Something about Mary
Local activist and environmentalist Mary Brill was ‘all about democracy, all the time’
Politicians talk about their vision for Sacramento. Plans come and go, elected officials try to push through this project or that one. Sometimes they serve their constituents well. Sometimes not so much.
But Mary Brill was never very impressed with the usual top-down politics.
“We will never be a first-class city until we value the most important asset this city has—its citizenry. Without them we are nothing,” Brill told SN&R back in 2001.
And she meant it. She dedicated her life to spreading political power around, to getting her fellow citizens involved protecting the environment, or building a better mass transit system or fighting for better neighborhoods.
Brill’s longtime friend and fellow rabble-rouser, Brooks Truitt, called Brill “the Mother Teresa of populist politics.”
She would certainly have been embarrassed by the praise. Sadly, she passed away on October 24. The cause was a breast cancer that had metastasized, according to Mary’s sister Heidi. She was just 59 years old.
Brill had health problems for years. Her advanced multiple sclerosis was the most obvious; it eventually forced her to use a wheelchair. Many of her friends didn’t know that she survived a brain tumor, or was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008.
Her death is sad news for many Sacramentans, both inside and outside the halls of power. Brill was a sort of den mother to community and environmental activists. “Us ordinary folks lost a great champion when we lost her,” said Truitt.
She grew up in the San Jose area, and came to Sacramento in the 1960s. Her sister Heidi says there was a strong sense of volunteerism in the Brill household. The Brill sisters were Girl Scouts and candy stripers. The family took in foreign exchange students. Their father, William, even ran for city council in San Jose. When Mary came to Sacramento, Heidi said, she worked in a nursing home and as a volunteer at the local YWCA. And eventually she became interested in community organizing. “That was just her sense of things. When she saw something wrong, she would fix it,” Heidi explained.
She formed the influential Sacramento County Alliance of Neighborhoods, and in 2005 was honored by the state Legislature as Woman of the Year for her work.
Brill was not formally trained in planning or community organizing. She didn’t have a college degree. But she could more than hold her own with the lawyers and the bureaucrats, and tried to help connect others with the levers of power, and with each other.
“She was very keen on building coalitions between different groups,” said Eric Davis, former president of the Environmental Council of Sacramento. “She was really concerned about the gap between the environmentalists and the low-income folks,”
Mike McKeever, executive director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, got to know Brill well over the years—starting when he was a planner working as a consultant for Regional Transit.
“She was the kind of person that phrases like ‘one of a kind’ and ‘force of nature’ are not hyperbole.”
McKeever ticked off a list of projects and causes that Brill took on: She fought for affordable housing as an activist with the Sierra Club. She helped SACOG with community outreach on its widely praised Blueprint for regional development, as well as the agency’s Metropolitan Transportation Plan.
“She had her personal values and opinions about the issues,” McKeever recalled. “But the core of Mary was really all about getting what she called the ‘common folk’ engaged with their community. She got incredible delight out of finding just one new person to go to a neighborhood meeting, call someone at City Hall or write a letter. And anyone in power who acted like they didn’t care about asking the common people for their opinion received the full brunt of Mary’s wrath.”
McKeever said that it was “an incredible thing to observe” the way she dealt with her health problems; first her multiple sclerosis, her brain tumor, then the spread of the cancer that ultimately ended her life.
“Until quite recently, she would often somehow get herself in her wheelchair out to her car, get the wheelchair into the trunk and drive herself to a meeting. If you had seen how frail she was, you wouldn’t have believed it.”
Her body may have been frail, but she was powerful in other ways.
“Anybody who wanted to get something done, you had to call Mary,” said Truitt.
When Brill’s car was stolen a few years back, her friends helped raise money to buy her a new one. They called on important politicians and policymakers, city council members, consulting firms and prominent lawyers.
But Brill was most concerned with the least, with the outsiders and the ordinary people.
“If Mary had been around when the country was created, I thought we wouldn’t now always use the phrase ‘Founding Fathers,’” McKeever explained. “She was all about democracy, all the time.”
All the time, even after she passed away.
Heidi said her sister didn’t leave any instructions about what to do when she died. So her friends and family decided to do what they thought Mary would have done. They decided to meet at SACOG and have meeting about what kind of service Mary should have.
“Of course, we’re going to make a collaborative decision about it,” Heidi said with a laugh. “It’s so like her.”