Established in 2015, the Community Sentinel Award for Environmental Stewardship is an annual award presented by FracTracker Alliance and Halt the Harm Network to honor the leadership of remarkable individuals working to protect communities from the harms of the fossil fuel industry.
Every year as we celebrate the Community Sentinel Award winners, we also honor activists who have passed away in the last year. This year, we’re honoring Bobbie Jean Nelson, Leslee McCarty, and Leah Velez. The love and commitment they shared with their communities lives on through the movement.
Thank you to their family and friends who shared the stories of these Heroes with us.
Meet Our Heroes
Bobbie Jean Nelson
Mrs. Nelson was a founding member of the Cherokee Concerned Citizens. She and other residents from her neighborhood, Cherokee Forest subdivision in Pascagoula, Mississippi came together to protect the health and wellbeing of their families and community against industrial pollution. Her neighborhood is located on the fenceline of several large polluting facilities, including Chevron Refinery, two large shipbuilding and repair facilities, Gulf LNG terminal, and BP Enterprise gas processing plant and a Superfund site, formally MS Phosphate, a fertilizer plant with two large phosphogypsum waste stacks.
For the last ten years, prior to the severe decline in her health, Mrs. Nelson was a leader within the organization. She spoke out regularly to elected officials, government agencies, media, and more about her experience living in the neighborhood and the concern she had for her family, especially her grandchildren who visited less often because they got sick every time they came over.
The challenge of standing up against industry in the deep South cannot be fully understood except by people like her living and fighting against environmental injustice. The toll it takes on their mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing is tremendous, and yet she kept showing up at public meetings, speaking to media, organizing citizen science projects and health surveys — whatever needed to be done to get her and her family out of harm’s way.
To those who knew her, she was a kind caring mother, grandmother, and friend, an active member in her church, advocate for victims of violence and abuse, and an excellent cook. She was a person of great integrity with a deep concern for the safety and wellbeing of others. She had a smile that could light up the room, and a fierceness displayed to those who threaten the lives of her family and community.
She was committed to organizing for a just buyout and relocation for her family and her neighbors who have become like family over the years. It is in her honor and in the honor of her son and her husband, Mr. Fred Nelson, also a founding member of Cherokee Concerned Citizens and strong leader in the community, and all the people who have passed and are still suffering and fighting that we continue to organize for a buyout for the Cherokee Forest community.
Her legacy continues through the Cherokee Concerned Citizens and her daughter, Barbara Nelson, another founding member. She has definitely inherited her mother’s strength of character, resilience, and fierceness. The Nelson family and the residents of Cherokee Forest have lost so much, and yet they continue to fight in spite of the power of the opposition. They, like so many others living on the fenceline, know the true costs of the polluting extractive economy and what is at stake. They bear the greatest burden of its impacts and the greatest price for fighting back, risking their jobs, reputation, and sanity.
Written by Jennifer Crosslin, a member of Cherokee Concerned Citizens
New York, New York
Leah Velez, a dedicated activist, fearlessly championed environmental rights and social justice causes alongside a talented group of individuals who make up the People’s Puppets. Through their innovative approach, using puppets, murals and custom art pieces as their medium, they raised their voices against the looming threat of many environmental dangers. They rallied against fracking in upstate New York, pipelines snaking beneath New York City and the insidious spread of GMOs from corporate giants like Monsanto.
Leah’s unwavering commitment extended beyond environmental concerns; she actively supported the Black Lives Matter movement making art and participating in protests. Leah was very proud of the work she did for the Fight for 15 campaign. This work has had a positive impact on so many lives. With passion and determination, Leah and her allies stood at the forefront, striving to create a world where both the Earth and its people could thrive, free from injustice and exploitation.
Leah possessed a remarkable ability to connect ideas and communicate her vision effectively. Her determined nature empowered her to believe in the possibility of creating meaningful change through shared ideas and collaboration with others.
Leah’s legacy as a force of nature and a beloved advocate continues to shine brightly, inspiring all those who were touched by her passion and dedication. Though she left this world too soon, her impact lives on through the work she did to benefit others, reminding us of the enduring power of compassion and advocacy.
Written by Lori Velez
Barboursville, West Virginia
Leslee J. McCarty, 73, passed away on June 29, 2022. Leslee was born December 4, 1948 in Huntington, West Virginia. She grew up in Barboursville, West Virginia, and was a 1966 graduate of Barboursville High School. She later received a B.A. degree from Marshall University, and an M.S.W. from West Virginia University.
For twenty years, Leslee ran a popular Bed and Breakfast near the Greenbrier River Trail at Beard, West Virginia, where her guests often became her friends. Her great love for the river and trail spawned the Greenbrier River Watershed Association, one of the many environmental causes to which she was devoted. The Greenbrier Watershed’s purpose is to promote the maintenance, preservation, protection and restoration of the ecological integrity of the Greenbrier River and its watershed. She wanted the Greenbrier River to be saved as a legacy for future generations. The watershed is a unique ecosystem with rich varieties of aquatic, riparian, and upland wildlife, tributaries, farmland, forest, people, and communities. She was also a key driver of the Greenbrier River Trail Association which helped to improve conditions along the 77 mile trail, putting up signage, building shelters, and locating additional parking. The trail’s accolades include induction into the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame, as well as recognition as a National Recreation Trail and one of 52 Millennium Legacy Trails in the United States.
The Greenbrier was threatened by 2 pipelines; the Atlantic Coast and the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Leslee was a founding member of the POWHR Coalition formed to fight the Mountain Valley Pipeline and was also a member of The Allegheny Blue Ridge Alliance that fought and helped to kill the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Leslee coined the term “double crossed,” hosting and participating in many events including two on the same day at each crossing location. She made sure that the focus of the Watershed Association for the past 9 years was protecting the river from those pipelines. She also worked as a lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council. Because of Leslee’s tenacity, the GRWA appealed the Natural Stream Preservation Act approval that would have allowed the Mountain Valley Pipeline to trench the Greenbrier. As a result of that lawsuit, its operators agreed to bore under instead of trench through the river.
She worked diligently as a lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council for a number of years, and was a faithful and energetic member of various environmental organizations in the state of West Virginia. Leslee was a key planner of the 2022 Walk for the Future of Appalachia. She was beloved and respected by people across West Virginia and the nation. She was a very bright light for many who met her.
When she began to spend her winters in Florida, she also grew to love the Chassahowitzka River near Homosassa where she could often be found in her kayak or boat. She loved the manatees in the area and became involved in efforts to protect them. Just before she died she wrote that she would like most to be remembered as “a water protector and a friend to animals.
Written by Maury Johnson (a member of Preserve Monroe and the POWHR Coalition), Autumn Crowe (Program Director with West Virginia Rivers Coalition), Deborah Clearman, and Louanne Fatora (Coordinator with Greenbrier River Watershed Association)
The Community Sentinel Awards is an opportunity to hold both the heavy and the hope as we build solidarity and reaffirm our belief that a better future is possible.
We hope you can join us on Thursday, November 9, 2023, in person or virtually, for this event!