Personality: Sheri Shannon

Spotlight on Southside ReLeaf cofounder

4/18/2024, 6 p.m.
Sheri Shannon has long believed that focused community-action work can battle climate change head on.

Sheri Shannon has long believed that focused community-action work can battle climate change head on.

She first pursued meteorology to study atmospheric sciences at Penn State University, but soon discovered it wasn’t her “ministry.” Still, Ms. Shannon wanted to remain in the science space.

An adviser connected her to Dr. Tanya Furman, currently a research professor in Penn State’s GeoScience department.

Dr. Furman suggested that Ms. Shannon pursue earth sciences because so few women, especially women of color, earned degrees in the discipline. Ms. Shannon then switched her major because it allowed her to focus on climate.

Fast forward nearly 20 years later.

Ms. Shannon’s goal to fight climate change continues through her volunteer work with Southside ReLeaf, a nonprofit organization she co-founded with Amy Wentz to create more green space in Richmond’s Southside and improve health outcomes for area residents.

Throughout the span of Southside ReLeaf, the organization has hosted and participated in “greening” projects, or plant and vegetation-planting projects. Examples include Davee Gardens, Swansboro playgrounds and Blackwell Elementary School.

How did Southside ReLeaf get its legs?

“Five years ago, Amy and I participated in the Richmond 300 master-planning process. Part of that process was to review the Insights Report, a summary of data and trends that inform our decisions to help shape the future growth of the city. However, the report revealed glaring social inequities across Richmond around housing and homeownership, economic security, educational attainment and life expectancy gaps.

As we went through the report, we continued to see how the Southside fell behind in every category,” she said. “So, we started Southside ReLeaf in July 2019 to address these social inequities in South Richmond – to amplify the existing work of our neighbors and bring greater attention to these issues so decision makers would prioritize investments in these communities,” Ms. Shannon said.

Southside ReLeaf also has collaborated with many other organizations in Richmond.

This includes Groundwork RVA, a nonprofit that works with young people to enhance green spaces, which made it possible for Southside ReLeaf to have a tree giveaway.

“This is an all hands-on-deck situation,” Ms. Shannon said. “Everyone has a role to play here and we don’t see ourselves as an organization that needs to occupy an entire space.”

Southside ReLeaf has inspired similar efforts in other parts of Virginia, such as the ReLeaf Cville in Charlottesville. Other larger organizations also have reached out to Southside ReLeaf for guidance on establishing similar models.

In the meantime, Southside remains its founders’ priority.

“We are definitely committed to South Richmond, but know that we advocate everywhere for folks to have livable and thriving neighborhoods across the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Ms. Shannon said.

Meet someone who cares deeply about tackling environmental injustice in Richmond and beyond and this week’s Personality, Sheri Shannon:

Volunteer position: Cofounder of Southside ReLeaf.

Occupation: Founder and director of Shannon Strategies.

Date and place of birth: July 27 in Richmond.

Where I live now: North Chesterfield.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in earth science, The Pennsylvania State University, master’s degree in communications and public relations, Southern New Hampshire University.

Family: Husband, Andy Klatt; mother, Deborah Shannon; father, Rev. Michael Shannon Sr.; brother, Mike Shannon.

Southside ReLeaf is: A community-based organization committed to environmental justice in South Richmond. Our goal is to improve the life expectancy and quality of life for Southside residents by increasing green spaces, reducing pollution and improving infrastructure. We believe in uplifting voices that are often unheard and people-powered advocacy to build climate resilient neighborhoods.

Cofounder’s name: Amy Wentz.

Why we founded: What really stood out to us is that the life expectancy for Southside residents is nearly 20 years shorter than in other parts of the city.

Additionally, we could see that many Southside residents did not live within a 10-minute walk to a park or playground, however, Black residents live near areas zoned for industrial use. There’s greater proximity to waste, pollution and land fills than full-service grocery stores, pharmacies and quality health care. It’s hotter, there’s severe flooding and higher rates of asthma because of poor air quality, little to no green spaces, substandard housing and poverty.

Location: We work south of the river, specifically in the 5th, 6th, 8th and 9th districts.

Southside ReLeaf is meaningful to me: Because we are two Black women committed to disrupting systems of oppression. There are so few Black- and brown-led environmental organizations in Virginia and we are forging a path that works for Black and brown people in Richmond. On my mom’s side, my grandmother was a forestry technician at the Virginia Department of Forestry, and my grandfather farmed dozens of acres of land in New Kent County. On my dad’s side, my granny grew up on a farm in North Carolina and had a garden in her backyard in Church Hill. My first access to green space was hopping the fence of my granny’s backyard to visit my papa in the Oakwood Cemetery next to her house.

Black people have a special connection to the land that’s been whitewashed in the environmental movement.

No. 1 goal and strategy of Southside ReLeaf: Our goal is to close the life-expectancy gap for Southside residents.

We do this through greening, education and advocating for policies that will improve the quality of life for people.

Biggest challenge: Amy and I have full-time jobs in addition to running Southside ReLeaf. We are constantly trying to balance our community work

with our professional and family responsibilities. The organization has grown exponentially since we started and there is a high demand for collaboration and partnership — given the fact there are few Black women leading this type of work across Virginia. What we really need is to build capacity. For the first three years, it was a team of four volunteers running the organization. We now have paid staff and a board of directors, but we need to scale up.

Like other community-based organizations we encounter systemic barriers to funding to sustain our work and unnecessary administrative hurdles to access resources. Not only are we pushing for policies that center people, we’re also working to educate funders, government officials and nonprofit partners on how to remove those barriers.

This is across the board for grants, recruiting and hiring, professional development and community engagement.

No. 1 joy I have witnessed through our work: The number of people who are responsive to our work and tell us how they are now more involved in their neighborhood because of Southside ReLeaf.

I love seeing residents become tree stewards, host cleanup days, join their civic associations and show up for our greening events.

Ways to get involved with Southside ReLeaf: There are many ways to get involved with the organization, including volunteering for greening projects, attending an event and advocating alongside us at the local and state level. Of course, we appreciate donations to support our programs throughout the year. Learn more at southsidereleaf.org/get-involved.

Upcoming events: For folks interested in getting their hands dirty, we will host planting events and maintenance workdays in the fall. We are celebrating our five-year anniversary this year through a series of events, including a fundraiser in the fall.

How I start the day: When I wake up, I say ‘Thank you for another day.’ I then look at my calendar of events, top news headlines and put the phone back down. I spend about 30 minutes of my morning stretching and doing Pilates to wake my body up and get ready for the day.

The three words that best describe me: Hopeful, bold, genuine.

Best late-night snack: You can never go wrong with carbs. My favorite is mac and cheese, and chana masala with naan.

My music playlist: Currently, it’s Beyonce’s ‘Cowboy Carter.’ I rotate between a lot of genres, depending on my mood, such as funk, soul, gospel, jazz, hip-hop, classical and the occasional country.

A quote that inspires me: “The function of freedom is to free someone else.” — Toni Morrison.

The best thing my parent(s) or guardian(s) ever taught me:

To be in a community with others means to be a good neighbor and use the talents given us to bless someone else.

The person who influenced me the most: My mother is the blueprint.

Next goal: To learn how to celebrate the wins — big and small. I turn 40 this year and my company turns five, along with Southside ReLeaf.