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.