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By Eric K. Arnold

Ten a.m. on a spring day in March and the sun was already blazing with mid-day intensity as a circle of people gathered at Wo’se Church of the African Way/Ile Omode charter school—a center of spirituality and learning for the East Oakland community—for a tree planting ceremony. Greg Hodge, a former Oakland school board president and father of nationally-known poet and playwright Chinaka Hodge, led the impromptu congregation, which included local residents, volunteers, and tree stewards from the nonprofit urban forestry organization Urban Releaf.

The community had requested the tree plantings after a daytime shooting in front of the school grounds, which frazzled nerves and increased concerns about public safety. Young African American girls helped plant several trees in the schoolyard; then volunteers fanned out along the surrounding streets, picking up trash dumped in front of an AT&T substation, and digging holes for the tree stewards to plant in. Almost immediately after the first trees went into the ground, the mood on the streets seemed to lighten and become less dangerous. Residents cruising around the hood in muscle cars ceased mean-mugging pedestrians. Older folks came out on their front lawns to watch the proceedings.

All told, about 30 trees were planted that day, which is significant for a neighborhood whose sidewalks were almost bare of vegetation, but just a drop in the bucket for rebuilding Oakland’s overall tree canopy.