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Through The Eyes of Women: Plant A Tree, Create A Neighborhood, Reduce Pollution, Fight Crime.

Urban Releaf/Michael Macor

Kemba Shakur founded the nonprofit UrbanReleaf in 1998 with the goal of transforming some of the poorest most barren parts of Oakland into friendly, verdant neighborhoods with tree-lined streets.


In a previous life, Kemba worked as a prison guard at Soledad and ironically noted that there were more trees on the grounds of the prison than on the street that she lived on in Oakland. 


Since moving to Oakland and starting Urban Releaf, over 20,000 trees have been planted in various neighborhoods in Oakland and Richmond.


Part of Kemba’s childhood was spent growing up in Hunter’s Point in San Francisco with her mother and 5 brothers and sisters.  Her mother would take the whole family on hikes and backpacking trips to some of the national and state parks and passed on an appreciation of nature’s beauty to Kemba.


Interestingly, as the neighborhoods start to look better with trees, people start talking to each other, walking the streets and generally looking after each other. Communities are revitalized.

  Kemba sees planting trees, growing gardens and sharing her love of nature as only one aspect of improving communities.  Equally important is a strong sense of social and environmental justice.  She refers to the MacArthur Maze, simply called “Maze” which reportedly is the world’s largest freeway interchange and is part of 880.  The 880 freeway has at least twice as much pollution because trucks cannot go on the part of 580 that traverses the wealthier hills of Oakland.


Poorer residents, many of whom are people of color, inhabit neighborhoods within short distances of the maze.There is one elementary school practically contiguous with this freeway interchange and a higher incidence of asthma has been documented among the students. Urban Releaf is applying for a grant to plant thousands of trees along the freeway which will reduce pollution and dampen the noise from the thousands of trucks and cars that traverse the freeway.


Urban Releaf survives on grants that barely cover the costs of the trees, equipment and the salaries of the many adolescents Kemba hires. She is committed to educating youth about planting, care and maintenance of trees and in so doing, teaching them the skills necessary to get a job and advance careers.


Interestingly, as the neighborhoods start to look better with trees, people start talking to each other, walking the streets and generally looking after each other.  Communities are revitalized. 


There is a flip side.  Real estate prices go up and some of the original residents have to move out.  The streets become greener and the residents paler.  But Kemba adamantly maintains that it is vitally important to continue to plant trees.  She shares her love of trees in a poem she wrote:


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,

and 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 matter what.


This story originally appeared here

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