Morton winner Kemba Shakur plants trees, improves lives

Urban ReLeaf executive director Kemba Shakur was in Nebraska City this past weekend to accept the Foundation’s J. Sterling Morton Award for her lifelong commitment to tree planting and conservation.

Shakur was one of 14 individuals, organizations and companies honored during the 41st annual Arbor Day Awards.

While much of Shakur’s impact is felt locally in Oakland, California, and surrounding communities, her influence on urban forestry has reached a national audience.

She started planting trees because her West Oakland neighborhood hardly had any — and she saw an immediate connection between the absence of greenery and the area’s struggles with crime, unemployment and pollution. Her experience working as a prison guard showed her what can happen to young people who don’t have enough positive influences and activities in their neighborhoods.

Shakur kept planting, in her front yard, on her block, in her neighborhood and eventually throughout the City of Oakland – block by block, turning “concrete jungle into a green oasis.” In the process, she created jobs and volunteer opportunities for young people, giving them the tools to give back to their own communities.

During Saturday’s awards ceremony, Shakur stressed that planting trees in cities is shovel ready, low-budget and able to make a real difference in people’s lives.

“Now is our time,” she said, of the urban forestry movement. She also shared a brief poem connecting young trees with the triumph of the human spirit:

There’s a tree that grows in Oakland.
It’s not just any trees, 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.

Shakur’s work caught the attention of NBC Bay Area, which profiled her in advance of receiving this year’s award. You can view the segment below.