Since 1998, Urban Releaf has been planting trees in West Oakland and other parts of the city, primarily in low-income communities with low levels of tree canopies – which impacts not only air quality, but quality of life and spiritual/psychological health. We estimate we’ve either planted or distributed as many as 10,000 trees in West Oakland alone. During that time, we’ve also employed dozens of at-risk and hard-to-employ youth, teaching them about urban forestry, while promoting community engagement and stewardship. Our projects, in conjunction with UC Davis scientists and state and federal agencies, have enabled the development of developed critical data collection, which has advanced the field of urban forestry and shed light on issues like the Urban Heat Island Effect – a leading cause of environmental health issues such as respiratory difficulties, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.
We’ve invested resources, time, and effort in this community, and have helped to make a difference. Yet we’ve faced an uphill battle for funding, particularly from the city of Oakland, whose political reality is largely one of cronyism. While we’ve been a visible force for environmental awareness, and greening of the inner-city, we’ve constantly had to battle against outside interests who have attempted to control all the funding around green projects, while advancing an agenda which reeks not only of gentrification, but colonialism.
A case in point is the West Oakland Reforestation Plan (WORP), developed by the West Oakland Green Initiative, or WOGI. WOGI is a group of environmentalists who have teamed with developers and corporate interests to decide what’s best for West Oakland.
Recently, WOGI held a community forum to discuss the plan at the Willie Keyes Recreation Center in West Oakland. WOGI’s representatives—all of them Caucasian—discussed the 75 varieties of trees they’ve identified as being suitable for West Oakland. Planting trees, they explained, would help raise property values in the region. Ironically, they referred to the iTree data collected by CAL-FIRE via Urban Releaf’s on the ground efforts. Yet when asked specifically if they knew they were referencing research collected by Urban Releaf, they said “no.” WOGI also claimed Urban Releaf had been a part of their survey, which is categorically untrue. Furthermore, when asked if they had gotten community input before finalizing their plan, they said, “not enough of it.”
The Q&A panel discussion presented by WOGI similarly discounted community members. There was not a single African American on the panel – a slap in the face to a district which is 67% black. In addition to three WOGI members, the panel consisted of CAL-FIRE’s Jimi Schied and Brian Beveridge, Co-Director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project – conspicuously absent was WOEIP’s other Co-Director, longtime community activist Margaret Gordon. Beveridge referenced WOEIP’s air quality studies, but remarked that he wasn’t qualified to discuss urban forestry. None of the WOGI members mentioned that Scheid had raised significant and extensive concerns about the WORP plan, including why it didn’t include any mention of Urban Releaf’s research projects in West Oakland. Meanwhile, real estate developer Alex Miller-Cole videotaped the proceedings on an iPhone.
Community members, most of them African American, had lots of questions and concerns. They questioned why Urban Releaf wasn’t on the panel. They asked WOGI if their plan addressed economic inequity in West Oakland – to which the answer was again, “no.” They wondered why WOGI was claiming ownership of community farm projects, such as a proposed garden at 28th and Market. They asked WOGI why they were considering importing exotic species of trees, instead of planting fruit trees which could help sustain low-income communities. They accused WOGI of furthering gentrification and of advancing their own political agenda at the expense of longtime community residents. Unsurprisingly, Miller-Cole stopped videotaping when WOGI’s agenda was called into question.
After being referred to several times as “that woman from Urban Releaf,” finally, I spoke.
“I’m Kemba Shakur, Executive Director of Urban Releaf,” I said, rising to my feet. “We’ve planted thousands of trees in this community.” In fact, I noted, we had planted a tree on the very location of the Rec Center, when its namesake Willie Keyes was still alive. I explained that I had been up since 6:30 a.m. that morning, consoling the mother of a young man who had been shot the night before. Urban Releaf has provided numerous jobs and opportunities for our young people, I said. “This is why we do this.” I went on to add that there was a conflict of interest between WOGI and WOPAC (which funded the WORP) – board members were essentially paying themselves for work allegedly done in the name of the community.
I admit, I may have gotten a little emotional. Perhaps I should have kept my mouth closed and let others speak on my behalf. But I take it personal when someone tries to come into this community and act like the work we’ve done here is irrelevant, at the same time using our research to promote a plan, which excludes us. Reforestation in West Oakland isn’t just a matter of contention between two competing urban forestry groups. It’s a community issue, which calls for community voices to no longer remain silent.
Similarly, gentrification isn’t just a figment of people’s imaginations. Over the past ten years, West Oakland’s population has swelled by 20,000; over the same time period, its black population has dropped by 10%. West Oakland has some of the highest foreclosure rates, not just in Oakland, but the entire Bay Area; many of those foreclosures came about through deceptive sub-prime loans targeted at minority, low-income homeowners. The result of all of that has been that economic disparities have continued to grow between longtime residents and the influx of newcomers. While property values have risen over the last decade, many in West Oakland grapple with higher-than-average unemployment figures; West Oakland’s median household income is less than half of Oakland’s overall.
WOGI claims to be a “grassroots organization.” However, Tom McCoy, the President of WOGI’s Board of Directors, is also the founder and principal of BBI Construction, whose clients include WORP’s funders—the City of Oakland and the Port of Oakland—as well as UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Bayer Corporation, the Oakland Museum of California, UC San Francisco, United Airlines, the Oakland Zoo, Mills College, the Lake Merritt Municipal Boathouse, and Children’s Hospital Oakland. Meanwhile, Urban Releaf has received minimal city funding, despite being one of the city’s first green non-profit organizations.
WOGI’s reforestation plan for West Oakland is a 139-page document; yet not a single page is devoted to a workforce development plan. It duplicates much of Urban Releaf’s existing programs and research –without inclusion or attribution. For instance, WOGI states they intend to “gain public support by demonstrating the value of trees to enhancing the quality of life in West Oakland.” This is remarkably similar to the “Benefits of Trees” section on the Urban Releaf website, which states, “Every tree that takes root also carries with it a myriad of benefits to our health, quality of life and well being –locally and globally.” However, unlike WOGI, Urban Releaf has shown a demonstrated commitment to low-income communities and communities of color.
We must speak out about our concerns around gentrification, and the need for any new green initiatives adopted by the city, such as the WORP plan, to address economic inequity. We urge all residents of District 3 to contact incoming Councilperson Lynette Gibson-McElhaney here and tell her to support Oakland’s Million-Tree Initiative, the Miller Library Urban Forestry Sustainability Center, and green jobs, which employ our community.