Richmonders are mourning the loss of longtime community strategist Lillie Estes, who passed away Thursday. She was involved in dozens of community justice efforts and consistently pushed leaders to address root problems and seek solutions from those most affected by economic and racial injustice. In 2017, she spoke to WCVE’s Megan Pauly at a housing summit about Richmond’s “absolute refusal to empower public housing residents.”
“That’s the challenge that we really have to look at,” said Estes. “Because a lot of well meaning people want to see that. But we don’t use the tools, and the laws and regulations that are afforded us to any net net positive for resident inclusion.”
Tributes on social media described Estes as brilliant, loving, fierce, forward-thinking and tirelessly dedicated to improving the City. Many called her a mentor and inspiration, who spurred a generation of activists and transformed community advocacy in Richmond.
Estes served on a housing focus group for the George W. Bush administration, on the City’s advisory group that created the Office of Community Wealth Building. She worked with Harvard’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. She started a Community Justice Film Series and was building the Charles S. Gilpin community garden in Gilpin Court, where she lived.
Estes was a co-founder of RePHRAME, Residents of Public Housing in Richmond Against Mass Evictions. They developed a tenant’s bill of rights, including one-for-one replacement of public housing lost to redevelopment; the right to return to newly built housing without going through a new qualifying process; and that public housing residents should play a role in decisions about their communities.
She also advocated for the City to improve resource delivery to low-income residents, pointing out the majority of Richmond poverty isn’t solely located in public housing. Last November, Estes addressed a panel discussion race and evictions, citing years of work that began nearly a decade ago with the anti-poverty commission, which she served on.
“We missed a lot of opportunities as individuals to solve our own problems,” Estes told the crowd at the Richmond Public Library. “So I’m hoping with the level of awareness that we are raising now, with some of the people who are at the table now, with some authenticity and some honesty and some ability to marshall some resources to solve some problems.”
Estes said she wanted to see community meetings restructured into work sessions.
“There’s a place for informational forums like this, but we have to figure out how to get this work done,” said Estes. “This is a place of love. I spent a lot of years cussing a whole lot of people out. I’m not in that space anymore. But that problem still remains, and it needs to be solved. And we can do this, I’m just a fervent believer in human problems can be solved by humans. But if I get in a room with 85 white people but I can’t talk about what their ancestors had done to my Black folks, that’s a problem. And we keep getting to this space, where we don’t do that. And we need to get out of that space, and get in a mutual space.”
In a 2017 blog post titled “Lillie A. Estes Defines Community Justice,” Massachusetts-based activist and author Jean Trounstine called Estes “a force of nature.”
“When she took the stage at Harvard Law School for ‘Justice Works: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Community Justice,’ it was clear that the term ‘community justice’ embodied her lived experience. At a time when Massachusetts’ advocates are hoping to get criminal justice reform passed and are depending on legislation to help transform lives, ‘community justice’ is an alternative, vibrant, and hopeful path towards achieving change.”
Trounstine also emphasized the stark reality for residents who lived in Estes neighborhood of Gilpin Court, who have a life expectancy of 63 years, compared to 83 years just a few miles away in Westover Hills. Estes died at age 59.
Estes goal was “total community transformation” which she said is a work in progress. “We’re not only planting,” Este told the Richmond Times Dispatch last Fall, “We’re replanting humanity.”
Audio segment is Estes addressing the crowd and panel during the question and answer portion of the November 29, 2018 panel discussion "Race, Racism and Evictions in The Old Dominion."