When director Kemba Shakur started an urban forestry nonprofit organization 15 years ago, the goal was to address the ecological needs of the community, which was in desperate need of more trees and greenery.
She remembers that when she moved to Oakland in 1994, 57th Street didn’t have a single tree.
Now, the block boasts over 30 trees and counting. The success of Shakur’s Urban Releaf has expanded beyond her neighborhood to the rest of Oakland, leading to 16,000 trees planted and maintained.
The organization’s tree planting efforts contribute to improving air quality and increasing environmental awareness in the Bay Area.
“We believe that communities can be transformed through trees because urban forestry is an area where we can increase green jobs by training and hiring young Black men be successful arborists [persons that focus on the health and safety of trees],” said Shakur. “Currently, there are five Black arborists in California; four of them work on our staff.”
Shakur has received several awards including the 2013 J. Sterling Morton Arbor Day Award from the Arbor Day Foundation as well as being named as one of 2013 Barefoot “Soles of the Year” by Barefoot Wine, a Bay Area winery.
She says she hopes to encourage the city to have a tree canopy of 40 percent, a goal required by the EPA’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction program. Currently, Oakland’s tree canopy is well below that at only 12 percent. The benefits of a larger tree canopy include increased health benefits such as a reduction of particulate matter from entering the Bay, as well as providing bird and insect sanctuaries.
Urban Releaf has launched numerous programs that focus on environmental training of low-income youth, working with other community organizations like Berkeley Youth Alternatives to coordinate projects involving tree planting, long term care, maintenance, and monitoring in public spaces throughout the city.
Program Manager Kevin Jefferson III says he is always seeking clever ways to repurpose wood so it can help out the community.
“Newly planted trees need to be stabilized with stakes for at least two years,” said Jefferson. “Normally, the stakes get thrown into a landfill, which we would have to pay Berkeley Waste Management for. Now, we’re recycling and using everything from tree stumps and stakes to old mattress frames and palettes.”
The recycled pieces of woods are cut down and fashioned into chairs, desks, fences, and other items of furniture.
With private funding for Urban Releaf ending in October, Shakur says the organization is looking for new investors and will be working closely with the Oakland Museum of California to sell many of these products at the museum store.
The group has worked with UC Davis and UC Berkeley to highlight scientific research on the benefits of urban forestry and how they improve air quality, provide shelter for wildlife, and reduce home energy and water costs.
Kwame Davis started working for Urban Releaf in his early teens and is close to obtaining his International Society of Arboriculture Certification. He also plans to study marine biology.
“Generally, we’ve had a good response from neighborhoods when we come in to plant in front of their houses,” said Davis, an Urban Forest Mentor. “Some people even try to contribute and pickup a shovel to help dig. That shows that they take pride in their community.”
There will be a membership drive at the on Oct. 4 at the Oakland Museum to raise money for Urban Releaf.