This story was republished with permission from Ideastream Public Media.
Cleveland environmental activists and community leaders are remembering the legacy of Jacquie Gillon who passed away this week at the age of 65 due to complications from illness.
Gillon worked with a variety of agencies during her lifetime. She served on East Cleveland City Council, co-founded the Black Environmental Leaders association, worked on Western Reserve Land Conservancy’s Thriving Communities program and mentored 29 classes through the Neighborhood Leadership Institute, among many others.
Gillon’s dedication to racial equity, environmental stewardship and mentorship will have lasting impact, said Black Environmental Leaders association co-facilitator SeMia Bray.
“Jacquie was our heart, and continues to be so,” Bray said. “Our heart continues to beat as we continue our work in her legacy.”
Bray met Gillon more than 25 years ago after graduating from the Neighborhood Leadership Institute. She and Gillon maintained a friendship and together created the Black Environmental Leaders association in 2017 after a gathering of environmental advocacy groups. Her work brought people together, Bray said, and her personality made everyone feel welcome in the movement.
“So many people said, ‘Oh, I was Jacquie’s best friend,’” Bray said. “What we knew was, if you were with Jacquie Gillon, you were her best friend in that moment, and it was authentic.”
Co-facilitator David Wilson joined the association after working with Gillon at his previous job. Their projects aimed for grassroots and community green space development, he said, and Gillon advocated for the inclusion of people of color for decades.
“Jacquie was at the forefront in those efforts and inspired me to join those conversations,” Wilson said. “That was something that was very much in her DNA. Her God-given ability to be able to connect with people on a very deep and personal level is something that is really a testament to her legacy.”
Gillon is one of the founders of Cleveland’s current environmental advocacy, Wilson said. She spearheaded numerous projects, he said, the most memorable of which is the Garden of 11 Angels. That memorial, which honors the victims of Anthony Sowell, is projected to be completed in October of this year.
“Her presence and steadfast resolve in seeing that this project became a reality, really, it is and will be an enduring part of her legacy,” Wilson said.
Gillon joined the Western Reserve Land Conservancy in 2014 as community engagement specialist, later moving on to serve as diversity coordinator and eventually working with their Thriving Communities program.
Former Cleveland City Councilman and Western Reserve Land Conservancy Senior Vice President Matt Zone met Gillon well before that, he said, when she was serving on East Cleveland’s City Council. Over their 30 years of friendship, Zone said, he admired her ability to provide mentorship and promote inclusion.
“She was able to inspire people, inspire women, inspire communities of color to make change at the local level. That’s what I think about,” Zone said. “It was wonderful to see how she mentored not only the young women but the young men, the young staff within our organization. They were always just in awe of her.”
Gillon was part of the reason why he stepped down from politics, he said. When his current position at the conservancy opened up, he said, Gillon reached out to discuss the work they were doing.
“I was contemplating running for mayor or just leaving politics altogether, and the opportunity came up, they were looking for someone to take over this project,” Zone said. “I received a phone call from Jacquie Gillon. She said, ‘Hey, I heard your name was mentioned, you really need to consider this. I’d love to have you.’”
She was dedicated to environmental preservation and sustainability in the nonprofit sector, Zone said, particularly through a lens of inclusion. Western Reserve Land Conservancy is considering ways to honor Gillon’s legacy through a park or memorial, he said.
In addition to her work with environmental agencies around Cleveland, Gillon was a member and leader at Elizabeth Baptist Church in Slavic Village. There, she helped to plant more than 100 trees and acquire empty lots for development, according to Pastor Richard Gibson.
“She had a unique gift,” Gibson said. “While she can’t be replaced, the call is for the rest of us to do the work.”
Gillon served as the face of the church in many ways, Gibson said, and helped to connect local officials with church leadership to address community concerns.
“She touched many of us in a way to make clear the possibilities,” Gibson said. “And now that those possibilities are evident, we press forward.”
Gillon was named one of Crain’s Cleveland Business Women of Note in 2020. She also worked with Neighborhood Centers Association, Environmental Health Watch and Earth Day Coalition, and the Sustainable Cleveland Partnership.
Taylor Haggerty is a reporter with Ideastream Public Media.