Black History Month: Highlighting Black Sustainability Leaders


Throughout the month of February, we've celebrated Black History Month by highlighting Black Sustainability Leaders who have worked to create a greener future for our planet and our local communities.

With a wide range of sustainable careers, backgrounds, and expertise including youth employment, equitable food access, and plastic pollution; they've each made significant strides and accomplishments to building a thriving green city on a blue lake.




Jacqueline Gillon, David Wilson, and SeMia Bray are co-facilitators of the Black Environmental Leaders (BEL) Association.

BEL grew from a series of focus groups on water, hosted in Cleveland, Toledo, and Detroit by the National Wildlife Foundation and the Alliance for the Great Lakes in the fall of 2016. Representing more than 20 organizations, entrepreneurs and community activists, the BEL network of leaders and allies continues to grow. 

Working collectively to provide a forum for community environmental education which can serve as the basis of a deeper understanding and commitment to land, air, water, and energy issues that impact our economic bottom line through the lens of health, diversity, inclusion, and equity. The organization employs a distributive leadership model and embraces The Principles of Environmental Justice, The Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing, and values of engagement set forth by Blackspace. 

BEL sees a future where all people are represented and empowered regardless of, but not limited to, race, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, language, culture, class, religion, mental ability, physical ability, country of origin, and immigration status.  


*Update 09/01: Our office is saddened to hear of the passing of Jacqueline Gillon. We send our condolences to her family, friends, and all those she touched in the community. You can donate to the BEL in her honor.




C. Hubert Calhoun III, Arts & Culture Coordinator for Mayor Frank G. Jackson and the City of Cleveland. He is an award-winning, actor, playwright, director, producer, and filmmaker.


Each year Mr. Calhoun partners with Sustainable Cleveland and Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) to present an original green theater production for Tri-C’s annual Earth Month Celebration. Collaborating with Dr. Henry Young’s honor’s speech classes Mr. Calhoun has written and directed several original green plays including Journey to the Village Green (If you know what I mean), The Green Book, Dr. Greenfield’s Final Green Exam, and Tri-C on trial at the Green Court.


His award-winning play, The Mighty Scarabs (An East Tech Story) can be purchased online at Original Works Publishing or Amazon Prime. Mr. Calhoun's short film Van’s Ice Cold Lemonade featuring Cleveland Metropolitan School District students was recently selected for the International Black & Diversity Film Festival in Ontario, Canada.





Crystal M.C. Davis, Vice President of Policy & Strategic Engagement with the Alliance for the Great LakesDavis is a government relations professional with a passion for environmental justice and diverse engagement of Great Lakes communities.


In her current role, she develops and executes the organization’s regional environmental policy and strategy on Lake Erie water quality, water affordability, and water infrastructure issue.





Whitnye Long Jones is the Executive Director of Organic Connects, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Cleveland, Ohio, that engages youth and families in Northeast Ohio with outdoor recreation, environmental education, and career opportunities in the environmental field.  


Through a restorative environmental justice lensthe Organic Connects team aims to increase diversity within the green industry by operating programs that promote Justice, Community, and Sustainability. Experience has proven that relationship building with community stakeholders and environmental organizations sets the precedent for successful partnerships and outcomes 


Whitnye was the Northeast Ohio Coordinator for Let’s Move! Outside, a national collaboration between Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! program, the YMCA of the USA, and the U.S. Department of the Interior; was a contributor to the Ohio Environmental Council’s Cleveland Comprehensive Environmental Policy Platformis a Cleveland Foundation Out of School Time Cohort participant, and works with various community organizations to address environmental issues, improve engagement practices, and develop racial equity and inclusion policies. 






In 2011, childhood friends Damien, Keymah, and Randy requested a 1.3-acre plot of unwanted, disused land in their old Kinsman neighborhood from the City of Cleveland.


Strewn with household waste, car parts and other debris, this was no field of dreams but they could see past the rubble and refuse to the endless possibilities that lay before them. Each of them was uniquely suited to contribute their many talents to what would eventually become one of the most fertile urban farms the agricultural industry has ever seen in America, known as the Rid-All Green Partnership.

In their documentary, the Soil Brothers Film we see how friends on a mission can bring health and prosperity back to the people and community they love.






Shanelle Smith Whigham is the Vice President of Sustainability and Social Impact at KeyCorp, where she leads the firm's corporate responsibility strategy. She has 16 years of experience building cross-sector partnerships to solve one of the world's most significant issues: Climate change. With a sophisticated understanding of what motivates stakeholders, she has headed successful community-wide initiatives that center and lift under-resourced communities.  She has a background in community organizing and an MBA from the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. 


Smith Whigham has shared the stage with Bill Nye, the Science Guy, former EPA Chiefs, Christine Todd Whitman, and Lisa P. Jackson, championing the need to guaranteeing that community voices are heard and integrated into park development projects. Named one of Crain's Business Top 40 under 40 and one of Grist's 50 FixersShanelle's commitment to sustainability and equity continues to drive her work at KeyCorp. 


She is also the Founder and President of a community engagement consulting firm, Front Porch Insights, where they just completed a successful social media campaign for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District's levy, Issue 68.  





Erica Robinson Burnett, Director of Community Building & Engagement for the Famicos Foundation. In 2014 Ms. Robinson Burnett was the recipient of the City of Cleveland's Up-And-Coming Sustainability Hero award. She is committed to addressing health disparities in communities of color where healthy food access is limited. In this effort, she has created seven community and school gardens and has assisted in helping residents build their own community gardens. She has employed hundreds of youth over the past ten years teaching, them how to grow and prepare food.

Her work has led to the Famicos Foundation receiving a three-year U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that will connect gardening to two schools in the Glenville neighborhood. 





Ron Shelton, multi-media artist and curator/publisher at High Art Fridays (HAF), an online art magazine that uses the medium of art to bring attention to our society's social, cultural, and environmental platforms.


For the past two years, HAF has taken a close look at what artists are saying about the plastic epidemic and the toll it has taken on the environment. HAF is now a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit in which Ron is the executive director. HAF has received funding from both


Cleveland Foundation and Ohio Arts Council to bring awareness to our society about how plastic is threatening our planet and how we can help change this narrative. HAF recently published a catalog - HAF Connects: the sustainable art of plastics, which featured artists worldwide.






Darryn Suttles, Program Manager for the City of Cleveland's Mayor Frank G. Jackson's Summer Youth Employment Program. The program is funded by the City of Cleveland Department of Public Utilities and managed by Youth Opportunities Unlimited of Cleveland, Ohio.


After taking a temporary position at Y.O.U. Suttles saw the potential to inspire a future generation of environmental leaders from the inner city. What was supposed to be a summer job has led to a decade of working for the local Cleveland non-profit. He continues to transform the work experiences of high school students participating in summer jobs programs with the City of Cleveland. Suttles integrates STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) into the work experiences, emphasizing environmental stewardship and sustainability.


Youth in the program are exposed to non-traditional career pathways and learn how to connect arts and media with sustainability. Check out this music video created by his youth employees.





Evelyn Burnett and Mordecai Cargill are co-founders of ThirdSpace Action Lab (TSAL). TSAL is a Black-owned, Black women-led small grassroots business solutions studio based in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood.


TSAL was created to disrupt the vicious cycle of disinvestment and displacement that negatively impacts the vitality of low-income communities of color. Dedicated to prototyping creative, place-based solutions to complex socio-economic problems they are institutional and community organizers turning multidisciplinary research into evidence-based strategies, and activating “third places” to co-create more liberated spaces for people of color.


Believing that the future of Cleveland’s and the country’s neighborhoods depends on our collective efforts to transcend the limitations of the popular imagination and consider what will be possible if we insist on the beauty of forgotten places along with the value of the people who live there, and seize the opportunity to realize shared visions for an equitable and inclusive society - making it a reality.


Check out "Imagine Otherwise", a multimedia exhibition and city-wide initiative at TSAL running from February 18th - June 6th. 






Kimberly Woodford is an outdoor enthusiast with a passion for creating safe spaces for people of color to enjoy healthy experiences in nature.  Inspired by the lack of visual representation of people of color in our beautiful parks, the social disconnect and health risks that black and brown communities face, and a need to reconnect our relationship with nature that will lead to becoming better stewards of the environment and healthier communities she founded the Journey On Yonder (JOY).


JOY facilitates fun and engaging nature inspired hikes (at all levels) on local and national park trails as well as snowshoeing, gardening and many other nature and legacy inspired experiences. 





There are many more Black Sustainability Leaders across our city and we thank you all for the wonderful work you do!

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.