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
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.
Where did this love
of trees come from?
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”
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
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
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