 3000-foot Deer Mountain [in Ketchikan, Alaska] … Conservation by marriage. I would have gotten into it eventually, I presume, but at least it was an introduction.” pg 2
- Abigail Avery became active in preserving national parks. In 1988, then in her 70s, she recalled how “[My husband Stuart] was the one who first got interested in the [Sierra Club’s] Atlantic Chapter, which was the only chapter in this Eastern area at that time. I remember going on trips with him, but I would go as a wife, you see … I hadn’t really looked at conservation. What I really was concentrating on during that time after Stuart got back [from WWII] was having the rest of my family. Really you cannot maintain everything. You’re not free to do it. So there’s a hiatus in there.” pg 4
- Doris Cellarius shared her view on how gender fits into the environmental movement and what women might bring to it different from men: “I think women just seem to care a lot more about—in the pollution area—about what happens to people, what happens to children. They think more of the long-term consequences of things, and I think they get more outraged that it’s all these men in the corporations that really just enjoy creating these chemicals and building these things that are problems. But I think they have more of an outrage that these things shouldn’t be done to the environment or to people.” pg 53
Leadership and Gender: Interviews with women focused on their work within the Sierra Club, and several interviews dedicated an entire section to the role of women in leadership positions within the Club. Women discussed the expansion of female leadership, limitations, and regressions. Many interviews explored how the narrator felt about their role and the future directions for women in the Club.
- In 1982, then 85 years old, Cicely M. Christy noted, “On the whole, positions of chairmen [of the Sierra Club Board of Directors] have gone to men until a few years ago, and then people like Helen Burke came in. … [Before the 1970s, women’s work in the Club] was just reflected in each chapter I think. I think people grew out of [that tendency to vote for men], rather deep laid, not exactly prejudiced, but just habits of thought.” pg 34
- In 1979, at age of 38, Helen Burke became an elected Executive Officer on the Sierra Club’s National Board of Directors, while also serving as Board liaison to the Club’s Women’s Outreach Task Force and the Urban Environment Task Force. When asked about women’s leadership within the Club, she replied, “The Club has, in the past, been a rather male dominated institution. I think that’s changing now. We presently have four women on a [National Board of Directors] of fifteen, which is roughly a little over one-fourth. I have some statistics which I can find for you in terms of active women on the Executive Committees, etc. Those percentages are going up. But at any rate, I think that the Women’s Outreach effort has an aspect of being a kind of support group for women within the Sierra Club.” pgs 3–4
- For ten years, Doris Cellarius chaired the Club’s Hazardous Waste Advisory Committee. In 2001, she recalled when younger that, “I didn’t feel any need to go out and arm myself as a militant feminist. … I was busy, and I have very little experience with women who had problems … But I really began to feel it when I worked with these women at toxic waste sites and saw that it was mostly women. I saw how the people from the agencies were mostly men, and they didn’t take the women too seriously. It never made me feel it was a gender thing, though; I thought it was more government oppressing the citizens and treating them like something in the way of getting their job done.” pg 63
- In 1979, amid national efforts to secure an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Helen Burke declared, “The more men see capable women, qualified women elected to the Board [of Directors], the more they will see that women are able to carry significant burdens, etc. That’s what women’s liberation is all about.” pg 15
More work remains, both for women in the Sierra Club and on this oral history research project. I plan to continue this research next semester to comb through more Sierra Club interviews and further compile an annotated outline of themes and examples. My goal is to organize this rich archive of Sierra Club women’s oral histories so future scholars and interested people can better understand the Club’s growth—in size and especially in scope—through the narratives of its female members.
— Ella Griffth, UC Berkeley, Class of 2020