This story is part of “Earth Day Every Day,” Word In Black’s series exploring the environmental issues facing Black Americans and the solutions we’re creating in the fight for climate justice.
Halfway through Earth Month 2023, Alpha Kappa Alpha has already planted more than 2,500 trees, nearly reaching its goal of 3,100 in April.
This project is part of the sorority’s Enhance Our Environment initiative. When rolling out the initiative, Danette Anthony Reed, the international president and CEO of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, told her members she wanted to dedicate the entire month of April to planting trees.
“That means I wanted them to put on some jeans, kick off their stilettos, get out their gardening gloves, put on their sneakers, and go out and plant trees,” Reed says. “There’s a lot of power behind planting trees. What I wanted to do, knowing that power exists, is figure out how we could develop a way to plant trees.”
Trees reduce pollution, cool cities and homes, increase property values, save water by reducing soil erosion, block ultraviolet let, provide wildlife habitats, and reduce noise. Ultimately, they bring people together, Reed says.
Trees certainly brought together AKA and the Arbor Day Foundation, which is providing the trees for this project. Conversations started around two years ago, and the Arbor Day Foundation designed a portal for AKA members to order trees that were appropriate for their climate zone. There are more than 20 tree species available to order, including various oaks, maples, sycamore, river birch, and flowering trees, like redbud and magnolia. They can order either seedlings for distribution or one-gallon trees for plantings.
AKA has 1,061 chapters across the country, and more than 115,000 active members. They can choose where they want to plant, be it on a college campus, their own properties, or in a community space.
Research shows that historically disadvantaged communities are often disproportionately affected by urban heat islands and heat-related illnesses, says Kristen Bousquet, a program manager at the Arbor Day Foundation.
Baltimore has clear examples of urban heat islands, especially due to redlining. The wealthiest — and whitest — areas of the city tend to have about 45% of tree cover, and the areas with the fewest amount of trees are the redlined neighborhoods, often with only 11% tree cover, according to a joint investigation between NPR and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism.
“The focus is truly getting trees in the places where they’ll do the most good, where they’re needed the most,” Bousquet says.
Part of the initiative is making sure young people are involved, so AKA is bringing their Youth Leadership Initiative, which is made up of tweens and teens ages 11-13. They were given the seedling packets to plant around their communities. It’s important to involve these kids so they know the power of trees from a young age, Reed says.
“It’ll be something that they have done now, and they’ll remember it,” Reed says. “It’s something where they’re outside, enjoying the fresh air, getting off the electronics, and moving forward, we’re working in the environment. So again, it all centers around enhancing our environment.”
Working with young people was something that really excited Bousquet about the partnership. It’s an opportunity to engage with children that empowers them to be productive citizens and future leaders early on.
“By introducing those young people to the benefits of trees, we’re helping them engage with their communities in a meaningful way while truly being a steward of the environment,” Bousquet says. “It’s really a way for them to be productive, have self-worth, and feel grounded and connected to their surroundings.”
The partnership between AKA and the Arbor Day Foundation will continue for years to come, as trees are the most scalable and affordable way to fight climate change.
“They aren’t necessarily a silver bullet, but they do a lot of work for communities and bring in biodiversity,” Bousquet says. “It’s a really exciting opportunity to continue working within the networks and with the members within their chapter to continue to do more tree planting and more good to better the future for all of those communities.”
And, as the years progress, Reed wants to challenge her members to increase the number of planting they do every April.
“You start slowly. Our goal is to make a global impact on the environment,” Reed says. “What I love about the members of Alpha Kappa Alpha is they continue to want to make sure that we do it big. They’re loving it, and it’s different, and it’s getting folks outside.”
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