On December 5, 2013, Urban Releaf held its 15th Anniversary Celebration at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle in downtown Oakland. Attendees were greeted by the sounds of youth violinists, led by the legendary Joan Tarika Lewis, the first woman to become a Black Panther Party member and a mainstay of Oakland’s social justice and cultural activist communities for four decades. The youth musicians reminded us all why it’s so important to strive for a cleaner, healthier environment: to create a better world for future generations.
After introductions from Mistress of Ceremonies Barbara Howard, the Voices of Thunder, a vocal choir from Missionary Baptist Church in Antioch, warmed chilly hearts on a cold, wintry evening with traditional gospel songs. As guests continued to arrive, they took photos at the Urban Releaf “Wall of Fame,” perused the many items in the silent auction, and nibbled on a down-home soul food spread — fried chicken, macaroni & cheese, and salad — prepared by Kai’s Treats.
More speakers followed, beginning with Oakland mayor Jean Quan, who noted the many Urban Releaf tree plantings she’s participated in over the years and reiterated Oakland’s commitment to being one of the greenest cities in the United States.
After Quan came Nancy Skinner, a member of California’s state Assembly, whose district covers much of the East Bay, including Richmond, Berkeley, Emeryville, and parts of Oakland. Skinner recognized Urban Releaf’s tree-planting efforts in Oakland and Richmond, and seemed particularly excited about the upcoming prospects for the expansion of urban forestry programs under California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, aka AB32. The bill, Skinner noted, created cap-and-trade funds – essentially offsets paid by polluters as part of the cost of doing business in California – of which a portion of which have been earmarked for projects which benefit the low-income, flatland communities lacking significant tree canopies Urban Releaf has long served. Money from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund created under AB32, Skinner said, could be allocated for urban forestry projects beginning in 2014. Good news.
Next on the podium was Rebecca Kaplan, the Oakland City Council’s popular, charismatic at-large representative and probably the most progressive local government official when it comes to environmental policies. Kaplan appeared fired up, making observers wonder if she was practicing her stump speeches for a rumored Mayoral bid in Oakland’s upcoming election. Kaplan hung around to applaud as Urban Releaf founder and Executive Director Kemba Shakur was honored with an official proclamation from Councilmember Noel Gallo’s office.
More entertainment followed, in the form of two evocative, metaphor-laced poems from wordsmiths Rhonda-White Warner and Tureeda Mikell. Attendees were then treated to presentations from Urban Releaf staffers on the organizations educational and research projects. Gregory Tarver, Jr., Director of Education, described the UFEST urban forestry stewardship training program in detail, before Program Manager Kevin Jefferson explained the 31st Street Green Project, a collaboration with UC Davis scientist Dr. Qingfu Xiao, along with a slideshow of Urban Releaf’s tree-plantings over the years.
Keynote speaker Donald Simon, a prominent environmental attorney, was the next to take the stage. Simon’s remarks zeroed in on the benefits of trees, and why we need them: simply put, without them, our environment would be considerably less healthy and less able to support life forms such as human beings. Simon’s impassioned speech really brought home his message.
Simon was followed by 8 year-old Kenitra Love, who read Shakur’s poem, “A Tree Grows in Oakland.” Her poignant reading again reminded attendees of why supporting organizations like Urban Releaf is key: because the environmental legacy we leave will determine the quality of life for young people, just coming into the world.
Shakur, who wasn’t in the mood for a long speech, made a few brief remarks, before Jefferson introduced outgoing Operations Manager Joann Do, a key member of the Urban Releaf team for many years. Board members then assembled for a group photo, before everyone in the room held hands in a gesture of solidarity. All that was left to do after that was to read off the winners of the silent auction.
All in all, the 15th Anniversary Celebration was a success, raising much-needed funds for Urban Releaf, but, more importantly, bringing a great group of folks together and reminding everyone why they were all there: to help make the world a better place and spread the word about the benefits of trees. More than 16,000 trees after being founded in 1998, it feels like the organization is just getting started. Here’s to 15 more years – or even more – of Urban Releaf, who have truly embodied their motto of “building healthy communities one tree at a time.”