By Jacqueline Gray Miller
It is not farfetched to consider Gerrel Jones one of the busiest men in Birmingham. Husband, executive director of Pneuma Gallery Incorporated, a small business owner, champion of putting the neighbor back in neighborhood, and one among many working to destigmatize the plight of returning citizens, Jones’ calendar is full.
“Time and life are dependent on one another,” said Jones. “When you lose one, you lose the other. Redeeming time is redeeming lives. That’s how we legitimize the term returning citizen and get rid of the terms ex-con and ex-felon.”
Jones is sharing his redemption story to heal and help others. “I am very public about my time in prison. 1 in 4 Black men will be adjudicated. I was full of shame the first time and that led to the next time. I want my story to show that there is value in the experience and teach our returning citizens how to access and be what they need to for a happy ending,” smiled Jones.
In 2013, Jones began sharing his story at churches, K-12 schools, and colleges. Then, he expanded his outreach to prisons in Alabama and Georgia. “I believe that empathy is key in helping people,” said Jones who has a green thumb that is a positive influence too. “Partnering with Councilor Hilliard and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) was an opportunity that found me. For the last seven years I’ve been involved with lawn care and mentoring youth,” said Jones.
Green Thumb, Big Heart
Birmingham City Councilor John Hilliard, District 9, is a fan of Jones’ efforts in the community. “Gerrel has a green thumb and a big heart. Both are on full display as he manages his small business and leads outreach,” said Hilliard. “That combination made him an ideal person to introduce to NWF,” said Hilliard who reached out to America’s largest conservation organization over a year ago to effectively create direct opportunities for Birmingham residents.
As a result of Councilor Hilliard’s efforts, the total investment through the NWF urban initiatives and environmental justice program in Birmingham is $50,000. Partners include Build UP, the East Thomas Neighborhood Association, Ensley Reimagined, Pneuma Gallery, Slade Land Use, Environmental and Transportation Planning, LLC, and the Village Creek Human & Environmental Justice Society, Inc.
“Challenges and opportunities are found in cities like Birmingham,” said Simone Lightfoot national director of urban initiatives and environmental justice for the National Wildlife Federation. “We appreciate Councilor Hilliard for connecting the dots to introduce our organization to stakeholders in Birmingham that share our priorities. Creating green jobs, internship opportunities, and green professional development skills for youth, young adults, and returning citizens,” said Lightfoot.
Many of the nation’s greatest environmental challenges and opportunities are found in urban centers. From increasing air and water quality, to updating housing and transportation infrastructure, the opportunities are endless to improve the environments where people live. The National Wildlife Federation is committed to addressing the priorities of urban communities. To learn more, visit www.nwf.org
Simone Lightfoot serves as the national director of urban initiatives and environmental justice for the National Wildlife Federation. She oversees the organization’s Birmingham grant efforts and can be reached at (313) 585-1052 or firstname.lastname@example.org