Portraits of High school students Tiara Wilkerson and Cali Carson of the Keep Oakland Beautiful Youth Advisory.
Keep Oakland Beautiful Youth Advisory members, Tiara Wilkerson (left) and Cali Carson (right), intend to plant 141 trees in Oakland in March. Credit: Amir Aziz

Two Oakland students concerned about environmental waste have an ambitious plan to help make our city greener—and are turning to the community for support. 

On March 20, Tiara Wilkerson and Cali Carson plan to plant nearly 150 trees around the city to help address the million sheets of paper their schools use each year. They’ll be joined by students from 88 other schools across the country participating in Tree-Plenish, a movement started by Massachusetts high school students in 2019. 

“This is going to be a great thing to help beautify Oakland and, as a personal goal, we’ll be helping the environment and bringing the community closer by putting a bunch of new trees out,” said Carson, a senior at Oakland Technical High School. 

In order to reach their goal, they’re asking Oakland residents to order an apple or apricot tree by Feb. 20. One month later, on March 20, Wilkerson, Carson, and more volunteers will deliver and plant a two-foot-tall sapling in each recipient’s yard. Once the ordering deadline passes and they know how many trees they’ll have to distribute, they’ll put out a call to find those volunteers.

Those who are concerned about COVID safety and social distancing can also choose to pick up their trees from Oakland Technical High School and plant themselves. The trees must be planted on private property with permission from the property owner, Wilkerson said.

The students are interns with Keep Oakland Beautiful, a local volunteer organization that coordinates clean-ups and beautification projects around the city. Those projects and other group events regularly planned by Keep Oakland Beautiful have been put on hold because of COVID-19 restrictions, but because this effort is being spearheaded by just two students, it’s less risky.

Portraits of High school student Tiara Wilkerson of the Keep Oakland Beautiful Youth Advisory.
Tiara Wilkerson, 18, is the president of the environmental club at her school, East Bay Innovation Academy. Credit: Amir Aziz

“The tree-planting initiative is not something new for us. It falls in line with our mission of keeping things beautiful and green,” said Amy Schweng, who served on the board of Keep Oakland Beautiful through the end of 2020. “Doing it through high schoolers is.”

Both students think it’s especially important for young people to pay attention to environmental issues. Wilkerson, a senior at East Bay Innovation Academy, serves as president of her school’s environmental club and plants flowers and other shrubs around the school campus. She also works with children at a daycare and thinks about her future—and theirs—everyday.

“I want the best future for the kids I work with. I want to provide them a nice place to grow up in,” Wilkerson said. “[Climate change] is hard to ignore, especially because we do live in California, where the wildfires are so prominent.”

Carson, who is the captain of her school’s mountain biking team, spent a month over the summer in the Sierra Nevada region restoring campsites, removing invasive species, preserving trails, and doing other work with the Sierra Institute

Portraits of High school student Cali Carson of the Keep Oakland Beautiful Youth Advisory.
Cali Carson, 17, is a senior at Oakland Technical High School. She and Wilkerson are the first two student interns to serve with the Keep Oakland Beautiful board. Credit: Amir Aziz

To calculate how many trees they needed to plant, Carson and Wilkerson reached out to their schools to find out how much paper they used during the 2018-2019 school year—the most recent year that students attended school in person for the entire year. That year, Oakland Tech ordered 1,850 reams of copy paper, or roughly 925,000 sheets of paper, Carson said. In total, the two schools used about 1.4 million sheets of paper during that single school year. 

They worked with Sethu Odayappan, a sophomore at Harvard University who co-founded Tree-Plenish in high school, to calculate how many saplings they would need to plant to offset the carbon impacts of that amount of paper production. They arrived at 141 trees, or about 1 tree for every 10,000 sheets of paper. 

Although apple and apricot trees aren’t used for paper, Odayappan said the initiative is about not just making up for paper waste, but also absorbing carbon dioxide. Through the process of photosynthesis, trees and other plants take in carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen back into the atmosphere, an element necessary for life. Deforestation, the practice of cutting down forests and swaths of trees to make other products, has adverse effects on habitats, food and water supplies, and contributes to global warming.

Odayappan and a classmate started Tree-Plenish in Massachusetts in 2019, inspired by other young people who were speaking up in their communities.

“We noticed how much paper we used, and it was during the time of Greta Thunberg and other youth activists coming together and making meaningful change,” he said. 

That first year, students from two high schools in Massachusetts planted 400 trees. Last year, plans to expand the organization were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but this year, 90 schools from across the country, including four in California, are on track to plant 15,000 trees, Odayappan said.

Carson and Wilkerson said about 45 trees have been requested so far in Oakland, and they’re relying mainly word-of-mouth and social media to help spread the word. 

“We’re so interconnected, more than any generation ever has been,” Carson said. “So when one person has an idea, it’s really easy to find someone else who will back them up—which can lead to bad protests like invading the Capitol—but it also leads to good things like this. We’re still going to be able to make an impact.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.