Collaboratively connecting a community to their natural resources
In April, residents of the Wilkes community got to celebrate nature in their neighborhood with an Earth Day Celebration at Wilkes City Park. Dozens of volunteers participated in a tree care event and an ivy pull, followed by food, fun, and a bird walk through two natural areas in the Wilkes neighborhood.
This celebration was part of Greening Wilkes, a project incorporating a layered approach to community engagement. Four community organizations have joined together in the collaborative effort to enhance and diversify green spaces throughout the neighborhood around Wilkes City Park and Wilkes Creek Headwaters in outer East Portland.
Friends of Trees, Portland Audubon, Verde, Columbia Slough Watershed Council, and Portland Parks & Recreation have teamed up on this pilot project, so that they can each provide their unique and complementary approaches to community engagement around important natural resources in the Wilkes community. The work is currently being supported by Port of Portland Airport Futures and Slough Enhancement grant funds.
Portland Audubon is enrolling Wilkes residents in their Backyard Habitat Certification Program and leading community nature walks and educational activities. Verde is building relationships with youth and families in the Wilkes community, and has supported further engagement by flyering and door knocking. Columbia Slough Watershed Council has worked on site prep and vegetation management with Wisdom of the Elders and Teen Service Corps.
This planting season, Friends of Trees put on two planting events and two tree care events in the community. Greening the community can take place in both neighborhoods and natural areas, so we worked with community members to prune street trees and plant trees on private property to grow the neighborhood’s canopy, and we continued the robust restoration work at the Wilkes Creek Headwaters Natural Area with Portland Parks & Recreation.
The natural area is special because it is home to the headwaters of Wilkes Creek. Just past the planting site, you can see the natural spring where water comes to the surface and turns into a stream.
“Wilkes Creek is one of the only remaining free flowing above ground streams that makes its way into the Columbia Slough,” says Yoko Silk, a Stewardship Coordinator with Portland Parks and Recreation. “There used to be hundreds, now there’s only a handful. So it’s really special for being that source of cold, clean water into the slough. And it provides a really important habitat to all sorts of critters.”
Volunteers, with crew leaders from POIC, planted and cared for nearly 1,000 native plants and shrubs at the Wilkes Creek Natural Area this year. Beyond enhancing habitat and greening the community, the planting and tree care events give Wilkes residents an opportunity to connect with nature, and each other. That connection is the shared goal of all the organizations working on the project.
“I’ve had community members tell me that they didn’t even realize that this natural spring was here,” says Harrison Layer, our Green Space Specialist who leads Wilkes Creek plantings. “It’s really special to share it with them.”
Engaging Community to Take Climate Action
We know that trees fight climate change. And here at Friends of Trees our experience partnering with thousands of community members tells us that the volunteer experience also helps fight climate change – because folks who volunteer to plant and care for trees often go on to become involved with other environmental issues, including taking climate action.
We’re excited to share that through our partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, APANO (Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon), Portland State University’s Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, OHSU-PSU Joint School of Public Health, and Willamette Partnership, we should soon have quantitative and additional qualitative data to support this. This project recognizes that “where one lives or works, one’s age, if one has pre-existing health conditions or chronic illnesses, and race or income all impacts how and how much climate change harms health.” Friends of Trees’ efforts over the past 20+ years of planting in east Portland and other low-canopy, underserved neighborhoods also recognizes this, and this partnership takes these efforts to the next level, especially around community involvement.
“Engaging with historically marginalized communities about where neighborhood change needs to happen and how it might happen are the first steps to ensuring an equitable urban forestry program.”
– Dr. Vivek Shandas, PSU, School of Urban Studies
A major project milestone is the formation of a community advisory board, facilitated by APANO, and comprised of people who live in, work in, or regularly engage with east Portland’s Jade District. Participants include a Friends of Trees tree recipient, a PSU student, a middle school student, a Rosemary Anderson High School/POIC graduate, a biology educator, and Multnomah County representation. Upcoming CAB activities include a live tree walk in the Jade District, exploring topics such as infrastructure challenges to adding trees (e.g., with so many parking lots, where and how do we plant trees?) and how to address these challenges.
“What’s really exciting about this project is the community advisory board, which isn’t something we usually have the resources to develop.” Michelle Yasutake, Friends of Trees Green Space Program Manager
Michelle’s project role involves a major project milestone, the formation of a community advisory board, facilitated by APANO, and comprised of people who live in, work in, or regularly engage with east Portland’s Jade District. Dr. Shandas is also a strong supporter of direct community involvement, “By integrating community voices with our technical know-how, this project is identifying ‘nature-based solutions’ in areas that have been neglected and disinvested by regional decision makers.”
Friends of Trees wants to do even more to engage people in the community in project planning and prioritizing, and we know that the best way to achieve diverse and authentic representation is to be able to provide stipends in consideration of the time it takes people to participate. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recognizes the value of this and its grant includes funding for these stipends. Michelle further emphasizes the importance of community involvement,
“This project, and the community advisory board, are so important to Friends of Trees’ goals around equity, diversity and inclusion and our efforts to genuinely work with the people who actually live and work in the community, and to do so in a way that ensures community members feel like they are truly a part of the process.”
Next steps in the project include data collection through surveying the community; we’re asking questions about neighborhood involvement, civic engagement such as voting, the impact of COVID on household income, and more. We’ll also take on a tangible project such as adding green infrastructure (trees, bioswales, shrubs) to a site identified as a priority by the community; and we’ll be using a research tool called Photovoice.
Photovoice is a hands-on, photography-based research method designed to help community members identify and discuss important community issues and take social action. Photovoice involves using cameras/smartphones to visually document, describe, and discuss important community concerns.
For this Photovoice project, adult and youth community residents will use photography and digital mapping to collaboratively identify and map out important climate, greenspace, and community health concerns—centering the perspectives of residents of East Portland and the Jade District. This will include identifying specific places and spaces that represent important locations of daily climate and greenspace experiences. The goal is to create new local climate and community health data that prioritizes community lived experience and knowledge, such that the data can be used to respond to specific community concerns.
The purpose of this partnership is to “Examine the physical and social dimensions of a tree planting program as a strategy to improve public health and mitigate climate change.” East Portland is one of seven communities across the country where RWJF is studying health, health equity and climate change solutions through its Culture of Health Action Framework, marking RWJF’s first foray into climate health solutions. As this project progresses we’ll share more milestones and updates, so stay tuned!
Photo at top: Friends of Trees East Portland tree planting event, November 2019.
A letter from executive director Yashar Vasef, with an update about community tree planting in Portland
It’s official: We need trees more than ever. Heatwaves, flooding, and all of the increasingly catastrophic effects of climate change make it clear that every day needs to be the day for climate action. Friends of Trees has been planting trees in neighborhoods and natural areas for 32 years; we’re planting street and yard trees that will shade our streets and cool our homes, prioritizing low-canopy, underserved neighborhoods, and we’re also planting native trees and shrubs to help restore sensitive natural areas.
Since 1989 we’ve planted more than 870,000 trees and native shrubs, and we’ve done this through engaging tens of thousands of community members, and while implementing and growing programming that aims to do this work inclusively and equitably.
“At a time when climate change is making heat waves more frequent and more severe, trees are stationary superheroes.” (New York Times, 7/2/2021)
It’s not enough. We are experiencing climate chaos, and trees are increasingly promoted as a major solution, which is why you may have seen Friends of Trees in the news recently. Some of that news focused on our 13 year partnership with the City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services.
It seemed until recently that funding for our work planting and caring for street and yard trees in Portland was ending, and our concern was that with our funding ending, and without funding being awarded to anyone for community tree planting, this critical work would be suspended for an unknown amount of time. And given climate change’s growing severity, we simply cannot afford to even temporarily pause community tree planting.
It is widely acknowledged that planting trees is a key part of a comprehensive climate strategy. It is our experience at Friends of Trees that planting trees with community members is also key to fighting climate change.
Planting and caring for trees increases community members’ engagement with the environment and overall participation in civic life, including engaging around climate action. There is a ripple effect from volunteering to plant trees that also fights climate change, beyond the actual trees. We expect to have quantitative data supporting this from the research we are conducting through our community grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, look for an update this winter.
We have since learned that we will receive gap funding to partially continue our Portland tree planting and care efforts through spring 2022, and our deepest thanks go to BES, and also to Commissioner Mingus Mapps’ office, which played a critical role in this positive development. However, there are some significant changes that if implemented would drastically change community tree planting in the City of Portland. As details firm up we will continue to keep you updated.
This particular contract is so important because so much of it has funded planting street trees. Trees play an invaluable role in combating heat islands brought on by climate change, and street trees especially so. Streets and concrete sidewalks absorb and retain heat, and release it at night; street trees help fight this effect and are crucial to cooling neighborhoods.
By now most of us are aware of the inequities with Portland’s tree canopy, one result of which is more heat islands in low-canopy/low-income/under-served neighborhoods. Friends of Trees prioritizes these neighborhoods and will continue to advocate for partnerships and practices that plant trees where they are needed most.
Looking past this upcoming season, BES has said they will issue a new RFP (Request For Proposals) for this sort of work–community tree planting and tree care–sometime this fall/winter, and our understanding is that, while they acknowledge the success of our partnership, they would like to engage other, diverse community partners. And to that we say, Yes!
We fully support BES taking on a new approach to their contracts in a way that prioritizes smaller and BIPOC organizations. It is our belief that uplifting such organizations in this work will make our mission stronger and brings all of us closer to climate justice by introducing voices at the table which were previously shut out. This is why Friends of Trees, during the evolution of our 13 year partnership with BES, has entered into partnerships in this work with organizations such as APANO, Blueprint Foundation, POIC, Verde, Wisdom of the Elders, and others.
Yes, BES (and all other public and private funders) should absolutely fund more community organizations in the fight against climate change and toward climate justice, and we fully support an open RFP process. As more funders work to diversify their support of community organizations, we encourage an approach that increases the funding pie (as in, make a bigger pie as opposed to cutting smaller slices) so more partners can be included. The planet is literally on fire and NOW is the time to increase investments in climate change.
Now we really have some work to do. We are preparing for the next planting season, and we’re doing so with significantly decreased funding and options for our largest urban tree planting site, the City of Portland. In October, when we kick off our 33rd season of planting and caring for trees as a community, we’ll be coming to you to ask that you support this work like never before, since this will be a season like never before.
A global pandemic, climate change, social injustice and political strife present our community with unprecedented challenges and often devastating impacts. As we all work together to re-envision our future, a future that is green, healthy, equitable and inclusive, we must ask all our policy makers and leaders where do their values lie. And do their budgets address an urgent climate crisis unlike anything humanity has experienced? For the sake of our communities, our natural habitats, climate refugees, wildlife, and the pale blue dot we call home, together, let’s ensure they are up to the task.
All my best,
Yashar Vasef, Executive Director
Photo, top: Gambel oak tree
CONNECTING YOUTH TO NATURE, JOB TRAINING FOR THE ENVIRONMENT: JUST A COUPLE OF ELEMENTS OF SOME AMAZING PARTNERSHIPS
What started as a group of neighbors planting trees together 32 years ago has grown into a true community-based organization engaged in a wide variety of partnerships. Friends of Trees’ partnerships contribute to environmental education for K-12 students; adult job training programs; paid internships connecting underserved communities to the urban forestry field; greening low canopy neighborhoods; and so much more.
“Thank you for letting us come and plant with you, it was a GREAT experience. I learned that planting trees keeps us healthy and alive. It was a great opportunity to learn and also to be outside.” Kara, 4th grade, Friends of Trees-Charles F. Tigard Elementary School partnership
“American children now spend an average of only four to seven minutes per day playing outdoors, compared with over seven hours per day in front of a screen.” 1 That alone justifies our work with more than 2,000 young people in a typical season.
Friends of Trees’ educational programming actively and meaningfully connects youth of all ages with nature. We’re in the classroom with information about the benefits of trees, and we’re outside, actively planting and caring for trees with young people. Our work with high school students includes leadership skill building and job training through paid internships. Some stories about our youth education partnerships are here.
“Partnering with Friends of Trees has helped teach Wisdom interns management skills; we learn how to manage a business, how to engage with business people, it prepares everybody for employment.” Alvey Seeyouma, Wisdom Workforce Development Program Coordinator and Crew Leader Supervisor
A growing partnership endeavor, our Adult Urban Forestry Program, includes as past and current partners APANO, POIC, Verde, Wisdom of the Elders, Blueprint Foundation, and the Black Parent Initiative. The program connects historically underserved community members with job training and internship opportunities in the urban forestry field, read more here.
Greening low-canopy neighborhoods is an ongoing priority for Friends of Trees, and our work with APANO and other partners on the Jade Greening Project helps address this in an equitable way. Low-canopy neighborhoods are often low-income and home to historically underserved communities. These neighborhoods, such as NE Portland’s Jade District, experience significant environmental health disparities, stemming from exposure to air toxins and lack of walk-ability/accessibility. The Jade Greening Project engaged Jade District residents in dialogue about community needs to ensure the greening and revitalization–and not the gentrification- of the Jade District.
This is not an exhaustive compilation of partners, and doesn’t even touch on the more than 1,000 groups that have planted with us over the years! We’ve hosted all the scouts, reunions, birthday celebrations, employer groups, college students, high school students, elementary school students … it’s truly inspiring to see how many groups of you celebrate milestones or learn or bond or just choose to get together through planting trees together. We can’t wait to welcome you all back again!
1 National Recreation and Park Association
photo: Rosemary Anderson HS POIC students at a recent planting event.
Meet The Blueprint Foundation
“I like the feeling of getting my hands dirty because I feel like I did something. It’s a good feeling.”
Lashay, Friends of Trees intern through the Blueprint Foundation
Friends of Trees is fortunate to have relationships with quite a few local nonprofit organizations that benefit under-served communities, such as communities of color, at-risk youth, and neighborhoods with very little tree canopy. These partnerships help make trees accessible to community members who may not otherwise have access to all that trees do for us.
The Blueprint Foundation works to expose Black urban youth to learning opportunities they usually do not get to access. Friends of Trees is proud to be a partner to the Blueprint Foundation’s Grounding Waters program, where students learn about careers in environmental science while taking an active role in environmental stewardship.
“One of the first and most consistent activities we’ve had our kids do is the Friends of Trees neighborhood plantings, which allows them to connect with their neighbors, as well as do something directly beneficial to their own community, that they see, that has permanence.” – Jason Stroman, Program Director, The Blueprint Foundation; Friends of Trees Board of Directors
The Friends of Trees – Blueprint Foundation partnership introduces Black youth to jobs in the urban forestry field. Students receive stipends to gain job and leadership skills through training and participating with Friends of Trees as Summer Tree Inspectors and tree planting Crew Leaders.
The Blueprint-Friends of Trees partnership helps connect young people to the environment, while also supporting a historically underrepresented community’s access to nature and its benefits by decreasing barriers to participation. “The ultimate goal,” Jason points out, “is to eliminate the opportunity gap that we see for Black youth.”