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A tribute to Mr. Cecil Corbin-Mark, “the irreplaceable” deputy director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice

Environment, Health

Jalonne L. White-Newsome

The environmental justice community has lost a true giant. The untimely death of Cecil Corbin-Mark, a man who dedicated his life and career to dismantling systematic and institutional racism, has left those of us continuing to fight for racial and environmental justice devastated, yet determined to carry on his legacy.

Cecil, deputy director and director of policy initiatives at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, died on October 16 due to a stroke. His funeral, held on Oct. 24, was live-streamed by WE ACT with hundreds of virtual attendees – a true testament to his impact on others and his community’

WE ACT is a longstanding grantee of our Environment and Health programs at Kresge, and is currently a valued partner in our Climate Change & Health Equity (CCHE) initiative. Launched in 2018, CCHE aims to mobilize equitable climate action by health care institutions, health practitioners and community advocates in ways that reflect the needs and priorities of low-income communities in America’s cities.

As a life-long Harlem-born activist who led a grassroots organization that has been battling against the pollution and health hazards in New York City for decades, this work was personal for Cecil – and many times overwhelming. Yet he led with grace and encouragement.

I first met Cecil as I was finishing my post-doctoral studies at the Union of Concerned Scientists in D.C.  I was nervous, interviewing to be the director of a new federal policy office that WE ACT had just launched in D.C. I had known the work of WE ACT and Peggy Shephard since high school, so for this little girl from Detroit who had “done environmental justice work on the side,” this was an opportunity for my “dream EJ job.”  And Cecil was the gatekeeper.

During my interview, he asked me hard questions. I could immediately tell from the conversation he was sharp, on both policy and strategy. He had a booming, strong voice that literally filled the room; but he also had one of those unforgettable smiles.

Luckily, I landed the job. And over the next several years of working closely with Cecil and building the policy office in D.C., I would come to know him as:

A man who could make the impossible happen.

A man who could bring folks together around an issue that might have stepped into the room hating each other, but left loving each other.

A man whose work ethic and commitment to environmental justice did not stop in Harlem, but transcended the state’s capital in Albany, communities across the U.S., and the entire world.

Cecil gave me the freedom and encouragement to “keep on” when times were tough, especially as we tried to revitalize the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change. When things got heated – as they always do in coalitions – he reminded me “not to take things personal” and often repeated his signature statement, “Jalonne, do everything in love.”

This man named Cecil Corbin-Mark could walk the streets of Amsterdam Ave. in Northern Manhattan with the same swag as he walked the halls of Capitol Hill.

Cecil was among the rare leaders who showed me the need for relentless advocacy to help those that have been forgotten, ignored or left behind.

The need for leaders who use their gifts and talents to address racism in systems and structures.

Leaders who show and give love despite not ever receiving it.

Leaders who are steadfast with the mission of making our communities healthy, safe places where we can ALL enjoy the quality and quantity of life we deserve.

Cecil was one of those leaders that our full Kresge family was graced to know in our lifetimes. His life, legacy and love will never die.

In honor of Cecil, and all of the leaders we have lost this year, let’s get charged up even more to live our lives to the fullest; to leave a legacy to be proud of; and to love one another in spite of. Tomorrow is not promised, so let us move forward – in honor of ancestors – recognizing that we must take care of our mental, spiritual and physical health so we can, in fact, sustain the fight that we all care about so much.

Video: Cecil proudly served as a panelist for Kresge’s CCHE Grantee Convening, “The Urgency of Climate & Health: Building Power to Promote Equitable Change,” held Feb. 10-12, 2020 in Atlanta, GA. We are beyond grateful for his leadership and partnership. 

 Learn how you can support the Cecil Corbin-Mark Fellowship Fund.