Earth Day is an annual event, held since 1970, and recognized around the world. It’s a day of giving back to the planet, and honoring Mother Earth. For environmental organizations and those involved in green community work, it’s a day to spread awareness and education, and to participate in activities which make us—and the planet—healthier.

Founded in 1997, Urban Releaf has been participating in Earth Day events for the past 15 years. Over that time, we have come to realize that planting trees is one of the simplest, most effective, and impactful ways to heal our planet and heal our communities, especially those plagued by man-made problems which society has seemingly been unable to solve.

A case in point: last Saturday, April 26, Urban Releaf celebrated Earth Day in East Oakland. Before we go any further, we should note that East Oakland is a place which gets a bad rap. Especially from people who don’t live there. It is true that East Oakland, with its majority-low-income African American and Latino residents, suffers from various ills, many of which are socioeconomic in nature and very complex. It’s also true, however, that the perception of East Oakland is far worse than the reality.

Most of the news reported on this city within a city is negative—be it violent crime, disproportionate health hazards due to toxic pollution, or high levels of underemployment, incarceration, and recidivism.

Through our urban forestry work, Urban Releaf has been fortunate to see a different side of the “Deep East,” one that rarely makes the evening news or newspaper headlines. There are strong, loving, considerate communities in East Oakland, made up of people who care about their habitat, care about their neighbors’ well-being, and care about making where they live a cleaner and healthier place.

On Earth Day 2014, Urban Releaf began its day of service by assisting Bill Ritchie, a City of Oakland employee and East Oakland resident, with greening a strip of road along Edes St., near 105th Avenue. The area was littered with trash from illegal dumping, and smelled quite literally like excrement.

Ritchie and a group of good-spirited volunteers wearing yellow safety vests picked up bagfuls and bagfuls of trash before Urban Releaf’s arrival.  The Urban Releaf crew swung into action, supervising the planting of 12 trees, and helping to dig holes for the trees in the median along the side of the road.

From there, it was on to the next staging area, Tassafaronga Recreation Center on 85th Ave, where we were joined by three other organizations participating in the Earth Day “Green Up Day of Action”: Communities for a Better EnvironmentActa Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project, and HOPE Collaborative. As we arrived, volunteers (many of whom were neighborhood residents) were arriving and signing up for greening projects, which included tree-planting, trash pick-up, and kids’ activities. The tree-planters headed out to two previously-designated areas, on 84th and 85th Aves. Meanwhile, the Urban Releaf tree stewards dropped off plum and maple trees and wooden stakes. The tree-planting commenced!

For the next three hours, teams of three or four planted about 25 trees in the neighborhood. As the holes were dug and the trees went into the ground, neighborhood residents looked on joyously; some even shared their stories.

There was an older African-American gentleman who came out to help with the planting, and spoke of how the community has been more harmonious since the ANV farm opened, with more shared events, such as meditation. After a young Caucasian kid expertly used a portable water hose to hydrate the newly-planted tree in front of the gentleman’s house, he made it a point to shake hands with the kid – an act of solidarity which will no doubt be long-remembered.

Several young African American women and their children joined in the tree-planting. For the children, it was an opportunity to socialize with other neighborhood kids in a playful way, but also to engage around urban forestry and what it means to be “green.” Who knows, maybe one of them will grow up one day to be an arborist, or Executive Director of a green non-profit?

Then there was the older African American woman who’d requested three trees planted on the sidewalk strip in front of her house to honor her mother and two other relatives who had passed. Urban Releaf’s work took on an even greater significance as she explained that the trees would become a living altar to her ancestors, and that she would be able to see them every time she looked out her window.

By early afternoon, another successful tree-planting had been accomplished, making an immediate impact in a neighborhood which had previously had a sparse tree canopy – an impact that will only grow over time, as the trees mature and the benefits of trees become realized. These benefits include better air quality and carbon emission mitigation, protection from sunstroke and the urban heat island effect, and a psychological sense of well-being and investment in one’s own community.

After stocking up on BBQ chicken, tamales, locally-grown apples, and water back at the Tassafaronga Rec Center, the UR team loaded up all the shovels and planting equipment into trucks and prepared to drive back to its North Oakland headquarters.

Reflecting on this year’s Earth Day adventure, it’s always a good feeling to know you’re making a difference in a community that really needs it, and an even better feeling to directly interact and engage with that community.

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