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Black History Month: Honoring the legacy of Jacquie Gillon

The community advocate and environmental activist passed away in 2021, but her memory lives on through the many people and causes she touched.

CLEVELAND — A personal mentor to me and many others, Jacquie Gillon left a legacy of change in the city that she loved. As an activist, woman of faith, poet and environmentalist, the impact that she's left still resonates with her loved ones today.

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"She was trying to change the world. She was trying to change her environment. She was trying to change her community and she was trying to help build people," her niece Cydney Davidson-Bey said. "The relationship that I had with her as my aunt, I thought was very exclusive to me, but she was an auntie to everyone. She loved her people. She loved the potential that we could have. She loved the evolving neighborhoods. That's one of the reasons she moved back to East Cleveland."

With a passion for her community, "Miss Jacquie," as I always called her, became one of East Cleveland's youngest council members for three terms and went on to mentor generations of change makers through Neighborhood Leadership Institute and other organizations. But as Jackie's sister, Sharon Gillon-Simmons reflects, her passion for the environment, also came from her East Cleveland roots.

"We grew up at a part of East Cleveland that was near the railroad tracks. You could hear the trains and you could see the stuff that came off those trains. Hearing that as children, I believe that impacted her concern about the environment."

Miss Jacquie was among a group of environmental leaders who co-founded Black Environmental Leaders - an organization dedicated to providing a forum for community environmental education. Jacquie's ability to rally others around these causes was a gift as well. 

"When I walked in that room, I saw 30, 40 African-Americans who were doing things in this environmental space," remembered SeMia Bray, co-founder and co-director of the group.

And in recent years, despite declining health, Miss Jacquie's passion for the community and the people inside of it never wavered. 

"[Her last big passion project] was the Garden of 11 Angels, [honoring victims of Anthony Sowell]. She spearheaded that project, Davidson-Bey recalled. "Her colleagues would bring her the whole diagram to the hospital while she was sick, for her to see and for people to say, thank you for doing this." 

In October of last year, Black Environmental Leaders and Western Reserve Land Conservancy dedicated a new mural, painted by artist Antoine Washington, to Jacquie's memory - on the wall of Henry's Cleaners on Kinsman Rd. 

"When I look at that mural, it makes me feel good that she's in her community. It makes me happy that we're able to be in such a depiction with her because it's such an honor," her niece reflected. 

"We are yet to realize the full hand print she has on this world," said Mark McClain, Board Chairman of Black Environmental Leaders, and lifelong friend of Jacquie's.

"There is no measuring tool that can hold the expanse that is love Jacquie poured freely, and I also understand that, that which the creator gives to each and every one of us. We must pour it freely," Bray reflected.

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