Community Champions are Turning to Trees, Planting Positive Change
Everyone knows “that person” in their community. Connected with all the neighbors. Always ready to lend a hand. Constantly caring for others. Dedicated to improving the place they call home. They see a potential issue and actively look for solutions; they see an opportunity for progress and jump right in.
These are motivated people personally invested in creating real change right where they live. And more and more, they are turning to trees as part of that positive change. As understanding grows around all the benefits community trees provide, it is becoming more apparent than ever that many neighborhoods need more green space for residents to thrive.
Through urban tree planting efforts, the Arbor Day Foundation has had the privilege of working with many of these dedicated people. Each comes from a different background and got involved in greening their neighborhoods for different reasons. But one thing connects them all: a passion for their communities.
George Acklin has lived in the Parkwood neighborhood for nearly 50 years. This is where he and his wife raised their children, and it’s where their grandchildren now come to visit. It is truly home.
“Since we raised our children in this house, this is what I consider to be our home place. Whenever our children think about going home, they think about this place,” Acklin said. They had opportunities to move, but they just couldn’t see themselves living anywhere else. “We decided to stay here … so that everybody could still come home.”
He has poured so much of himself into his beloved Parkwood community over the years. This retired minister serves as a school crossing guard, neighborhood association president, and environmental beautification commissioner. He also organizes volunteers to clean up litter and even mows the grounds at the neighborhood entrance when the city can’t get to it.
This may seem like a lot for one person to take on, but that’s just how Acklin was raised. From an early age, his mother instilled in him the importance of service to others. “We didn’t have a lot. Matter of fact, we had less than a lot, less than that,” he said. Regardless, Mrs. Acklin would cook meals for neighbors with even less. “When she gets it done, we’re getting ready to eat and she says, ‘This is not for you all. We’re going to give this to somebody else.’ She takes the meal and gives it to another family that had less than we had."
That was the Acklin family’s way — supporting others even when they had so little. “We didn’t mind. People just shared in those days, and people still share in this day. You might not see it all, but people still share that way. That’s the way I was brought up.”
So when he sees a way he can serve his beloved community, Acklin doesn’t hesitate. And lately, he’s been invested in tree planting. He spearheaded the planting of more than 75 trees along that neighborhood entrance he helps to mow. “The corridor was okay, but it did not look inviting,” he said. "I wanted to do something to make the entrance more inviting, make it more beautiful. I couldn’t think of anything more inviting or more beautiful than trees."
He also helps to spread the word about a citywide program offering free trees for Nashville residents living in low-canopy neighborhoods. As a Tree Captain, Acklin serves as an advocate within the Parkwood community to help his neighbors understand the benefits of planting more trees in their yards. He’s also a familiar face those homeowners trust. “I talk to them, tell them what’s going on. I tell them there’s no catch to it, it’s real,” he said. “There’s the trust factor. Now they know that it’s real and they can trust me and they can trust the program. Then they can tell their neighbors and those neighbors can tell their neighbors. And it can explode like a ripple effect.”
The ripple effect is definitely at work. Neighbor by neighbor, tree by tree, Parkwood is becoming greener. And the benefits of these trees will be part of Acklin’s legacy — living on for generations to come.
Enid Pinkney is a storyteller at heart. And the story she tells is one of community — preserving the heritage of her Brownsville neighborhood and supporting her neighbors. Her perspective is unique, having lived in the area for a long time and leading the charge to preserve historical sites steeped in cultural significance. She’s even written a book about the history of Brown Sub (Brownsville’s nickname).
Her activism has made her an icon in this underserved community, and she continues each day to work hard for this corner of Miami. “This community has a history of being a family community, but now it's been infiltrated by developers who are coming in, and there are some high rises. We are trying to protect this family living in this community,” Pinkney said. “We are working on getting historic designation for this community so that we can keep the cultural heritage of this community and try to protect it.”
An important part of preserving the heritage of Brownsville is supporting those who live there now. Most people in Pinkney’s community are facing food insecurity. The area is an urban food desert, with insufficient access to fresh and healthy food options. And with the average household income nearly 30% below the poverty line, the lack of a grocery store within walking distance is a significant problem.
This was Pinkney’s moment to follow her heart and write a new chapter of Brownsville’s story. She volunteered a quarter-acre plot of land next door to her home to be used for a community garden, and people rallied together to bring it to life. Over two days, through blistering June heat and fast-moving rain squalls, two local nonprofit organizations and dozens of volunteers from the neighborhood planted 45 fruit trees and a variety of vegetables.
Pinkney was touched by the experience of watching this space come to life. “You know, I really can't put into words how I'm inspired by what is taking place today and by the people who have come to share the labor. And it shows that good people are around. We just need to get them together and put them to work so that they can show the way.”
But more than getting the trees and plants in the ground, this day was about new experiences. And Pinkney said it best: “This is a teaching experience. It's a learning experience. It's a building history experience.”
Now, a portion of Enid’s yard will be a gathering place. For neighbors and for nourishment. “Well, you know, I'm happy to be able to do that, to be able to bring people together and that makes me feel good,” she said. "They will know there's a place that they can come, and the food is available and it's for them."
Her love for this community has now been written into the story of Brownsville, shaping the future into something a bit better.
Newark, New Jersey
Marcia Heard is a natural go-getter — heavily involved in her community of Newark and in the arts. She serves as the executive director and co-founder of ACCA Creates, an organization focused on arts, culture, and community activism. And in true go-getter fashion, she was one of the founders of her neighborhood organization, Beautiful Mead Street.
Heard has a connection to trees that started when she was young. Her early years were spent at her grandmother’s home in a well-treed area of Chicago. "I have strong memories of tree-lined streets where the trees were like a cathedral, a canopy of beauty."
In 2020, that can-do attitude and connection to trees combined.
Beautiful Mead Street applied for a grant through the City of Newark. The goal was to make some small-scale improvements, including adding hanging plants. But Heard said, “I wanted more for our block.” She wanted something closer to the neighborhood trees of her childhood. “I noticed that trees had been cut down, and trees were not replaced. So I did a canvas of the blocks asking people if they were interested in trees. Some said yes.”
At that point, Heard really dove in. She educated herself on all the benefits trees provide in a community, sharing her learnings about air quality improvement, stormwater management, heat island reduction, and more. She also researched the best tree species options for her neighborhood, given their narrower boulevards.
The next step was contacting a local tree planting organization. And according to Heard, “When I reached out to them, it was just magic.” They were able to support her by handling funding, tree sourcing, and all the planning. Before she knew it, she was spearheading a planting event for her community.
In total, 15 trees were planted along Mead Street on the day of their event. But with a total of 65 homes within her neighborhood, Heard sees this as an ongoing effort. “We haven’t given up. We are still approaching people and asking them if they are interested in tree planting now that they see the other trees up,” she said.
This is a glowing example of what is possible. This small but mighty group of neighbors — led by a true neighborhood champion — understood the importance of trees and made tree planting happen in their community.