Meet our new Executive Director: Yashar Vasef

Our new Executive Director talks about oak trees, calling his mom, climate change, and more!

Friends of Trees welcomed our new Executive Director on January 11th and it’s safe to say that Yashar Vasef hasn’t had a dull moment. He’s jumped right in, meeting one-on-one with staff; attending planting events; answering volunteers’ questions; and talking with project partners.

We talked with Yashar about his organizational observations and goals, his favorite tree, how he unwinds, and so much more (you’ll have to read to the end to find out what his favorite tree is):

I came to Friends of Trees wanting to be somewhere that is on the front lines of addressing climate action, and where the benefits of the mission in action are both local and global. I love it!

What new & interesting tree tidbit have you learned since you joined the Tree Team?

I appreciated hearing about the vast decline of the Oregon white oak, and how vital this tree is to the natural habitat. I learned that oak trees help support more than 70 species of wildlife! It was exciting to hear FOT plants the Oregon White Oak in a bid to reassert its positive presence in our habitat.

What’s the first thing you did, Day 1, as the new Friends of Trees Executive Director?

I had a wonderful check-in and chat with Mary Harrel, our office manager and most tenured staff member. She’s been around for more than 25 years! Right away, she made me feel at home and I knew this was going to be a welcoming environment.

How did you unwind after that first day?

I like to go on evening strolls, and I recall phoning my mom on that walk after I wrapped up work. The family is very tight-knit in Iranian culture, so naturally, she had to know every example of minutiae stemming from that first day.

Describe your path to Friends of Trees’ Executive Director.

Most of my background as an adult is in human rights and international issues. This work ranged from community mobilizing around issues of immigrant/refugee aid to advocating for responsive foreign policy around an array of issues including climate change, global health, and human conflict.

Most previously, I was Development Director at Community Cycling Center. That job was the first time I really worked at a nonprofit which focused on benefiting the local community, and it’s in that spirit that I transitioned to FOT. I wanted to be somewhere that is on the frontlines of addressing climate action, and where the benefits of the mission in action are both local and global. I love it!

What are the top 3 challenges you see for Friends of Trees?

The first challenge is for us to make sure we are continuing to take a critical look at our programming and engagement of the community (as most nonprofits should). We want to constantly evaluate the impact of our work and identify how we can make a bigger impact on the community while ensuring we are centering the needs of the people and neighborhoods who currently lack access to an urban canopy. This is especially true as we continue to gain a deeper understanding of inequities around trees not just in Portland or Eugene but the broader Pacific NW region as well.

Second, I think financial transparency is important and I see an obvious need to continue diversifying our revenue streams. We so appreciate our partnerships with government partners, but it’s important to ensure we have more in the way of unrestricted funding that we can use to support community needs in real-time. It’s so exciting to see our fundraising team doing an outstanding job continuing to grow our community of supporters. We are really grateful for the support of individuals and businesses in Oregon and Washington, and if you’re one of them, I want to say thank you for your generosity!

Finally, there is the issue of the urgency of NOW as it relates to climate action. We are ready to roll up our sleeves and plant more trees, but are elected officials and the community willing to invest in this work in a way that will produce profound benefits not just for our communities here, but the planet as well? As a former refugee, I look at this work as one part of the solution to preventing a mass wave of climate refugees.

The work of Friends of Trees is pretty unique in that we’re not just helping Oregonians and Washingtonians, but we are partaking in a global movement to support all of humanity as we brace ourselves for the worst impacts of climate change. There is so much more to do, but it’s only possible through deep investments from the community and government. Are we ready for that commitment, and is FOT effectively persuading the decision makers and the public?

How about the top 3 opportunities?

Here are three things I’m thinking about in this moment.

First, I see many opportunities for FOT to take efforts to uplift and collaborate with smaller organizations that are part of the movement to ensure equitable outcomes around trees and the urban canopy. This especially rings true for amazing organizations led by Black, indigenous or people of color (BIPOC), such as Blueprint Foundation. The more representation we have in this movement, and voices heard in the places where they influence community investment, the more genuine our collective impact will be in the community. This is super exciting to me, and I see nothing but positive outcomes for the programming of FOT as we further collaborate with BIPOC community leaders and groups.

Second, I see a surging youth and young adult movement pushing for more meaningful climate action from generations like mine. They’re fed up with the slow pace of government action, or perhaps more aptly, the inaction of government on many levels. How do we tap into this energy in a way that is meaningful to all and not exploitative of the youth? I would love to explore opportunities to collaborate and again, use our platform to help uplift these voices. And also, I think we all can learn some things from these youth leaders in the process.

Finally, I look forward to exploring strategies and opportunities around expanding our mission across the PNW region to communities where we are currently not engaged. We are hoping there are more cities who see the amazing benefits of planting trees and tree care (especially preventative care to avoid the worst outcomes of snow and ice storms!), particularly for underserved communities, and are willing to invest in that work with us. If FOT is not active in your community, I encourage you to connect with your city government and encourage them to reach out to us!

 What do you bring to the challenges and opportunities?

I’m not coming at this from a position of tree expertise, which I think provides for a different lens regarding how we analyze our mission and vision. I was engaged in lots of community mobilizing work with immigrant and refugee populations in the Midwest. I learned so much from that experience. If we want to play our part in building a powerful coalition around trees and climate action, we need to learn how to engage these types of populations. In that sense, I also bring some representation and a different cultural perspective.

Also, I have years of fundraising experience so I hope I can be an additional resource to the development team at FOT. Finally, while I have to pursue a lot of continuing education, I think I have a baseline understanding of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion concepts to help facilitate some of those conversations that relate to our integrity and engagement of underserved communities.

Where do you see the organization in 1 year? 5? What does Friends of Trees look like in 10 years?

In this first year, we will be adopting a new organizational Strategic Plan that will guide our next three years of work. This is an important conversation I am looking forward to, as it will frame our values and integrity around what we do. I’m hoping this is a plan that is front and center around all that we do, and not just another document that might get lost in the shuffle. I have high hopes!

In year five, I hope that we have established increasingly meaningful relationships with the communities we serve. That we are a place where even individuals from underserved communities want to volunteer and even find a job with. That’s what internal integrity looks like to me, and I think by continuing to center the needs of the community here in Portland, in Eugene and elsewhere we can ensure that we have cultivated meaningful relationships built around trust and a demonstrable commitment to helping address their needs through our mission.

By year 10, perhaps other regional cities have become aware of our great work, and have reached out to FOT to explore establishing our programing with their communities. We are a stronger regional brand, and viewed as a major regional player around climate action. And perhaps most important to me, we are seen as an organization with regional expertise around how to meaningfully engage vulnerable populations and BIPOC-led organizations to better understand their needs. Through this, we are known to play a vital role in building stronger and more connected communities through tree planting and tree care, and that in turn makes our region a better place to live and receive the benefits of trees.

What has surprised you about Friends of Trees?

The depth of the community’s appreciation and support for the organization. From the outside, I always viewed FOT as a well-respected community organization. But it’s been eye opening seeing the enthusiasm of volunteers and supporters!

Tell us about your first planting event with the Tree Team!

It was so enriching! I joined a planting event with our partner, POIC, at the Columbia Children’s Arboretum in North Portland. First of all, it was a rare sunny day so I hopped on my bicycle to get there. When I arrived, I saw POIC students helping enhance this beautiful natural space, and I loved the opportunity to engage them as well as with Leigh Rappaport, POIC Program Manager and longtime Friends of Trees volunteer. Leigh shared that the pandemic has severely restricted opportunities for the students to socialize with one another, so these planting events have not only connected them with our natural habitat but also help address the sense of solitude that has come with COVID-19 restrictions.

Any new hobbies developed during COVID-time?

I started cooking in a more serious way! Particularly, the Iranian dishes of my childhood. In some way, it helped fill the void of not being able to see my parents for a while. Each time I cooked a more complicated dish, I looked forward to the reaction of my parents who were positively stunned by my new hobby. It’s also been so rewarding sharing the flavors of Iran with housemates and friends.

In non-COVID times, what do you enjoy in your off-time?

I try to explore the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest. I’m really into hiking, backpacking and bikepacking! Star Trek marathons are always great too.

Okay, the burning question for so many, WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE TREE?

There was a row of weeping willows along the riverbank of the Iowa River in Iowa City where I spent countless hours studying, talking with friends, picnicking with romantic interests or just people watching with my headphones on. I just adore those trees. There’s a pretty big one in my neighborhood in North Portland and I get excited every time I see it!