Carl Pope never bought the McCarthy era civics lessons. Instead, he organized a hospital union in Arkansas.
Carl Pope: I am Carl Pope. I’m the Executive Director of the Sierra Club.
I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. during the McCarthy era in the ‘60s. And I learned about government by reading the Style section of the Washington Post. So I never bought the civics class notion of what it was all supposed to be about. And I think the combination of the place and the time led me to think the only interesting thing worth doing was trying to change societies. I went into the Civil Rights Movement. I was in Arkansas with Freedom Summer in 1965. I organized the Hospital Workers’ Union in Boston. Or I helped to organize it sneaking into what was then _________ Hospital at 6:00 in the morning and sticking leaflets in workers’ lockers; terrified that the security guards would come and, I suppose, ask me to leave. I don’t know what else they would do to a college kid at that point. And then I went into the Peace Corps for two years working in public health. I came back and it was 1970, and what seemed to be happening was Earth Day. I really wasn’t an environmentalist. I mean I like the outdoors. I like camping, but I didn’t think of myself as a conservationist. And I got into the environmental movement in 1970, and 37 years later here I am.
Tthere were a number of influences. My parents were important influences. I watched their unhappiness as a lot of their friends . . . We were never touched directly by McCarthyism, but certainly a lot of our friends were. And so that left a very bad taste in my mouth.
I had a high school teacher who I believe is now the District Attorney in Montgomery County, Maryland who was a big fan of the Mexican Revolution; and taught me about _________ and all those guys. And then I think the Civil Rights Movement was a very early and present force. I mean Marion Barry, who later became the mayor of Washington, D.C. and got into various kinds of trouble, was at that point a field organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. And I remember when I was in high school we had a fundraiser for him at our house. So there was a lot of exposure to those kinds of things that I think helped shape me.
By the time I was, let’s say 15, 16 – I don’t think I had much of a concept before that – I sort of imagined I’d be working for the government, which I never have done. I thought I’d go work in international development. I thought I’d work for the UN. I thought I’d work for AID. I thought I’d work for the State Department. Then I went to India with the Peace Corps, and I was in a part of India that was very poor where it was just after a famine. People were dying, starving. It was pretty clear that the reason people were starving was because the people who were running that particular part of India at that particular moment really didn’t care very much. And yet I realized that as an American, I actually didn’t have any role in deciding who was running the show. And I should. I didn’t want to. So I realized I wasn’t cut out to be an ________. So then I had to come back to the United States and reinvent myself because I had spent what, by that time, seemed like a lot of my life. I had studied this stuff in college for four years. I learned Arabic. I went to India. I learned Hindi. I had like six years of my life at 24 invested in a foreign gig. And it became pretty clear the foreign gig wasn’t gonna work for me. So I was a little bit confused. And as I said environmentalism just came along.
September 27, 2007