We are deeply saddened by the sudden death of our friend and colleague, Bryant Williams, who served on the board of directors for Plant Chicago for over three years. A relentless networker, he was involved professionally with countless other environmental and social justice organizations across the city for many years. There is no epitaph for Bryant that could be long enough to capture the true impact that he had on the organizations and individuals throughout his life. A few days after his death, the Environmentalists of Color and Plant Chicago hosted a gathering at The Plant to share stories of his life and legacy. The thoughts below are samples of just a few remarks that were shared.
If you were a friend, colleague, or family member of his, we hope you find comfort with our words. If you did not know him, we hope they inspire you to action.
From Jonathan Pereira, Executive Director of Plant Chicago…
In the days after his passing, two simple phrases echoed in my head:
How are you doing?
How can I help?
For most people, these are toss away questions seeking a toss away response. Phrases that serve more of a verbal gesture in which the asker does not seek an honest response. For Bryant, these were honest questions that demanded an honest response. Everyone who knew him felt very early on in their relationship that Bryant cared about their success and well-being. And these questions, while seemingly benign, are emblematic of his approach to life.
How are you doing?
How can I help?
These are the questions that form the basis of friendships, professional collaborations, and mentorships. Indeed, one of the things that I took away from Bryant was the importance of mentorship. Especially within the fields of environmental and social justice. If you are not mentoring anyone, find somebody. Support them. Make sure to ask them how they are doing and how you can help. Do not accept one-word responses to these questions. If you are already mentoring somebody, make sure they know it. In some cases, you may decide to mentor somebody whether they like it or not.
Bryant was a mentor for many, and the quantity and diversity of people that viewed him as a personal advocate is impressive. If you wanted to create a community that was truly representative of the demographics of Chicago, look no further than the communities that surrounded Bryant.
For me, the mark of a great leader is the leaders he leaves behind. We are blessed that Bryant left so many behind, and from so many ages and backgrounds. Personally, I am looking forward to the many collaborations that will arise from the simple words “Yeah, I knew Bryant, too.”
From John Mulrow, former board member of Plant Chicago…
Bryant joined Plant Chicago’s board of directors in the winter of 2014-2015. At that time we were updating the organization’s mission statement and were considering using the term “circular economy” to describe our innovative work on recycling and material reuse, based at The Plant. I distinctly remember one of Bryant’s comments on the term, to the effect of, “I could show you a whole string of repair and resale shops in my neighborhood where the circular economy is already happening!”
This comment of Bryant’s sums up a meaning and message I will forever carry from him. Bryant wasn’t willing to get behind just any environmental initiative or buzzword with a green tinge. It had to be place-based (most commonly Chicago), and it had to be about people and their interrelationships, more than just their relationship with the natural world. Bryant didn’t get too caught up in the problem-based narratives we often hear associated with Chicago and its many racially-segregated parts. He was all about bringing out more of the good, and building on the talents and resources we already have. His narrative was an asset-based narrative of the city and its people.
Bryant didn’t have time to complain about what wasn’t happening because he was too busy making it happen. In the three years I’ve known him he ran the County’s demolition debris recycling program, joined our board at Plant Chicago, served as president of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, was brought on as a Director at the Rebuilding Exchange, grew the Environmentalists of Color network, launched a podcast on diversity in the environmental sector, and was an advisor and mentor to countless initiatives and individuals, including myself. You couldn’t attend an environmental event in the city without hearing Bryant’s name or seeing his smiling face towering somewhere above the crowd. I remember joking that there was probably two of him running around town at all times.
Today I went back to listen to some of Bryant’s thoughts, recorded on the Shades of Green podcast, co-hosted with Juanita Garcia. I was reminded of his circular economy/resale shop comment while listening to one of their early episodes, “Reflection on Diversity.” In this episode, Bryant mentions a study showing that Chicago’s northern suburbs have the highest recycling rate in the region but also the highest overall waste generation rate. Meanwhile, southwest-side areas have the lowest waste generation, even if less of the material makes it into a recycling bin. Thus, both regions have something to offer in the way of sustainability, not just the better recyclers. Bryant’s implicit point is that if we’re not looking at the whole picture, we’ll likely miss the overall sustainability target. And looking at the whole picture necessitates greater diversity.
His concern was not just for providing green jobs to people who need or deserve them, but for providing new and brilliant minds to the movement. Diversity is a way of bringing previously missing information, hidden directions, and powerful assets to the all-important mission of planetary sustainability.
These aren’t lessons for Chicago, they’re lessons for the world. Bryant’s life embodied what it means to think globally, but act locally. And not just to act, but to build networks, raise a family and become rooted in the communities and institutions of a place. Bryant leaves us with no easy answers, because his act will be tough to follow. I know I speak for thousands, in Chicago and beyond, when I say we will honor him in our work, inspired by his life.
Remembering a great friend, mentor, local activist, father, friend and intellectual, and a truly global citizen: Bryant Williams.
From Jackie Wiese, President of Plant Chicago’s Auxiliary Board…
Regardless of how long we knew Bryant, I think many of us thought we’d know him forever. He treated us all as a friend and pushed us to do more and be better. He had a unique perspective on Chicago history, social justice and environmentalism. He was eager to work together and share his knowledge and experience to make this city a better place. Chicago will miss him but we’ll do our best to carry his vision forward.