Isabel Wade

Greening the Planet

Recorded: August 29, 2012

The Chief Lemon Ambassador, Isabel Wade, tells how she was able to share her love of the environment by working with communities to plant urban forests and gardens.

An accomplished environmental planner and champion of urban trees and parks, Isabel Wade founded Friends of the Urban Forest in the early 1980s. She is a legend in the San Francisco Bay Area for her tree planting efforts founded on her success in organizing groups to create urban parks in places where they are most desperately needed. Born in the Northwest Territory, Ms. Wade is tough, she knows what she wants and gets it by mobilizing a group of fellow collaborators.

Ms. Wade shares her love of nature with urbanites by talking about trees, planting trees and gardens and works with the community to nourish them. She believes everyone can understand and appreciate a tree or garden, which is a way to kindle a spark of passion for the environment. In the 1990s, she organized a group to create an AIDS Memorial Garden in San Francisco that is lovingly cared for by over 200 volunteers. She has educated children and adults alike with the intention of bringing people together for a common purpose.

Another of her many achievements is how she has mobilized citizen groups to become “Friends of” for each park in San Francisco. There are now 120 citizen groups working with the Parks Department, which includes the large majority of individual neighborhood parks in San Francisco.

Isabel Wade: I always thought that the urban ecosystem was the way to hook the majority of the people living on the planet about the value of the earth and now, as everybody knows, most of us live in cities. And I just thought back then, if we don’t get these urban people to get why nature and the environment are important, we’re not going to win this battle. And I thought the easy entry level topics were community gardening and urban forestry because everybody likes trees and lots of people like gardens and it was a way to get people hooked in.

Huey Johnson: You were born in Yellow Knife…-

Isabel Wade: Northwest Territory.

Huey Johnson: Northwest Territory as I recall.

Isabel Wade: Correct.

Huey Johnson: So you said you rarely had anything in the way of meat to eat growing up other than caribou.

Isabel Wade: Caribou, that was it, caribou and salt cod.

Huey Johnson: Your father was a mounty.

Isabel Wade: Correct.

Huey Johnson: Very good. Tell me about your interest in environment.

Isabel Wade: Well, I think I actually did start in Yellow Knife because you realize when you wake up and your eyes are frozen shut, that nature can be severe. And also of course beautiful because the north is beautiful and I really think that was my early focus on looking at the natural world, was from that splendor that really is the real north. I really got convinced that we all had to do something about the environment when I went to live in Japan after college and it was a terrible time, 1970, the skies were not only grey but I mean smoky grey and they had oxygen machines around the street and I thought oh my God, somebody’s got to do something about this. And I thought about that for a while and I thought well who’s that going to be? It really has to be all of us. I thought yeah, this is what I want to do.

Huey Johnson: There you go.

Isabel Wade: You were the person who said “Come up and start this Urban Forestry Program.” At that point, I didn’t even know what urban forestry was so I did 6 weeks of massive research calling all around the country and trying to figure out well what is it and what are the best programs? And then I had an idea in mind of what we should do and I said I wanted to start something in Oakland. I went down to Oakland and tried to figure out what was the angle there that we could get people interested in tree planting. What we picked for the inaugural tree planting was a neighborhood that in fact had been planted with some Job Corp money, some federal money but they didn’t work with the community. And my whole theory about how to do this was all through community participation. So I thought well, let’s test it out, you know they had trees and now they have none. We’re going to organize this community and we’re going to see what happens. We picked this area as I said deliberately, but in part what was good was it was bookended by schools, a junior high school on one end and a high school on the other. And we were pretty sure those kids, which ever school, were part of the reason the other trees had disappeared. It could have been adults too but it was more likely the kids, but I mean the point is people just woke up one day and there were trees there. Nobody had asked them. Nobody had involved them. And yeah, they were targets. So then we realized we need to organize the school, the junior high school and the best thing that had happened there was there was an empty lot behind the school, so I thought we’ve got to do our own tree planting first and then we’re going to turn these kids into the tree planters for the two blocks of the West Oakland street that we had picked, Filbert Street. So we shifted gears quickly to work with one classroom in that school and we got some of the high school kids that was the state basketball championship school, to come and we did an assembly. We had the local radio station donate the trees and then the kids ran out after this assembly and competed with each other and we had them on tape afterward saying “Well I planted one.” “Well I planted two.” And they were you know thrilled, and of course they were all Black Oaks and Black Acacia’s and I mean the kids really, really – this is an African American community, African American school and they were you know really excited. So then the following Saturday we had the actual tree planting with the neighbors and they were the experts. And they came to help the old ladies and the others you know plant their trees. So to this day, I go back to Filbert Street and those trees are 60 feet tall.

Huey Johnson: What have you learned in your experience, this wonderful accomplishment of yours that others can take as examples of?
Isabel Wade: Well I think number one, persistence. I mean working at the community level has a lot of challenges and you just truly have to stick with it. I mean especially working with government officials, I mean sticking with it is like ¾ of the way there because once they realize they can’t wear you down and you’re going to still be there, that you know at some point you can negotiate.

Isabel Wade: My point about government is I want it to work. It needs to work for the people. And now, it really needs to work for the environment and I just think we all have to stay on that. I learned really in Oakland to be you know flexible and thoughtful and listen so that it really was the community’s project, not mine. I think you know never forgetting the sort of the end goal, which is ultimately about the planet to me has been really important because sometimes you know when you’re down in the grass with the community projects you think “whoa, why am I doing this?” But you know I think it’s the only thing that’s going to save the planet.

Huey Johnson: Yeah.

Isabel Wade: So I think ultimately, keep that message you know strong in your heart because that’s what will carry us through.