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Richmond residents watch trees grow on the big screen, hope for the same in their neighborhoods

on June 11, 2012

On Saturday evening more than 30 Richmond residents concerned about the environment gathered at the home of Marci Valdivieso to watch a documentary about Wangari Maathai. Maathai was a Kenyan environmental and political activist who started the Green Belt Movement that shed light on the importance of trees and soil conservation in 1977, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She died last year due to complications from ovarian cancer.

The event was organized by Richmond Trees, a small group of North and East residents who plant trees of shade and hope throughout the city. Formerly known as the North and East Tree Team, it’s a grassroots team working in partnership with the City of Richmond Parks and Landscaping to replant areas near sidewalks where city utilities will allow.

Nancy Palate, a Richmond Trees member, said the purpose of the movie was to inspire people—to show them how much one person can do for their community. “And to fundraise,” she added. “So that we can get more trees.”

In just one year the small group has planted 150 trees in the North and East neighborhood, the area just north of McDonald Avenue—between 23rd Street and San Pablo Avenue.

The film began by showing Maathai as a young country girl who wanted to save tadpoles from the effects of deforestation. Because of fewer trees, streams either dried up or were filled by soil runoff. Frogs no longer had a place to breed. Eventually this young girl would grow up and create a network of organized women, nurseries and tree planting events to save the watershed. After nearly 10 years of community organizing, Maathai was seen as an urban development speed bump and political threat to then President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi. By this time many of her friends began to abandon her in public, only environmentalists and mothers of political prisoners stood by her side. In 1989 Maathai nearly lost her life while trying to protect Nairobi’s Uhuru Park from the construction of a new 60-story business complex. President Moi’s guards attacked her environmental group with clubs and rocks as they tried to enter the construction site. The 60-story building was never constructed.

To view the movie, people sat in a basement living room that doubled as a recording studio, munching and sipping on complimentary popcorn and lemonade. For a buck or two they could also buy homemade baked goods. Artist and composer Marci Valdivieso said she and her husband decided to open their home for the event because they wanted to reach out to more of the community. The recently moved couple from Florida said the Latin music they compose is a good fit with what Richmond Trees promotes. “Our music is social in content,” she said. “And that includes worrying about the environment.”

After the movie people had the chance to share their feelings about what they saw., “If you stand up for what you believe in, it will happen—even if you struggle,” said one man about his interpretation of the message of the film. Another woman said the movie was about the interconnectedness of life. “It’s not just about trees,” she said.

Richmond resident Lee Micheaux has been planting trees for the past two years. She saw the movie and said she felt empowered and reassured that grassroots groups can change the world. Although Richmond has a lot of backyard fruit trees, there are city blocks where it’s just concrete as far as the eye can see, she said. “Changing Richmond one tree at a time—it goes beyond just the simple act of planting a tree, but it really builds community where we know we’re in this together,” Micheaux said.

Teri Katz, Richmond Trees coordinator, said the group hopes to plant trees in other areas of Richmond. “Our long-term vision is not only to plant a lot of trees but to train young people in urban forestry skills,” she said, “to start tree nurseries. What better kind of job than to train the young people of Richmond on how to plant, grow and care for trees, and see the next generation appreciate an urban forest?”

For more information on how to join Richmond Trees or to obtain free trees from the City of Richmond contact Teri Katz at


  1. Lee Micheaux on June 11, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    Tyler, thank you so much for covering this event and for sharing our story!

  2. mary on June 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    I wish someone would stop the people who have been pouring into the neighborhood over the last several years who chop down trees–street trees included–rip out front yards, install iron fences and cement the whole thing in. Street trees, which were planted in the late 90s by the previous bunch of us who got together for this purpose, are being hacked down. It makes the north and east neighborhood look desolate and uncared for.

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