Q&A: Kemba Shakur on Urban Reforestation
When Kemba Shakur moved to Oakland, California, in 1990, there was not one tree on her block. So she began to plant them herself. Now her organization, Urban Releaf, has planted over 15,000 trees throughout East Bay communities, working to improve the quality of life in ecologically disadvantaged neighborhoods and enhance community involvement and employment, especially among at-risk youth. Sierra Magazine sat down with Shakur, locally known as “Tree Lady,” at her quaint neighborhood office in Oakland.
When you first started planting trees on your block in Oakland, did community members think you were crazy?
When I first told people that I wanted to plant trees, I don’t think they realized the power of trees. But we kept planting. Now since there has been a new awareness of the environment, people are beginning to see the benefits of trees — air quality, water quality, energy.
What motivated you to start this program and invest your time in the reforestation of Oakland?
When I first moved to this city, I moved to 30th and San Pablo and there were no trees — not one on my block. It was very bleak, concrete, not a lot of vegetation or greenery. You could see that there were issues of unemployment and young people being idle. I wanted to do something to green the environment but at the same time invest in the young people within that environment. Although volunteerism is an awesome thing, you need to invest in the people in that community — to solve their problems and to give them a voice in their solutions.
I called the city and was like, “Hey! We don’t have any trees.” And they said it would take a year. So I called Friends of the Urban Forest in San Francisco — I remember being like eight years old and watching them plant a magnolia tree in front of my grandmother’s house. So when I called and spoke with Milton Marks, he said “just do it yourself.” And it was those words, “just do it,” that made this happen.
My love of trees came early. I was born and raised in San Francisco, so my mom used to take us to Big Bend, Big Basin, Big Sur, Yosemite, all the national parks, every chance she got. And I come from a family of environmentalists. My great-great grandfather was Junius Groves; they call him the Potato King of the World. He is known for being a part of the Exoduster movement, which was a movement to get ex-slaves land. Between my mother, grandmother, and him, we have always kind of had that connection to the land. But most people of color do — we have that connection to the land.
How did you initially go about recruiting people to help you in this initiative?
You know I have four sons that worked for me. And a lot of their friends saw them out there planting trees and they began to want to work with us. It started off as local, young people and then just by word of mouth — people just began to come to us.
Were your sons embarrassed to go out and plant trees in their neighborhood?
Mhm, yes! They were young when they started. And we had this big, red, ugly truck, it had to be the ugliest truck in Oakland. And when we rode pass their friends they would duck down. But then later on, they were making money and their friends were like, “hey, they have a job, maybe I can get a job.”
What is the most common response you get from community members when recruiting?
"I need a job. Are you hiring?" And you know, we are always looking at ways to bring people in. Young people need jobs.
So, would you say your program focuses on the youth?
We serve a varied age group. But we have found that young adults, many between the ages of 17-25 are in need of investment, in need of training programs. But we work with all people — our youngest employee is 12, and he is under youth stipend.
Was there a life experience that made you want to dedicate your life to improving the environment?
No, as a young person I had no idea I would be working with the environment. I thought I was going to be a teacher or social worker or something. But I always felt connected to the environment.
How did you get the name “Tree Lady”?
Hahaha. I don’t know. I have been called “Walking Tree Lady” too.
Can you talk to me a little about the autobiography you are writing.
It is about my connection to the environment when I was young. And it talks about how hard it was growing up in San Francisco.
Was your love and concern for the environment an escape for you when you were younger?
Yeah, it was, for sure. It still is.
What about the children’s book you are working on?
Well, I have this poem. It goes like this:
There's a tree that grows in Oakland
It’s not just any tree, It’s a poor man’s tree
It’s a tree that grows out of cracks in the sidewalk
Or out of abandoned lots, or discarded tires
And if you cut off its trunk, it’ll just come back
To behold such a tree is a magnificent sight
Trees that survive no matter what.
And with those words an artist, Malik Seneferu, heard it and said he wanted to work with me on that. So he is doing the illustration. It is just a quick simple book, but he is such a beautiful artist. Because you know, what we are doing, it is about trees, but it is also about people.
--by Brittany Johnson
--image from Urban Releaf courtsey of Michael Macor
--poem by Kemba Shakur