East Oakland, CA is almost like a separate city from Oakland. That’s especially true the further East one goes; past 50th Avenue up until the San Leandro border, the area is known to local residents as the “Deep East.” Here, you don’t see much evidence of the economic renaissance and revitalization which has brought Oakland national attention in the past few years. What you do see is a mostly African-American and Latino community with blue collar roots, as well as inner-city problems which don’t plague the tonier, gentrified parts of town: street prostitution,  gun violence, drug dealing (and substance-abuse issues), and sideshows.

Environmental pollution is another of those problems; the air quality in parts of East Oakland is among the worst in the entire state of California, and the lack of an adequate tree canopy magnifies the Urban Heat Island Effect, which correlates to high risk of heat stroke and respiratory difficulties, as well as increased energy consumption, and elevated emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants.

But East Oakland isn’t an area without hope, and it’s not a place without a strong sense of community, something that often gets lost in newspaper headlines and TV news segments which sensationalize the negative aspects of this part of town. Though there is a sense of general lawlessness among inner-city youth which can be pervasive in East Oakland, there are also neighbors and community organizations who have come together to improve the quality of life in the area they call home, to mitigate the threat of violence and the environmental impacts of toxic pollution.

After a recent daytime shooting on the same block as the Ile Omode School —a community institution for 28 years, which is also the home of the Wo’se Church of the African Way —concerned neighborhood residents decided to do something about it. (Another issue was illegal dumping in front of the AT&T facility across the street).  The school and the church reached out to Urban Releaf, to request trees be planted to protect the sacred space of the grounds and beautify surrounding streets.

The morning of March 15 was a beautiful, sunny Saturday – the nicest day of 2014 thusfar. At 10 am, the Urban Releaf crew arrived at the church/school, located at 89th and Holly. About 50 trees had previously been placed in a parking lot during a site visit, in preparation for the tree-planting.  As the Urban Releaf truck pulled up, laden with shovels, water, and other equipment needed for the planting, the burnt rubber skidmark of a doughnut was clearly visible in the middle of the street – a reminder of the negative aspects of East Oakland.

Upon arrival, Executive Director Kemba Shakur, Project Manager Kevin Jefferson, and tree stewards Jamal Davis and Armond Davis found about 30-40 volunteers ready to get the planting (sponsored by Invest from the Ground Up) underway. In addition to members of Wo’se and Ile Omode, there were groups from the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, Bishop O’ Dowd High School, PG&E, and Pandora (AT&T’s landscaper even joined in later). Wo’se minister and community organizer Greg Hodge played an invocation on African djembe drums as the group formed a circle. Hodge then made libations to the ancestors, and every participant in the circle was asked to name the name of an ancestor.

Once the ritual ceremony was completed, it was time to plant trees! Following a brief explanation of what was to be done by Jefferson, volunteers headed out, shovels in hand, in groups of three. Thankfully, due to recent rains which lessened the drought-like conditions and softened up the soil considerably, the planting went smoothly and quickly. The first tree was in the ground not 15 minutes after the planting commenced—which may be a new Urban Releaf record. Several trees were planted in and around the school/church ground, in front of the AT&T facility, on neighboring sidewalks, and a few blocks down the street. The whole process went very smoothly, and the impact was immediate and noticeable; where once had stood barren sidewalks were now tree-lined streets which would only grow more aesthetically-pleasing and environmentally-beneficial with time.

As is often the case, local residents came out to view the tree planting as it was taking place, including one homeowner, an elder African American woman who had lived there since 1962! Numerous cars rolled by, some with gaudy 22” or 26” rims, but instead of mean mugs and hard stares, the Urban Releaf crew were greeted with smiles. Toward the end of the planting, a bunch of young kids rolled by on their self-modified “scraper bikes,” catching the attention of Shakur, who stopped them to pose for a picture with the group of urban cyclists.

By 1:30pm, the last tree was in the ground, staked and tied, and the Urban Releaf crew was headed back to its North Oakland headquarters, with the satisfied feeling of a job well done. Community members were overjoyed at the difference the newly-planted trees were already making, and with minor maintenance and regular watering, those trees will grow up to be symbols of a vibrant community spirit which can and does flourish, even in the heart of the inner-city.

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