By Ann L. Riley, Ph.D.
Executive Director of the Waterways Restoration Institute
Lillie Mae Jones was born in Mississippi on January 18, 1931, and died at her home in Richmond on Sept. 14, 2016, after many years of dedicating her life to her community.
Lillie moved from Mississippi to Richmond with her stepfather, who migrated to Richmond to work in the World War II Kaiser shipyards, and her mother, Lena Flucker, who found work in the U.S. Post Office in Richmond. Lillie completed high school in El Cerrito and later in life completed a master’s degree at Kennedy University. Lillie sought training in community organizing and benefited from training provided by the Saul Alinksy school of community empowerment.
She was employed by the federal Office of Economic Opportunity Community Action Program (CAP), a widespread program in the Johnson years that better enabled community activism for improving people’s quality of life. The CAP program gave her experience in identifying people’s needs and organizing people to pro-actively address these needs.
Lillie was active in the Coronado Neighborhood Council for approximately 40 years, and the council has a scholarship in her name. She was the President of the Richmond Neighborhoods Coordinating Council beginning in the 1980s, an umbrella organization for over 30 neighborhood councils. In the 1980s, she founded a program for Richmond youth, CYCLE, Community Youth Council For leadership and Education, which was run from the Richmond Police substation located in downtown Richmond at Harbor Way and Macdonald Avenue. CYCLE particularly served high school age youth, including those who needed support to complete school, find jobs, and get a new start after gang or criminal activity. Her community service brought her many awards; among them, she was recognized as a California State Senate Woman of the Year.
While many know of Lillie’s work for civil rights and community empowerment, perhaps some may not be aware of her pioneering work as an environmentalist. Approached for help by her friends Laura Hunter and Ivy Lewis, community leaders of North Richmond, she made a commitment to them to achieve the best quality flood control project for North Richmond. Much of North Richmond was settled by Kaiser shipyard workers who lost their jobs after the war, and were segregated by the real estate industry in an area with no stormwater facilities and no controls on the every-other-year flood damages from Wildcat Creek.
The 1971 North Richmond Model Cities Plan sponsored by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and adopted through intensive participation by the North Richmond community, featured Wildcat Creek as an educational and recreational and economic asset. The Model Cities plan called for protecting and enhancing the environment along the creek, but in 1982, the Contra Costa County Public Works Department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced their preferred plan, which would turn Wildcat Creek into a rocked, straightened, flood control channel with hazardous fast moving water, including a long, dangerous concrete box culvert next to Verde School in North Richmond, where children could be swept in. This plan violated the adopted Model Cities Plan, but the federal and county flood agencies told the community to “take it or leave it.” Lillie Mae pledged to support the community leaders who wanted the Model Cities Plan honored, and held a community workshop in which she declared that no government agencies or officials could put the community in a take-it or leave-it option.
Lillie assisted in forming a coalition of North Richmond community members, along with the newly forming Urban Creeks Council, including Alan La Pointe and Ann Riley; and her friends Lucretia Edwards and Barbara Vincent, who were active in Save San Francisco Bay and the Contra Costa Shoreline Parks Committee. To resolve great conflicts among differing interests, Lillie and the other coalition members became co-founders of the Wildcat San Pablo Creeks Design team in 1985, later named the Wildcat- San Pablo Creeks Watershed Council. This council required collaboration among all the federal, state, and local agencies and elected officials to produce a consensus plan to address the flood risk and environmental protection for both Wildcat and San Pablo Creeks.
In just one year, this planning process produced a consensus plan that honored the Model Cities Plan, overcoming a 29 year stalemate to provide an implementable flood reduction project for North Richmond. The project began construction in 1986 and eventually became recognized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a national environmental engineering model. The watershed council that resulted is the first known watershed council located in urban California and remains an active and effective organization addressing watershed issues 31 years later. Contra Costa County enthusiastically sponsors the council and has used it as a model for working in other watersheds in the county. In 1987 Lillie received a “Speaking Out Award” conferred by an organization from Marin County: Freedom to Speak out, A Root of Democracy, for her role in helping a community achieve its vision and not submitting to government agencies and officials who did not want to go through the inconveniences of changing plans to protect the environment.
In 1994 Lillie Mae Jones began serving on the Board of Directors of the Waterways Restoration Institute (WRI). This continued a collaboration between the CYCLE program and an organization that advocates for urban stream restoration, until Lillie’s death. Lillie saw the possibilities for the development of green jobs as an important new opportunity for youth before the term “green jobs” became popular. WRI and CYCLE sponsored year-round youth employment, job training, and summer jobs working with Richmond High School. Much of the focus was on continual improvement of the environment along Wildcat Creek, and sponsoring environmental education projects made possible by the more natural flood project. Partners in this WRI-CYCLE environmental program included the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Bureau of Reclamation. CYCLE youth were trained in tree planting, water quality monitoring, and soil bioengineering, a newly introduced method of re-vegetating streams for erosion control. From 1999 to 2002, the National Science Foundation supported a very innovative concept through CYCLE in which high school youth from rural areas in Idaho were driven in a van to Richmond and the Bay Area to experience the watershed and San Francisco Bay environment with local scientists. The Richmond CYCLE youth then joined the Idaho youth in the van to return to Idaho and experience wilderness areas under direction from scientists from the University of Idaho. The WRI-CYCLE watershed program sponsored student scholarships for many years through the Coronado Neighborhood Council. CYCLE also delivered a broad array of youth services including originating the Richmond Greenway trail project; sponsoring a juvenile justice court with a Contra Costa County judge; sponsoring safe activities such as chaperoned dances, field and camping trips; counseling services; tutoring classes; and referral services.
In 2003, WRI and Contra Costa County received the California Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award for the accomplishments associated with the Wildcat San Pablo Creeks Watershed Council. County Supervisor John Gioia and Lillie Mae were selected to receive the award on the council’s behalf. Lillie Mae accepted the award though her grandson, Randy Wilson.
In recent years Lillie continued her environmental interests by supporting the efforts of her granddaughter, Lena Henderson, who turned a vacant lot on Sixth Street in the Richmond Iron Triangle neighborhood into an urban farm oasis, complete with chickens, bees, rabbits, and gardens .