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Residents, Activists Gather To Celebrate The Life Of Lillie Estes On Her Birthday

People gather for a barbecue in the Gilpin Community Garden Farm celebrating what would have been Lillie A. Estes' 60th birthday.
People gather for a barbecue in the Gilpin Community Garden Farm celebrating what would have been Lillie A. Estes' 60th birthday. (Photo: Roberto Roldan/VPM)

Lillie A. Estes, the late Richmond activist best known for her advocacy on behalf of public housing tenants, would have turned 60 on Tuesday.

To celebrate her birthday, residents and fellow activists gathered for a barbecue at the Gilpin Community Garden Farm to celebrate her life and legacy. Estes was instrumental in getting the community garden built. The self-described “community strategist” and public housing resident was found dead in her Gilpin Court home back in January. 

Atari Gems, a mental health advocate with the Black Minds Matter project, recalled meeting Estes during her freshman year at VCU. She said Tuesday that Estes taught her the importance of amplifying the voices of marginalized communities.

“She always encouraged us young folks to pursue justice in a way that everyone is seen and everyone is heard,” Gems said.

The event was put on by the Community Justice Network, a hub for social justice organizers and organizations. The network grew out of the Community Justice Film Series that Estes started and works on issues that were close to her, like education, housing and job creation.

Many of those issues, particularly those surrounding public housing, continue to this day, says activist Kristin Reed.

“We’re still fighting for one-to-one brick and mortar replacement for public housing, we’re still fighting to prevent communities like this one from being demolished,” Reed said.

The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority plans to redevelop most of its public housing properties in the coming years, including Gilpin Court. The housing authority’s plans do not currently include one-to-one replacement of affordable units, opting instead for mixed-income developments.

While the Community Justice Network plans to continue advocating for those living in poverty, Reed said they also want to try and build a movement that crosses divides.

“We are also building a vision of cross-sector struggle that I think Estes really had a lot of leadership in,” she said.

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