Answering the Call

After eulogizing community strategist Lillie A. Estes, Richmond charts a path forward.

During the last two weeks of January, Lillie A. Estes had shared with many that this was going to be her year.

This would be the year a nascent Community Justice Network came together. The year another top-down policy of economic violence — called the Navy Hill project by Mayor Levar Stoney and other proponents — faded in favor of community “co-visioning.”

But Estes also shared another feeling: she was tired. And she was sick. Few, if anyone, knew how sick.

During the past week, her past has been covered extensively. Estes’ work as a community activist stretched from before high school to her sudden death at 59. The work included co-founding the Residents of Public Housing in Richmond Against Mass Evictions, known as RePHRAME, and the Community Justice Film Series, among many other initiatives. Her efforts also became shaped by the murder of her firstborn son, John Williams Jr. a few days before his 24th birthday.

The film series recently became the Community Justice Network. On Jan. 28, Estes asked the network to interview David J. Harris, managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.

Estes envisioned a blog post illustrating the relationships emerging from the network’s launch. More connectivity, more co-creation. Reached Jan. 30, Harris, a longtime Estes supporter and collaborator, offered ideas about navigating that energy.

“Lillie herself is really a model and a hero to me,” Harris said. “Keeping up with Lillie can be a challenge. But one thing that’s unbelievably consistent about her, that I encounter rarely, is her absolute commitment to certain models for creating community leadership. I’ve seen her step back and say, ‘I’m not going to make this decision, this is a collective decision.’

“A lot of people talk that way. But I have seen few people act that way as consistently as Lillie.”

In the preceding weeks, Estes made clear that the Community Justice Network was not moving quickly enough. But efforts were coalescing. On that Monday, Jan. 28, a road map had emerged: more meetings, more writing for Style Weekly and Freedom of Information requests, and a plan to convene a participatory budgeting process to seek alternatives to the Coliseum redevelopment.

It was so much. Too much for one person to organize.

“For [the network] to endure, some of the other people have to step up,” Harris offered on Wednesday. “It can’t be just Lillie, because people are going to say, ‘We need a community voice, let’s call Lillie.'”

Harris called Estes shortly after offering that advice. She did not pick up.

Estes was found dead the next day in her Gilpin Court home.

Stoney held his State of the City address that night, first offering a moment of silence to honor her. A few days later, news emerged that the Coliseum has been shuttered to provide an air of inevitability to the still-veiled redevelopment plans.

Those who worked with Estes did not have time for a moment of silence. On Feb. 1, the day after Estes was found, the world began reading headlines about a broken Virginia executive branch. As demonstrations began, the meetings Estes planned, the actions and writing taking shape, continued alongside preparations for her funeral.

Her surviving son, Tobias, says that looking ahead was his focus as well.

“Honestly that’s been one of the biggest questions on my mind since her passing: What do I do now with the things she did?” he asks.

Estes and her son often debated the merits of seeking elected office versus working within the community. She had run for mayor in 2016, in part to offer an example to Tobias of how difficult it could be.

“I wanted to be one of the people in power,” Tobias says. “Through talks with her, we came to an understanding and we agreed on many tactics. But I do want to seek office — to further her goals on the policy side.”

Tobias has been living in Arlington. While he’s undecided about what shape a run for office might take, where is not a question.

“Richmond raised me,” he says. “Richmond made me who I am.”

The tapestry his mother leaves behind began in Hampton. Her community strategizing began as a child. Her brother, Robert Eric “Buster” Estes, remembers she advocated for better uniforms for the neighborhood baseball team.

Tobias’ question resonates with Buster as well. Gathered with a small group of Estes’ friends, family and colleagues the night before her funeral, Buster says that once he’s done collecting the stories written about her life, he wants to help the work continue.

He motions upward.

“If she’s up on a ledge looking down on us, what should we be doing? What would we want her to see?

He motions to crowd.

“She was an organizer. That was what I hated, and loved, about her. I hated it because now she’s not here. I loved it because now, we’re all here together.”

Art Burton, a longtime activist who knew Estes for decades, echoes the sentiment the next day, at Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church. “Lillie was the center of the wheel. And now Lillie is gone,” he offered to hundreds, including Stoney. “Now we have to talk to each other. And that’s the way Lillie would want it.”

Here are some thoughts from a few of those who gathered, who even during their grief were kind enough to answer questions Style posed about what Lillie Estates meant to them, who she was, and how they plan to continue her community justice work.


Jenise Justice Brown, multimedia marketing and community strategy and execution

A time I felt safe or empowered with Lillie was when she insisted I tell my story and be featured as one of the 40 faces of the Virginia Poverty Law Center’s celebration of 40 years of advocacy. I stood next to [Gov. Ralph Northam] in a group photo and felt his inauthenticity.

Lillie inspired me to speak my truth in my way even when I think no one is listening or understands.

We were about to meet to finalize details for the March 2 screening, Hold the Phone.

Lillie changed my perspective on one particular issue by preparing me to help plan her funeral. I’ve always seen death as a transition from one state to another and limited my grieving so I could jump back into life. Her transition has me grieving while living life and watching it unfold as intended. The good, the bad and the ugly.


Omari Al-Qadaffi, community organizer

Lillie inspired me to connect with like-minded people within the impacted community that I come into contact with [and] to identify their strengths in order to collaborate towards common goals.

What people should know about Lillie: I called Lillie Nana because her presence was soothing and she had the wisdom that one would think comes from your grandmother.

My favorite quote from Lillie: Lillie would always say that public officials suffer from “cognitive dissonance” and “selective amnesia” that causes them to not remember policies that they have allowed in previous years that led to current ills in the community.

We were about to expand the work of the Charles S. Gilpin Garden Farm and connect it with the Food Justice Corridor.

One aspect of Lillie’s work I’ll continue: Push for community-based solutions to community-based problems.


Sonja Holt, domestic violence advocate and nonprofit leader

Lillie inspired me to be bold and lead unapologetically in my community activism efforts.

What people should know about Lillie: Lillie was a connector. She brought people together. She had a way of empowering, pushing and challenging people in only a way that she could. She allowed the passion that she had for the community and people to lead her.

One aspect of Lillie’s work I’ll continue: My partnership with the Community Justice Network.

Lorraine Wright, chief executive and director — I Vote for Me

A time I felt empowered with Lillie was Every single time I was in her presence. Her boldness and authenticity gave me courage to continue my fight against social injustice in the most unapologetic of ways.
Lillie inspired me to be brave, relentless and unconcerned about acquiescing to folks’ comfortabilities.

Something surprising about Lillie was she didn’t hesitate to drop an F-bomb or two if the conversation called for it. One of the things I most loved about Lillie is that she showed up to each and every space authentically and just by her example, gave others permission to do the same.

One aspect of Lillie’s work I’ll continue: I commit to creating, fostering, maintaining safe spaces for the impacted to not just be participants in the work, but direct the work.



Rebecca Keel, community organizer

A time I felt empowered with Lillie was when I was 19 years old, I met Lillie at a prison reform march in Abner Clay Park. She didn’t know me but I knew her. I knew she was the person to connect with to learn Richmond’s history and current movement work. I shyly introduced myself and she welcomed me with warmth. In that moment, we became friends, and eventually comrades.

Lillie inspired me to speak truth, even when it’s uncomfortable.

What I want people to know about Lillie: Lillie was intersectional organizing embodied. She worked across race, age, class, gender, sexual orientation, clique and comfort zone

We were about to have lunch and talk local and state politics.

My favorite quote from Lillie: “Don’t find yourself under the bus.”

One aspect of Lillie’s work I’ll continue: Political advocacy, specifically campaign work to elect reps who represent the people.


Ryan Rinn, executive director, Storefront for Community Design

What people should know about Lillie: She was the most fearless of all of my friends. Strong. Sarcastic. Wise. Patient. Hilarious. Empathetic. A true community teacher. She believed in people. She believed in people’s abilities to make their own lives better, and she did everything she could to equip them with the tools, knowledge, dollars, and connections necessary to do so.

One aspect of Lillie’s work I’ll continue: Holding space for community experts to rise into their power.



Monica Chambers, certified public accountant

Lillie inspired me to step out of my comfort zone. From working as the treasurer for her mayoral campaign to helping facilitate the small group discussions during the Community Justice Film Series, Lillie has me expanding my boundaries.

She changed my perspective on one particular issue by opening up my perspective on how government officials have targeted those in government housing without focusing on the larger picture of poverty.

One aspect of Lillie’s work I’ll continue: I will expect leadership to be inclusive. I will expect there to be a seat at the table for the folks for whom a plan will impact.

What people should know is that Lillie listened. She may not have always agreed with what I may have said, but she listened. Also, she valued all types of people. She appreciated diversity and inclusion, and at the end of the day, regardless of what craziness may have happened, we always seemed to share a hearty laugh.



Kristin Reed, Virginia Commonwealth University faculty and co-founder, Richmond for All

A time I felt empowered with Lillie was in a moment when everyone was insisting Coliseum redevelopment was a “done deal,” Lillie was there to tell me that we could fight it. The last time I saw her I shared with her how many people were afraid that if they opposed Coliseum redevelopment, they’d lose their place at the table. She laughed, and without hesitation said, “Kristin, we have our own table.”

We were about to strategize how to fight the coliseum much like she fought the stadium.

My favorite quote from Lillie: Poverty deconcentration is a human rights violation. She was very clear that unless we took action now, schools and transportation and public services would not see investment until after our city had been wholly redeveloped, permanently displacing working class and black Richmonders. She called this “economic violence.”



Donna Joyce, parent, advocate, member of the Community Justice Network and Southerners on New Ground

A time I felt empowered with Lillie was always. One time she told me “that gender work you do is phenomenal.” I cried right on the spot with her. She had a way of seeing me and others. It meant everything.

Lillie changed my perspective on one particular issue by helping me to understand the laws that created public housing and meeting people in Gilpin Court. Wealth building, by law, can happen in public housing if the letter of the law is adhered to. But it’s not. That is unjust.

One aspect of Lillie’s work I’ll continue: Community Justice, co-creating, co-visioning, co-conspiring.

Atari Gems, mental health advocate, radio host and content creator

Lillie inspired me to find a way to invest in my community.

We were about to [collaborate] on some audio work that would capture the voices of people around the city

One aspect of Lillie’s work I’ll continue: Making sure that the work continues on with principles she taught me.



Trey Hartt, project director, Performing Statistics

Something surprising about Lillie was [her] jewelry making skills. She poured a lot of creative energy into her jewelry under the name a Lillie Original, which was also the name of her Community Strategy consultancy. She was constantly encouraging folks to buy and wear her work, and often told me how much she wished she had more time to devote to that craft.

One aspect of Lillie’s work I’ll continue: We started the Community Justice Film Series together, along with Enjoli Moon of the Afrikana Independent Film Festival, in 2015. That evolved into the Community Justice Network, a network of individuals and organizations who are committed to lifting up the concept of community justice. This work lives in all of us. It’s not about a single institution. I am so grateful she left this treasure for us all to continue.



Valerie Slater, Rise for Youth Executive Director

Lillie inspired me to always stand for what is right, no matter the cost.

Something surprising about Lillie was her speedy, and without reservation, forgiveness of those who had hurt her so deeply.

We were about to “begin the work of more closely connecting our collective community work across the #CommunityJustice themes” — a piece of one of the last text message conversations I had with Lillie on Jan. 22.

One aspect of Lillie’s work I’ll continue: More deeply connecting the youth justice advocacy of Rise for Youth to the legacy of #CommunityJustice Lillie started and that now carries on in each of us committed to continuing the work.



Lafonda Page, “to finish what Lillie A. Estes started”

A time I felt empowered with Lillie was the first time I met Lillie two years ago. I was empowered by her, the hard work and sweat she put in helping others. I knew right then we was going to work great together. Lillie was a mother to me. I always felt safe around her when we was together. I could call or text her about anything. She never judged me, always gave great advice and told me other ways to go about doing things.

Something surprising about Lillie was she was not going to take a no for an answer.

We were about to are still going to make Gilpin Court great.

What people should know about Lillie is that she is gone physically, but gave me the tools I need to finish her work. I am Baby Lillie and ready for the fight of my life.


WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW — straight to your inbox

* indicates required
Our mailing lists: