Two environmental justice advocates from central Pennsylvania, Zeshan Ismat and Brennan Ka’aihue, will lead tree planting projects in underserved parts of their communities. They received the 2022 Mira Lloyd Dock Partnership Diversity Award from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership.
Ismat, a geology professor at Franklin & Marshall College, is the founder of Blackbirds Environmental Justice Group, which organizes activities in Lancaster County focused on connecting with and caring for nature.
Ka’aihue, a stewardship specialist for the Central Pennsylvania Conservancy, works primarily in Harrisburg and Carlisle teaching young adults how to get hands-on with conservation.
In part, the project aims to encourage communities to plant more street trees, which is often a challenge given the lack of municipal funds to replace dead trees and the costs associated with tending them.
“If people don’t have trees in their community, they face a lot of hardships, not just economically, not just with rainwater and flooding, but also because they’re exposed to a lot more heat. The air quality is a lot worse,” said Brenda Stieglitz, senior Manager of the 10 Million Trees Partnership campaign.
Both Ismat and Ka’aihue will receive $5,000 worth of trees and planting material.
The award is named after botanist, environmentalist and educator Mira Lloyd Dock, who worked to create more green urban spaces in Harrisburg and founded the Civic Club of Harrisburg.
Ka’aihue, who grew up in Nevada and has Hawaiian roots, studied cultural anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. As part of the Central Pennsylvania Conservancy, they work in “environmental justice areas” that the EPA has designated as areas needing additional resources.
Ka’aihue helps oversee conservation easements for Harrisburg’s Capital Area Greenbelt and Cumberland County’s Letort Spring Garden Preserve.
“I think one of our most important responsibilities as humans is to educate our young people about the environment and what they can do to take care of it,” Ka’aihue said.
Ismat decided to start the group Blackbirds Environmental Justice when she was looking for a Boy Scout group for her daughter but couldn’t find one. She wanted to create a place where children of color are empowered while also raising awareness of environmental issues.
“When people are talking about climate change and what we need to do, I don’t think it makes sense unless we have that deep connection with the country and it’s nice because the kids are all different backgrounds, and they We start making that connection to then feel empowered,” Ismat said.
Blackbirds were later extended to adults, and some activities now include knocking on doors to let people know about programs the city is offering for household lead remediation. The group also helps create raised bed gardens and worked with Lancaster Metropolitan Police to create a garden in the city’s Art Park – the site of the 2020 George Floyd protests.
The group also organizes walks for refugee families in Lancaster to help them feel more connected to their new homes.
“I want children and families — especially people of color from marginalized communities — to know that this is their land and they don’t just care about the environment,” Ismat said. “Your identity is shaped by your connection to your country, and when that connection is strained, your community is also weakened.”
Both Ismat and Ka’aihue plan to work with their respective communities to determine where the trees will be planted. Ka’aihue will work with forest experts in Carlisle and Harrisburg. Ismat says she will be working with the City of Lancaster and wants to get residents involved.
“It would be so nice for kids to see these trees that they planted and watch them grow, so it should be a place that’s accessible and where they can visit us, you know, and be a part of it and know it is theirs,” Ismat said.