Two environmental justice advocates from central Pennsylvania, Zeshan Ismat and Brennan Ka’aihue, will lead tree planting projects in underserved sections of their communities. They were awarded 2022 Mira Lloyd Dock Partnership Diversity awards by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership.
Ismat, a geology professor at Franklin & Marshall College, is founder of Blackbirds Environmental Justice group, which organizes activities in Lancaster County centered on connecting with nature and taking care of it.
Ka’aihue, a stewardship specialist for Central Pennsylvania Conservancy, works primarily in Harrisburg and Carlisle teaching young adults how to get involved hands-on in conservation.
In part, the project aims to encourage communities to plant more street trees, which is often a challenge because of lack of city funding for replacing dead trees and the costs associated with taking care of them.
“If people don’t have trees in their community, they’re facing a lot of hardships, not just economically, not just with stormwater and flooding, but also looking at things like they’re getting exposed to heat a lot more, the air quality is a lot worse off,“ 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 supplies.
The award was named after botanist, environmentalist and educator Mira Lloyd Dock, who led efforts to create more green urban spaces in Harrisburg and who 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 Central Pennsylvania Conservancy, they work in “environmental justice areas,” which are areas designated by the EPA as needing extra resources.
Ka’aihue helps monitor conservation easements for Harrisburg’s Capital Area Greenbelt and in Cumberland County’s Letort Spring Garden Preserve.
“I think teaching our young people about the environment, and what they can do to care for it is one of our most important duties as humans,”Ka’aihue said.
Ismat decided to create the Blackbirds Environmental Justice group when she was looking for a Girls Scouts group for her daughter but could not find one. She wanted to create an empowering space for kids of color, while creating awareness about environmental issues.
“When people talk about climate change, and what we need to do, I feel like it doesn’t make any sense unless we have that deep connection with the land, and it’s neat, because the kids are from all different backgrounds, and they’re beginning to make that connection to then feeling empowered,” Ismat said.
Blackbirds later expanded to adults, and some activities now include knocking on doors to inform people about programs the city has for lead remediation in homes. The group also helps plant raised-bed gardens, and worked with the Lancaster city police to set up a garden at the city’s Art Park – the site of George Floyd protests in 2020.
The group also organizes hikes for refugee families in Lancaster to help them feel more connected to their new home.
“I want kids and families–particularly people of color from marginalized communities– to know that this is their land, not simply to care about the environment,” Ismat said. “Your identity is shaped by your connection to your land, and if that connection is strained, then your community also weakens.”
Both Ismat and Ka’aihue plan to work with their respective communities to determine where the trees should be planted. Ka’aihue will work with forestry experts in Carlisle and Harrisburg. Ismat says she will work with Lancaster city and wants to include residents.
“It would be so neat for kids to see these trees that they planted and watch them grow, so it should be a place that’s accessible and that they can go and see us, you know, and be a part of it and know that it’s theirs,” Ismat said.