Remembering Christopher Shepherd

By Tom Schuster, Director, Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter

On January 7, 2024, our Chapter lost its Chair, Chris Shepherd, in a tragic encounter with police. It’s still hard for me to understand what happened, because it should never have happened.

In an interview with the local CBS affiliate, Chris’s friend described him as “one of the nicest, most loving people I’ve ever known,” who “would have given anyone the shirt off his back.” That’s the consensus we’ve also heard from Sierra Club staff and volunteers in Pennsylvania.  

Chris was first elected to Allegheny Group Executive Committee of the Pennsylvania Chapter over a decade ago and served as the Group Treasurer for much of that time. Most recently, Chris served as the Pennsylvania Chapter Chair, among many other roles. Whenever there was a job that needed to be done, he was willing to roll up his sleeves and do it. Chris was deeply passionate about the Sierra Club’s mission and the Pennsylvania Chapter, always eager to help problem solve and support his colleagues. Chris was active with Chapter Chairs and Council of Club Leaders nationally, as well, taking on leadership within the Council. He treated volunteering for the Sierra Club like a full-time job. Chris was an organizer of his peers, asked important, thought-provoking questions, and persistently agitated and advocated for what he believed in. Sierra Club was not even his only volunteer work. He was active in helping people overcome addiction, and also at his local animal shelter.

Christopher Shepherd in a blue Sierra Club logo tee, in a group outdoors.

Image courtesy of Tom Schuster

What I will remember Chris most fondly for, is that he helped me embrace the Chapter Director role that I’m currently in. In his role as Executive Committee Chair, Chris also supervised the Chapter Director. All my previous work at Sierra Club was in policy advocacy, and I thought that was where I wanted to stay. Then we had a sudden opening, and I was thrust into the Acting role basically against my will. At first, I had no idea what I was doing. But Chris was very reassuring – he always listened, gave his full attention, and spoke his mind with directness but in a caring way that made me feel comfortable. He said we would get through this together, and we did.

Chris understood, and helped me to understand, that what we are doing is not just about the environmental outcomes we were trying to achieve, but the community we were trying to build. He knew it because the community was so important to him.

Because Chris was well known statewide and nationally from his many different volunteer roles, we hosted a Zoom meeting in late February for folks to share memories of what Chris meant to them. It was a moving tribute.

One person shared how Chris had her back at a meeting by reinforcing her questions when she felt she wasn't getting straight answers. Another talked about how Chris gave him a ride to the hospital and got groceries for him while he was having health issues. Folks shared that he had been a mentor to them in navigating the Club’s procedures. There was a story of Chris helping a new volunteer celebrate her birthday at a national meeting where she didn’t know many people yet. Several people recalled Chris’s commitment to charter and fill a bus from Pittsburgh to New York City for the March to End Fossil Fuels on extremely short notice. Once there, he acted as a tour guide, taking people to visit some obscure landmarks they were interested in seeing. Our Executive Director Ben Jealous joined us, shared his condolences, and said that Chris had left his mark on the entire organization through his involvement in the Council of Club Leaders.

Ben also echoed a resolution that the Chapter adopted in January - to fight for justice for Chris and his family. There is simply no reason why he shouldn’t still be with us today.

Chris suffered from serious mental illness at times in his life. For the vast majority of his time at Sierra Club, he was managing it so effectively that it was not apparent even to those of us who worked most closely with him. But he started to struggle with it in the Fall – we could see it in the way he was interacting with us – and we were worried for him. His friends in the Allegheny Group tried to do what they could to help.

Still, I was shocked when I got the call about what had happened. There are a thousand ways that interaction could have gone that would have made much more sense, and would have resulted in him still being with us today. Chris’s family is fighting for justice for him, and for the thousands of other people who could find themselves in a similar situation in the near future. We’ll be in touch with ways you can support the effort, and we hope you will join the fight.

This blog was included as part of the March 2024 Sylvanian newsletter. Please click here to check out more articles from this edition.